This interview took the shape of a long-distance conversation between Utrecht and Rome. Pietro Ballero (Turin, 1992) told us about his work from his new home in the Netherlands where he decided to move a few months ago to further his artistic research at the HKU. From inside a typical, vertically developed Dutch apartment under a sloping roof, Ballero told us his story: from training at the Albertina Academy of Fine Arts in Turin (2016) to the master’s degree in Visual Arts and Fashion at the IUAV in Venice, with periods at the École supérieure des arts Saint Luc in Liège (Belgium) and at the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, up to residencies, such as BoCs Art in Cosenza (2019) curated by Giacinto di Pietrantonio. In 2019 he was then selected among the finalists of the eighth edition of the Francesco Fabbri Prize for Contemporary Arts.
Alice Labor: You have lived in Turin, Liège, Venice, Paris and now you are in Utrecht. What was your relationship with these cities and how did they influence your work?
Pietro Ballero: In Liège I discovered the world of communication and graphics which gave me a different vision and framework at the design level, acquiring more technical languages. In Belgium the air, from a cultural point of view, was magical. It was a breath of fresh air to live for a while in this slightly punk city where something always happened. Then, the transition from the Turin Academy to the IUAV in Venice was radical. It was then that I understood the real significance of an artist’s professionalism and the importance of precision in one’s practice. Working for seven months at Xavier Veilhan’s French Pavilion during the 2017 Biennale, I totally immersed myself in the Venetian and international environment of contemporary art. Living in close contact with the artist at the Pavilion for the entire duration of the exhibition was a human and professional experience that deeply marked me. He established his studio inside the Pavilion: it was incredible to see the development of his relationships and work on a daily basis, entering the heart of creative production. The Pavilion had been transformed into a gigantic soundscape, a musical device capable of being an impressive and engaging immersive installation and, at the same time, a real recording studio, shared and activated by musicians, artists, visitors, technicians and mediators. Later on, in Paris, I enjoyed the rich and lively cultural offerings of the city in solitude. I was admitted to the workshop of Claude Closky, who encouraged the creation of new works every week, leading us to deconstruct them from time to time. Returning to Turin, I decided to rediscover my city. I met Alice Visentin with whom I shared a studio for a year. Among her giant canvases, I created my mental and physical space in which to work. It was very stimulating to daily confront myself with that space and with her. I have always listened to podcasts on Radio 2, like Babylon, leaving me contaminated by new stimuli and translating them into my practice. These contaminations inspired me a lot, often leading me to translate the present into forms of the past.
A.L.: What impression do you have of life for an artist in the Netherlands after these first months? What are the differences with the opportunities offered to artists in Italy?
P.B.: The passage from Turin to Utrecht was necessary for me to return to confront myself directly with my work, seeking the protection of an institution. I have always been attracted to the Netherlands for what seemed a particular attention to investing in art and creativity through a plurality of tools. The impression is that the Dutch system protects the path of artists and supports them throughout their career. I hope I will have the opportunity to verify this. Here I would like to strengthen my working methodology, delving into the forms of the creative process and systematizing the intuition process.
A.L.: Your work often deals with the themes of memory, consumerism and the precarious condition of work. Where do your research interests originate from?
P.B.: Even when I was at the Academy I felt a strong urge towards the political and civic dimension of art. Art is always a political gesture. At that time, I developed a piece on mafia victims through the use of digitally reported pizzini, paper messages used as a means of international communication by mafia organizations. My reflection developed then maybe in a more poetic way by telling and deepening political issues, linked to my individual experience, trying to express this visceral tension. Today, even through theoretical investigation, I find the right dimension of my practice, giving voice to an urgency and a movement that I feel I have to express.
A.L.: Buono a nulla/Good for nothing (2020), your latest solo exhibition at Spazio Su in Lecce, addressed some crucial themes for this historical moment: the crisis of the neoliberal and psycho-immune collective and individual system through the imposition of a constantly competitive condition and the achievement of mandatory happiness. Tell us about the creative process of this project.
P.B.: Sometimes I am intimidated by my own research, related to the themes of work and precariousness. I wonder about my position of privilege and the authenticity of my voice in this debate and how I can actually contribute to problematizing certain issues. At the same time, however, talking about my personal vision allows me to offer a different perspective on these crucial aspects of contemporaneity. In the case of Good for nothing I was kidnapped by an object: a trolley used to distribute flyers, which I came across one day in Turin. It was abandoned in front of a building. It was an unexpected encounter with a plastic and sculptural object. It was inundated with leaflets that read “bargains”. This word revealed an aura that evoked something within me. I photographed it and kept it in my gallery for a few months. Sometimes I am inexplicably kidnapped by objects. I file them in my mind and in my “atlas of objects,” a diary in which I note images that strike me on a visual and poetic level. When I was invited by Gianni D’Urso and Grazia Amelia Bellitta to produce a site specific work for Spazio Su, I felt it was time to bring out the image of this cart. My research and theoretical readings related to the precariousness of our time, from Mark Fisher to Franco Bifo Berardi, have led me to investigate this difficult condition even more in this period of pandemic. The flyers I created for this occasion were reminiscent of spam and the language of assault advertising that offers quick illusory solutions to the most common problems. I like to work on the border, in the gap between the real and the virtual world which, even if part of the same cosmos, becomes an instrument of investigation of the present. It’s like working with chiaroscuro. Printing the spam you usually receive by email, producing a physical object in the form of flyers, creates the disorientation that allows us to question ourselves as individuals and part of a community.
A.L.: What role can empathy and eroticism play in this context?
P.B.: Bifo’s eroticism, intended as contact with the human being and contact between two bodies, is increasingly lacking in this historical moment. In this sense, now the role of the body, which I have always believed to be tangent to my artistic research, becomes central to my work. The consumer’s body in the virtual dimension acquires a new self-awareness. The individual has a control over his own body and image that perhaps had never been achieved before. This transformed eroticism, on the one hand, is absent because there is no physical contact with the body of the other, while on the other hand the presence of our virtual body seems to counterbalance this absence. The intangible world becomes even more present in the face of this lack. My work invites to a possible awareness of a disorientation, a search for orientation in the face of the language of the digital world that has transformed our lives.
A.L.: From receipts, to calendars, to postcards, collecting is an integral part of your practice. Where does this need to collect come from?
P.B.: I tried to transform a problem in a therapeutic way into an instrument of my artistic practice. Accumulation is a pathology of my family and I have developed, perhaps in contrast to this trend, a certain need for order. Accumulation as a collection also derives from the relationship I have with objects and the aura that some of them emanate. Collecting allows me to catalog and archive my relationship and my discourse with objects. These practices are certainly daughters of the era we live in, where archiving is an individual and shared social practice, also through social networks.
A.L.: È amore vero/It’s true love is the title of the winning project of the Lumina Award that you will realize in Salerno this year. The award is promoted by the Blam collective which promotes urban regeneration processes. How does your project fit into this regenerative path?
P.B.: Blam is a collective of architects who carries out a series of ambitious projects in Salerno in conjunction with the city, other local associations and its inhabitants. I took part in the public call of the Lumina Award by presenting a project of light installations in the city that would come into direct contact with the citizens. This allowed me to reflect on the impact of art in public spaces, in close contact with the daily life of the inhabitants of a territory. Confronting myself directly with people is also an individual challenge. I like the idea of conceiving a collective work, born from the multiple visions of the people who live in the Salerno neighborhood where I will work. This collective creative process, which catalyzes many different energies, stimulates my practice a lot. The light installation È amore vero will be placed in the small square where Blam’s headquarters are located, inside a deconsecrated church. The title is a declaration of love for the neighborhood in which Blam acts through their projects. I would like to identify other writings that accompany people on their daily journeys across the city, part of the landscape and of a great urban poem. I like this idea of walls following you with statements that become a daily presence. I wondered about the rituality of those who live in these areas and what kind of relationship arises with these phrases written on the walls, not read as the degradation of a city, but as presences and companions of its life. The attempt is to re-read the streets and discover their stories through these words “highlighting them.” During a workshop, we will make urban explorations of the city in search of these wall writings that can be illuminated and reproduced with neon installations.
A.L.: You participated in the BoCs Art residence in Cosenza and in Traffic – Festival of Gentle Souls in San Lorenzo in Campo. How did you live these collective design experiences?
P.B.: The Traffic Festival was organized by Matteo Binci, Pietro Consolandi and Bianca Schröder. With Teresa Satta we carried out a relational work that confronted the local community of the town of San Lorenzo in Campo. Thanks to these exchanges, we created a project linked to the perception of homes’ plans. The layouts were created by those who lived in those rooms as guests in order to see the difference between the experience of a person living those spaces every day and that of someone experiencing it in transit. It was very interesting to create these bonds with the village, trying to convey the meaning of our work to a community, showing aspects of everyday life that often remain hidden and sharing beautiful life stories with them. This almost romantic dimension allows you to regain eroticism with people, in the sense we mentioned earlier. We installed our work Ciao, siamo umani strani/Hello, we are strange humans (2019) in the public washhouse of the village.
A.L.: In your works Crolli/Collapses (2018) and LOL (2019) the themes of war and the fragility of images in relation to time and the dichotomy between digital and analog return. Why do you feel the urgency to address these issues? What do you think are the effects of digital life on collective and individual memory today?
P.B.: I like to highlight the contrast between real (IRL) and virtual (IVL) and to bring out the tension that exists between these two interpenetrating spheres. My work interacts in that grey area in the attempt to seek an orientation between these two dimensions, as I also did in the work The Dead Weight of History. Greetings from Venice (2018) where the cruel comments of social networks take on a physical dimension as postcards. The filter of a screen forces the reader to have a greater distance in the face of violent and racist statements, as in this case. Reading the same sentences through the lens of human handwriting links that thought to an act and an idea that have their own tangible individuality and physicality. In the work LOL, the singularity of the image responds to the abundance of online visual production and is a call to rediscover images omitted from history or memory. While in the case of Crolli, the images I collected on Google maps as a tourist on street view represent six Syrian UNESCO sites before they were damaged by the war. The crumpled sheets of paper on which I have printed these disappeared images will deteriorate over time, physically bringing back the fragility of those images.
A.L.: Your works often appear playful and extremely colorful, as if to recall reminiscences of a returning childhood, however, revealing complex and sometimes traumatic realities of history or contemporaneity. Why do you think your practice often refers to the dimension of game?
PB: I believe that, on the one hand, it is an exercise to see certain things from a different perspective, on the other, it allows me to bring out even more the contrast between certain themes. During the BoCs Art residency I created the work You still have time (2019). It was a children’s birthday streamer that created a strong contrast between the content of the message and the festive colors. Playful language allows us to exorcise the seriousness of the complex time we live in. A child’s eye can ease the burden of this forced perception.
A.L.: I find that the reflection born from your work You still have time (2019) is very interesting for the way in which you combine the use of specific local traditions with a political message of collective emancipation. Do you think local traditions can awaken us from the torpor of the capitalist system?
P.B.: I am not convinced that the past is the belle époque to which we must aspire. Sometimes we have to look beyond and rethink the world by reinventing the future. In that work the contrast had emerged from an unexpected encounter. In the villages in the provinces of Cuneo and Turin, the friends of marrying couples hang sarcastic banners on poles that can often be seen in the roundabouts in the path between the house and the church. “You still have time” was one of these abandoned banners and I felt it as a direct warning to me. The strength of this sentence allowed me to examine its different meanings, simultaneously inevitable and optimistic. It gave me confidence and allowed me to question myself also on the precarious and performative condition of the artist. A child’s birthday party thus becomes a space in which to question existence.
A.L.: In your work The happy young delivery man (2020) you question the normative dimension of the optimistic imperative of contemporary societies. Tell us how this project was born.
P.B.: I have always tried to approach life with a naive optimism of great openness. However, this led me to question to what extent this optimism was my choice and where it became an external imposition. The idea of being happy at all costs thus loses its centrality. The individual performativity of a society that wants us to be productive beings is questioned, just as happiness and optimism can be reinterpreted as fuels destined for mere production. From an iconographic point of view, I was inspired by catalogers of stereotypical images, such as Shutterstock, which have now become part of the world of memes. It is interesting to understand how an image cataloger wants to address a certain type of imagery through a title and certain characterizing adjectives that I have taken up in the title of the work itself. In this historical moment the reality of the delivery world and the work ethic make these images even more unreal. Hence the immediate contrast between reality and its virtual representation. The essay Entreprecariat by Silvio Lorusso (2018) addresses these issues through the oxymoron of the precarious entrepreneur, a condition that strongly involves art workers. The self-entrepreneur is called to sell and advertise himself as a company, but in a disarming, precarious condition.
A.L.: Through micro-stories, your practice investigates contemporaneity. What are the stories you would like to explore in the future? What are your next projects?
P.B.: My atlas/notebook keeps this answer. It depends on the rhythm of the forthcoming waves.