Paolo Naldini, Cittadellarte looks back at 2022: “Art, the most radical form of research, is a human right”
What have we learnt in the past year? What is the balance for 2022? In a game of mirrors between past, present and future, in our interview Paolo Naldini, director of Cittadellarte, touched on some of the key elements and themes of Fondazione Pistoletto, including Accademia Unidee ("We are a community of practice. If the mirror is at the centre of Cittadellarte, it is precisely because it is a tool for research, speculation and reflection"), Biella Città Arcipelago ("Biella as Working Site of the Opera Demopratica has courageously identified an ambitious project: the infrastructure of life on the planet, a subject considered obscene for too long") and Biella Creative City ("We have reached a dynamic balance, in fact, with the proposal of an operating director for the association who also performs functions as UNESCO focal point"). Retracing some of the stages of Cittadellarte's 2022, let us explore some fundamental themes for the individual and the community as a whole.

1st January 2023, a new chapter in the river of life begins today. At the horizon, the mouth of the river is bathed in the unknown. If we try to peer forward in time, the clouds of the future cover the course and prevent us from grasping it in detail. One can, however, change their gaze, giving power to the imagination, entering an introspective dimension. In an instant, the fog clears and leaves room for thoughts and suggestions. The process that looks towards tomorrow is intimate, shrouded in a suggestive mystery that lends fascination to uncertainty. If we wish to give the future a more definite shape, we’ll have to look back. Let us go back and relive the highlights, sitting in the cinema of memories. Let us reflect. Let us think back to when we failed, to when we rejoiced, to what we felt at each juncture. This way, we can put on the wetsuit of experience and swim harmoniously in the waters of time.

Cittadellarte, for its part, is ready for the future. Many projects will develop, others will start, others will encounter obstacles, others will be able to take advantage of new and precious collaborations. We wanted to share the 2022 of Fondazione Pistoletto through the words of its director, Paolo Naldini, who, in the course of an interview, highlighted and offered an intimate and at the same time (in)formal overview of the past year of the artistic-cultural Biellese organization. In this rewind, Naldini cast the spotlight on and brought out the identity of Fondazione Pistoletto through his reflections on Accademia Unidee, Biella Città Arcipelago, Biella Creative City, Opera Demopratica and on key words that are often linked together: art, school, sustainability, energy, water, education, food, reception, practices and policies.

Paolo Naldini.

Also in 2022, Cittadellarte confirms itself as a school: the lessons of the three-year course in Visual Arts for Social Sustainability and Sustainable Fashion continue, and so does the Master in Design, Creativity and Social Practices, born from the collaboration between Milan’s Polytechnic and Accademia Unidee, now at its third edition. What is your balance as president of the Academy on the year that is drawing to a close?
When we realize that we don’t know the answers to the questions we ask ourselves, we can react in two ways: stop asking ourselves questions or do research. The second path leads you to experience every situation in life as a learning opportunity. In other words, it is no longer us going to school, but the school coming to us, looking for us wherever we are.The first path, in which we reject the questions, leads to violence. Because if we live with the (predefined) answers instead of the questions (different each time), the answers will end up having to be imposed on the circumstances. It should be the other way around: circumstances generate responses. But a situation in which we have to “find” the answers means accepting uncertainty, putting ourselves on the line, the possibility of failing. And this inevitably brings with it the emotion of fear. The fact is that many people are afraid of fear, they cannot bear and face it. This is one of the most powerful evils of humanity. Rejecting fear leads many to pretend to be different from who they are. Take bullies or hooligans, for example: they tend to be fearful and unable to face their fears. On the other hand, if we realize that fear is part of life and that there are a thousand ways to deal with it and often overcome it, we put ourselves in a situation where we can learn to deal with it. That’s when the school starts. The school is therefore the daughter of the courage to accept our limits, but also of the courage to want to overcome them, without fear of failing.

It is now evident that where there is art, there is learning. In fact, art proceeds by inventing, that is, by seeking new answers to questions that are not rejected, but rather welcomed with full acceptance. Questions that others would leave untouched, sometimes pretending that the answers given in the past are still fully valid, are taken seriously. This is why being a school comes natural to Cittadellarte. Art is research. Search for answers, but also for questions. I agree with the sociologist Appadurai in considering research a human right. And I personally think that art is the most radical form of research. To deprive people of art (of making art) is to violate their human dignity. For this reason, building learning spaces or, rather, making every place a learning space (as the vision underlying Cittadellarte’s Learning Environment Office indicates) is a civil and political programme. So, to return to your question, Luca, the students who come to our school in Biella join us all, ourselves researchers and students at Cittadellarte. Also because if, as explained by Rancière in “The Ignorant Master”, one learns starting from not knowing, how could we learn from teachers who have stopped learning, having stopped not knowing?
Thus, every year more than one hundred students join “us students” in a community of practice, that of Cittadellarte, whose practice is actual research. If the mirror is at the centre of Cittadellarte, it is precisely because it is a tool for research, speculation and reflection. You get to the mirror, where reality shows itself, if you’re looking for it. In fact, many people in front of the mirror don’t learn much. Because they are not looking. They stopped accepting questions. The mirror shows things. It is a “monster”, because it “demonstrate”. This is why it’s scary: the monster puts us in front of ourselves and of something we don’t want to see. And, to get back to where I started from, many of us don’t accept fear. So they stop learning.

“Biella Città Arcipelago Demopratico – sustainability and creativity in the Biella area” opened on 30 October 2021, during the XXIII edition of the event “Arte al Centro”. It’s a permanent exhibition on the sustainable organizations of the territory based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda. In 2022 multi-sectoral working tables were launched and developed; and public talks were held on the topics of water, education and food. In October, you were also invited as a speaker at “From mapping to the promotion and articulation of territories of the contemporary“, a study day at the National Archaeological Museum of Taranto, to present the case history of Biella Arcipelago Demopratico. What makes the project a civic, participatory and collective work?
Biella as Working Site of the Opera Demopratica has courageously identified an ambitious project: the infrastructure of life on the planet. Energy, water, primary production, living… The questions at the basis of this choice are the most immediate ones: where does the water I drink and wash myself with come from? how is the heat that warms my home generated? how is the food I eat grown? Somehow, modernity has accustomed us not to deal with these very complex things, impossible to fully understand because reaching encyclopaedic knowledge was no longer imaginable. And then there are the technicians, who should have taken care of it. It is a pity, however, that this plan has revealed itself to be an illusion and that it has relieved citizens of responsibility, leaving technicians grappling with such vast and interconnected problems that none of them, in the separation of their fields of knowledge, could even face. The infrastructures of our organized life have therefore been removed from the space of our consideration and dealing with them became no longer legitimate, no longer “good”. They had become “obscene” subjects, that is, out of the scene. Like questions denied for fear of having no answers, the issue of the technical infrastructure of life was not welcomed in conversations. All of this has been driving us towards the Anthropocene without even realising what was happening. Therefore, Luca, it is necessary to regain possession of the infrastructures, to understand their ecologies, limits, interconnections and synergies. The Opera Demopratica Biellese has these aims. This is why it can only be civic and participatory. For example, we have tackled the theme of water, starting with the project Starts4water, funded by the European Union, and the production of two works – then presented in Biella at the event Arte al Centro for a Responsible Transformation of Society, and at the Bozar in Brussels and in Rotterdam, as well as in the symposium held at the Guggenheim in Bilbao – which involved many anthropic and natural water infrastructure operators in their research and production phases. We explored analysis laboratories, stream beds, glaciers, climate stations, purifiers… in short, the obscene was brought back to centre stage.

2022 was a key year for Biella Creative City, featuring for example “Arcipelago, Festival of Sustainable Creativity”. Last July, however, the split between the Municipality and the then members of the Biella UNESCO Creative City association, i.e. Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Biella, Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella’s Industrial Union, Fondazione BIellezza, Confartigianato Biella and Cna Biella, was announced, with a resignation that triggered a political and media earthquake. At the beginning of December, the news: an agreement was reached between the parties involved for the continuation of the project and all the shareholders who had resigned expressed a willingness to withdraw their resignation. In light of the latest developments, what future awaits Biella as a UNESCO Creative City?
Emerging from the evils of the Anthropocene can only be done if the public and private sectors find synergies. These are not just two empty definitions: the public responds to the public interest and, in modern democracies, to representation through universal suffrage, which corresponds to Rousseau’s concept of the general will; whereas private individuals, even if they can pursue the common good (rare but not impossible occurrence), follow dynamics based on free initiative and private property, that is, they are constituted on the will of some. Liberal thought has wondered about the possible or desirable relationship between these two spheres, and Habermas and Rawls in particular have elaborated civic and creative political thought from the 1970s to the present day. Communicative action based on discursive dynamics designs a space in which dialogue as well as conflict are acted out according to the common objective of pursuing the most rational and universalisable choices. This dialectical space would take the place of strategic action, which instead sees each side or party seek only the maximisation of its own personal utility. Unfortunately, it is easy to see how it is precisely the second perspective that is being enacted almost everywhere today, to the detriment of the emergence of democratic and demo-creative societies, resorting to a neologism that indicates the co-creative dimension of political life. It therefore becomes even more urgent to explore and promote models and methods that bring together the public and private sectors and direct them towards innovative dynamic balances. Conflict is essential for the emergence of evolutionary ecosystems, just as the heat generated by the rubbing together of sticks and twigs is necessary to produce fire. And that’s what happened, Luca, in the story of the association Biella Creative City. We needed a lot of vision and determination to overcome obstacles and structural cultural impediments, i.e. the physiological differences between the public and private representative political structures. We have reached a dynamic balance, in fact, with the proposal of an operating director for the association who also performs functions as UNESCO focal point.

This convergence will soon be possible, thanks to the willingness of the Municipality to proceed in this direction, as suggested by the private shareholders. This is an essential junction and constitutes a condition that will finally give substance to the role of coordination of the various already operational projects identified in the UNESCO dossier, starting precisely with those that we as Cittadellarte develop: in education with our three-year courses in Sustainable Fashion and in Visual Arts for Social Transformation (which are proving successful among students), with the Circulart Art and Business creative workshops (which involve 14 companies from the textile supply chain and 4 international artist-designers), and with the Sustainability Forums of Biella Città Arcipelago (which have so far involved more than 100 organizations from the Biella area in co-planning processes for a sustainable and prosperous future), just to mention the main ones. The premises are now appropriate for a turning point in the management of the UNESCO designation. There are in fact the right circumstances for the Biellese community to finally be able to actively participate in this territorial development tool that UNESCO has already implemented in many places around the world. We are the world’s headquarters, I would say the capital, of the Third Paradise, which was actually chosen as the symbol of the Creative City designation. It is now a matter of walking the talk, as they say in English, that is, having words followed by facts. The goodwill of the Mayor and of the private partners bear witness to the determination to proceed along this path. The coming months will tell if we will succeed as an association in coordinating an integrated and effective development of the projects presented in the application dossier, in involving citizens and their organizations in becoming bearers of the designation by activating themselves as supporters and co-creators, in intercepting projects and financial resources from ministerial and European initiatives to give greater breadth, strength, visibility and effectiveness to what today is a formal recognition, which must be followed by a territorial programme concretely implemented in the broadest and most inclusive way possible.

Paolo Naldini at the annual meeting of the Rebirth/Third Paradise ambassadors.

The project Rebirth/Third Paradise reflects the glocal identity of Cittadellarte: embassies and ambassadors of different professions and coming from every part of Italy and the world are inspired by the trinamic symbol to promote and curate best practices by placing art in a virtuous relationship with every sector of the social fabric. Also, on 17 and 18 December, Fondazione Pistoletto will host the annual meeting of the Rebirth/Third Paradise ambassadors. Quoting the title of one of the meetings scheduled for the two days, how do you go from best practices to best policies?
Policies aggregate practices, which arise and spread in the social fabric without having any formal juridical recognition. However, good practices alone are not enough to bring about significant and systemic impacts and changes. So how to do it? Can we as citizens, as cultural operators or entrepreneurs or teachers, journalists, sportsmen, administrators, doctors, make policies?
Political is what concerns the polis, the organized community of citizens, inhabitants who recognise – and are recognised by – a sense of belonging to the place as if it were an immediate mother country. An identity that often precedes and sometimes surpasses the national one. The most obvious definitions of ‘policies’ gathered from a quick online search are “a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual” (Oxford) and “a set of ideas or a plan of what to do in particular situations that has been agreed to officially by a group of people, a business organization, a government, or a political party” (Cambridge).

Both definitions include an essential term to address the question you ask, Luca, regarding how to move from practices to policies: this term is organization. This form of aggregation is half way between the individual and the whole of society. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of different types. And each of us belongs to more than one simultaneously. In my personal and professional experience, the most effective organization is the one in which people meet to work, to do together, not only for economic ends, but also for hobbies or passions or civil and even religious causes. I am convinced that the organization is the primary law that operates on people within society, any society, not just Western ones. Of all types of organization, the most effective is the one based on work – and co-work, i.e. collaboration. These organizations constitute communities of practice (as defined by the French sociologist Wenger) and I personally think they are the neurons of the social brain. If they adopt a vision or a grid of values of a certain type, the whole society will take the direction given by these subjects. Organizations are in fact the most effective micro-governments of any society. Even under dictatorships like communism and fascism, people’s lives are greatly affected by the decisions made within these communities of practice. Naturally, each person will be influenced by the community to which they belong directly and little or nothing by the others. For this reason, the potential for real world change lies in the aggregate impact of all or almost all existing organizations. As you know, Luca, and with you thousands of people with whom we have worked in Biella and Cuba, Melbourne, Rome, Milan, Geneva… we have developed a practical method to achieve this ambitious result: the art of demopraxy. In particular, we decided to aggregate the impacts of individual organizations through the adoption of a reference framework of operational priorities: the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Getting hundreds of communities of practice to adopt the 2030 Agenda and its objectives (Sustainable Development Goals) is a policy. Or perhaps the mother policy from which many other possible policies descend based on specific times, contexts and actors.

The answer to your question about how to move from practices to policies, Luca, is therefore: through the art of demopraxy. It is a non-prescriptive and non-rigid method, a ‘canovaccio’, an open approach, based on the art and civic commitment of the participants, who will therefore re-create it differently every time.

For example, here in the Biella area, demopraxy has followed the guideline drawn by the image-concept of the Archipelago City. As foreseen by the canovaccio, we have carried out the mapping, the exhibition, the forum and the working site. And as was to be expected, the Biella chapter is different from the others that have already started. For example: the forum split into various action groups (or tables) set up even before the plenary event, because the director(which would be the local embassy of the Third Paradise, in this case Cittadellarte itself!) started the work on some issues already from the first steps: energy, renewable sources, electrification and energy communities; water, access and infrastructure management; food, healthy and local production; education, developing community and territory; hospitality, slow tourism and landscape co-creation.

So, we know it’s time to move from practices to policies. The canovaccio of demopraxy is the method that we are prototyping and developing together, as a community of social innovation designers, of local and global social sculpture.
In a sentence: moving on to policies does not mean abandoning practices, but organizing them in connection and synergy, directing them towards a clear, identified, common objective.

What effect will the global energy crisis generated by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict have on climate emergencies? Will the issue of environmental sustainability no longer be a priority at a socio-political level or will the decrease in use of fossil fuels help trigger responsible awareness of the issue by accelerating the transition to a more ethical system?
Here, too, we witness the ability of us humans to see things differently. As you mention, Luca, some are of the opinion that we will have greater conviction in the usefulness of renewable sources. But for some others, it’s time to go back to coal and boost oil, drilling and even fracking. And then there are always the supporters of nuclear power, who every time announce a new version of their plants which would be absolutely safe and whose waste should no longer worry anyone. In this case too, the motto “follow the money” would probably be the most effective and fastest way to continue the discussion. But it cannot be done, because almost no one reveals the sources of their income. In our case it is clear: we work for an organization that has always advocated sustainability, the same that has created and disseminated the method of demopraxy and the principle of trinamics. Therefore, if I am intuitively convinced of the urgency of an epochal shift from fossil sources to renewable ones, I also think that this movement should be performed through spaces of conversation, the deliberative discursive democracy I mentioned in the previous answer. Also because it is undeniable that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused an unsustainable situation for many manufacturing companies and that an immediate solution is urgently needed. I am unable to give you an answer that claims universality. However, I am convinced that the method for achieving such a result is precisely the form of democracy that we are experimenting with at Cittadellarte through the art of demopraxy. It obviously couldn’t replace institutional policy making, but it should be in dialogue with it, providing concrete and detailed contributions that public administrators should assume as founding elements of their deliberations. Otherwise, we will have again, as best case scenario, the dictatorship of the majority, but more likely a disguised form of oligarchy, in which the invisible and perhaps not always legitimate lobbies guide the work of parliaments and governments. Unfortunately, we have evidence of this more and more often.

Paolo Naldini.

Paolo, you have often mentioned a family anecdote in which your daughter Ginevra, still a child, turned to you to tell you that she loved “learning new things”. In a reversal of roles, what did you learn in 2022?
Oh, I’ve learnt so many things this year that it’s hard to pick one. But on reflection I can choose one, which an extraordinary person introduced to me by Elena Schneider, a friend of Cittadellarte from Biella, taught me. This person bought a famous boat that had perhaps been the first to travel the world thanks to solar energy, with which he would complete a whole circumnavigation of the seven seas, so to speak: from Osaka, from where he departed this year, to Osaka, where he will return in 2025 to take part in the Expo. Well, Gunter Pauli, that is the name of my mentor I want to tell you about, will teach sustainable fishing to the populations of the coasts of Africa, Asia and the Americas. This expression seems like an oxymoron because we know that no type of fishing is sustainable. And in any case, most of the impact of fishing obviously comes from the fish industry, with 90% of the waste of the catch and the abandonment or loss of nylon or other polymers nets in the sea to the extent of creating plastic continents. Gunter in turn learnt this lesson from another master, from a whale. In fact, he is the inventor of the blue economy, which combines economy and ecologythrough technology, and to do this, blue economy technology is often inspired by the intelligence of animals and other life forms on our planet. The master whale in question fishes in a very particular way, and, to tell the truth, it’s not the only one, cetaceans in general behave in this way: once a school of fish has been identified, whales swim more deeply into the sea until they reach it and they begin to rotate in large circles under it, emitting air bubbles. This way the whales form a cylinder of air surrounding the school of fish. They then ascend to the surface with their jaws open and gulp down their meal. But why don’t the fish escape? Because the bubbles form a wall that is very difficult for them to cross. So, do you know, Luca, where is the sustainability in this form of predation? Well, not all fish get trapped; there is a type of fish that easily penetrates the wall of air bubbles. And it is a very special fish. They weight more than their companions. And do you know why? Because they are pregnant. So the school of fish continues in the new generations, even if decimated by the predation organized by these giants of the oceans. As you know, I have been a vegetarian for many years and I happily remain so, and we know that nothing is more sustainable than vegetarianism: it is a well-known fact that if we all became vegetarians or even vegans we would solve an incredible range of otherwise unsolved problems in one fell swoop. But learning about this from Gunter gave me enthusiasm. Yes, it’s good to learn new things.