«After sunset the relatively large and moderately flattened salamander heads emerged from the water. In a short time they came ashore, advancing with a swinging but fairly elastic motion, making use of their hind legs. Seated, they were little more than a meter tall. They arranged themselves in a wide semicircle and began to twist the upper half of their bodies with characteristic movement, as if they were dancing». This is Karel Čapek, who in War with the Newts (1936), a witty and prophetic novel, describes the first scientific sighting – in a South Seas bay – of some anthropomorphic “megasalamanders,” which build and hide in underwater cities, only to emerge from the water at sunset, and wildly indulge in a wave-like motion that follows the moon’s reflection on the ocean.
This is also the first piece I thought of as I watched the performers choreographed by Simone Carraro (Treviso, 1995) climb, as neurotic as reptiles in spring or as a band during a summer festival, through the rocky crevices of the village of Pietracamela (Abruzzo), on the slopes of the Gran Sasso. For Una Boccata d’Arte – an initiative by Fondazione Elpis for the artistic repopulation of small Italian villages, which this year marks its fourth edition – Carraro has assembled sounds from different eras and latitudes (starting from a pair of Egyptian sistri to the Neapolitan triccheballacche), costumes from atavistic futurism, and graphics referable to muralism and graffiti culture. In the “imaginary ritual” Sagra della Lucertola, sounds mingle, bystanders dance, and trained lizards snap their rattles.
Alessia Baranello: I was born in a region bordering Abruzzo, in a context of summer festivals, open wineries and carnivals, which in Italy are called sagre. Therefore, I have often wondered what a sagra is and what goes on in it. Over time, I have understood it as a polyphonic place, where melodic lines normally kept separate come together, to return unexpected moments of harmony and dissonance. In short, an unpredictable format, constantly changing its preconditions. Why a festival of lizards? Where does your fondness for these small festive realities, relegated commonly to “folklore” (but surely representing so much more), come from?
Simone Carraro: In general, what fascinates me about spontaneous forms of creativity, such as agrarian rituals, propitiatory chants and handicrafts, is their inextricable link with the land. They are – or rather were – the fruit of a harmonious coexistence between practical, multidisciplinary and experiential knowledge and the supernatural, archaic and spiritual dimension. However, this union has been quickly erased by the advancement of technical thinking and scientific mentality, which leave no room for the synesthesia of the unknown. Therefore, what I attempt to do in my research is to dust off these prismatic practices by actualizing them. In imagining, for Una Boccata d’Arte, this carnivalesque staging that I called Sagra della Lucertola, I worked on various symbolic levels, dealing with a sensitive issue such as the depopulation of small villages in Italy, using an ironic and immediate language. The basis of the work is definitely the observation of the context of Pietracamela, in which the important process of abandonment by man has favored the presence of mosses, ferns, creepers and fleeting animals such as the Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis). This small saurian, like other reptiles that spend the winter in hibernation, is anciently associated with spring symbols of rebirth, and, in this performance, it becomes the emblem of a noisy vitality that defeats abandonment and keeps the village alive.
In Karel Čapek’s novel – with which we opened this interview – the “megasalamanders” are unfortunate foreign bodies, agents of communal disarray, “sea devils” who, from the depths, haunt and alter cities, and of whom the locals are afraid. Identitarian narratives, conflict with the different, annexation of the uncanny into a context of stagnant familiarity: these are the terms and themes that emerge, likewise, from Una Boccata d’Arte, from the encounter-clash between twenty resident artists and as many villages effused throughout Italy. Anthropologist Max Gluckman wrote that «a quantity and variety of conflicts, small, medium or large» is more necessary to “social continuity,” than the repetition of entities, traditions and institutions; that the rules of collective coexistence must be continually put back at stake. Many scholars, from diametrically different fields, go on to note how the “‘infesting” is such only with respect to a dominant species, culture or vision. How do you stand with respect to infestations (of lizards, for example)? Is there a positive conflict, useful for the reconstruction and not the destruction of an ecosystem?
An ecosystem is, by definition, the set of living and nonliving organisms in a given habitat, interacting with each other to form an open system in dynamic equilibrium. The introduction of a new species can either have detrimental effects on the resident ones, or increase the biodiversity of the ecosystem by promoting life processes. In human cultural evolution, “infestation”- understood as a momentary deviation from traditional repetition of institutions – is an equally ambivalent phenomenon. Just as the rate of development of a new species must be carefully measured so as not to endanger its ecosystem balance, so the act of “infestation” must take into account the cultural endowment of the community in which it is to be momentarily established.
Speaking of “balanced” infestations, online I came across a portfolio of yours from 2019, where you included a triptych of silk tapestries (Il Gran Banco, 2019), made for Supermercato (Serra dei Giardini, Venice, curated by Microclima). One of the tapestries reads, “Il gran banco globale degli svenditori del folklore (The Global Grand Banco of Folklore Sellers)”. Recent history of small Italian villages undergoing depopulation is littered with stereotyping, disguised as reaffirmations of a local identity, often aimed at attracting a certain market of “slow” tourism. In short, so-called window-shopping villages. And again, creative industries have grabbed and used local traditions multiple times, to make art for the big central hubs. How can you not be a seller of folklore when you work closely with a unfamiliar community?
I am frightened by this rampant fashion of delving into folklore to enclose rituals and traditions in crystal bubbles with the unhealthy idea of preserving a totally anachronistic “local identity.” The rhetoric of “look but don’t touch” is too often applied to rituals and customs that, instead, by their very nature, underwent continuous change and contamination, being themselves the mirror of a gradually changing population. In my opinion, what is needed to preserve a historical and cultural link with a territory is simply to inhabit it, internalize it and respect it, also demanding the creative freedom that is all too often obstructed by the bureaucratic traditionalism of institutions. After all, to work in contact with an unfamiliar territory is to explore it on tiptoe and climb, starting from the main road, toward a new path in the thick of the woods. I imagine those medieval jester companies or those early 20th century families of puppeteers united by an inescapable wandering nature. Their greatest ability was to adapt their practice to the cultural contexts that hosted them, so that the message they wanted to convey would be as digestible as possible for that very community and, therefore, more effective in its reception. Lastly, I think that an artistic operation must be born out of a desire to fabricate a utopian ordnance capable of generating minimal changes in the cultural context into which it is catapulted. It will, then, be the context itself that will proceed or not with the trigger.
 Karel Capek, La guerra delle salamandre, trad. di Bruno Meriggi, Utet Libri, Milano 2009, p. 105
«La continuità sociale non è garantita dalla linearità e dalla ripetizione di enti e istituzioni, dalla normatività delle relazioni sociali […] ma dalla ridiscussione dei sistemi e delle relazioni, degli assetti e delle regole di convivenza collettiva, rimessi in gioco tramite una quantità e una varietà di conflitti, piccoli, medi o grandi […] una continua riconfigurazione dei rapporti e delle gerarchie». M. Gluckman, Custom and conflict in Africa, 1955, cit. in S. De Matteis, Le false libertà. Verso la postglobalizzazione, cap. II, Meltemi Editore, Roma 2017, p. 120.
Simone Carraro. Sagra della Lucertola
curated by Andrea Croce
Presented on the occasion of the fourth edition of Una Boccata d’Arte
A project by the Elpis Foundation, in collaboration with Galleria Continua and with the participation of Threes
Alessia Baranello (Campobasso, 1998) is an independent curator. Her research focuses on the link between visual arts and historical, social and economic issues, with a focus on experimental exhibition practices. She write about contemporary art, cultural and memory studies. She was co-curator of the artist residency Uva Program (Nizza Monferrato, July 2022) and is co-founder of the curatorial duo Scania Trasporti.