Elena Cologni – art and public spaces

The recognition in this episode and in the next two, concerns the point of view of Elena Cologni, Italian artist and researcher, based in England where she is Senior Research Fellow at the Cambridge School of Art, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (Anglia Ruskin University).

“I started my PhD in the late 1990s when Philip Auslander helped define the discipline of perforance studies in the United States. My project also contributed to that context, but through artistic practice as research. Currently my transdisciplinary work fits as fine art in the Art and Design context. In the United Kingdom at that time the context of Live art was making its way – I was part of it at the beginning, my approach is linked to psychology and philosophy, quite conceptual, not easy to place, to label. Contemporary art is where I am. “

As is now our (my) custom, I start by asking for a definition of the term “Urban dramaturgy” in the singular or plural.

“Nice denomination, it scares me a bit, in the sense that I feel quite ‘ ignorant’ about what ‘dramaturgy’ can mean. The reference could be to a fairly traditional context, in which a narration is indicated that is followed and, possibly, also rehearsed, to become at a specific set representation. All of which I absolutely reject (laughter).

Maybe not quite. I’m kidding. There are elements that interest me. The urban environment setting is of great interest to me. As for the narration, I want to specify that I create “scores”, schemes, drawings, diagrams, used to investigate possibilities of intervention in the urban space and make them available to the facilitators, so that they can interpret them. Therefore, in this case there is a dramaturgical aspect, visual rather than verbal and which, then, translates into movement.

From the point of view of the urban aspect, I am interested in the intervention in the shared public space, as it problematizes its very essence as public space. In my experience, and through various projects, I found myself facing practical problems in operating in the urban space.

Apart from the current Covid issue, which is very complicated and imposes limits, the question of public space and the fact that it is public in itself interests me a lot, since before the work on display in Venice designed for the Museums Quartier in Vienna in 2016.

This is an architectural complex with several squares inside.

Elena Cologni - Dialectic,Movement and Rest #2 Wien Museum Quartier
Lived Dialectic,Movement and Rest #2, dialogic site responsive action: to walk from MuseumsQuartier, Vienna courtyard 7 (in front of AZW) to Burgtor/ Heldenplatz (2 facilitators + wooden strauctures + balloons, variable duration)
Curated by Gülsen Bal and Walter Seidl

When you use an outdoor space, in a similar environment, in reality, it is as if you were creating a work, an event inside a gallery. But there is a staggered, illusory perception of what happens and its connotation.

The point of reference is Henry Lefebvre, when he speaks of the manipulation of space by institutions, by society. If you think about it, even a park is completely manipulated by the city institution. Similarly, when we are in the middle of nature, in the middle of nowhere, at least in England, we are under the illusion of being in absolutely free spaces, accessible to all. In reality, there are private or state-owned properties where you cannot go for various reasons.

In the end, therefore, it emerges that there is an overall control of this space that we go through, urban, or perceived as natural, and rural. This is a topic that interests me a lot and has become very central at this moment of the pandemic in Venice, where I have just created a project for the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, curated by Gabi Scardi. “

Among the most interesting aspects that emerge in asking the question about the definition of “urban dramaturgy” given by our guests are the reactions gathered. Basically, two can be identified: in the first, people associate the idea of ​​dramaturgy with something very “old”, outdated, or schematic, because they probably connect it to the concept of traditional theater. They therefore react at first with a clear refusal of the term, or with a distance.

This happens to me above all with people who do not have to do directly with the theater and its more “exhibitionist” aspects. At least, so far the performers have not had this type of reaction, in the sense that they already feel this term as a friendly word, and which includes every possible free expression. “Dramaturgy” in an urban setting does not necessarily mean the presence of a script, of mimesis or even of fictitious situations. It simply means writing a text, a writing performed through any form of language and the text can be an image, a gesture, a sign or a drawing.

It seems important to go deeper into the question, to ask ourselves why there is this idiosyncrasy towards the term, what determines it, what conceptual path it refers to. If you build, prepare a work in public space, interact with citizens, somehow you are doing an urban dramaturgy. Now, verifying, probing the situation better gives the opportunity to understand, this investigation and these reactions; the type of preconceptions, prejudices, idiosyncrasies towards this term. Given that, in these cases, a word is associated with a traditional context, abused, taken for granted, less and less proactive.

“If this is the reaction, it means that the work you are doing is necessary.”

Elena tells me and I am very pleased that she thinks so, it seems interesting to me to bring out our ways of approaching these words. While waiting to collect further statements from other people in this regard, I turn to devote myself to reflections concerning:


So I ask Elena to tell me everything she feels she can communicate about space, about her relationship with space, understood as an urban, domestic, or natural space, and the ways in which she would like the public to relate to it in her works.

“I have done several projects in the urban space, without necessarily wanting to look for specific elements in that environment. In the sense that I can only make “a posteriori” observations that have led me to understand and make it so central in more recent times. My interest in space starts from the relationship with the places where I lived. When I left Italy in the mid-nineties, some aspects became fundamental. In particular, the question of memory in relation to space, because the distance from the place of origin posed this question to me.

It was something linked above all to domestic spaces, so the relationship between private and public-social space has become an ongoing concern, in the form of a network of references. In a 2011 work developed during a residency in the Department of Experimental Psychology in Cambridge, which I called Rockfluid, the fundamental question was my interest in memorizing in the present and in relation to places. When we remember a fact and communicate it, something happens to the original memory of that event.

Elena Cologni - Rockfluid - Cambridge
Elena Cologni – Rockfluid – Festival of Ideas – Cambridge


To investigate all this, I invited people to point me to places related to events that they would share with the group. We explored the city of Cambridge in this way, before “walking art” was established as it has now. “

Or rather, I add, to what has the appearance of an epidemic, of something that increasingly slides towards tourist entertainment, the enhancement of the architectural heritage, or, in some cases, something very similar to the animation of a tourist village. “I have a problem with labels.” Elena specifies.

Well, I could say instead that I have a marked discomfort towards fashions, repetitiveness, standardization and serialization, the replacement of research with that of a product that “pulls”, a mere commercial gimmick.

“The idea of ​​identifying the place of memory and the way in which this identification changes when you return to that same environment are at the center of the project carried out in Cambridge. New memories are inscribed in the same places, so there is the utopian possibility, even to change the memory. “

Elena explores the issue in another work in Milton Keynes, new town, founded in 1967 in North West London, in Buckinghamshire, in order to relieve housing pressure on the capital.

“In that case, the work entitled Navigation diagrams gave me the opportunity to have feedback on a very particular city, designed on the model of Los Angeles, characterized by endless streets and roundabouts. The work consisted of a series of fourteen round platforms measuring one meter by one meter, located in a square, part of an event of the MK gallery. They allow different movements, as some have wheels, others a hemisphere that makes them tilt, two a cylinder that allows movement in one direction only.

Elena Cologni - Navigation Diagrams Milton Keynes

Navigation Diagrams, 2013, site specific performative outdoor installation (100×100 cm x variable, 14 sculptures, plywood, caster wheels, solid wood), curator Simon Wright, in conversation with Caterina Albano

They have different heights, with graphite written words referring to exchanges with people and lines. Within that project there was the word “trust” and it is an element that in that context referred to how the city perceived itself as “safe”. Combinations made it possible to play on this. Let us return, therefore, to the idea of ​​dramaturgy we referred to earlier.

In this project, there is the possibility of combinations created by people who move the platforms, get on them, create sentences, or drawings. Given that it was located in a square between the theater, the gallery, the restaurants in a busy area of ​​the city, people, kids, children, adults could interact with the platforms, move them in heading towards their goals. Thanks to this conclusive work on the interaction with that city, I realized the meaning of “disturbance”.

Elena Cologni - Navigation Diagrams Milton Keynes

Navigation Diagrams, 2013, site specific performative outdoor installation (100×100 cm x variable, 14 sculptures, plywood, caster wheels, solid wood), curator Simon Wright, in conversation with Caterina Albano

Notably, this happened when a group of skateboarders arrived. It was wonderful: they did everything, composing an image. I hadn’t even realized that design possibility… From the design point of view, they had been thought of in pairs, seven and seven. The signs that I had inserted, with an inclination of the rays of a heptagon, I could guess that they could be reconstituted in a coherent form, but I had not tried it, it was not the basis of my idea.

Geometry is wonderful. When you use a criterion, the result emerges in an unexpected way, at the same time is implicit with respect to the way you organized the work and the images. The guys with the skateboards have recreated a star I hadn’t foreseen. They “played” and found a result that pleased them a lot. The footpegs by themselves allow for many combinations.

One thinks of certain criteria in the design phase, but it is nice to bring into play the elements that are thus reconfigured, reorganized. I consider it fundamental. This aspect of the work I conceived, and which refers to the “Kanizsa effect”. This was the triangle of the psychology of optical illusion described in the mid-fifties by Gaetano Kanizsa. Inconclusive geometrical elements of a design require the intervention of the other. I’ve always worked like this, for me it’s a fundamental point of reference. “

The interaction with the other, in space, is one of the key elements in Elena’s work, who in this regard adds: “When I was studying in Brera, I attended Grazia Varisco’s courses on the psychology of perception, those teachings remained a point reference point in my work. “

Elena Cologni - Navigation Diagrams Milton Keynes

Navigation Diagrams, 2013, site specific performative outdoor installation (100×100 cm x variable, 14 sculptures, plywood, caster wheels, solid wood), curator Simon Wright, in conversation with Caterina Albano

We have many arguments and topics about space to analyze with our guest and so I think is better to suspend our “talk”-interview and start again it the next week.

(end of the First Part)

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