How to unplug an art fair (in 2020): Interview with Ilaria Bonacossa, director of Artissima

Since its establishment in 1994, Artissima has taken on an experimental identity and expanded the definition of what an art fair can be. This year, when we need reinvention more than ever, the art fair takes place in an “unplugged” version bringing together digital projects and physical exhibitions.

In its digital guise, Artissima launches two virtual projects online until December 9: Artissima XYZ, an unusual cross-media platform; and an online catalogue to explore the galleries, artists and artworks. In its physical guise, the art fair will present three exhibition projects in the museums of Fondazione Torino Musei, sharing the theme Frenetic Standstill and including artworks provided by most of the galleries selected for the fair this year, that was postponed to later December.

Umbigo spoke with Ilaria Bonacossa, director of Artissima since 2017, to discuss the fair, its intentions and how this year’s format is reflective of the times in which we live.


Carolina Trigueiros – In a recent interview you said: “if you’re planning an art fair in 2020, you have to be nimble”. This year, you had to rethink Artissima’s format several times since the first pandemic wave, and you are in the process of adapting to the second wave, as the situation in Europe has rapidly gotten worse and restrictions had to be implemented. How difficult has it been planning Artissima during such a strange time, an art fair that has come to be known for its experimentalism? What are your hopes and ambitions for this year?

Ilaria Bonacossa – The fair has always been a major event lasting four days, whose strong point is spatial and temporal concentration. In these months, we have worked to conserve and at the same time reinvent this strong point, trying to imagine models of economic sustainability and safety that could meet the needs of galleries, clients and partners. It has been very difficult – sometimes I had the impression of being a hamster on a wheel. But with my team we worked tirelessly, inventing new projects with expertise, creativity and determination, dismantling and reassembling the fair in response to changing needs. In the context of global uncertainty and in order to avoid squandering the exceptional efforts made, we have imagined new physical and online exhibitions for the presentation of art in Torino. An “unplugged” version of Artissima that supports the art system and its players in an innovative way, narrating contemporary art through the work of Italian and international galleries that have always supported the fair with loyalty and enthusiasm.

CT – This year Artissima takes on a hybrid format that brings together physical exhibitions and immersive online projects. In particular Artissima XYZ, the fair’s digital website, is divided into three curated sections, including videos, podcasts of dealers and artists. More than just a fair section, you described it as an “interactive contemporary art magazine”. How is this “online-only” version of Artissima working so far? Are there any conclusions you can draw from it? Does it open up the possibility of new and unexpected languages?

IBArtissima XYZ is an immersive digital experience that goes beyond the presentation of the viewing rooms. This new platform offers fresh experiential contents to explore the work of all the main figures involved: galleries, artists, curators. Each curatorial team has selected ten projects for each section, featuring ten artists each, presented by their galleries, and pursuing a precise thematic orientation. This multimedia approach and ease of use have opened the way for a wider audience, not just of collectors and sector professionals, but also a generic public of curious, young visitors that are thus getting acquainted with art. In this sense, the online encounters with curators and critics, held on a weekly basis to accompany the discovery of artists and works, have been a very popular feature. With this project, we have been able to send the message that art does not stand still, and is capable of transcending physical barriers, to continue to tell its stories and to offer new contents thanks to digital initiatives.

CT – As we are talking about the importance of having an online presence, and how it is crucial now, more than ever, I remembered that during your first year as the Artissima director, in 2017, you launched the digital platform – an online catalogue that offered the possibility of exploring Artissima in a virtual environment. How do you see the implications of the online in the art world, and its evolution in recent years? What do you find especially interesting about the manner in which the Internet has affected the art market? And, ultimately, is this relationship with the digital feared by the art market, even though it is also so necessary and desired?

IB – Physical and digital experiences will continue to interact. On the one hand, in spite of major investments on the digital side, I believe the direct, “physical” relationship with a work of art, the dialogue with the artist and the collector, the contact with the audience, all have an irreplaceable value. On the other, it is clear that the digital presence has been a revolution, and there is no turning back. Habits have changed, and for any gallery or museum it is now indispensable to have a website and social network channels. It is a way to gain visibility, and it has the same function of social aggregation that was previously covered by dinners and openings.

The growth of the digital market has been constant over the last five years, and in this anomalous year it is linked to an already consolidated trend of investment in the digital realm, on the part of art world players and new generations of international collectors who use the web to get informed and to make contact with galleries. The acceleration of this slice of the market that we have witnessed this year is connected to the impossibility of travel that has driven all the stakeholders to use the digital as a means of discovery and interaction between galleries and collectors, art lovers and museums.

Since I began as director of Artissima, digital channels have been a major focus in our work, so it was only natural that we have evolved in this direction as a response to the lockdown. Together with the curatorial team of the 2020 fair, we have created projects like Fondamenta and /ge·ne·a·lo·gì·a/, offering new opportunities for visibility and sales, free of charge. Also in the area of digital initiatives, with the support of Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo, this year besides the usual online catalogue Artissima presents the original Artissima XYZ platform, as well as a series of online events with curators, guided visits and virtual tours of the exhibitions.

CT – To get back to the Artissima Unplugged program, you curated an exhibition entitled Frenetic Standstill that opened across three museums around the city: Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Palazzo Madama and Museo d’Arte Orientale. It contains artworks provided by many of the galleries selected for the fair this year. Can you tell us about the curatorial line and title? It seems quite timely, since we are seeing so many online offerings and political-social turbulence these days, while at the same time we are physically so limited. How does this duality converge and coalesce? And ultimately, how are these ideas sustained or challenged by the works in the exhibition?

IBFrenetic Standstill is a term pertaining to sociology and politics, indicating a situation of apparent activity that nevertheless leads to no results. The theme ignites the most recent debates and it is a timely representation of what we have experienced in the past months, and are still going through today in various modes of lockdown. Through the artworks, Frenetic Standstill prompts reflections on the concept of acceleration as opposed to inertia, and on the increasingly urgent need to change our paradigms and to seek possible responses to the present crisis. The selection was far from simple, because we had to take multiple variables into account, from the geographical origin of the works to their sizes, as well as the themes suggested by each item. The presentation has taken form in an attempt to bring out the particular facets of each path of research, in a sometimes jarring dialogue that is nevertheless full of vitality and visual force.

Frenetic Standstill has been installed and is ready to welcome the public, but in this initial phase it is on view only in its digital guise: it is an ode to resistance and faith, an attempt to narrate the emergency of this time through the selected artworks.

CT – In light of the recent demonstrations, people worldwide continue staging strikes, demonstrations, and protests calling for stronger action to tackle climate change. But not only: there are also huge problems about gender, race and class, and institutions are being called out to face them. What should be, in your opinion, the position of an art fair? Can you give us some examples on how to address such challenging issues?

IB – I believe fairs should be conscious of the complex social and political environment in which they operate, taking issues linked to their own ethical actions and sustainability into serious consideration. Similarly, the choice of galleries selected through the artists that each one presents should highlight how artists in different countries tackle and reflect on these issues, which are paramount to the future of our society. Fairs can be an incredible means of inclusion and transparency, by allowing new galleries from different countries enter the mainstream.

CT – Lastly, what do you imagine an art fair, such as Artissima, might look like in a post-Covid world? What are your expectations and concerns for the future?

IB – I hope this crisis will help us focus again on the human dimension of the art world, on the relationships at its core, not just on the need to sell more art at higher prices. Apart from the many difficulties, this period has fostered new ways of looking at art and new methods of collaboration. This edition of Artissima has given us a way to intensify and reinforce synergies with various organizations and institutions in the territory. The problematic period has also encouraged us to establish a more intense dialogue with galleries and to think together about the future of the art world, leading to greater maturity in the art fair model.

Today, we are working in the awareness that this situation could continue into the months to come. On the one hand, we are heading towards a moment in which the entire sustainability of the art system is being challenged. There is a need for support of the institutions, major assistance for museums, to bring into play the financial energy that keeps the whole system alive. There is also a need to understand, through the work of artists, what they are thinking and how they imagine the world, the light at the end of the tunnel. Contemporary art has always made leaps forward in the interpretation of the present and the future, thanks to its ability to imagine more or less dystopian worlds. What we are going through today is so unexpected that art can undoubtedly represent a good way to try to understand it, and to open up scenarios for profound, pondered change. Perhaps it is precisely in moments of crisis that positive changes can emerge, and we will continue to work in this direction.

Carolina Trigueiros is a curator, writer and cultural producer based in Lisbon, Portugal. Carolina has a post-graduate degree in Curatorial Studies from Nova University, Lisbon (2017), and a bachelor degree in Cultural Communications from Católica University (2013), in Lisbon and Barcelona.

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