Trasformatorio is about settling and developing an annual laboratory for performative arts in a remote community in Sicily: Montelbano Elicona (province Messina). This laboratory focuses on the development of innovative site-specific performances and theatre installations, in close connection with the landscape, history and traditions of the people of Montalbano.
A group of international artists, from various disciplines, is invited and selected to participate in workshops and initiate projects within the community and its surrounding landscape. The main challenge to the artists is to go ‘back’ to the basic questions of performative arts in this specific place: ‘what can we be aware of here and transform into a vital work; a work that shares/communicates a pure reflection on what is present for us here?’ The topic of sustainability, both of natural landscape and cultural life, follows directly and organically on these basic questions. Awareness of the place and local culture is an artistic starting point. The ‘transformations’ that we seek, are meant to enrich the cultural exchange of both the local people and the visiting artists. Artistically ‘reading‘ a place means in our project: taking care of the place. Therefore we explicitly connect research of sustainability in site-specific performative arts to the artistic research.
Trasformatorio is conceived by the consort of the University of Messina and the cultural administration of Montalbano Elicona in collaboration with the artist and cultural organiser Federico Bonelli in the role of and artistic director.
Trasformatorio springs from the necessity to create via artistic movement an enhanced cultural sharing, in a region, that is remote, but full of natural, historical and traditional resources.
Description of the project
The first edition of Trasformatorio, numbered ‘zero’, has taken place, from April 1-14, 2013.
Artists and art students from various countries participated in one week of workshops and one week of the laboratory. Participants were coming from Italy (14; of whom 7 were Sicilians, 3 residents of The Netherlands and 1 resident of the UK), from Austria (4), from the Netherlands (4), Great Britain (1), Bulgaria (1) and Slovenia (2).
The activities in these two weeks contained:
– Establishing the basics (gathering food and all other material necessities)
on the locations where we were working and living this very basic practical activity was considered and worked out as one of the means of ‘mapping’ the place, and to be immediately involved with the local people. Therefore the participants set up their own kitchen and prepared two meals a day using mostly local food and seasonal regional products. Some pans and food were offered by locals as well. Courtesy exchange with the neighbours became a habit. For example, a man named Antonio offered carbon for the fire once, and another day fishes he caught in the lake nearby, in exchange for stories and a glass of wine. This form of ‘mapping’ resulted in being quickly familiar within the community (instead of being seen as an isolated group of foreign people). It also brought us in good contact with other cultural associations, who are using the local theatre, the cinema and various spaces in the restored medieval castle of Montalbano. Hence, an invitation to cooperate came from both the artistic director of the summer theatre-program and from a local association organizing a summer school.
- Workshops and laboratory that were focused on:
Application and development of personal artistic skills for theatrical work that is essentially site-specific. This is a research of dramaturgy that expresses a truly specific exchange, responding to the specific environment (= people, history, space) of Montalbano Elicona. This dramaturgical research involves a technical research on sustainability; an exploration of technical tools that can be used for site-specific performances, that help create a theatrical transformation with the most limited damages to the natural environment.
Presentation of the research in discussions, speeches, performances and installations.
The explorations of the artists were communicated to different audiences, in different ways, according to the content, character and state of development of ideas and performance material.
The following descriptions give some examples of the activities that emerged out of Trasformatorio nr. 0 :
Cheese:Elles Kiers, a Dutch artist that uses knowledge on ways to prepare food as background research for art installations or performances, adding her view to it, was involved in a research about cheese making. In a previous trip, we met a local cheese maker, Ezio. He showed us how he makes a cheese called provolone from the milk of his own cows. It included traditional ways of taking track of important parameters in the fabrication. For example, the old way to decide about the temperature of the milk was the sound that a stick, made out of a particular type of wood, makes against the border of the pan. It changes exactly at the right temperature so that a thermometer was not necessary. Elles was inspired by his work to explore cheese making in Montalbano and set to make her own version of the cheese from the same milk. Ezio gave us 30 litres of milk from which Elles made 3 kinds of soft cheeses in the shape of eggs. Cheeses were presented in an installation into the higher of the castle’s towers and fed to the spectators. After this, in collaboration with participant artist Emanuela Ravida, Elles offered us a “milking” performance with the leftover of the milk.
In response to Elles’ research, a very interesting gathering took place: an afternoon with the community’s elderly people, where they offered us to teach how to make traditional pasta. We shared songs, stories, local folklore and the get together ended up in spontaneous performances by the villagers and the artists alike, sharing of painting, dance steps, food.
Antenna:Sicilian artists Aldo Cesar Faga and Gabriele Zaverio set themselves up to transform the castle into a horizontal antenna, to bring to senses invisible and omnipresent “life signs” that travel the atmosphere’s radio spectrum. They laid a hundred of meters of wire divided into 9 threads, precisely aligned with psychogeographical lay-lines in the structure, and tuned them up carefully as an antenna. They proceeded then to listen to the stratosphere-bounced signals on vintage radio equipment and used the sounds to create various types of soundscapes, improvise music with other participants and listen to invisible waves in the area. The installation generated a lot of curiosity in the locals. In a first stage, some data coming in a live streaming from the bottom of the sea in front of Catania was presented in an audiovisual form and explained by Aldo Faga. In a second stage, passers-by were mesmerized by the dark corner full of vintage radio gear and apparatus operated by a silent Gabriele Zaverio and the resulting soundscape. The experiment was replicated in a different form, in the daytime, in the archaeological site of the Argimusco, with a different antenna design, in a setup completely solar powered.
Body that sounds:
a collaboration between dancer Federica Dauri, composer and media artist Alberto Novello and media artist Antony Rjekorf The experiment generated and was set up in the laboratory. The artists got inspired by each other’s work and combined the approaches to prototype the idea. They explored the possibility of tracking real-time acceleration and body positions to rule a sound composition. They tried it out in different environments in the castle and in different atmospheres. What appeared is a synesthetic soundscape responsive to the dancers’ improvisation. While moving she generates and modulates all fragments and sounds; this gives her themes and ideas for further improvisation, in a mutually and visually surprising feedback loop. The ideas were documented on the fly by other participants and are expanding in further collaboration projects spanning from The Netherlands to Austria. The entire installation was battery powered and the batteries were charged by solar panels. It is therefore conceived as a highly transportable device for performing in remote areas.
the days before the start of Trasformatorio the traditional procession of the Holy Friday took place. The inhabitants of Montalbano told us great marvels about their tradition of “Venerdi Santo”, and explained to us also that, to their discontent, the actual priest had forbidden them to do the re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ. Spontaneously some participant artists were invited to transport the heavy statues of the saints around the village. The procession issued with these unlikely carriers was an inspiring success. Many discussions followed between the artists and the locals.
The night of the first general public presentation (6th of April) the idea of the procession took a different form in the castle. The artists had gotten used to walking in its rooms in the darkness of the night, while usually public is not admitted after dark.
The performance started with a seated audience, as in a conference. An explanation of the work of the first week was given. When a performer enters unexpectedly from a window and performs with a prepared piano, a different situation arises. A performer, moving like a bunny, enters in to invite everyone to rise from their chairs and follow him in a walk through the castle. The audience follows him from the one installation or happening to the other. The visit is done in the dark, as in a procession, from station to station, with stages connected by simple strategies (lighting, sound, character movement). Very unexpected by participants, it gave rise to many interesting comments. One of the participants talked about “walking into a dream state”. It gave a totally different and unexpected experience of their own well known historical space. We learned later from the elders that before restoration the castle, then in labyrinthian ruins, had been the favourite location for the children to play games.
Ulysses:following the experience made during a workshop on instant composition and bodyworks, choreographer Maria Eugenia De Meglio and director Francesco Piotti set themselves into using all available artists to set up a performance in the castle open-air theatrical space. The dramaturgy has been proposed by Francesco. A transposition of the history of Ulysses to “modern time and sensibility”. The story is set into images and actions and presented all around the audience. As themes of the play unemployment and social struggle are expressed in a symbolic form. For example when “the rich man” feeds the young people of Ithaca with the food they are not allowed to eat, and then with the leftovers of their food, thrown to them as if they are dogs.
Some elements of the two weeks research re-emerge in the play: real-time translation in sounds of actions, collective movements, text and props. Lighting of the play and costumes are improvised with what is found in the castle and adapted to the local neighbour’s help. At the end of the performance, the audience is moved into getting on stage and dancing with the actors. An unlikely action for an audience that is used to the theatre that keeps spectators and actors in separate spaces.
A summary of the artistic activities of Trasformatorio ‘zero’:
- 2 presentation days in the castle of Montalbano open to the public (6 and 13th of April)
- a 20’ performance presented to the local audience,
- documented experiments in projection mapping,
- interactive performance design,
- ambient installation,
- ritual theatre,
- radio installation,
- video installation,
- photography and digital compositing,
- food installation and presentation,
- musical and dance improvisation and composition.
- solar power experiments
At the end of Trasformatorio number zero, we were invited by the major and the inviting bodies to repeat the event in 2014.
Documentation and evaluation of the work followed, taking place mainly on our group list, in one on one chats and personal talks and on the website. General satisfaction with the flow of the event and it’s content has been expressed by most of the guests and participants alike, together with suggestions and propositive criticism.
The pool of international artists that are connected to the inner circle of trasformatorio grew up to 54 units (April 2013). this group includes the artists that have participated in the number zero.
We intend to divide our research for number one into 4 general areas of interest and, with the help of external funding, to be able to offer within an international call for proposal the chance to participate with their own research topics to trasformatorio.
The proposal should contribute to the planned activity of focus groups and for a subset of participants shall be open the possibility to be part of any interest groups within their own research in the lab. In the preparation of the events, we shall promote also study groups and workshops and bring our experience into the next residency in Montalbano.
The trajectory seen for trasformatorio in the next years will treasure on the experience of its first group of artists and on some lessons learned.
a) The environment and the community have the strongest and most important appeal for makers and invited artists to work, so the formalized learning part loses its importance in the context of trasformatorio. Technical workshops on site should be replaced with thematic meetings in the form of groups of work and study, to be organized before the main event and whose resulting output can be part of the backpack of experiences and tools that artists carry with them on site.
b) Sustainability has evolved from being a general technical aspect of the research to a multi-layered approach that includes production guidelines, funding strategies, technical givens with specifications and future research themes, surprisingly even more in a dramaturgical context than in a technical one.
c) The integration and mutual recognizance with the local culture and its landscape will continue in different forms.
d) Stories of local folklore had been collected by first-hand accounts and from independent researchers busy with the location that we encountered in the first trip, and most of the discussions have been recorded in audio by Gabriele Zaverio.
Trasformatorio number one shall approach the local “space of stories”, experimenting with a guest group of writers and storytellers as participants of next trasformatorio number one. This space could transform in many ways and become part of other stories, a event that is of great interest.
As an example, some elements of this activity could be part of radio transmissions both in FM and streaming, and other audible transformation prone work. A mini FM radio broadcast over the area could be one of the themes of the “sensing the invisible” sessions, as it has been TTY transmission for number zero’s activities.
e) The archeo-astronomical data collected about the close by locations, the presences of clear and suggestive star alignments is in my opinion of great interest and inspirational value to explore many different kinds of structures. From patterns of recurrence that can be investigated from algorithms for generative compositions to dramaturgical analysis alike. This could be one of the themes for further research on which to design our future “call for artists”.
f) It is of interest to arrange our communication to allow participation to artists of the southern side of the Mediterranean, including the Maghreb nations and the Arab talking cultures. We wish to propose our laboratory in Sicily also as an open space of encounter and investigation to different types of artists. A gate for north-south collaborations and also for south-south and east-west alike.
g) Already in trasformatorio number zero has been absorbing a great deal of attention to integrate as many as possible artists and circuits from the region, and to establish a connection with curators and theatres of the area. Both to be able to propose them our type of performance and to get to know better the type of art sicilian artists make the best. This activity shall be continued and potentiated and some small founding dedicated also to this exploration.
h) Observations generated by the movement in day and night and various weather conditions inside the castle or in the open areas around the Argimusco suggested many themes of research: low-intensity lighting and sound are one of the most promising for our performative purposes. Observers that instead of getting into a dark artificial space from light, goes through the experience of walking at night in the open, have time to adapt their senses to the environment. Small movements in the background of a landscape in the moonlight can become gigantic. Very low-intensity light still retain the qualities of a big effect, and same goes for the localized sound that uses the structure of the natural resonances of the space. This observation defines a field of study and application that asks for invention, new design and unconventional approaches. Is our intention to prepare some of these to be put on test in trasformatorio number one.
Trasformatorio as a lab is for production and a collective investigation has always to include presentation and performance. Number zero contains in itself many works that will continue into collaboration works. It would be interesting to be able to follow these collaborations and be part of their development. Forms to facilitate it should be a theme of discussion in the months ahead.
Some notes about the production of trasformatorio zero:
Trasformatorio number zero has been produced totally by voluntary work, a total disponibility by the city of Montalbano Elicona to reduce to the maximum the cost of our permanence on site and resources freely made available by participating artists. Money for general expenses, workshops materials and simple to buy the food and gasoline for transportation was used as a last resource and was overall very scarce.
We proved to our surprise that we could feed in Montalbano 25 people with less than 3 euros per persona per day with a variety and abundance of food simply improvising a kitchen. All participants happily volunteered in tasks for the community, from driving the car to pick up people at the airport to washing dishes, to cook dinner or simply to help one each other to realize their piece or performance.
Two guidelines were issued by me about our chances to succeed, right before the beginning of the trasformatorio:
The first is that money, like sugar, tends to speed up processes, generates a fast metabolism, but is not always the best solution neither the healthier one.
The second, to remind us of the way to sustain the effort was to think about the story of the soups with stones.
Some poor “artists in flee” get to a village in the middle of winter, and they have nothing to eat. The villagers look to them with some suspect and no one approaches them. So the leader of the artists sets up a big pot full of water, lights a fire, and start making soup putting in the water only a pocket of white stones. The paisans curious come out and one of them ask: “what is this soup?”
“A soup made of stones” answers the man. “Well, the recipe includes a bit of cabbage and other ingredients, but we have none, we will eat it as it is”…
So the paisan, curious about the soup of stones, brings some cabbage, and another one an onion, and a third one a piece of sausage and some potatoes. When the soup is ready the “artist” takes out the stones and puts them back in the pocket and everyone is too busy eating that good soup together to mind a bit about the trick.
They eat, and another artist takes out a violin, and a big party follows in the winter night…
This is exactly the way we managed to produce such a beautiful and inspiring trasformatorio number zero.
WHAT SHALL COME AFTER?
a) Trasformatorio will grow into a Stichting (a non-profit foundation) based in Nederland
and continue its main activity to grow as a laboratory.
b) Its technical outcomes will be released on open content licenses and in the form of innovative site-specific performances and art projects.
c) will look for partnerships in performance, design and cultural institutions
d) will apply for public funding that will be used to sustain its activities
e) will search for an endorsement from local government, private local business and another form of micro-financing of activities.
f) It will not use sponsoring as a form of sustainable funding.
g) will improve exchange through its network of friends and fellow researchers
h) will propagate its artistic work through the available channels and support the works that are fruits of collaborations born and documented in trasformatorio
i) will refine its vision through fieldwork, study and trial and error
Written in Vejano (VT) end of April 2013