As curator of the Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina in Florence, Italy, Franziska Nori aims to reinvent the well-touristed city as a destination for contemporary art. At the Strozzina, Nori presents theme-based exhibitions often connected to political issues. "Declining Democracy," her current show [on view through Jan. 22], features works by 12 international artists, including Thomas Hirschhorn and Francis Alÿs.
Less well known is psychiatrist-turned-performance artist Cesare Pietroiusti, who directs Scuola Quadri, a series of "political education" workshops on the paradoxes of European democracy, such as the widening gap between the political and working classes. Juan Echavarria contributes a video, Bocas de Ceniza, of Colombians singing songs they composed about their violent history.
Before arriving at the Strozzina, Nori headed the Department of Digital Art and Culture at the Museum for Applied Arts, Frankfurt, where she organized the first museum collection devoted to digital artifacts. The European Commission, the institution that implements EU policies and allocates EU funds, appointed her in 1998 to develop strategies for museums showcasing new media. Since arriving at the Strozzina in 2007, she has curated several shows that have engaged the public in original ways. "Emotional Systems" (2007), for example, featured work created with the conscious intention of affecting people's emotions--one installation involved a live performer, positioned in a cage, who was shown various video clips while a machine measured her emotional response via brain waves. Another Strozzina show, "As Soon as Possible: Acceleration in Contemporary Society" (2010), interrogated the fast pace of our modern lives. "Declining Democracy," with works that employ the Internet and social media, furthers Nori's exploration of art as a process involving both creator and consumer.
SHEELA RAMAN Why is now the time for "Declining Democracy?"
FRANZISKA NORI We are currently facing a crisis of systems. All of our political systems are undergoing serious inquiries, which have even led to revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Our economic and political problems are closely linked and right now the very definition of democracy is at stake. "Declining Democracy" has a double meaning: "declining" as in waning, and "declining" as in analyzing.
RAMAN Is there a line that you use to distinguish art and activism?
NORI It is important to be open when looking at politically engaged work. It's not about boundaries, but the intentions and statements of the artist. Thomas Hirschhorn's Where do I Stand? What do I Want? (2008) features eight of his personal notebooks filled with photographs, writings and collage, which illustrate the political and aesthetic influences behind his work. His artist statement itself becomes a work of art, bared to the public, and we are invited to engage with it. This is just one example of the closing distance between the artist and the viewer, and the diminishing of authorship in art. Contemporary culture, with the multitude of voices present on the Internet, also reflects this lack of authorship, as does democracy. This phenomenon seems in some way to relate to my curatorial approach. To reflect critically upon today's world requires an enormous amount of expert knowledge, a need which I feel can be best faced with team intelligence. For this reason, I often hire a group of scholars and experts to share the decision-making for a show.
RAMAN Other works in the exhibition provide an even stronger sense of participation. The installation from the Italian artist collective Buuuuuuuuu asks us to commit a prescribed act (a smile, a gesture) and takes a photo of us while doing so. This gets uploaded onto the collective website, so we become a permanent feature of the work itself. What do you hope to accomplish by having the viewer so involved?
NORI The exhibition represents democracy, and participation is inherent in a functioning democracy. Participation is now an increasing part of our reality. We are surrounded by media that allow us to constantly participate—for example, even by "liking" something on Facebook. To today's public it makes less and less sense to come to exhibitions where they are supposed to observe in silence the perspective of an institution or a curator. The format of a 21st century exhibition must live up to the format of our 21st century lives. We need to give people broad access to knowledge so that they can form their own opinions out of individual experiences.
RAMAN Does participation correspond with optimism?
NORI Yes, and it has been great to see that come through. Digital media have given everyone a voice, both artistic and political, and we must take the opportunity to converse with these voices. Some of the works in the show wink at our current obsession with participation, but the overwhelming response we have seen to these sorts of pieces can be mainly seen as positive: that the public has a real thirst for communication and relevant experience.