Physical distancing, not social distancing!

by Irene Balzani

Today, Monday 18 May 2020, is International Museum Day, and this year it is dedicated to “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion” in an attempt to draw attention to cultural institutions’ crucially important role in serving society and in furthering its development. Palazzo Strozzi has been moving in that direction from day one, including during the current health emergency that has turned our daily lives and our lifestyle on their heads, forcing us temporarily to shut down our exhibition and other public areas. The initiatives we have been working on during the shutdown include ways of reaching out to those worst hit by the situation but who normally taken part in our accessibility schemes, in particular by attempting to “remote-redefine” our schemes for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s sufferers. The initiatives have been redesigned to prevent the physical distance we need to keep from one another right now from turning into isolation – to prevent the social distancing we are all talking about from turning into social exclusion.

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From the day the shutdown began, for our With Many Voices scheme – the scheme we have devised and built with people living with Alzheimer’s and their carers – we have involved all participants, whether living with their families or in medically-assisted and other nursing homes. We have been working with geriatric educators and with the women artists who have cooperated on the scheme over the years in exactly the same way as we do with our activities when the participants are physically present. Our proposal to all of them has been to carry on seeking their inspiration in art and to try staying on line by using e-mail or through a WhatsApp group specially set up for the purpose. Use of a screen, whether it be a computer screen or a smartphone, can turn into something of a barrier for people who are not conversant with modern technology, which is why we reached our decision after much debate and thought in order to ensure no one was excluded. The two channels were used to convey proposals associated with our art projects. Our first invitation was to share what they could see from their window, which in these days of isolation had become their window on the world. Our second invitation was to tell us their story through a corner of their own home.  And our third was to reveal their “domestic herbaria,” the inspiration in this case coming from the Lady with a Bunch of Flowers that we admired in our exhibition on Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo and from the workshop held by the artist Caterina Sbrana to tie in with the exhibition.

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We received over forty entries, including both photographs and texts such as: “I opened one of my grandfather’s schoolbooks – he was born in 1876 – and a small violet dropped out, it was terribly moving”; “I take great care in looking after my allotment”; and “the beauty in small things is what makes me feel strong”. Corners of a garden, vases on a balcony or dried flowers in the pages of a book were all carefully observed, becoming examples of what Le Manifeste du Tiers Paysage author Gilles Clément calls “unwitting art”. This art, he says, “floats on the surface of things. It is an art without status, without a discourse, it is defenceless, it is shown in haste and disappears at once. It is an ephemeral and subtle state of being; sometimes a light, but first and foremost a gaze”. The images and words submitted went on to become the notes for a shared herbarium wher the collective aspect “makes us feel even closer, even less alone”, as one of the participants wrote. All these contributions, collected during the lockdown period, are conveyed into a single story, punctuated by different stimuli proposed from week to week.

Download: A più voci - alla finestra (Italian only)

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Another “remote” scheme was Free Flowing, a scheme devoted to the inclusion of people suffering from Parkinson’s that combines art and the spoken word with dance. In addition to the importance of staying on line, in this case we also addressed the need to lend continuity to the practice of dance which, as many studies have confirmed, is particularly beneficial for people who have to live with Parkinson’s. Stimulated by the work being done by the Dance Well group in Bassano del Grappa, we began to propose activities for doing at home while still working with the dance teachers involved in the scheme. In this case too, debate with participants was of the essence, virtual meetings allowing us to meet up and to evaluate new ideas. This dialogue spawned a plan to try and experiment using the Tomás Saraceno exhibition that most people have not yet had a chance to visit as our starting point.

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Every Thursday at 15.00, we send out images of one of the artist’s works and two interlinked audio files, one relating to the work of art in question and the other to a dance routine to implement, a kind of physical exercise in remote interaction with a work of art. The scheme does not set out to replace live experience with art in the exhibition halls, which continues to be a crucial starting point, but it does stimulate thought and it opens participants up to new ideas. These ideas, taken up and amplified in the exercises, are used to empower coordination and rhythm, an exercise designed to be performed individually yet all at the same time in order to lend it a collective dimension.

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The “remote” versions of With Many Voices and Free Flowing were designed to be only temporary, but they are ongoing schemes that could well be used again in the future to help stay in touch with people who, for whatever reason, are unable to take part physically in the activity in Palazzo Strozzi. Crucial to our institution’s identity, accessibility is a value that needs to maintain its central role in the identity of museums and other cultural institutions. The crisis that we are living through might well prompt us to reflect on finding new solutions, models and potential developments for an increasingly broad notion of inclusion in culture.

Looking Out from the Inside: relating and connecting during a lockdown

by Irene Balzani

Art feeds on relations, and every artist chooses how to connect with those who are going to look at his or her work. Tomás Saraceno, for instance, does this by “trapping” us in installations that involve our senses and highlight the thin threads that bind us to the other beings that inhabit the earth with us. We are all now starting to realise just how tough it can be when those threads break and when the simple acts of going out and meeting other people disappear from our daily agenda, as our lives are basically played out in the confines of our rooms.

In our work at Palazzo Strozzi we often reflect on the concepts of “openness” and “accessibility” because we are aware of those terms’ complexity, and we try to ensure that our exhibitions can welcome the largest possible number of visitors. Over the years, expanding on our experiments and taking different approaches on board, we have developed a considerable number of accessibility schemes designed to promote the inclusion of people who risk social exclusion, and during this lockdown period we are trying to keep the threads of our relationship with them alive “by remote” through direct contact and proposals. We are talking about the boys and girls with autistic spectrum disorders in our Nuances scheme, the Parkinson’s Disease patients in our Free flowing scheme or the many participants in our Connections scheme for people with mental disabilities and psychological issues.

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With Many Voices  during the Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition (10 March – 23 July 2017)
Photo: Simone Mastrelli

The first accessibility scheme that the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi developed was With Many Voices  for people who live with Alzheimer’s and their carers (whether family members or professionals). To tie in with the Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition in 2017, we reflected on the meaning of “staying shut away” and of “going out” in the company of the artist Cristina Pancini with a project called Caterina, which took its cue from the observation of two works of art on display in Palazzo Strozzi: a video installation by Bill Viola entitled Catherine’s Room and the predella of a 14th century altarpiece by Andrea di Bartolo showing St. Catherine of Siena with Blessed Dominican Nuns, both of which focused on the theme of isolation and people’s relationship with the outside world.

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Certain moments during the Caterina project
Photo: Simone Mastrelli

The Caterina project was spawned by a reflection on the opportunities available to people with Alzheimer’s for experiencing their relationship with the world. As dementia deepens its hold, the mind gradually ceases to be a tidy, well-ordered room and becomes an unknown space. In parallel, the outside world becomes increasingly difficult to grasp and going out becomes more and more difficult. Relations with others can be reassuring, a source of wonderment or a threat, but less and less a source of mutual identification. Yet we need others, we need the world as it goes about its business outside our own selves, and this lockdown situation is bringing that fact home to us very forcefully. At the same time, “staying shut away” is not just a physical condition, it is also an attitude that can prompt us to remain locked away inside our own minds. We can all feel like Caterina/Catherine at certain times in our lives.

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A moment during the Caterina project
Photo: Simone Mastrelli

The emergency that we are experiencing has catapulted us into an “interior” whose perimeter we can clearly perceive: our own home is our space for action, our daily horizon today. In the course of the project developed with Cristina Pancini, a room in Palazzo Strozzi was transformed into a space for a journey, a pathway for discovering its corners, its ceilings, the objects it contained, in fact anything and everything that can inhabit a space, including our own selves. It was a journey played out as a couple, each elderly participant being accompanied by his or her carer: a journey made of stories and listening, a pathway to knowledge that we might want to repeat today to rediscover our own homes, observing a room to discover its endless panoramas or looking out of the window and telling each other what we see or what we imagine is likely to be out there.

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Caterina, the book
Photo: Martino Margheri

The Caterina project took concrete form in the shape of a specific question asked of participants: what can you tell a person who has been “shut away” for a long time? What is worth looking at or doing after a long period of separation from the world? “I’m asking you this question because I know you have far more experience than me,” said the letter accompanying the notebooks in which each participation could then jot his or her advice. Here are a some of the replies: “find a good sister,” “smell the perfume of a rose,” “never lose sight of the sky and the sea,” “eat a nice ice cream because it’s good for you and delicious. Eat it in the street,” “I’d advise you to turn to the person you like best and look at them with love,” “go away, move, never stop.”
This precious advice was collected, along with the story of the project as a whole, in a book published by Boîte Editions and available on line on the Palazzo Strozzi website (page in Italian).