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© Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, a project by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, 2020. Project Partner: MiC.
All archival images and photographs taken at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii are used with permission from MiC-Ministry of Culture-Archaeological Park of Pompeii. Any copies or reproductions are strictly forbidden.

Beatrice Gibson and Nick Gordon, with Claire Fontaine
and ৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌.
Alkestis, a feminist epic

Pompeii Commitments 24    15•07•2021

Images:

Beatrice Gibson and Nick Gordon
Alkestis, a feminist epic, 2020-ongoing
film stills
Courtesy the Artists

Texts:

Beatrice Gibson and Nick Gordon in conversation with

Claire Fontaine, July 2021

৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌, July 2021

Artist and filmmaker Beatrice Gibson’s films are known for their improvised, experimental and emotive nature. Populated by friends and influences from within her immediate community, they often cite and incorporate co-creative and collaborative processes and ideas. Together with her family – her partner Nick Gordon, a renowned director in his own right, and their two young children – Gibson moved to Palermo in 2020 and together with Gordon, at the suggestion of their son, began working on a new film provisionally entitled Alkestis, a feminist epic. Taking Anne Carson’s seminal English translation of the original Euripides’ tragedy Alkestis, as well as Carson’s wider body of work on Greek tragedy, as inspiration, Gibson and Gordon version of Alkestis shifts the focus “from Gods and men, back towards the play’s mostly silent, sacrificial female protagonist.” Alkestis is reimagined from a 21st century feminist perspective, with a dialogue staged between her odyssey into the underworld and Gibson’s own journey as a woman and a mother. According to Gibson and Gordon, “the film is an autofiction”, a composite of stories from Alkestis with those from Gibson’s own life.
In the context of Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, the artists are sharing a special preview of work-in-progress materials – a series of film-stills shot in Pompeii in 2020 featuring the character of Alkestis-Gibson walking through the ruins on her way to the underworld –, accompanied by interviews with Gibson and Gordon’s “spirit guides” in Palermo, two collectives known as Claire Fontaine and ৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌ respectively.
The production and research process of Alkestis is very much entangled with Sicily and specifically with Palermo, where the artists have developed a number of relationships, friendships, alliances and close collaborations. Their interviews with Claire Fontaine and ৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌ are testimony to a working method in which slowness and situatedness are valued over speed, and in which knowledge and ideas are rehearsed and tested in the open, and in dialogue with a community. A community of friends and influences, who in this specific case, help Gibson and Gordon face the complicated challenge of making work in a context that isn’t their place of origin. SB

Alkestis, a feminist epic is co-commissioned by Museo Castelbuono, Palermo and supported by Hayward Gallery Touring for British Art Show 9. It will be also exhibited by Ordet, Milan and is the subject of a forthcoming publication by Lenz Press.

Home page image: Beatrice Gibson and Nick Gordon, Alkestis, a feminist epic, 2020-ongoing. Courtesy the Artists

Beatrice Gibson (lives and works in Palermo) is a French-British filmmaker. Recent solo exhibitions include Camden Arts Centre, London, Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen, Mercer Union, Toronto (all 2019) and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2018). Her films have been shown at film festivals around the world, including New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, London Film Festival. She is twice winner of The Tiger Award for Best Short Film, Rotterdam International Film Festival, in 2009 and 2013 and was awarded the 17th Baloise Art Prize, Art Basel. Her film Deux soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs premiered in Quinzaine (Directors Fortnight) at Cannes Film Festival 2019. Alongside Alkestis, Gibson is developing a second feature with BBC films.

Nick Gordon (lives and works in Palermo) is a director and co-founder of the multiple award-winning production company Somesuch. His early music videos included work for Roni Size and Supergrass. His short SATURDAYS SHADOW premiered at the New York Film Festival (2008) and won the Grand Prix at the Black Maria Film Festival (2008). His commercials have won over 35 industry awards. Gordon worked as a DOP on several of artist Beatrice Gibson’s early films, and more recently he executive-produced Deux soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs and I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead. He is working on a feature about a monster.

Claire Fontaine (lives and works in Palermo) is a feminist collective artist, founded in 2004 in Paris. After lifting her name from a popular brand of school notebooks, Claire Fontaine declared herself a “readymade artist”. Recent solo exhibitions include (selection): Museo del Novecento, Florence (2020); Galerias MunicipaisLisbon, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, Städtische Galerie Norhdorn, Nordhorn (all 2019); Museo Pietro Canonica, Villa Medici, Rome (2016); Jewish Museum, New York, CCA Wattis, San Francisco (both 2013). She recently published Human Strike and the art of creating freedom, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2020.

৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌ is an intersectional feminist working group that was born in September 2020 in a virtual space between Palermo, Naples and Turin. Each person who is part of it has a link with Southern Italy, and has joined it with the need to discuss the intersection between feminism – both in its most historical matrix and its most contemporary forms – and the southern question. The group’s research follows the actions carried out by southern women, for example in the Movements for the Occupation of the Lands of the 1950s or in the protests related to the Belice earthquake of the 1960s and 70s. The group consists of Sofia Melluso, Claudia Gangemi, Sonia d’Alto, Valentina Sestrieri, Naomi Morello, Susanna Gonzo.

Pompeii Commitment

Beatrice Gibson and Nick Gordon, with Claire Fontaine
and ৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌.
Alkestis, a feminist epic

Pompeii Commitments 24 15•07•2021
Act I [end], Pompeii: Forum, Regio VII. Stillness, cicadas and dust
Act I [end], Pompeii: The gaping mouth of a goddess in stone
Act I [end], Pompeii: Forum, Regio VII. Alkestis crosses the Civic Forum. Her children run after her
Act I [end], Pompeii: House of Cornelius Rufus, Regio VIII. A gated villa. A mosaic by her feet
Act I [end], Pompeii: Small Theatre – Odeon, Regio VIII. A shadow descends
Act I [end], Pompeii: Small Theatre – Odeon, Regio VIII. Alkestis eyes fixed on a point in the distance. Off screen, her boy hurls rock dust
Pompeii: House of Cornelius Rufus, Regio VIII. Alcestis rests inside. Her children sleep in the shade
II, Paestum: Alcestis slices her finger. “So we’re dead but we still bleed?”, her son asks

Beatrice Gibson and Nick Gordon: The starting point for these conversations is the film production we are currently working on: an adaptation of Euripides’ Alkestis.  Alkestis was the first female mortal to journey into the underworld. Her husband, Admetus, has been granted immortality by Apollo on the condition that he finds someone to replace him in Hades. After unsuccessfully soliciting both his parents, and spending a large portion of the play freaking out, his long suffering wife Alkestis, offers to take his place.

In our adaptation the focus is shifted away from Gods and men, back towards the play’s mostly silent, sacrificial female protagonist. The character of Alkestis is reimagined from a twenty-first century feminist perspective, with a dialogue staged between her odyssey into the underworld and Beatrice’s own journey as a woman and a mother.  The story is also framed by and documents in the loosest, or perhaps most expanded sense of the term, our family’s relocation to Southern Italy, specifically to Palermo and our attempt to find and connect to new ways of being and existing in a radically different context from our previous one.

The film is an autofiction, a composite of stories from Alkestis with those from Beatrice’s own life: from giving birth to our children to a non-consensual sexual encounter experienced as a child. The domestic is made epic, given the gravitas and the weight of mythological. Folded into the film is also our attempt to connect to a wider community, specifically to an Italian feminist tradition, through earlier figures such as Carla Lonzi, and Silvia Federici for example but also to more contemporary and specifically local individuals and collectives such as yourselves. We are interested in the idea of using the film as a kind of alibi to find or be in community and in this instance, we are very much using it to orientate and align ourselves – to find allies and make friends – in a new context. At the same time, we are conscious of the need to tread carefully, sensitively, and slowly, in a place that we are now intrinsically part of – but that also isn’t, and won’t ever be, our place of origin. In this context we were interested in the idea of Claire Fontaine and ﹌﹌ as spirit guides, to the south, and specifically to Palermo: a place at the geographical crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but also at a temporal crossroads. The South is a place littered with ruins, seemingly a portal to the past, but it also looks directly outwards towards the African continent, towards the future. Taking heritage and archaeology as a frame for our discussion, with a nod to our hosts Pompeii Commitment, we wanted to think, talk about and try to collectively excavate and project, a feminism specific to this place. In our minds both Claire Fontaine and ﹌﹌  offer atypical models of subjectivity within a southern context and so we’d like to start with you.

Claire Fontaine৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌

Interview with
Claire Fontaine

How old is Claire Fontaine? Can you narrate her birth story.

Claire Fontaine: Claire Fontaine was founded in Paris in 2004. She was born as a collaboration between James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale, we became a collective artist and decided to take a female and local name. We call ourselves Claire’s assistants because we do all the work; we love Agamben’s text “The Assistants” (a chapter from Profanations, 2007) which we made a video adaptation of, where the poet and performer Douglas Park reads the text. When not signing texts and artworks with our own names there was no desire for us to create a fictional character or to lure people, on the contrary we wished to be accurate by naming a space where we made art that was disconnected from our biography and that allowed us and its spectators to be freer, even from ourselves: it was a space of desubjectivization. The choice of the name came from the iconic French stationary brand, Clairefontaine, that produces notebooks for schoolchildren and white pages to write, draw and print on, one of their factories was located in the east of Paris near to our studio on the canal Saint Martin, we walked past it every day and we loved the building and the old sign on the brick wall. But this name also resonates strongly with Marcel Duchamp’s most famous ready-made, the urinal titled Fontaine (1917) – which is, by the way, probably the theft of a work by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Bruce Nauman’s interpretation of it, Portrait of the Artist as a Fountain (1966–67), shows his young self spitting water in the air, this work has always intrigued us. What if the life-form of the artist was itself a ready-made? What if the artist was itself a ready-made, as a life-form? What if recycling, appropriating wasn’t hidden but exposed as the most common strategy to develop creativity? The accent in the artworld is still being put on singularity when anything of value is collective, beginning from language, the most useful and universal of all commons: the more it’s shared the more it’s powerful. Aby Warburg’s idea of the migration of images across the Mediterranean is also foundational for us, the survival of the energy of an image, its change of polarity play an important role on how we use existing forms. Our work doesn’t aim to be new or original, it wants to be intense, moving, disturbing, transformative. Claire’s first exhibition took place at Galerie Meerrettich, in the Glaspavillon of the Volksbühne in Berlin in 2005, it is now the ticket office and bookstore of the famous Volksbühne Theater. We were invited by Antek Walczac and the space was run by Josef Strau, the exhibition opened on January the third and the crowd that gathered was really fantastic, we met some people there that we still count among our best friends. The second show took place at Reena Spaulings in New York in the month of September in the same year; the work in the vitrine, Foreigners Everywhere (Arabic) was so controversial that they lost their lease over it, but the show was thankfully better liked by the public than the landlord.

 

Can you talk about the influence of Carla Lonzi on your practice, both in terms of art making – for example your show at t293 that focused on her writing – but also your use of her as role model for radical thinking in general. You’ve had a pivotal role in making her accessible to a non-Italian-speaking public… secondo noi! Thinking of The Human Strike, the eflux article…

We would be delighted if it was the case! Carla Lonzi is an extremely contemporary thinker and we have been battling to get her writings translated into English, hopefully it will soon happen because other people understand her relevance. Lonzi hated art as a profession and her rupture both with Carla Accardi and with her long-term companion, Pietro Consagra, are proof of her inflexibility when it comes to accepting a posture of creative superiority in relation to the general public. With that said, Lonzi had also trouble with any professional position that brought recognition and prestige to an individual, especially to a woman, this position of hers is untenable today for many reasons, but her refusal was justified and to a certain extent inspiring. In the catalogue of the exhibition revolving around Carla Lonzi that took place in Museion a couple of years ago, curated by Ilse Lafer with the title of Doing Deculturalisation, we have published a text about the category of illegibility in Carla Lonzi’s writings and within her political position. Maybe this is something that informs Claire Fontaine’s practice as a constant awareness of the violence of translation, from a language to another, from a culture to another, from a group of people (such as curators or art critics) and another (such as artists). There is a way of valuing the fact of being faithful to oneself – that Lonzi curiously calls ‘authenticity’ – that is very important to us and it doesn’t entail rigidity, moralism or deafness towards what one dislikes or feels threatened by. On the contrary, it’s the attempt to stay as close as possible to the energy and the power of an idea, of a heartfelt position, no matter how questionable and dangerous it appears as long as one senses and feels with all one’s body and soul that it’s right.

 

What is Claire Fontaine’s relationship to southern feminism, or rather how might you define third wave feminism from a southern perspective… are there issues or even thematics that seem particular to southern feminism? Put it this way, if you’re a woman or trans or non-binary in the south, living, growing and being here – what is really intolerable, do you think?

The category itself of southern feminist is complex. Every feminism is made of many feminisms and in the global south – if we can use this expression that remains inaccurate and too general – the specificity is that women are the sole providers of welfare and they are statistically less employed in proportion to the male population, partly because the third sector is smaller, partly because the work of care more often still goes unpaid. What is difficult is that the charitable bonds between the women chained to care work and their dependent recipients are almost impossible to break without pain, fatalities and tragedy. The provider of care work cannot go on strike, she cannot take breaks, and this is an awful blind spot of both the union culture and the traditional idea of employment. If this was deeply understood, and during the pandemic some progress in the awareness of the situation on a global scale has actually been made, the world would be revolutionized. Silvia Federici’s Wages Against House Work (1975) is still such an incredible text: it questions all the implications of monetary remuneration and the value form in itself as a category. One thing is certain anyway: when patriarchy will fall, southern men will benefit more than northern ones, they still don’t know it and this is unbearable. As for non-binary or trans people, their identity is always, like every identity, a negotiation with the context they live in: they definitely have more work to do in the south, I believe the statistics of the violence perpetrated against them are sadly very high everywhere, they are helping us all evolve, and we must be grateful for their courage and intelligence.

 

Can you talk about the idea of magic materialism that you touched on when we previously spoke? Do you think this is a process that the south taps into in a particular way? How has moving south affected you / your practice / your way of being and existing on a daily level.

Magic materialism is a category that we have created in order to re-attribute value and importance to things and feelings that are perceived as unimportant in the current economic and political system. The extractive form of capitalism that we are still part of is now fully aware of its consequences on our health and the life of the planet. And yet this is not sufficient to institutionally change the organisation of production and the redistribution of wealth. The interconnections between the acts that we perform, the energies that we live off, the physical and emotional life of us all are disregarded, something is productive and important only if it generates accumulation, otherwise it’s pointless even if it massively improves people’s health and it solves the climate emergency. Under the pretext of a rational or scientific or economic paradigm we are contradicting our physiological experience of being in the world and behaving insanely. We are currently living through a globally criminal system that endangers the life of our children and doesn’t take any notice of scientific reports that require drastic changes; moving to a place that is deemed criminal and underdeveloped was for us the only way to find relief from the authorised administrative forms of destruction of our lives, like gentrification and the colonisation of the mind. Yes, today there was a national crisis meeting of the government in Rome to address the problem of the criminal fires around Sicily and we have several other emergencies ongoing in the region but here at least the garbage is in the streets where it can be collected, not in people’s hearts. Palermo truly is a welcoming city, and it has so much to offer if one aims to reconnect with one’s inner life, one’s body and a healthy social space. Here people know that power and wealth are not systematically respectable, and they can also be dangerous for collective life, they have a vivid memory of oppression and violence and they are careful not to reproduce it in their daily life.

 

Can you expand on your idea of the “Human Strike”. The emotional strike. It is such a profoundly beautiful and revolutionary concept, encompassing the cerebral or intellectual as well as the bodily and the somatic – but also it feels like it blows apart both categories.

Human strike is a foundational idea for us because it allows the expansion of the entire subjectivity into the field of struggle; the professional space has flooded long ago all parts of everybody’s lives and the social space is more than ever productive and profitable for the system that we function in. Consumption is also work. The techniques to push people to form aesthetic sensuality and selectively desensitise themselves, to dream of a particular life are also functional to defining one’s political position, one’s complicity with a world where humans aren’t allowed to have a meaningful existence, they are not supposed to aim for freedom and social experimentation. The algorithms and the targeted advertisements are inseparable from the mass surveillance that equates activism with terrorism, criminalising legitimate protests that attempt to just preserve democracy. Human strike questions our level of dependency from what is toxic for us. It gives us the possibility of politicising a change of attitude towards the expectations that people put onto us. We have taken inspiration from the feminist struggles that did see bodies and processes of subjectivization as battlefields very early on, they didn’t create groups exclusively in function of their professional situations or their class position, Italian feminism was a traversal and disturbing movement that inspired women to “depart from themselves” in the double sense of the term: starting from their personal situation and abandoning it to sail towards a new one. The experience of a subjectivity that has politicised physiological oppression and sexual alienation is a completely revolutionary encounter: it’s a new soul in a new body that will make the world perceptible in different ways for others. It’s a deeply political perspective on what health should be.

 

How do Italian feminisms connect to the concept of the “Human Strike” for you? How do Italian feminisms as a paradigm influence your work in general?

Italian feminisms – we use the plural because there is never only one feminism – have an important non-reformistic component that we find extremely inspiring. Difference is privileged over equality and there is scepticism towards the idea of adapting to the existing society: society must adapt to the women that were previously excluded from it, because they are contributing the inestimable gift of their freedom. The collective book from the Milan Women Bookstore, whose title is translated into English as Sexual Difference, A Socio-Symbolic Practice, and in Italian is entitled Non credere di avere dei diritti (“Don’t believe you have any rights”), is a homage to Simone Weil. The idea that the entire apparatus of Justice and society in general are structured by patriarchal values is very important and it has epistemological consequences. The way in which we use words and the categories that we adopt to approach reality are also the fruit of the same patriarchal culture, the fact of making it explicit provides the possibility to listen to what inside us disagrees with it, give it a clear voice. There is a work of epistemic justice to do and there are new bodies to create through this process. This is a serious transformation of the world that of course affects the way in which we make art and we look at the art that has been made by others. Even when a feminist content isn’t explicit in an artwork, there is a specific sensibility that is revitalising and can be recognised as the fruit of a healthy distance taken from the official patriarchal culture. For us this is very important.

 

In our film the character of Alkestis is essentially trying to change herself, to combat something within. Her journey towards south is as much internal as external. The film for example ends in a dream. What guidance would Claire Fontaine offer Alkestis?

Offering guidance isn’t Claire Fontaine’s specialty… But we wish Alkestis and you good luck, the journey is deep and dark, it will need a lot of mastery to make it into an enjoyable and thoughtful object. After all we still live at the time of femicide and patriarchy hasn’t finished dying, yet.

Interview with
৺ ෴ ර ∇ ❃﹌﹌

Can you say a bit about your collective, the things you are looking at and the intentions or aims of the group.

﹌﹌: The group was born informally in September 2020. Right from the start, we recorded, archived and relistened to our online meetings, to pursue a spontaneous and mostly dialogical method. At first, we had a specific goal: a publication that we wanted to distribute in cities and in remote areas in Southern Italy; soon our conversations expanded beyond that, focusing more on the oral aspects of our communication. To direct our research, which became profoundly collective, we interspersed more intimate moments and questions about the hows and whats; we approached the stories and legends that had been forgotten or hidden by the great narratives of power and patriarchy (which, as we know, often coincide), stories of actions from the past; documentaries, book and theories about the relationship between body and landscape (not territory).

 

Can you give an examples of the kind of stories or legends you’ve been looking at. We spoke about the case of Franca Viola for example, didn’t we? She’s a pivotal figure in the southern struggle, and actually, hers is a key story quite connected to Alkestis’, or at least to our version of Alkestis, which includes a story about a non-consensual sexual encounter. The story is in many ways extremely banal but through Alkestis we trace it back to the gods. Its inclusion is a form of resistance not victimhood. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most women alive have experienced the same thing in some form and to varying degree. We wanted to normalise it – as in, to show how normal that level of violence is – by including it.

Franca Viola is the most emblematic figure of the struggles that women have endured in Italy: Sicilian-born, she opposed a shotgun wedding, after being kidnapped and raped by her former mafioso boyfriend. Franca’s battle went against traditional morality, and the law back then saw women as impure goods who needed redemption and punishment. Franca stood against her role as a victim and chose to self-determine against her aggressors, questioning an entire system of thought that justified violence against women. All our ancestors went through this: arranged marriages with men they had never met before. In the case of Franca Viola the ending is different, because she had the strength to challenge the monstrosity of this ancient practice. 

 

Could you say a bit more about this idea of the relationship between body and landscape maybe again from a personal perspective? How do you feel formed or affected by the landscape?

We are interested in the relationship between the body and the landscape because we are sensitive to how much we seem to have forgotten the interdependent and essential relationship between the body and its environment; something we all once knew very well. From a personal point of view, this relationship is a discovery: in terms of one’s values ​​vis a vis existence, in terms of the articulation of one’s life. It means knowing how to listen, and at the same time activating a sort of emotional and intuitive memory in the body that communicates with multiple temporalities and on multiple levels. In fact, our conversation started by analysing Carla Lonzi’s question of subjectivity: we questioned the meaning of this word for us, its relation to us and our bodies, and also wondered whether the concept still made sense. The southern question emerged as a problematic area in which to harness the subordinate characters of our existences as women and as individuals related to the South. We read several anthropological texts and excerpts that crystallized a vision of the south and of women in an exotic form; we examined how this has influenced everyday life and society within the context of these constructed and subjugated geographies. Hence our interest in insurgencies, revolutionary practices, and episodes of struggle led by women, as well as the feminist discourse that was generated within these specific contexts.

Our research process often starts from historical moments in which the participation of women has been obscured. During our early meetings we came across the documentation of historical incidents of collective struggle, such as the land occupation in Sicily in the late 1940s and the 1968 protest movements after the Belice earthquake. Women were on the frontline of the protests for land appropriation: they would protect the workers from the police by physically forming a circle around the groups of men; because they were women, the police could not beat them up. We find these types of protests and events interesting because they took place in remote places in inner Sicily introducing pacifist and alternative forms of protest. The Belice 1968 demonstration was peculiar for its organization: many women attended the political assemblies and Danilo Dolci influenced their practices. Some of the women contributed with strong ideas, such as the fiscal strike and the military service boycott.

 

Do you have projects specific to the local area that you’re working on?

As mentioned earlier, one of our ambitions is to turn this experience into a publication that we would like to distribute, ensuring to reach also more remote areas in the South of Italy. In addition to continuing our weekly meetings, which give us the incentive to individually develop images, videos, drawings or written reflections, we are also investigating the issue of the post-earthquake protests in Belice. To continue our research, we will do an artist residency in Gibellina between October and November of this year.  We would like to create a physical meeting space where we can continue our practice and move away from virtuality. We are pleased to collaborate with the not-for-profit programme Nuova Orfeo in Palermo, by curating a selection of feminist films and documentaries that have been part of our discussions this year. However, our practice continues to be spontaneous; we never decide in advance which language or medium we will use. We like the idea of ​​being able to be all or nothing, and this is also why we have chosen a name that is not made up of words: to remind us not to trap ourselves in sentences that would end up framing us in a specific context or area.

Last but not least, our meetings have also become a way to fill the void, to compensate for the lack of a space where we can meet and reinvent a language, where we can inhabit and co-exist in a space that is not institutional or formal, freed from the associated conventions in which we struggle to find our voice. As Carla Lonzi argues, “Nothing or close to nothing has been handed down about the presence of women in the world: it is up to us to rediscover it in order to know the truth.” In this sense, it is interesting to use archaeology as a metaphor in our search for gestures and moments of feminist struggle in the South; it is like looking for traces of a lost civilization. Historically, the woman in the South is the symbol of family; there is a very interesting theory by Leonardo Sciascia’s who somehow blames the woman, as educator of men, for the birth of the mafia, elaborating the concept of “patriarchal matriarchy”. In any case, the woman is seen as both weak and strong, and the man delegates her to the education of children while he exercises his power over everything else. Femininity in the South is also strongly stereotyped, taking its meaning solely through a series of symbolic references to approach or stir away from, destroy or exhume, but always as a reference to relate to, rather than as a social role towards which to conform or be in conflict with. In this sense, we have discussed the definition of woman, with which many of us don’t identify: the encounter with Monique Wittig’s work, in particular, has challenged the understanding of the categories of gender and sex as “natural” and “unquestionable”, showing  how the essence or predisposition to a certain role in society is not simply “a woman’s destiny,”  but a precise patriarchal scheme that pits the two sexes, that of the oppressed and of the oppressor, against each other and defines them within it.

An interesting aspect of southern culture is a very strong sense of sacrifice and guilt that is still very present; its origins are ancient, and it is an aspect that is passed on by many generations of women, especially mothers. It is a tool to control the body, subjectivity and power of women within a community, to “castrate” them inside the family nucleus and in the patriarchal narrative. This sacrifice-guilt binomial is also central in the character of Alkestis: how do you interpret it? And how much of this ghost (meaning revenant, of return) do you see in her figure?

 

In our adaptation, Alkestis’ decision to go into Hades is rewritten not as sacrifice but rather as a rejection of guilt and the confines of the patriarchal relationship she is in – which has fear of death as it’s driving force. In our film she doesn’t return, nor is she rescued: she establishes a new radical form of existence in another paradigm. It’s very influenced and directly indebted to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, a book Alice describes as a female epic. In it, she tries not only to tell a new kind of story but to tell it in a new language, a new form. The descent of Alette is written entirely in speech marks, it is as much about language and breath as it is about a woman’s journey. In fact, the journey it depicts is also somehow literally experienced or is experienced in a bodily way by virtue of the breathless state it produces. It’s very somatic. It’s a trip!  Did we answer your question? Guilt is a waste of time! Audre Lorde said: “Guilt is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt, but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.” 

Regarding the question of the sense of guilt, or lack thereof, it is certainly linked to Modesta, the main character of Goliarda Sapienza’s historical novel The Art of Joy; a story of a woman’s social emancipation during Sicily’s cultural turmoil between the nineteenth and twentieth century. Modesta’s self-determination process involves cunning manipulation practices that allow her to live a life outside of her time; she is Goliarda’s double, a true non-conformist.

 

Can you say something about how this sense of sacrifice and guilt has manifested in your own personal experience as women and non-binary people living in or growing up connected to a southern context?

As feminist women and non-binary people living in a southern context, we believe that in many cases one can find the same difficulties that are experienced in villages or provincial towns also in the large urban centres. We often grew up observing and imitating a traditional female model: caring, protective, with a strong sense of sacrifice towards men, children and family. Many of us, especially as adolescents, felt a deep sense of loneliness because we identified that future with the same unhappiness that our ancestors felt before us.

This may sound anachronistic: in our specific case, these models belong to the past, because we had the ability (and also the privilege) to redeem ourselves by living alone or abroad, or through (mostly self) studying. We are aware that such redemption is only possible in very specific, very privileged, social and economic contexts. The traditional role of women still exists and resists in most areas of Italy, where it is difficult to identify one’s nature and escape a fixed destiny. It is a long and complex issue, and we reflect upon it daily. Of course, self-determination does not depend on social class or education, but on the inner ability to demolish the urgency to conform.

The feminist struggle in the South has to deal with so many atavistic ghosts; they are numerous, and have left strong marks in the condition and psychology of women, taking a toll in their affective, professional and family life. Starting with the fight against all kinds of discrimination, the practical struggles are so many that we have also discussed whether it is better to abandon them and focus on seemingly invisible cultural issues. Many feminists start by deconstructing everything about themselves; many of us try to wipe the slate clean of our ambitions, expectations, and also to question our relationship to power. Therefore, the first struggle is within ourselves, and consists of emptying every role and every power of meaning. Borrowing from the text by Claire Fontaine about the human strike, which we read together in one of our meetings, we would say that the first struggle is against oneself, and it is very similar to a path of self-awareness.

 

This is key in our opinion. The emphasis of the human strike on a total or holistic approach via both mind and body is so compelling. For us, in our own practice the emotional as political, or developing a critical framework around the emotional is a key aim. Can you expand on how the personal and political are related in the context of your own collective? 

We talked a lot about the personal and political, about starting from within, also in relation to the life and writings of Carla Lonzi. We obviously talked about ourselves and our hidden desire to abandon culture as a model in which to seek our identity and our relationship with power. We began to search for a voice within ourselves; this desire is perhaps impossible to achieve consistently, because power shapes us and sometimes hypnotizes us. For some of us, the compromise between the professional and the personal leads to the creation of a distance between theory and actual practice, causing us great suffering; we often feel too weak to make radical gestures such as actually changing our choices in the world or even our own outlook. Being a group helps us to reflect on these issues. Self-awareness is the other.

“Did you hear the one about the ‘double militancy’? And ‘private is political’? And ‘you are not doing enough’? I found my source of humour.
I say I”

Carla Lonzi

We are very much inspired by the practice of autocoscienza carried out by the Italian feminist groups in the 1970s. We tried to collect traces of this practice, the strongest encounter between the personal and the political, and at the same we tried to experience it in our own terms. For us, the process of autocoscienza does not only happen through language. It can happen through other, less controlled creative practices that engage more with shared unmediated, oneiric forces. Autocoscienza can mean to fully and fearlessly engage with the most “magical” aspects of ourselves making them visible and present within the group. We also see autocoscienza as not only human, rather as an ecological process in which multiple human and non-human elements can be agents of change. In short, whatever our bodies experience that cannot be funnelled into language is a fundamental part of our collective’s political processes. However, if we want to rediscover the parts of us that have been ‘silenced’ – as inspired by Adrienne Rich – it is also necessary to recognize our positions: of class, nationality, race, and location – being a woman is a condition of marginality that exists in relation to a host of others. Today, the concept of intersectionality is essential in feminist practice and re-reading the motto ‘the personal is political’ means precisely this: to recognize the differences that exist in us and between us, which push us to always fight for each other.

 

Both you and Claire Fontaine mentioned the idea of magical materialism in our conversations, and you in particular have mentioned the need to present this dimension of your research in a more complex way by focusing on specific actions, for example those carried out by women’s movements or through specific cases such as the witches of the Aeolians…. Can you expand a bit on that?

We are interested in mythological and magical methodologies, both as alternative narratives and as an expression of revolt against the capitalist and industrialised value system. In fact, these practices have a very intimate relationship with the earth, the landscape and everything that surrounds the human being, based on symbiosis and a continuous hybrid reciprocity with organic and inorganic matter. Such lifestyles are not based on expropriation and extractivism but on a poetic of values, where every gesture becomes a sacred manifestation of shared collectivity and dialogue beyond the human species and beyond life. Paradoxically, our relationship with death is almost fetishist, compared to the spiritual modes that are seen as “primitive”. Our obsession with objectifying processes and languages is an act of perpetration of death, of the mechanization and government of life, starting from the control of bodies. Therefore, spirituality (of magical or mythological practices) can offer alternatives to a theoretical and practical field based on a secularized, rationalist and disenchanted project. Silvia Federici writes about the role of prophecy for the proletariat during the 1500s, as a language designed to formulate a program of revolts, to desire and legitimize their actions. It is no coincidence that magic, or, more generally, spiritual practices have worked in alliance with the political projects of feminist movements and rebellions from below. Perhaps what we are interested in is an archaeology of forms of life (not objects) that miraculously still retain this knowledge.

An example of this might be the stories of the majare, witches of the Aeolian islands that are still alive in the memory of its inhabitants; during our meetings, we mentioned and discussed them as an interesting example of “unexpected subject.” Witches had their own social function in good or evil, they made death invoices or were healers; the Aeolian majara is a young woman who at night, unbeknownst to her husband, anoints herself with ointment and flies away to have fun with her fellow majare, only to return the next morning. Everything about this story is quite illustrative: the fact that the majara stays both inside the house (during the day) and outside the house (at night), or that she gets together with other women, or that her husband finally discovers her secret and replaces the ointment to end her freedom. In the plot, the power dynamics are clear and laid out, and the biggest conflict arises when the woman tries to change her social role, never reaching her goal. For now.

 

The unexpected subject is a beautiful phrase, we love the idea of the majare. How do you think the majare could act as a model of resistance or subjectivity for you in the present? 

Myths, like dreams, reveal desires and fears. In this case, we like to think that the majare myth tells the fears of men and the desires of women, both stuck in their fixed roles. The myths are the result of collective imagination, even if the end is always the same: the majara ceases to be a witch and order is reaffirmed; we see the women’s desire to escape, to create a world in the darkness of the night that opposes the day, where they are imprisoned by duties and surveyed by men; a world of solidarity and fun. Myths like this one are passed down orally through generations, and no story is ever similar to the other. What we can do today, as an act of resistance, is to take these myths and reshape them according to our present dreams. For instance, we imagine writing a new ending for them, in which the majare never return to their conventional life; a performative act that could have an effect on the way in which we bring the parallel reality described in the myth into our daily collective practice.