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Methodological Proposals for Access to Urban Muralism: from language to emotion. By Simonetta Baroni

Simonetta Baroni – Subject Expert in Visual Arts of the XXI Century, Rome “Tor Vergata” University

Different readings of an art object also lead to a new look: a constant rewriting of the visual text in the light of the intertextuality of the work.

The intention is to undertake a hermeneutic analysis of the object, aimed at creating a passage of multiple meanings and viewpoints to ensure that the object will be the focus of constant inquiry. Possible interpretations are significantly extended when analysis of the work gives pre-eminence to the sensory dimension, opting to favour the esthesiological processes linked to tactile perception.

From the multiplicity and heterogeneity of contemporary artistic languages, it was decided to select urban Street Art in order to try out this new approach. In fact, the “hybrid nature” of this pictorial representation derives, according to Roland Barthes, from the use of different codes which, though subject to constant and unpredictable semantic contamination with cultural, social and anthropological implications, remain unaltered and available for visual sampling. This linguistic peculiarity becomes an interesting testing ground for measuring the effectiveness of an interpretative methodology which acquires further communicative value precisely from the attempt to bring people closer to so complex a phenomenon.

The main aim, though, is to succeed in involving an ever broader public – including absent-minded, occasional, passers-by – so that nobody is excluded from sharing in the transformation of urban spaces and everybody is enabled to experience the new face of the city, whose painted “skin” functions as an area of narrative in which public and private stories are interwoven.

Alongside problems concerning the communication of the artistic message, it is also important to consider a number of specific perceptual obstacles to the enjoyment of murals which, as Aldo Grassini has pointed out, offer an aesthetic experience denied to the blind, a difficulty often compounded by the huge dimensions of the subjetcs depicted, rearing up on the facades of buildings. The figures reproduced on tactile panels, the architectural features reproduced on scale models and the ground plans of the urban spaces are certainly a useful and valid aid to forming a mental image of the work and of the space that accommodates it, but it essential that both are provided with an oral and written description in which, as Laura Scanu argues, it is crucial “to see the images correctly, not only through the eye, but above all through the mind”.

The true aesthetic experience is therefore achieved in verbal communication by means of an interpretative process entrusted to a metaphorical and synaesthetic language, trying out a narration able to preserve the expressive vividness of the ekphrasis and to portion out the warmth of the emotion without ever departing from the scientific nature of the content.

These considerations were useful in devising the tactile-descriptive card which takes as a model the fields indicated in the cataloguing programmes of the Central Institute for Cataloguing and Documentation for the filing of contemporary artworks, besides some items from the card of “material” demo-ethno-anthropological assets, and finally some formal, historical-critical indications which feature in the digitalized cataloguing of the Critic Art Data project developed by Eugenio Battisti in 1989.

It should be pointed out that some of the “fields” indicated by Eugenio Battisti are an important guide to gaining a preliminary knowledge of the art object through an initial formal account, referring to Rudolph Arnheim’s Gestalt compositional structure.

The real innovation, however, is introduced by the heading “Origin” which establishes a link with the mnemonic traces of art and its multifarious manifestations, drawn from both high and low culture and collected from the Western world and beyond: a global vision embedded in a circular temporal process based above all on a system of socio-cultural relations and exchanges. The articulated language of Street Art “is open to total relationship systems”, creating “infinite connections where the aesthetic flows circulate freely” observes Germano Celant in reference to the latest artistic tendencies, though his words are equally applicable to this phenomenon which has now become an artistic movement.

From this perspective, traditional aesthetic categories are annulled and altered: thus even the concept of beauty, already alien to twentieth century art, is transformed into one of the many means of communication. Quotations from classical or modern works or more recent artistic events are interwoven with everyday images of pop and rock stars, politicians, people in the news, cinema icons, serving as a springboard for social criticism by prompting questions and reflections – sometimes pressing and uncomfortable – on the current state of affairs.

A work of Street Art can be considered a social product which places the relational project firmly at the centre of the artist’s creative process. Often the artist prefers to remain anonymous, forgoing his exclusive authorship of the work in order to share it with the passers-by who enjoy it and thus become, as it were, occasional co-authors. The artist, in the guise of ethnographer, adopts the “participant observation” method which allows him to have constant, direct contact with the urban and extra-urban landscapes and their inhabitants and to get to know the different cultural identities from the inside. For the artist it is an approach which involves forging strong links with the locality and its community and fostering relations based on mutual trust – a task certainly made easier by sharing the common language of art.

.It has become essential to investigate the artist’s interaction with the place that hosts the artwork, to get to know the physical landscape with its urban, rural and industrial settlements, the buildings which accommodate the artwork – their history and architectural features, their uses and any redevelopment. It is equally vital to collect data about the socio-cultural context, retrieving bygone and current accounts of the territory through oral and written testimonies, directly involving the inhabitants.

To collect this documentation, (interviews, biographical and historical accounts), the techniques resorted to include audio and video recordings, according to a procedure proper to ethnoanthropological investigation which, when applied to the interpretative processes of the works of art, becomes a crucial means of gathering data for actuating and multiplying their meanings. The artwork cannot be considered finished on completion: being subject to alteration by atmospheric agents but also by spontaneous acts of erasure, rewriting and vandalism, it is the “ephemeral” result of continuous manipulation. The words of the well-known French street artist, C215, are informative on this point: “The works I leave on the street will sooner or later be altered; they will change and no longer be the same. I abandon them in my wake, lose control of them and leave them to their evolution…”

In order to continue to tell the stories which are layered on the surface of the walls like traces, it is necessary to carry out an accurate reconnaissance of the site (also to indicate the degree to which the artwork is accessible to the public), thus documenting – chiefly through photographs often available on the social networks – those spontaneous incidents of “crossing” which, by superimposing themselves on the previous work rewrite the subject – sometimes making radical cancellations, sometimes entering into a sort of dialogue, resulting in improbable and inexplicable iconic palimpsests.The purpose of the cataloguing is to recount, through the dialogue between artist and public, the various stages of the life of the work which, in this “conversation”, becomes the third active and autonomous participant.

It is, in fact, the art object which questions the onlooker, whose subjective contribution is indispensable, in the words of Eugenio De Caro, for “decoding the aesthetic values deposited (in layers) in the work” – an investigation based on a sensory phenomenological approach which also includes psychic factors.

In order to make this collective experience inclusive, a web platform might be set up on which the contents would be “easily” consulted and shared within a virtual community, according to the criteria of a grass-roots social aesthetic.

So it is that, thanks to increasingly sophisticated digital equipment, it is possible to immerse oneself in art in complete autonomy, bearing in mind, as Ivan Bargna argues, that “the dominion of virtual reality…does not extinguish materiality”, since the aim is to program interactive and multisensory interfaces able to stimulate creativity and imagination, restoring the centrality of human relations.

On this point, an interesting project was organized in Santiago in Chile in July 2018. Called Manos a la pared, it was accessible to blind people and concerned the enjoyment of Strret Art. It involved creating six murals in various blocks in Bellas Artes y Lastarria, in the main tourist area of the city. The aim was to set out an itinerary, placing scale tactile panels with inscriptions in Braille alongside the murals, with the option of listening to descriptions of the works with an audio-descriptive system downloadable on Facebook. The “Lazarillo” app was also available to enable blind people to get their bearings in the city and make their way independently to the outdoor exhibition areas.

There is no doubt that the artistic message from the street, so long as it maintains its independence and operates in that relational niche between illegality and institutional forms, can become a prime means of raising awareness and promoting social and cultural integration. This is the case with Mauro Sgarbi’s mural, painted on a wall of the municipal market in the Esquiline district of Rome, in an area inhabited almost exclusively by immigrants: both the image and the title, “Diversity – element of life”, sum up the concept of hospitality and inclusion.