Giorgio de Finis speaks: the MACRO Asylum? A living museum, a contemporary secular cathedral

Giorgio de Finis is the new artistic director of the MACRO in Rome. We interviewed him to let him tell us about the original MACRO Asylum project.

Giorgio de Finis was appointed in recent days as the new artistic director of MACRO, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome. This is important news, because Giorgio de Finis will bring to life a never-before-experienced project that will transform the institution, as stated in the statement released by Roma Capitale, into a “new device that reinvents the museum as a reality of production and cultural transformation beyond the exhibition dimension.” This is an original and unprecedented idea for a museum like the MACRO: we caught up with Giorgio de Finis, whom we thank for his availability, and we let him tell us about it in detail. Interview by Federico Giannini.

Giorgio de Finis
Giorgio de Finis. Photo by Massimo Attardi

FG: Director, the MACRO will become the scene of your project “MACRO Asylum”: a free museum without exhibitions, a sort of laboratory in which anyone who calls himself an “artist” can take part, but also a place where research will be done and where protagonists of the contemporary art world will meet. I guess we should expect a completely new museum, a program in some ways unprecedented, a revolution of the very concept of “museum”...

GdF: What I have been asked to do, which then corresponds more or less to what I have been doing over the years, is to rethink the museum device, to try to make it more interesting and not only in terms of participation, but also in terms of sense. A sense that I think has been somewhat lost: in fact, many of our museums, especially those that have fairly small budgets (like MACRO, which will have 400,000 euros a year, which will be needed to run the whole machine: staff, insurance, cleaning), have often and willingly been forced to “subcontract” programming and be a bit of a landlord. Also in response to this kind of problem I plan to suspend the exhibitions (which are often expensive and require the intervention of the gallery that bears these expenses): I prefer to bring the museum back to a public space, indeed I have the ambition to make it something that goes beyond that, that is participatory, heartfelt, and in some ways even independent. It will have to be, in essence, a project that is built as we go along, all together: this is the reason why I thought of not having exhibitions. It will be a museum where obviously art will enter (to propose an iconoclastic museum would have been very serious for a visual arts museum), but in other ways. The permanent collection itself will finally be shown and made usable in a way that should represent and narrate what we will be doing with MACRO Asilo: I am thinking, obviously according to a hypothesis that we will be working on and that will have to be subjected to verification, of a large picture gallery that will hold together authors who are also distant, as will in fact be the artists who will participate in the project. MACRO Asylum will be a place where artists, instead of competing, will try to cooperate: that is also why the old formulas will be suspended. Basically, I would like to take the MACRO out of the art system (or at least I will try temporarily) to make it play another role, that of a meeting device between artists and the city, outside of what are instead the dynamics of the system as we know it, that is, a system that often talks about the market rather than art.

As for the fact that anyone who calls himself an artist can take part in the project, I would like to specify this idea, because many people are afraid that this choice will affect quality: MACRO Asylum will be a machine that will need the help of artists working on the territory and beyond. So the call is open to those who are artists by trade, that is, to all those who have made that very complex step called “self-legitimization” and as a result of which they declare themselves artists. Of course, there may happen to be “non-artists” who think of themselves as such, but this mechanism of openness, which will require responsibility on the part of artists to a public, collaborative and choral device, will actually, once they cross the threshold, result in a very hard and difficult world for the artist. This is because the artists will find themselves alone, in the sense that the museum will no longer protect them: each of them will say and do something that someone else will be called upon to judge. There will be no umbrella or parachute of the institution that makes us look ignorant because a certain work doesn’t tell us anything or we don’t like it and instead someone else has decided it deserves it. The artist, in short, will be dealing with an audience of insiders and outsiders: I think this is also an invitation to each person to rethink their place in the world, in the hierarchical scale that the world proposes. In short, I think the discourse of open call is far from trivial. Incidentally, I would like to add that, as Mario Perniola also reminds us in his book L’arte espansa, even Saatchi Gallery has opened its portal to all the artists on the planet: it is a question of understanding what epoch we are living in, and with a world invaded by artists, with an art world that is open to all continents, the idea of a director who makes the selection of the good and the bad, of who has value and who has no value, I think is distorted by numbers. I think there is no critic who knows all the artists working in the Rome area, for example. Instead, such a mechanism would also become a kind of self-census of the whole territory, and for that reason alone I think it should intrigue.

Let us reflect on this entity that we call “public.” The MACRO Asylum will be something totally independent of the art system, and what will be carried out within it will be judged by the public. But who will this judging public be composed of? Are we talking about the critics? Are we talking about the visitors? One of the big problems in contemporary art is the gap between artists and audiences, an audience that is becoming more and more restricted because it is forced to deal with institutions and artists that actually manage to communicate little or nothing. I got the idea that one could read this from Beuys’ perspective: everyone is an artist, in the sense that everyone participates in the construction of a common project, and art no longer has spectators, no longer has an audience, but simply has participants, each with his or her own role. I wondered if this could be a key to the project?

Ours is a participatory project, and in this sense the visitor is also part of the game. The MACRO will show itself as a relational, complex, participatory artistic device: in part what you say is true, but it certainly will not happen that an unqualified public will stand as a judge of the artists. Everyone will be invited to work: art historians, critics, thinkers, philosophers, artists, and I would like to rethink the audience as a set of citizens with preparation, curiosity, intelligence, and judgment. Think of Cristiana Collu’s operation at the National Gallery: an operation that shuffles the cards of art history in a way that makes the enigmatic nature of the work multiply, because these alienating encounters between works pose other questions, and it is the viewer who has to give his or her answers. There is the underlying idea that viewer and institution have the same right to express a thought, as well as the same ability to relate autonomously to the work of art that the artist places before the world and does not just give to the specialist. It is also about restoring dignity to the visitor, to what we call with a somewhat ugly word “the audience,” which often interests cultural marketing only in terms of numbers or tickets to sell.

The theme of the dignity of the visitor is as relevant as ever, especially if we think about that trend clearly identified by Jean Clair now already ten years ago, and which has now become a kind of drift, namely that of the museum (and I am thinking especially of ancient art museums but the discourse could be extended to contemporary art as well) considered for all intents and purposes as a kind of amusement park where one can spend time, and not as a place of active citizenship. So there is a need to go against this nefarious logic, there is a need to go back to focus on the true mission of the museum: how does MACRO Asylum intend to deal with this problem?

The museum does not have a fixed role in history; the museum has been many things. Think of the Louvre, which was the home of sovereigns for so long, and then became a gallery where the various national schools could be exhibited: the museum changes over the ages. I think that today the museum can be seen as an important device to give rise to a reflection concerning art and, through art, everything that art itself reflects on ... that is, everything, because art deals with everything. I would like the MACRO to do research as well, I would like to have a place where artists can work and also relax in front of a coffee, I would like to give the possibility for artists to meet while they are working, I would like in short for the museum to be a kind of piazza. But not in general terms: we will also offer a morning exercise program (for example, of Tai Chi or other practices that can activate the body to prepare the mind for a day of hard work), but when we do this it will not be because we want to entertain the public, but because we want to work, and specifically work on the transformation of society into something more interesting, to put it in somewhat ambitious tones. The museum is not to be the alternative to an amusement park or a shopping mall: it is a place where the anomalies represented by artists come together, meet and collide, and where everything bubbles up. The MACRO, in short, will also be a political device.

To extend the discussion about the “political device,” we can say that the MACRO will contain much of the MAAM experience. But, wanting to get into the specifics, what exactly will the MACRO propose of the MAAM experience, and what, on the other hand, will it retain of the “museum” understood as an institution, of the museum as an organism that, according to the ICOM definition, “acquires, preserves, exhibits and communicates” works of art?

In the meantime, we will see if there will be anyone interested in museifying what we are going to do at MACRO Asylum. Of course, it’s not my priority, but it’s still a possibility, and I don’t exclude that after these two years we could see the MACRO collection increased. For the first time, however, we will show the permanent collection, and we will therefore take a step forward in the “classical” sense: the collection will be usable and will no longer be in storage. Otherwise, the MACRO will be a living museum: that is, it will be a museum where there will be living artists and living works. At the MACRO Asylum, art will be made and seen while it is being made, because the gesture can be very interesting to understand an artist’s work. There will be a lot of talking, there will be research lasting two years that will, however, have periodic weekly appointments, within which the person in charge of the research in turn will invite other people to speak, and at the end of the two years the paths will lead to scientific publications. MACRO, in short, will not do entertainment but will do research for all intents and purposes: we will rethink words and our vocabulary, there will also be attempts in the spirit of collectives like Wu Ming or Luther Blissett, with the difference that here everyone will sign the things they do and will not act in the anonymity of the collective, we will try to reformulate some thoughts such as the very idea of a museum. Here, MACRO will resemble MAAM only in the way it will try to be a “real museum,” according to Cesare Petroiusti’s definition, that is, a museum that has characteristics, contaminated by life, light, traversable, multidisciplinary, and multi-sensory. Characteristics that Cesare Petroiusti listed well, among other things precisely in the context of a meeting at MAAM, and which are translatable in an institutional space such as MACRO. There will be no painted walls and no needy families living there, because this is the soul of MAAM, these are the conditions of play for another experiment called the Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere in Metropoliz. For the rest, artists will work together as at MAAM, thinking beyond, bringing their own piece, with the awareness of building a work in a choral way, a kind of contemporary secular cathedral in which we will also try to solve the age-old question of the relationship between individual and collective: we must also try to rediscover how to work together, treasuring difference, which then is the figure and the manifesto of our time.

Let’s delve into the chapter on artists. The idea that MACRO opens up to anyone who calls himself an artist is an interesting rejection of the institutional theory of art, and vice versa is founded on the basis of what is essentially an anarchic principle, that of the assumption of individual responsibility...

Every artist who decides to be an artist takes this step alone: it is the artist who at some point decides to be an artist, then everything that follows (success, entry or not into art history, market coefficient) is something that comes later. I simply, not dealing with market coefficients and working on the contemporary, so not being in fact interested in what will enter art history (because this will be understood in at least twenty years or so), open the door to those who make an identity choice of a certain kind and embrace a profession in a lucid and conscious way. Then we will evaluate everything that everyone does. Everyone will have the opportunity to tell about their research in a light-hearted way, then there will be those who will paint perhaps by “beaming” to the MACRO their atelier for a week, there will be those who will work with schools because perhaps they are particularly good with children and eager to help out the little ones, there will be those who will participate in the most enduring research and projects, those who will propose additional participatory devices by inviting the public or other artists to work together, there will be the lectio magistralis with the big names in world art, both critics and artists, who will take turns each weekend. MACRO Asylum will work with the hundreds of artists in the area, who will make up the living fabric of this place, but it should also have the opportunity, according to its own availability, to dialogue with the names we all know.

And specifically what role will major artists play?

They will simply come to visit and tell us about their work ... and then they will give us a breath of globalization in a context that is certainly very rooted in the territory ... ! But we will do all this by trying to convince the artists to avoid coming in with a red carpet and to leave once the microphone is turned off, but perhaps to try the warmer, more participatory dimension that MACRO will try to create: we will invite them to talk but also to listen, to be with us for a while. I’m going to ask everyone to prepare written lectures that can be publishable, so I’m going to ask them for some kind of effort as well. I don’t want to do catwalks for the stars, but I think it’s important to also get some artists to come to MACRO who can bring this project of ours together with those who are working overseas or in other countries.

Among the things that we have said so far, one of the most interesting in my opinion is the fact that at MACRO Asylum we will also see artists directly engaged in the creation of the work. Something that after all we also saw at this year’s Venice Biennale....

Yes ... even at the Biennale this year there was talk of “living art.”

Exactly: at the Biennale there were artists who engaged other people in the making of art objects, artists who engaged in knitting, artists who built dust rectangles with squeegees, artists who set up temporary factories to produce works, artists who brought notebooks. Is this a sign that the focus is shifting to process rather than outcome?

One necessary thing is to get the artist out of his or her studio. In a certain world, in a certain kind of system you get more out of putting the artist to produce within a certain isolation. However, I think it is important for the artist to meet the world-I think the artist has a lot to give, and there are many ways to achieve that. Those of us who have had the opportunity and the pleasure of seeing artists at work have been privileged, have been fortunate, because they have been able to understand more things: so I don’t see why artists can’t be asked to make that little effort. Maybe with a little embarrassment, why not, but giving others their gesture and a little bit of what they do behind the scenes could be something very interesting as well. I think of a living museum, where everyone participates: relational artists but also relational artists who don’t like to work in a participatory way, but the important thing is that everyone makes an effort to get closer to others.

A new aspect is also definitely that of the director herself. You are an anthropologist, video maker, artist, curator. This “sum” of professionalism that somehow sets aside the figure of the museum director as we had known it until now, could be, according to how one wants to see it, a symptom of the need for renewal and at the same time an indication of a way out for an increasingly self-referential contemporary art world, but at the same time according to many it is also a gamble, precisely because it clashes head-on with a praxis, with codified visions...

I am qualified to make myself: that is what I have always told Luca Bergamo and everyone. I have been building devices and disassembling and reassembling the museum for a few years: this is what they are asking me to do. If I am being asked to do myself, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I am being asked to do a project as if any other artist were being asked to do it. Then I, in my practice, at a certain point stop being an artist and become a curator because of a process that I have activated that leads me to be concerned about making things go well and make them work. I don’t know if that has to be the rule for all museums. I have been asked for a two-year project, I have been asked to rethink the museum: I have tried, the proposal is what we are talking about, it will be enriched in these months (during which I will discuss with the artists and ask them what they would like to do), and maybe, when we open the doors, this welcoming device will also be different from how I am imagining it these days.

Let’s close with a somewhat brutal question: in your opinion, are we really ready for such an experience?

We will see about that... ! But like all things, this is a project that comes about because a need has been felt. Nothing is born out of time. Reflecting on how things are going in our world, and how even contemporary art is in danger of spinning in on itself and no longer being able to speak, I think it is necessary to try to rethink a whole series of situations. Art then characterizes us as human beings since the time of the Lascaux caves: perhaps, every now and then, we also need to rethink art for what it is, beyond the systems and ways in which we are used to enjoying it. That is also why the project is called MACRO Asylum: we have to rethink ABC, and we have to try to take art out of the art system and bring it to a little island that is not there. Inside a kind of utopia.

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