Interview with Giulia Damiani: From the Volcano to the Sea
In this interview, Giulia Damiani shares her reflections on her deep research embodiment in relation to Italian art group Le Nemesiache. She sources her practice as a writer, curator, and dramaturge. She is completing her PhD in the Art department at Goldsmiths University, London. Her work over the past years has been pedagogical as well as artistic bringing together myth-making, magic, and the languages of evocation and invocation. Giulia offers a link between an ethereal history of ritual in feminist art-making and a current moment in serious need of softened meaning.
Josseline Black – I would love to know how you first made contact with this feminist art group, Le Nemesiache?
Giulia Damiani – I was studying at the Royal College in 2013, and I was reading of Italian feminism, finishing my masters there. I wanted to have a real encounter with Italian feminists. I found the name of this group, Le Nemesiache; which sounds a bit strange. I found out that they made a film in the 1970s occupying an asylum for women and collaborating with other collectives. I got super fascinated by this story. I found an email address for one of the women that was part of this collective. This person answered the email, and she gave me her phone number. I called her and we had this conversation; it turns out that she was the sister of the founder of the group. She invited me to go to Naples. I went to Naples a few months after and ended up staying for two weeks. I stayed in the archive of the group, what was the house of the founder, so there was a lot of material history and oral history. They were taking me around the places in Naples where they did actions. I realised that there was so much there that hadn’t been explored that hadn’t found a place in the canon of Italian feminist art history. From there, I developed a conversation with members of the group, visiting often. I wrote my MA thesis on them and I made an alternative map of the city of Naples according to the places of Le Nemesiache. Then, I made reenactments from the archive. We made a performance in 2015 as a group of artists working together and we lived with members of the group, so the connection became stronger and stronger over the years. By living with them and trying to interpret with our bodies their work, we realised that there was something beyond the historical that allowed us to think about women’s creativity today.
JB – The group of artists that you chose for this reenactment, they were all women?
GD – Yes. I made a call to be involved in the project and one became my longest collaborator, Helena Rice. We worked together on different performances; then one video artist, another performer, and a photographer. We had some intense moments that became very generative in terms of thinking with the archive today, creating a trajectory from the 70’s and opening up the work to further manipulation in the present.
JB – Which topic, or conversation, do you feel that you return to in working with Le Nemesiache and their archive? In a subjective sense, what pulls you back again?
GD – The relationship with landscape. Their feminism was really influenced by their situatedness in Naples, but not in a limiting way. The mythological places around Naples, which is rich in Greek and Roman history. You have ruins, myth, stories, the Sirens, Sybils, Prophetesses; female figures that could inspire the group. You have the presence of this mountain that sometimes turns out to be a volcano. You have the Phlegraean Fields fields which is one of the largest volcanic areas in Europe. Also, the bay of Naples, and industrial sites which tell about the industrialist and capitalist project in Italy. The group used to call Naples “a cosmic city”. The group integrated their landscape in their work, through the visceral quality of their writing. The founder of the group, Lina Mangiacapre, used metaphors with lava in her writing. She invoked lava to come back again to destroy the present landscape, to generate something new. Like lava, feminism can remind us of dormant aspects of our landscape; this idea of fermentation that comes after the destruction; a feminism that is an earthquake that can shake and shock the foundation of patriarchy.
JB – Does this also connect to your writing practice?
GD – Yes, it’s a big topic. This multi-dimensional and multi-sensorial experience that I had of their work made me realise that only if I had an approach that was as multi-sensorial and multi-dimensional could I convey and transmit something of that work. This opened up the possibility to use performance and my writing as a platform to explore some of the issues that the group was working with and open up the conversation with other artists and performers to bring in their own ideas.
JB – Did you engage in co-authorial experience with any of the women in Le Nemesiache?
GD – We organised this program of reenactments together, in which the group was present on a curatorial level and to support us. We had a few weeks of working together, and the group was sharing materials from the archive in Italian. This was an interesting experience to see what gets lost in translation. It was a shared idea between me and Teresa, the sister of the founder. I worked especially with two collaborators and performers; one collaborator from Brazil and one from the UK, who have been very much involved with the work of the group. Unfortunately, Teresa passed away two years ago, she would have been the person with whom to co-author something.
JB – How would you situate their approach to the eschatological? I have the imagination that they were working with their present through reconfiguring and healing a past, how would they deal with a future beyond the end of history?
GD – One of the ideas they worked with is prophecy. They reembodied the figure of the Sybil, who in Greek times according to legend, used to be sitting close to Naples. Virgil writes about her. They made a film in 1977 called “the Sybils” with a group of them going to awaken this figure, doing rituals in landscape. I got interested in prophecy as a device for making work. The thing with prophecy in terms of temporality is that it’s a promise of a change that might never take place; it keeps being postponed into the future. It’s performative as well. It’s up to the listener to take that as a possibility for the future. I feel I’m taking their prophecy and trying to make it come through in the present.
JB – In this reenactment situation with invited artists there was a continual verbal exchange; did you practice prophesying together? What kind of prophecies outside of those of Le Nemesiache did you generate?
GD – The last piece I was working on before Covid, in Sao Paolo, was about a prophetess called Emma B. It was about trying to think what kind of prophecies could come from the land and from the ground rather than descending from the sky. One idea about prophecy is that it’s a message that comes from the heavens, from divinities, or it’s embodied by the prophetess who is being possessed by usually a male divinity. Without these male figures, what is the prophetess left with? We were trying to think of what kind of prophecies we could invoke today from the core of the earth. We were having trouble was translating the element of lava because in Brazil there are no volcanos so this element doesn’t have the same resonance. With my collaborator Jéssica Varrichio we spent days filming enchentes which are water rivulets that get created during storms in Sao Paolo; it’s not water from the rain but water from the drains. They get filled up and surge onto the surface, becoming real rivers in the city. It can be dangerous. Prophecy in this case was about being in a situated place and trying to find elements that could tell a different narrative of that place, invoking different scenarios for the future. We filmed these and they became a driving force for the piece, overflowing, making visible repressed desires and contradictions.
JB – As you were documenting what was emerging from the “subconscious of the earth”, did you find patterns which you then transcribed into a methodology of divination?
GD – I think it’s an interesting question to think if in some intuitive way this happened during the piece, as they were the backdrop of the scenes.
JB – In terms of your practice of excavating and embodying the Le Nemesiache archive, are you separatist?
GD – When I go about collaborating with other people it’s more about the energy. I don’t have a methodology by which men are excluded, it’s about channelling the desire to create feminist worlds – beyond essentialist reading of the word feminist and embracing of all identities identifying with the causes of feminisms.
JB – In the exhibition catalogue, there is a manifesto “For the appropriation of our own creativity”. When you give this text to visitors what kind of responses do you receive?
GD – Visitors react strongly, often they don’t believe that this was written in the ’70s. Some of these topics are becoming more relevant right now. Discussions on museum practice, what constitutes art, amateur art: themes for debate. Visitors are impressed with the fierceness of the text.
JB – Particularly this: “we claim space and funding to act in all the sectors which are called democratic but are still excluding us”, so this manifesto is also invoking a certain kind of spatial economy. What was your experience in designing the exhibition From the Volcano to the Sea at Rong Wrong in Amsterdam?
GD – They were a partner in the making of the exhibition together with If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution. The director of the space Arnisa Zeqo knew the felt an affinity with the work of the group. It was brilliant to work with someone who was so committed. With Covid restrictions, only a few people are allowed into the gallery daily. With this restriction the idea of transmission came into the space: transmission from the group, the practice of transmission we engage in with these one-to-one encounters. The gallery space has become an echo chamber. We organised the exhibition space thinking of different elements of the group’s work and also trying to connect the archive in Naples to the space in Amsterdam. It’s also a house, part of the building is private and the rest is a gallery. Bringing together domestic space and public space, which is an important tension in feminism. I think we managed to create intimacy with the materials.
JB – Will you continue to work with the archive of Le Nemesiache, and which part will you amplify? You have placed yourself in their lineage. Do you want to continue to position yourself as a transmitter, or to take this role and expand it?
GD – It depends which kind of prophecies I am finding. There is still a lot to do in terms of cataloguing, finding a more public situation to keep the archive in, and there is the idea of publishing more materials about the group and taking the exhibition on the archive somewhere else. I would be interested in thinking farther with landscape, and situated methodologies and how Le Nemesiache’s work can be related to other groups around the world. Creating a tunnel that goes from Naples, from underneath the volcano other craters. I am unavoidably a transmitter because of the proximity I have to members of the group and their story. At the same time, I’m interested in creating other connections and displacing the project. The betrayal of the original work can also be part of the work. There can be a form of loyalty by betrayal.