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The Opening Response: The Cool Couple

The Opening Response titles a special series of interviews with artists, curators, writers, composers, mediators, and space-makers around the world. Dialoguing within and around the thematics which have rapidly emerged as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we offer within this frame a differentiated, honest, and beautiful bid at understanding. Weekly, distinct doors are opened into the lives of the contributors; into their experiences dawning on pleasure, productivity, metaphysics, and paradigmatic shifts. Hopefully, these conversations can act as way-posts and lead to furthered empathy, unison, and co-creation. The Opening Response meets the need for weaving the autonomy of a web of conscious communications in times of extreme perplexity.

The Cool Couple is an artist duo based in Milan and established in late 2012 by Niccolò Benetton (1986) and Simone Santilli (1987). Their research focuses on the friction points in the daily in the relationship between people and images. Their projects range from fine art photography to electrostatic wipes, from meditation rooms to Chinese cover-bands. TCC’s work has been exhibited at institutions such as Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina (Florence), Les Rencontres des Arles, MACRO Museum (Rome), Museo del ‘900 (Milan), Galleria Civica di Trento. They’ve been awarded with Francesco Fabbri Award for Contemporary Photography (2014), Graziadei Prize (2015), Euromobil Under 30 Prize (2017), Artverona Photography Prize. In 2019 they are the winners of Premio Johannesburg, promoted by MIBAC, IIC Pretoria and Nirox Foundation. The Cool Couple have been lecturers at NABA (Milan), IUAV University (Venice), University of South Wales (Newport), IED Torino, ISSP (Riga), Made Program (Syracuse).

 

Josseline Black – In this phase of forced isolation, how are you articulating your response in a public discourse? What is your role in this larger conversation?

The Cool Couple – It is really hard to orient ourselves in this situation, which ties one’s intimacy with large-scale dynamics, often turning us into passive witnesses of the deployment of a police-state justified by fear. Perhaps it is the manifold nature of the epidemic – which is not only affecting the biological, but resonating in the communication infrastructure and travelling on the high-speed logistic networks that allowed the existence of our plentiful life – that makes it so difficult for us to say something about it. We are still gathering impressions and ideas, starting to confront our opinion with other people’s views, mostly friends and colleagues. Maybe it is too hard for the moment to articulate a response. But also: should we articulate one? If so, why? What are the systemic dynamics expecting a response from artists in a moment in which culture is the least concern of people? We know that there’s a picture circulating on the web claiming that you can’t live without artists and mentioning a life without books, music, cinema, paintings, porn and so on. But, actually, it seems that we can live without paintings at the moment. Among all the things listed, they are the ones less mentioned and apparently less essential.

This is not to say that our response is useless, but that quarantine and forced isolation – could we refer to it as a forced stop of the frenzy of the art world, its bulimic need for events and content production? – representing a useful break during which we can analyze the structural issues that affect the practising of art as a profession and, more generally, the ways in which the art world affect the lives and careers of all the minor actors involved.

A response, however, remains necessary. This time we have the possibility of getting rid of the FOMO, the survival-of-the-fittest mode of living the art world which characterizes our daily life and try to do something to improve our condition.

For sure, after this crisis, we will start all over again- in a new world. There, our lives will be profoundly changed not only by the trauma itself, but also by the many subtle revolutions taking place in these dark days and altering the idea of “job” and “freedom”.

JB – Has your artistic practice changed through isolation?

TCC – It would be wrong to say that our artistic practice has been changed by the isolation. First of all, because we are not totally isolated: luckily, we are among those who spend the quarantine with their partners and friends and this certainly helps. However, we can’t go to the studio and, at the moment, we are 250km away from each other, since Niccolò has come back to his hometown, while Simone is in Milan. But we work anyways.

We are used to smart-working and often we find ourselves discussing projects through Skype, phone or other platforms. In our case, after all, it isn’t a big change. Of course, it differs from a one-to-one exchange, but we are accustomed to this kind of collaboration and we have tested it several times in the past.

JB – How has your practical capacity to produce work been affected by the pandemic?

TCC – Our practice doesn’t necessarily need an atelier or a physical space, given its research-based nature and our approach which privileges designing over making. Sure, all our productions at the moment are paused: the labs are all shut down. Future exhibitions levitate in a state of uncertainty as well.

However, we are working on a new long-term project which at the moment requires isolation and concentration. So, this condition is almost a gift, although troubled by haunting fears and the constant anxiety for our beloved ones, some of them directly exposed to the dramatic reality of hospitals, others with a clinical history that makes them high-risk subjects.

JB – What is your approach to collaboration at the moment?

TCC – Our practice is deeply collaborative, not just because we are a collective, but also for the fact that since the inception of The Cool Couple we have always made networking one of the most important elements in our work. In this moment, we are trying to rely on the web as a tool for keeping all our networks alive. We are experimenting, doing not just online meetings – most of our activity at the moment – but also online happy hours, calls, and so on. We don’t know what works best. And we have to admit that, outside the art world, there are people using the same tools in ways that are, honestly, deeply inspiring. We do what seems to be the most compelling collective task, on a global scale at the moment: overcoming physical distance and evading the horrors that take place immediately outside of our houses.

JB – How would you define the present moment, metaphysically/literally/symbolically?

TCC – We don’t know if we’re able to provide a definition capable of grasping the complexity of this situation. It is new, and dramatically altering our lives. For sure we won’t be able to go back to the world as it was before.

It is years we discuss the present and the feeling of stasis it brings, a sensation mixing the idea of loss with the awareness of the impossibility of recovering the past. The virus is a tangible example of that. It is a threshold after which things will look more or less the same, but they will be deeply altered in their nature. With the virus, we are exchanging our freedom for our safety.

Quoting T.S. Eliot’s rhymes appearing in one of the cards of Cards Against Humanity, “This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with ___________ .”

JB – Do you see the potential for renewed support for cultural production in spite of macro and micro-economies which are currently rapidly restructuring?

TCC – Only if we are able to exploit this moment of forced break to focus on what we want to change. We can start from our feelings, maybe. Many of us have been irritated by plenty of requests to take part in artistic initiatives or online exhibitions about the virus and the quarantine, as if producing artworks in this moment should be the thing to do.

Instead, it only feeds a system where artistic labour is often overlooked and not recognized as such. Artists are not untouched by the crisis, but many don’t think about it. Perhaps because art is naively addressed as a purer dimension, far or opposed to the political-economical system now at the verge of collapse.

JB – E.M Cioran writes: “in major perplexities, try to live as history were done with and to react like a monster riddled by serenity”, how do you respond to this proposal?

TCC – It is interestingly true. What we are living is pure sci-fi for many.

Sadly, it isn’t for us. It was all already there. We all had virtually experienced it: through movies, books, video games. Many of us have retreated to the gamespace where they fight on different battlefields against metaphorical threats that are simply variants of the virus which is pressing on us from the outside.

And we think – or better, we are pushed to think – in monstrous ways as well. Although not comparable to it, this situation reminds us of the tales about the atrocities our grandparents lived during WWII. It is monstrous the way we easily switch to survival mode and how barbaric are your thoughts when you stop thinking about consequences. Or when you simply let go.

Sadly, that’s reality. We all read the stories from the call centres our government has instituted to help people managing the emergency. There are some areas where citizens have become so quickly accustomed to death and sufferance that they don’t even cry when their relatives die. And all of it sounds to us, a few hundreds of kilometres away, as reports from Middle-Eastern war news. Monstrosity is appearing at various levels in these days. It is alien the way in which nature is regaining control of the environment. It is disturbingly graceful. It is a spectacle totally inaccessible to us, with whales and dolphins thriving in the sea and approaching harbours, unseen animals appearing outside cities, the air getting clearer and so on.

JB – How is this time influencing your perception of alterity in general?

TCC – Time and alterity are deeply connected. Sometimes we lose the perception of time, lacking the routine and its rhythm. Days pass by without big events to remember. We work, we try to keep the usual habits, but it isn’t easy. Time is expanding and this is becoming slightly alienating.

JB – How is your utilization of technology and virtuality evolving the paradigm within which you produce work?

TCC – We aren’t sure we could define it in terms of evolution. The heavy reliance on virtuality is an increase of habits we already had. We try to understand how we can exploit it to improve what we do. It is as if we were given the time to test new tools.

This, of course, applies to us, but if we look at the larger picture the heavy reliance on technology might revolutionize the job industry in the short future.

JB – What is your position on the relationship between catastrophe and solidarity?

TCC – There seems to be the need for a catastrophe to remind us that we can help each other. However, we are slightly critical about the rhetoric accompanying this moment of national and local solidarity. There’s a heavy dose of patriotism: people singing the national anthem at the window, the various hashtags circulating on the web, newspapers and news-sites engaged in a rush to find the hero-of-the-day. It all sounds a bit too patriotic. Looking at the epidemic as an enemy to defeat makes us all soldiers, all fighters. We are not fighting. There are people working hard to save lives, as they do every day. And they usually suffer budget and wages cuts from governments voted by most of us. Solidarity can be done every day; it must be practised now. There are many ways to be helpful: trying to stay close to those who are alone at home, trying to care about the relationships we usually take for granted. Most of all, don’t stop once the emergency is over.

JB – What is your utopia now?

TCC – Unfortunately, what we can see on the horizon is dystopia.

It would be nice to think that we’ll all learn a lesson from this; let’s say we’re talking about the environment: it is now evident and incontrovertible that human beings (let’s accept this contradictory generalization here) contribute massively to the destruction of Earth’s biosphere. We already knew that, but now it is really hard for negationists to hold their positions. There are incontestable proofs that the productive and logistic infrastructures cause pollution. Will we be able to turn this awareness into action? Or is it more probable that, once the emergency is over, will we forget about it?

 

Josseline Black-Barnett is a contemporary curator, writer, and researcher. She holds an M.A. in time-based media from the Kunst Universität Linz and a B.A. in Anthropology (specialization Cotsen Institute of Archaeology) from the University of California Los Angeles. She operated for five years as in-house curator of the international artistic residency program at the Atelierhaus Salzamt (Austria) wherein she had the privilege of working closely with a number of brilliant artists. Included in her duties within the institution she allocated and directed the Salzamt hosting of the E.U. CreArt mobility for artists program. As a writer, she has reviewed exhibitions and co-edited texts for Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, Portugal, Madre Museum Naples, the Museums Quartier Vienna, MUMOK, Guimarães Gallery, Gallery Michaela Stock. She is regular theoretical contributor to the Contemporary Art Magazine Droste Effect. In addition, she has published with Interartive Malta, OnMaps Tirana, Albania, and L.A.C.E (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). In tandem to her curatorial practice and writing, she has for the past decade used choreography as a research tool inquiring into the ontology of the performing body with a focus on embodied cartographies of public memory and space. She has held research residencies at the East Ugandan Arts Trust, the Centrum Kultury w Lublinie, the University of Arts Tirana Albania, and the Upper Austrian Architectural Forum. It is her privilege to continue developing her approach to curatorship which derives from an anthropological reading of art production and an ethnological dialectic in working with cultural content generated by art makers. Currently, she is developing the methodology which supports the foundation of a performance-based trans-disciplinary platform for a spectral critique on art production.

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