Marinella Senatore at the Queens Museum, New York

The Queens Museum is hosting the first solo show initiated by an American museum of Italian artist Marinella Senatore. Marinella Senatore: Piazza Universale/Social Stages, curated by Matteo Lucchetti, introduces the multifaceted practice of Senatore by looking at a range of important recent projects created in Spain, France, Italy and the US between 2009 and today.

Senatore’s art is characterized by public participation. Everyone can take part in the artist’s works, which simultaneously question her role as an author and that of the public as the receiver. Starting with the dialogue between individual stories, collective cultures and social structures, Senatore uses a broad spectrum of media: video, drawing, performance, collages, installation, photography, sound, painting and sculpture, in order to let her projects speak to multiple publics and contexts.

Protest Forms: Memory and Celebration: Part II, an hour-long public performance inside the museum and outside in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, kicks off the exhibition on April 9. This performance, which includes the participation of a range of creative figures from spoken word artists to a Caribbean band, to a LGBTQ symphony orchestra, to a chorus made up of union members—and many other groups—is dedicated to the past and present civic struggles of New York City communities. Queens Anthem, an original music score composed by Emiliano Branda, is based on an open call to Queens residents to submit sonic memories of their borough and the protest songs related to their communities. It will premiere as part of the larger performance.

The title Piazza Universale/Social Stages presents one Italian and one English phrase as if the second were a translation of the first. This turns out not to be the case. This gap is where the exhibition unfolds, in its attempt to translate or transform the artist’s live, participatory and community-engaged projects which unfolded in Europe and elsewhere into a new and unique experience within museum galleries. In doing so, the galleries themselves turn into theatre, cinema, or television production sets, or a setting for poetry or dance class, offering the works of Senatore as “stages for” and “stages of” a collective social becoming—tools for individual growth and collective empowerment.

Visitors enter the show through an amusement-park-style woman’s mouth that sets at least a couple of tones for the experience to follow. This prop draws from the iconography of 19th and early 20th century traveling fairs and amusement parks. Temporary alterations of daily life, these were places where all kinds of people would experience otherness and younger generations test themselves in a sort of katabasis, facing their fears and dreaming about their adult lives. In fact, the mouth symbolizes that same rite of passage that most of the participants in Senatore’s work experience when they transition from daily life into their roles as protagonists in a public performance with hundreds of professional and non-professional peers. The choice of a Federico Fellini-like woman’s face also reclaims the cinematic complexity of the female figure, often trapped in conventional roles and expectations, here standing for the feminist nature of many of the works on view. In Senatore’s work, women are often represented and celebrated as unapologetic beings at the forefront of struggles while at the same time signifiers of oppressed conditions, whether they are performing a Busby Berkeley-inspired choreography or being homaged in their struggles by the words of London-based Somali writer Warsan Shire.

Past the mouth, we encounter an environment that evokes a television production set. Speak Easy, 2009, a musical, crowd-funded by one thousand, two hundred participants in Madrid, makes use of the tropes from the golden age of American movie musicals in order to come to terms with the traumas of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain (which consolidated power during the same decades, the 1930s and 40s). Surrounding the video and its set are a large group of drawings, collages and notes realized by Senatore while working on the piece. These are attempts to keep together the multiplicity of narratives springing from the participants, and unite the everyday-ness of storytelling with the tragedy of history.

Continuing into the gallery we encounter the theatre piece MetallOperette, 2016, transformed into an installation for the first time. An operetta composed by the artist in collaboration with various groups in Aubervilliers, a former industrial suburb north of Paris where unemployment is rampant among long-time and new immigrant inhabitants, the plot revolves around the contradictions of today’s post-industrial context and touches on the formation of individuals as political subjects through the process of class struggle. The cast sings the arias and ballads they have written in a John Gay/Bertolt Brecht-inspired atmosphere, while the libretto recalls the language of a unionist manifesto.

The third installation in the main gallery is another premiere: the first museum presentation of Modica Street Musical: The Present, the Past and the Possible, 2016, a performance in two acts and an Intermezzo for the public spaces of the Sicilian town of Modica. This took place in the summer of 2016 thanks to the enthusiastic engagement of over two hundred of its citizens. (The town is here evoked by “luminarie,” elaborately wrought light structures usually employed for civic and religious celebrations in the south of Italy). The subtitle reveals the overall structure of the play. The Present, which gathers the current cultural actors in town in a joyous fresco, is immediately followed by an Intermezzo about the past, in its capacity to bear witness to the evolution of the social fabric through anecdotes and significant local historical events recited by direct and indirect witnesses (storytellers, sign language interpreters, and anarchists among them). The Possible, chosen as an alternative category to the future, underscores the need for tangible actions and results in an original music suite that illustrates the city and its potential. Modica Street Musical represents a space for reflection on the musical as a mise-en-scène of the relationship between spectacle and life, based on the continuity existing between music and the everyday lives of the local protagonists.

The three main projects enter into a shared dramaturgy for the Queens Museum, activated alternately by colored lights and the sound of their original scores which guide the audience through an experience of the artist’s manifold practice.

Connected to the main space by dancing footprints on the floor, another gallery is dedicated to The School of Narrative Dance, 2013-ongoing. This nomadic, long-term project has traveled to over fifteen locations worldwide, including Italy, Sweden, Ecuador, Austria and the US. This pedagogical platform relies on storytelling to share the life experiences of its members through movement and dance, creating a common dramaturgy from the proximity of experts and beginners. The School takes different forms depending on the spaces it temporarily occupies, but always proposes an alternative system of education, based on emancipation, inclusion, knowledge sharing and self-cultivation. Here, a dance mat is paired with video dance tutorials and a program of activities throughout the show. The audience members are therefore invited to practice the different dance styles presented in the tutorials, take actively part to the classes or simply learn more about the previous activities of the school.

The final gallery is dedicated to Protest Songs: Memory and Celebration. Senatore has always focused specifically on the political origins of physical movements used in street protests or demonstrations—often born out of an activist claim for equality and then turned into a celebration of its achievement. The installation, elaborating on these long-term interests, is made of poems in LED, posters, prints and other ephemera linked to the aesthetics of protest. It also forms a backdrop to the performance planned for the opening day, which involves different social groups. Coalescing through music, dance, spectacle or protest, they invent ever-novel potentials for social change.

The feeling of the exhibition overall is the anticipation typical of backstage where one gets access to artists’ areas, rehearsals and sound-checks while a unique and ungraspable grand spectacle is prepared before your eyes. There is no need to pretend that a one-time-only performance, specific to a certain place, time, and group of participants, can ever be experienced again. Instead, here, amidst video embedded in an environment evocative of “behind-the-scenes” and “in-the-making,” we witness the political aspects embedded in the formation of the collective, within that magical vertigo generated when unskilled people and professional artists meet the craft of show business to imagine their lives together and otherwise. From the writing of the subject to the filming, choreography, costume design and scenography, every piece is in fact a learning possibility for the participant/co-authors. They unite their own perspectives and skills with Senatore’s training and background as musician, director of photography and visual artist, in designing the entire experience.

Piazza universale—“the universal square”—refers to the exquisitely Italian concept of the piazza, a public space par excellence where different kinds of people meet, and as an embodiment of an ideal, universal space where future communities can be envisioned collaboratively. Senatore’s projects function both as “universal squares” from the outside and as “social stages” from the participant’s perspective. While building previously unimagined human juxtapositions that work as living pictures composed out of the expectations and desires of those who bring these scenes to life, Senatore shows the different stages of the complex and ever-timely game of being together and forming a community today.

Queens Museum
New York City Building
Flushing Meadows Corona Park Queens New York, 11368
9 April – 30 July 2017