Comics as geo-artistic collaborations
Exploring the potentialities of artistic languages to promote citizens’participation in the processes of urban change, SG wanted to directly engage the audience in a process of spatial thinking as well as of rediscovery of the meaning and narrative potential of ordinary landscapes. For this reason, we selected three main keywords, namely neighbourhoods, mobility, and waterways, that should also be able to stimulate citizens’ curiosity. As said, these were the topics of geographical interest around which artist—geographer pairs had to develop their site-specific installations to compose the SG art exhibition. Once the structure of the geo-artistic project, the sites that should have hosted the artworks, and the key topics were chosen, together with the curators at the PG, we co-authored a list of young artists who had demonstrated a long-lasting interest in landscape, urban space, place-making, and spatial storytelling in their artistic projects. The shortlist was realised including especially young local artists that had already collaborated with the PG Office: namely, in Italian ‘Giovani’ means ‘young’, and the Office aims to help in launching and promoting early career artists through the organisation and funding of exhibitions, residencies, and creative initiatives in the city of Padua. Moreover, we preferred to work with local artists that had a personal link with the territory for two main reasons. The first was that they had only a short period of time to understand in-depth the specificities of the sites that were meant to host their artworks: therefore, having a prior relationship with those places would have been of great help for them to understand local dynamics. The second reason was that, given the small amount of money at the disposal of the SG project and the need to participate in many meetings with the Committee, it would have been easier and cheaper for artists to come to Padua if they had a place to stay near the city.
Despite its office being located in Padua’s city centre, spatial proximity was only one of several reasons we decided to involve the Italian publishing house BeccoGiallo - which will also play a central role in Chapter 3 - from the very early stages of this project. BeccoGiallo selected with us one of the three young artists and appeared from the beginning the best interlocutor for the realisation of an art-installation in comics form for several reasons. First, BeccoGiallo has achieved national and even international reputation because it was launched more than ten years ago with the very ambitious, critical, and radical editorial goal of publishing works of graphic journalism in order to compose a contemporary history of Italy in comics form. In this scenario, the voices of the earliest Italian graphic journalists and artists-activists, like Claudio Calia and Gianluca Costantini, who were already mentioned in Chapter 1, represent fundamental tiles in this mosaic, now made up of dozens of reportages, biographies, inquiries, interviews, and many other stories told in comics form. Second, because of its specialisation in graphic journalism, BeccoGiallo has always paid particular attention to the narration of real places and cities, often collaborating with emerging young artists. This interest in the narrative translation of reality in comics stories was essential for our dialogue with BeccoGiallo to succeed.
The SG project was certainly stimulated by what is called a creative (re)turn in geography (Eshun and Madge 2016), a restored stimulus to engage with art and artistic products not simply as objects of geographical research but also as tools at our disposal to disclose geographical discourses, even beyond academic boundaries. As geography-art engagements are proliferating in the geohumanities (Hawkins 2013, p. 53), our goal was to realise a project that could speak in an equally effective manner to both a specialist audience and a wider, non-academic public. In fact, SG was inaugurated during the national conference Giornate della Geografia, which in 2018 was hosted in Padua: that year, the topic at the centre of the geographical event was public geography, and specifically the role and forms through which the discipline should act and interact, communicate, and work with people, experts, and artists beyond academic boundaries (see Rivista Geografica Italiana 2019, pp. 121-158). The interaction between research and art promoted by SG was particularly relevant to the discussion on ‘public geography’ activated by the conference (Bertoncin et al. 2019). When drafting the project SG, the scientific committee that I was coordinating was inspired by what Harriet Hawkins calls the ‘expanding field’ of art—geography engagements (2013, p. 53), and by the many creative research projects that include collaboration between artists and researchers and involve non-specialist audiences, stimulated by the so-called creative (re)turn in geography (Madge 2014). As Kate Foster and Hayden Lorimer observe, these art-geography collaborations have taken diverse forms that comprise but are not limited to the following combinations:
geographers look to artists to help their research ‘outreach’ to communities;
geographers have been curators of art exhibitions; artists exhibit and perform
at geography conferences, as well as offer papers; university departments host artists’ residencies; artists contribute to geographers’ research projects; geographers evaluate the social impacts of public art projects; artists employ a spa- tialized vocabulary to label, describe and explain their work that geographers recognize as their own.
(2007, pp. 425-426)
In our case, among a wide range of both national and international examples, we were particularly inspired by the work done by the Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities with the launch of the first round of the Creative Commission in
2018.2 We were especially intrigued by the opportunity to bring couples of artists and researchers together around a specific topic of geographical interest, activating an exchange of ideas, perspectives, and methodologies. From the geographers’ perspective, SG represented a great opportunity to expand our experimentation with creative methods and collaborations; be for the first time actively involved in the process of ideation, realisation, and promotion of a geo-artistic project; and become more aware of the challenges that have to be faced in these contexts of collaboration with experts from very different fields. In fact, when thinking about an art-geography collaboration, we should take into account that the ‘ethics of practice and intention can widely differ, between and within these collaborating cohorts’ (Foster and Lorimer 2007, p. 426). Our group, for example, was composed of curators, academics, and artists but also of other actors that played a very crucial role in the realisation of the project: the members of the steering board of Cento- stazioni; the surveyor of the Municipality of Padua, who was in charge of assessing the feasibility of the installations; and the key-informants encountered during fieldwork, comprising commuters, workers, and members of the associations.
The presence of professional curators and experts that were able to mediate between the University and the artists was especially useful in this context. On the one hand, geographers, who commissioned the work, were expecting an output that should be visible and accessible to different audiences, from academics to students and simple passers-by. Following this need for accessibility, we sometimes run the risk of asking the artworks to become too didactic. On the other hand, the artists necessarily had to adapt their works not only to the needs of the commissioner but especially to the limits set by material conditions concerning the low budget, short time, and often limited space that they had at their disposal. As Mora reminded me in a couple of interviews run in spring 2020, in her specific case, the access to a very small budget (around 2,000 €) determined the choice of the materials and the need to mediate between the quality of print and the possibility of realising a quite high number of panels (more than 40) in a big format. The physical form in which the story was printed, then, influenced also the way in which the narrative contents were structured and some important stylistic choices: like, for example, the use of shorter texts to be printed in a bigger font size; the choice to avoid too-detailed drawings in favour of more effective and minimalist lines; or the decision to arrange the story in squared panels, mirroring the form of the physical support on which they had to be printed.
Furthermore, the relatively small time-window in which the artists were expected to work on the ideation and realisation of their artworks did not allow for a longterm period of preliminary creative research. In Mora’s case, she concentrated the ethnographic research on the train station area in a couple of weeks, during an ‘artist in residence’ programme at BeccoGiallo. During this period, she observed how the place changes at different times of the day and collected keywords about the train station and impressions from the people who work in or pass through it. As Mora’s words confirmed, both the site-specific conditions and the different actors involved in the management of the single sites and areas of artistic intervention deeply influenced the artists’ choices and the creative processes that led to the realisation of the SG public art exhibition. This happened for Fabio Roncato, who had to negotiate the price to rent the billboards with APS Holding, the company that administrates the advertising spaces in the whole area of the Municipality of Padua: only because they agreed on a lower rental price was it possible to display his posters on many advertising billboards in the Arcella neighbourhood, letting his artwork became a ‘diffused art-installation’. Something similar happened also to Caterina Ros- sato, whose choices were deeply limited by the site where her backlit screen was positioned, and especially by the scarce flexibility of the Civil Engineering Office that is in charge of the management of the riverbanks of the Scaricatore Canal. Of course, a negotiation was needed also for Monica Bellido Mora, who had to adapt not only the narrative structure of her story but even part of its contents to the requests of Centostazioni, a joint stock company then merged with the Rete Ferroviaria Italiana - Gruppo Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane (the Italian Railway Network public company) that is responsible for managing the space of the train station of Padua.
Sitting down at the negotiating table
There is a glass table dose to a large glass wall overlooking a huge squared open space, covered by a glass roof. On the second floor of the Centro Culturale San Gaetano, in the historical centre of Padua, the light floods into the room and creates green light reflections on the table we are sitting around. We are all in a state of restrained excitement. It is 21 June 2018, and we are waiting for two representatives of Centostazioni, who are travelling by train from Rome to discuss with us the artwork of the SG geo-artistic project that concerns their area of interest: the train station of Padua. Their role is critical, since in order to exhibit the comics story in the spaces within the train station and on its external walls, we need their consent. Without it, to install the artwork we will only be allowed to use the area under the direct management of the Municipality of Padua, which means that we will have to place the story along the walkways and the bus shelters in front of the train station. It is a short distance, of course, just a few dozen metres away from the facade of the building, but still it would represent a symbolic step behind our intended site and spatial focus. In the meantime, in the preceding weeks, people working at the Centostazioni Office in Rome had already received a general presentation of the SG project, together with a first draft of the text of the comics story and image documentation (photographs, drawings, and renderings) gathered by Mora to help
FIGURE 2.2 Excerpts from the storyboard of Monica Bellido Moras A Station of Stories. By permission of the author.
them imagine the artwork’s visual impact. Beyond presenting the main contents and tone of the comics story, the documentation was aimed at recognising the importance of the railway station as a node of urban and translocal mobility in the city of Padua and, consequently, its centrality as a symbolic space within the whole SG project. Renderings and sketches were sent along to show where the exhibition could be displayed, and in what form.
As soon as they arrive, we know that the time at our disposal is short. Needless to say, they have to take another train in the afternoon to go back to Rome. So, they go straight to the point. 'We like your project’, they say, ‘and we will be happy to support it. Yet, you have to be aware of the fact that almost the 70% of the internal space of the train station, comprising its walls, billboards, and even the floors, where possible, is considered a commercial surface’. This information, which is easily confirmed by everyone’s experience of contemporary bus, train, underground stations in many cities, rescales our vision, drastically narrowing the space available for our geo-artistic installation. We are to turn those ‘commercial surfaces’ into spaces of narrative intervention. In the end, even though we will have to adjust our blueprint, and to reassemble the story according to the narrow interstices they allow us to use, still we have their permission to install the comics story in the train station, on an advertising billboard situated close to platform number one, and on the outer facade of the building. When leaving the negotiating table, we are more than happy with what we obtained. Except for one small detail about the story’s content. In the first draft of the storyboard, Mora had decided to mention also the lives of those who do not simply pass through or work in the train station but even live within its walls. Yet, Centostazioni explicitly asked to avoid any reference to critical or conflictual themes, like the presence of homeless people, sleeping in the train station, or the reference to the suicides that often cause delays, missed connections, and cancelled trains. Needless to say, we were not entirely happy with this part of the negotiation. In the neoliberal city, where walls are interpreted as commercial surfaces, no space is allowed to tell stories that expose ‘users’ to potentially critical contents. Centostazioni didn’t know, at that time, that in our guided tours this would become one of the stories to tell and topics to discuss. They didn’t know that the comics story by Mora was expected to exceed the material spaces under their direct control by activating ‘invisible’ storytelling practices beyond the visible frames of the train station’s walls.