by Amy Bell
photos by Elisa D’Errico
In the midst of Bologna’s Gender Bender festival and the research week of the Italian leg of Performing Gender, choreographer Riccardo Buscarini took time to reflect on what it means to be an artist or an activist in Italy and why body based performance is the ultimate art.
Amy Bell: Firstly it seems quite meaningful and emotional for you to be doing Performing Gender here in Bologna, so close to your home town.
Riccardo Buscarini: Yes, emozionante because I’ve been away from Italy for a long time so every time I work in Italy it’s always like a new discovery. I mean, I’ve been to Bologna many times, [but] I never stayed here for a long time and Performing Gender is giving me a chance to discover the city, the dance scene and also the LGBT community which, to be honest, is the most interesting part of this project so far. So it’s a big process of discovery and I hope it’s going to be an internal discovery, like the best projects usually bring […] By learning something new, I discover something new about myself, about the way I work, the way I am.
AB: This research week has been so densely packed with stimuli of all kinds but possibly in some ways ideas and experiences quite far from one’s own. Do you have an inkling, or is it too soon to say, how all this might shift or provoke something inside you in some way?
RB: Well I must say it’s quite nice that I’m doing Performing Gender right now because I’ve dedicated this part of the year to taking time for myself, […] for my family and to discover new things. I’m in a sort of in discovery mode which has to do a lot with my soul I think, the way I am in my life. I’m sure the project is having an impact on me but it’s a lot of internal stuff[…] In this period of my life I’m starting to deal with difference quite a bit and either recognising or embracing it. So yeah I think this week I’m constantly confronted by stimuli which have to do with this concept of embracing the other, which is one of the things that I’m working on personally, more than artistically to be honest.
AB: But aren’t the personal and the artistic related? Perhaps even the same?
RB: Well, yes I think they are the same and I think that embracing other people or ideas makes you shift something inside; confronting yourself with difference is making you grow, making you change.
AB: It’s interesting because you’re talking about ‘the other’ as different but I also think confronting something outside yourself or your experience is also about mirroring, and accepting similarity where you didn’t expect to find it. Perhaps it’s even accepting yourself as you are or recognising things about yourself were unaware of, seeing them back maybe.
RB: Yes, and I think I am a curious person so… It’s just very enriching on a very basic level as well, you know, knowing the stories of other people is always very enriching.
AB: For me it’s interesting how you left Italy and only now, coming back after years away, are you able to discover this festival [Gender Bender] and the queer community here. Is it something you were aware of beforehand? Did you feel unable to connect with that part of society in Italy before now, or were you not really concerned with it?
RB: No, in this period of my life I’m becoming much more of an activist. I think Italy needs me [laughs], needs this way of dealing with things, needs action.
AB: And why now, for you or for Italy?
RB: Maybe I’m just growing up and I just feel like people and things need action and I want to be part of this action. In Italy we need some very deep change. Like we don’t have a law against homophobia, we need a law against this, we need people to speak to other people and I think in Italy everyone’s very individualist. We’ve only been a country for 150 years, it’s very little time and we don’t have a strong national identity which is funny because Performing Gender is about identity and one part of that is national identity.
AB: Yes, but in the queer or artistic community in Bologna there seems to be a sort of solidarity. I mean that’s very much a part of the strong Communist or Leftist history you can feel in this city too, right?
RB: Yeah, but in Italy I think this is a bit missing somehow. You know, we are all sort of taking care of a small business and thinking, ‘Fuck them all!’ and I think it is something that should gradually change for the good of people.
AB: I wonder though, because I feel amongst a lot of young Italians I’ve been meeting recently who are living or working in Italy, a sense of energy for changing attitudes, a sense of responsibility, urgency, frustration or…
RB: Yeah, because things are going bad, so…
AB: Yes, but also a sense of optimism, a sense of purpose and I wondered how you felt about that compared to London because I find that, clearly there are large pockets of activists and artists, it’s so vibrant in so many ways, but somehow maybe we miss that sense of purpose in London, you know? It seems to be an activist or an artist in Italy means something different than it does to be one, and one of so many, in London.
RB: Because the conditions are negative here, so therefore there are smaller pockets of more active people who have more impact. Actually I don’t know the LGBT community in London very much.
AB: No, but neither do I and I think it’s quite significant that neither of us do.
RB: But the conditions are already better because there are [anti-homophobia] laws and life might be a bit quieter.
AB: But is that a reason to not be involved? I mean, I question myself in this case.
RB: No, there’s no reason.
AB: It’s easier to become complacent in more progressive or liberal cultures maybe.
AB: And so how do you see your work as activism or changing attitudes?
RB: My work… I don’t know to be honest.
AB: Maybe it’s something you’re just approaching now.
RB: Yeah, I’m really approaching this now. I think so far I worked a lot with emotions really, lyricism. I try to touch or move people in different ways.
AB: But through a strong aesthetic rather than some sort of political agenda.
RB: Yeah I think it’s very layered with a lot of aesthetic which is something that I think, ‘Hmm, maybe I should be more direct and less, sort of, decorated’. But yeah, I’m in the process of thinking maybe I should or maybe I will become more active in the [political] field. I’d like to participate in a lot of events at the moment that have to do with the LGBT community. I’m already doing it in Piacenza which is my city. I’d like to get involved with the Arcigay Association and do something. I still don’t know what but I’m just getting to know the community right now and see what happens.
[drawing by Luca di Sciullo]
AB: But do you feel there is a sense of queerness in the work you’ve made so far anyway, without you trying to be political?
RB: This is a very interesting question because I’ve been thinking about it in the past few days […] So I made a list in my head; so I’ve worked for fashion, then I worked for and with a disabled performer making something that was very radical in some sense, then I worked with other collaborators to make something that is very stylised, and then something very stylised with other women that look very androgynous and… I don’t know, the more I think about it maybe there is like a very, very hidden queerness, or exploration of gender. But, you know, my work is very diverse so I guess if there is that exploration, it is also very diverse and I take very different decisions and very different positions.
AB: Certainly in the two pieces that I’ve seen live of yours, Cameo (which you made with Antonio De La Fe Guedes) and Athletes, there’s a kind of charged tension between the performers who may be male and female, male and male or female and female. I feel it’s a lot to do with proximity and gaze and spatial tension between bodies which was so strong in the kiss in Athletes. But that kiss also seemed more symbolic than sensual.
RB: Yes, sometimes my work can be very sexual, in a very disguised way.
AB: Yes, in a very aesthetic way. There’s a certain amount of gloss or abstraction. There’s a sensuality which is very poetic rather than visceral, but there is something visceral behind it.
RB: It’s not really in your face.
AB: No and this brings me round to a bigger question about this project which I’m continuously asking myself and other people which is… There may or may not be a sense of queerness or sexuality in the work, but if there is, it’s not necessarily conscious or your starting point, it’s not in your face. So I’m curious to know what it would do to your awareness of your practice and also to a piece that you’re going to make and perform next year, to have a queerness declared, even if simply by association with this project? You have a status, at least during this week, as an artist who touches on queer issues and the work that you make will be read that way, possibly for the first time. How do you feel about that?
RB: Yeah, I think it will be the first time that this queer or gender theme is going to be the main feature and I’m really happy that this main feature is going to be me, because we are working on ourselves, which is very challenging and very beautiful. The more I think about the project the more I’m like, ‘OK yeah, I’ve never done this’. It’s super challenging. It’s very exposing somehow. I’m very lucky I never had issues or problems with my gender identity or my sexuality, I’ve always been very serene, but I’m aware that I have very strong male and very strong female parts that are really many times in conflict. They generate a lot of turmoil, especially in relation to others. So I’m glad for the chance to dig into those.
RB: Yeah and let’s see what happens. Yesterday was the starting point of that for me. I am thinking about two parts, about the instability or conflict of these two. This man/woman, animal/man sort of thing, it’s two energies, two different environments for example […] Strong and then delicate or not really tangible, all these sort of Romantic polarities are very, I don’t know… I’m really glad that I can just see what the hell is going to happen!
AB: I think there’s something about fragility and failure in your work in general. You were talking yesterday about your interest in trying and failing, the constant impossibility of the creative enterprise. I wondered about that in terms of the physical tasks set this week by Peggy [Olislaegers, workshop leader]. It seems there is definitely failure and fragility at stake when we are asked to locate or express our gender or sexual identities, in transit and in transformation as they always are, in short movement sketches as Peggy asked you to do.
RB: Yes, I’m definitely interested in impossibility, fragility, vulnerability as a topic and also as something that comes out by itself. I think it has to do with the way I personally perform. It’s a dualism of my artistic life at the moment, because I think I’m a young maker still, I find a lot of difference between when I’m [performing] in a work of mine and when I direct it [from the outside]. I might look for impossibility and fragility in both, but more fragility comes when I’m in a work… Well, I should think about that because maybe it’s not true…
AB: But thinking about the task this week, do you think it’s possible or desirable to put your finger on what your gender or sexual identity is?
RB: I think it’s possible but I wouldn’t be too confident about it. Just because I was sure doesn’t mean that I will be sure in the future and I kind of like this ambiguity. I think I can know, I can explore only what I am now. And also there is something very interesting in not knowing really what your gender or sexuality is and not having any issue and not questioning. It’s very interesting, the absence of questioning. It’s like, ‘I don’t want to have a category. It’s just me.’ It’s very beautiful. It’s very fascinating for me. I think it can get close to ambiguity as well, in not knowing, not being a fixed thing. It’s a very stimulating state.
AB: Well it’s that thing that we were talking about with Peggy that ambiguity draws people in because it creates a longing in a viewer to know more. It creates questions and maybe instead of moving towards the answers, the longing is itself enough. It has a particular quality, that longing, so the reaching is more exciting than the arrival at a conclusion. But I don’t know if that’s just a cop out though! Maybe you should just be decisive and put your finger on something [both laughing].
RB: But the fact that I always knew I was gay, I always felt like a man makes me want to flip to the other side, well, not want to really but to wonder about not being sure…
AB: Yes but the questions are for me, ‘Ok, I feel like a woman but what kind of woman? What is a woman? What does it mean to feel like a woman? Or a man for that matter?’ Within the category of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ there are millions of genders.
RB: Yeah I know what you mean.
AB: Well the other thing is that we can use all the words we like, but really it comes back to the body, doesn’t it? What is it about the body that started you or keeps you making dance?
RB: I still don’t know to be honest because I‘ve always been interested in art in general and I think the artist is the artist, no matter if he is a photographer or a choreographer.
AB: Sure, but this project, for instance, incorporates performance artists, dance makers and performers. It’s really, we can say, art that starts with the body or that is somehow about the body.
RB: I like the fact that we all have a body and it’s the only thing that we really have in the world. There is nothing else we possess, there is nothing else we have. The experience we have is also through our bodies so we can also say that it is our experience because there is no way that I can perceive that sofa without my body, there is no other way. So dance is very beautiful just because of that. We all have a body, we use it every day and that’s what we are so I think it’s primarily the art of identity.
AB: Perhaps it comes back to seeing similarity and difference? When we look at dance we are curious about the differences of the bodies we watch to our own, but also somehow we feel through the bodies we watch because we also have one ourselves.
RB: I think that’s when a very good choreographer comes in. The fine work I think is able to communicate viscerally with other bodies. And I think, ‘Thank godcontemporary dance exists!’ You know what I mean?! Thank god that we got to an evolution of dance that enables us to talk to other people through our bodies. I think it’s about communication and some fine works can really do that. I think it’s very beautiful because we just have one body, we don’t have this city, we don’t have the world, we don’t really have jewels or money… No! We only have this motherfucking body that’s perishable, that gets old and it’s what we have to act upon. I think art of the body is the ultimate art, because of that. It’s also the art that follows the cursus of the body.
AB: What do you mean?
RB: I mean the body is also perishable, so performance is one of the most perishable arts, you know. As Peggy Phelan says, you are watching something dying. Performance is about dying. You’re watching something that is like a life, you know, it decays. I mean I have goosebumps because of that. It’s about the body, it’s with the body and it has the cursus, the flow or the course of a body, it just decays. I just think it’s very fascinating. It’s also about the identity of the person that’s doing it or directing it so connected to this [squeezing his flesh].
Performing Gender, Bologna, October 2013