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Education | 07/08/2018

When Art Takes Centre Stage

When Art Takes Centre Stage

Uffizi Live and live performance arts as a means to capitalise on museum resources

The successful season of live performances Uffizi Live began in summer 2016, a great festival of events and performances shown with great success in the Gallery of Statues and Paintings during the museum’s period of evening openings. It began as an attempt, a trial, a brand new experiment in cultural promotion, and an alternative means to capitalise on the art works at the Uffizi, strongly advocated by museum director Eike Schmidt. Today, at the start of the 2018 edition, this experiment can be seen to be bringing in results, which can be summed up as an initial balance sheet that in two years has shown a gradual increase in numbers and success with public audiences (an increase in visitor numbers of 114.25% compared to the previous edition, which had already shown a considerable increase of 81.21% compared to 2015). This also applies to the artists, who submitted some 580 projects for the call for entries in 2018, for a total number of just 15 available places, or rather, more than double the submissions received for 2017 and 25 times more than those submitted for the pilot edition of 2016.

The figures are extremely encouraging and not just in quantity terms. The average quality of the performances has increased, becoming ever more professional and aesthetically admirable. It has also been possible to extend the cultural and geographical pools of performers. In fact, compared to the two previous editions, 2018 stands out above all for the greater and more evidently international and intercultural vocation of its performances and artists, who this year are coming from all over the world, including Burkina Faso, Russia, China, France and Slovenia, without forgetting a varied and numerous group of talents from all over Italy: Piedmont, Sicily, Liguria, Veneto, Apulia, and Tuscany.

This Uffizi Live is therefore a small event that continues to grow, waiting to be explained. At the start it was referred to as a “brand new experiment”. Why? Basically, setting up performance art shows inside museums is nothing new: galleries and cultural sites all over the world have been organising events of this type for years. Therefore, what is the innovative aspect of the idea behind this event? How can we say that Uffizi Live is an alternative museum experience, a starting point for the development of new models for using and capitalising on the art in our museums?


Moving towards the construction of a semiotic model for capitalising on art works

During the summer, every week - generally on Tuesdays - the Uffizi Galleries are open until 10 p.m. and from 7 p.m., there are live performances in the museum rooms, developed especially to dialogue with the art works in the collections and the spaces in the Gallery. The first significant new element compared to like operations in similar art institutions is this: the Uffizi Galleries do not offer their rooms to host an event, to become the stage, backdrop or frame within which actors, dancers or musicians can exhibit themselves. The museum itself is the protagonist in the performances: artists are therefore stimulated, through a selection process, to create their own contribution to a real, deep, and specific dialogue with the art works shown in the Gallery, for the purposes of enhancing views and usage. It is almost like a commission from other times.

The performance arts included in the invitation to submit entries are truly varied in the attempt to interest a vast pool of users, with specific focus on a public that is as international as possible, on young people and on their language. So far, we have held theatre performances, dance, music, singing, happenings, juggling, illusionism, digital art, and new technologies. We have encouraged the use of the most diverse expressive means and registers, from traditional through to experimental, classic and contemporary, sacred and profane, drama to comedy, provocation and crossover, etc. There are no exclusions, other than to respect decorum and public decency, religious belief and sensibility towards different cultures.

From questionnaires given out to analyse the target and the relevant feedback from spectators at the event, it has emerged that the public choosing to remain and watch the performances - which are all free of charge, in the normally open rooms along the visiting route of the Gallery and without cordoning off any of the performance space - is mainly international, young (under 35) and in 90% of cases leaves positive feedback on account of being more used to seeing this type of experience in large international museums.

There has been some reluctance - albeit in sporadic, but interesting cases - from the Italian public, due to a lesser familiarity with this type of museum experience. It is a figure that is probably affected by a cultural trend that has been historicized in Italy for several decades. After the boom in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the performing arts were flourishing everywhere - even more so, if outside theatres - to meet a range of totally different people, in terms of culture, class, language, ethnicity, condition, with a markedly social function and vocation, we have seen, in the last forty years, a gradual ebb of said arts to back within the confines of their natural, original setting - the theatre. Technology has played its part in this, requiring dedicated and increasingly equipped stage settings, but there has also been a sea change in social and cultural attitudes and customs that have revolutionised the trends, languages and codes of all communication media, and last but not least, live performances. 

Common opinion, therefore, would have it that the activities “cut out” of the chosen site - the theatre - are not always considered “art” by everyone, as if they were by-products or overly commercial or amateur offerings of a lesser level, which, “if they were worth anything they would be in an important theatre instead of here”. We are therefore not really surprised if some visitors in the questionnaire data considered the arts from the performances inside the museum - and therefore, outside the theatre, the only legitimate and legitimised location for such - not as genuine art forms able to dialogue with the other arts (paintings, sculptures, etc.) but rather as a more or less appropriate form of entertainment, a diversion, a divertissement.

In actual fact, the essence of the Uffizi Live experiment is to bring different - sister - arts together, so that one can legitimise and increase the value of the other, continuously. The difference is that figurative arts are known for being the ones to leave a mark, since they are a visible, tangible legacy of the past. The performing arts, however, are by their very nature “such stuff as dreams are made on”, to borrow the words of Shakespeare - they are immaterial, without form. They leave no mark because they live, compared to paintings or sculptures, in an eternal present. They live in the very moment in which they are performed “strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, and then being heard no more”, to paraphrase Shakespeare in one of his famous quotes about acting. Compared to the figurative arts, theatre leaves no visible trace behind it; it does not live in any way within the realm of form or matter, and nor is it subject to the laws of time.

In the wake of this awareness, the projects selected for Uffizi Live must all be based on an intriguing semiotic intervention, where the codes of permeation, integration of signs, and the mixing of figurative and performance art languages come together to create multiple meanings, suggestions and perspectives on the works in the Gallery: new, creative and personal views that put forward hypotheses and stimulate thought, both through contemporary language - more appealing to the younger target museum audience - and through transnational languages, avoiding projects that are exclusively in Italian or consisting merely of words, in a single language or dedicated to a single target.

For this purpose, to create and bring one’s own art to one or more pieces, each artist is asked first to study, to let themselves be permeated and inspired by the masterpieces in the Uffizi and then, later, to choose the ones they can use to create a dialectical overlap with their own contemporary world, their “live” performance language, and last but by no means least, their own artistic feeling, and the different - because part of other codes - figurative arts by great geniuses of the past: painters, sculptors and architects who have made history and who now live again in the rooms of the Galleries. 

Usually, each artist selected to give a performance will do more than study the pieces from books; they come for preliminary visits, to meet the works in person and to listen to them in their “live” contexts. They ask our staff for information, devise their own performance with regard not only - conceptually - to the works chosen, but also logistically, with regard to the specific areas in which they can perform in the Gallery, which need to be open so that visitors can move freely, without creating obstructions or bottlenecks, and without needing limits to or cordoning off of spaces, even during performances. The public must always be able to choose for themselves whether to continue with their visit or to stop and watch the performance, for as long as they wish. If visitors choose to remain, it will be only because the artist is able to capture their attention - for as long as they are able - in front of the art work featured in their performance piece.


“Four traps for the artist”: the difficulties in performing at the Uffizi

The task requested of the artists performing at Uffizi Live is by no means an easy one. In substance, while developing their projects, they need to prepare for and manage a series of problems linked to the specific nature of the setting that is the Uffizi and which, in the wake of experiences to date, we can list in terms of semiotic function and signs, into four “traps” that they will have to negotiate if they are not to frustrate their creative efforts: the temptation of the mirror, the echo effect, the aquarium effect and the call of the sirens.

1. The perils of the mirror

Experience of previous editions has shown us that if to multiply the fascination of an artwork, the artist chooses to represent it, imitating it simply by proposing the subject and almost mimicking it physically to bring it to life in a sort of mirrored tableau vivant, this type of display is usually seen as weak and its impact on the public is mainly on the limits of déjà vu.

Paradoxically, what happens is that by visually reproducing a subject in a mirror-like fashion or in any case, imitating it, tends to trivialise the art work rather than emphasise it. This is because it takes the work out of its own time, an absolute period in which onlookers project their different, multiple suggestions, perceptions and emotional, personal apperceptions. When an artist chooses to “mimic” or in any case reproduce the gestures and expressions of a painting or sculpture under the illusion of giving it life, they are in actual fact merely giving it a shape. And suddenly, all of the multiple rivulets of hidden meaning that a work encapsulates, are trivialised, losing their power and ability to charm.

Torn from its absolute time and catapulted into a present through simple “mimicry” and mirroring, the art work is forced into a single, unique form. It is “explained”, given a single interpretation; an operation that, paradoxically, humbles its connatural polysemy and has the opposite effect to that hoped for, a “boomerang effect" for the artist. It is like pulling a single thread from a ball full of other threads in different colours; the whole length can be used but doubtless, its multi-coloured, overall effect will be lost, along with its charm and its increased potential compared to the single thread in a single colour. Imitating or copying the shapes of an artwork is a genuine trap for an artist seeking to establish an interesting dialogue and new flavours. The convulsions, torsions and spasms of a performer’s body, based on or inspired by those carved in marble of the Laocoön by Baccio Bandinelli can never convey the same plastic intensity or the same “real” and boundless dramatic power, if this was the intention of the performance artist. Unless it is an educational or style exercise, it is never right for the performer to “give in” to the temptation to “copy” and to set him or herself up as a mirror for the art. 

2. The echo effect

The “echo effect” that performances can create with regard to the art work the artist has chosen for establishing a rapport, is complementary to but also the opposite to the “mirror trap”. If, the performer is being an external observer in the case of mirroring, in a sort of symmetrical representation of the world, or an imitation from the front or back, in the case of echoing, the artist seeks to identify him or herself with the work or space, becoming an observer, this time from the inside, almost a part or an appendage to the piece: like an “amplifier of meaning” or semantic megaphone. Let’s look at an example.

Performing a concert of mediaeval music in the 13th -14th century Sala delle Maestà, or a baroque dance before the St Lawrence by Bernini, is not enough on its own to add a surplus of meaning.

At times it is - wrongly - believed that by overlapping time in the choice of programmes to be performed, above all by great composers and artists in the fields of music, dance and theatre, in line with the eras of the painters and sculptors displayed in the Gallery, the event creates itself. The performances may be of the highest prestige and in the best possible cases, will contribute to creating an atmosphere that is perfectly in line with the artwork being viewed. However, these are not the right projects for Uffizi Live. In this context, it is not a great idea to rebuild what is inside the work or its historic context or cultural humus, in a perfect, philological manner. There should also be no attempt to identify with the genius loci of the Uffizi.

It can occur that when a performer limits him or herself to illustrate the route of chronological consonance, without adding anything but just bringing together artists from different fields, such as musicians and painters, solely because they lived in the same period, rather than multiplying meanings and signs (which as we mentioned is the ultimate aim of the Uffizi Live model), all that happens is that they overlap. Overlapping does not mean multiplying. The effect is often that of “accompanying” the art work, amplifying or stressing the content or subject of a painting or a sculpture, or a piece of architecture, without providing a new or alternative perspective. An “echo effect” is therefore essentially identical voices, one over the other, with no change to the original and with an end result that consists merely of amplifying the “volume” of the original message, as when using a megaphone. There is no process that constructs new meaning.

3. The aquarium effect

The risk of the “aquarium effect" concerns the logistic hazard of insufficient space, an incorrect spatial relationship between the artist’s body and the art inside the Uffizi. This is why every project needs to be preceded by a considerable amount of time studying the area as well as inspections on site and not just carried out over the internet or using virtual tools. The risk is otherwise that of not capturing the “sense of size”.

For example, it is not possible to think about a piece of choreography for ten dancers when choosing a Flemish painting that is 20x20 cm, and in the same way it is not possible to design a performance around a piece if this is in a place that is logistically difficult to manage, perhaps in a small space or a passageway where the flow of visitors would be obstructed.

However, even the choice of the larger rooms does not always take into account that the space in question is not in any case “theatrical”, where - as the Greek root of the word suggests, seamless vision is guaranteed from any point. Here the artist is actually called upon to interact on the same visual level as the work (and therefore, not from a raised stage that can be seen from a distance) or even below or above the work itself.  If one is not skilled in transforming these minuses into pluses in performance terms, there is a risk of creating an “aquarium effect”, where the spectator, viewing from a distance that is both physical and emotional, is as if behind glass. This means an experience without empathy, without understanding or seeing, watching the artists “drown” in the space, and being limited to seeing him or her move and interact from a distance, without understanding the meaning.

The Sala della Niobe, for example, attracts many artists who would like to perform in a larger margin of space. It is also true that it is a room where it is always difficult to identify a proper area for the performance since, in spite of the size, there is no raised platform and the public - which is often standing to watch the performance - can gather in large numbers, limiting viewing to the first two or three rows of lucky people. Therefore, the fact of having so much available space risks penalising the performance, especially if it is non-moving, i.e., it is taking place in a single point with a single perspective focus. It is true that a large audience can fit into the room, but it is also true that if the performance is not properly arranged, the majority of those present will not see much. Viewing problems will always create disaffection, irritating the audience and causing people to abandon the atmosphere and break the silence, the “narrative pact” that bonds performers and their public at every performance. Considering that there are no chairs, no stage and no cordoned off stage, or privileged viewpoints and areas set out specially, the only way to create a performance area is with the performance in progress, with no other aids.

4. The call of the sirens

The reference here is to the sirens in the Homer’s myth, and it refers to the hidden dangers of the artist’s choice to become caught up in the powerful and seductive call of the most famous works in the Uffizi. Without considering that it is the performance that needs to shed new light on the artwork, not the other way around.

For example, when choosing The Birth of Venus by Botticelli as the centre of a performance, the artist needs to be well aware that it is not the masterpiece that needs to enhance the performance, but exactly the opposite. And to achieve this result, the project has to be completely original, calibrated, and studied in detail. What new things are there to say about Botticelli’s Venus without risking the opposite effect, i.e., that the visual and communicative power of this absolute masterpiece - which is a genuine cultural icon of our times - risks dominating and swallowing up the work of the artist and their performance, just like the case of the sailors on the island of the Sirens in the Odyssey, crushing them, making them become small, and ruining what looked like being a promising success? The risk is always that the “consummate”, “hyper-celebrated” work of art prevails and steals the scene, and a great masterpiece almost never accepts the role of co-star. It will also never be a backdrop or set, since it lives a life of its own. These are works that “speak”, in a strong voice that is both recognisable and powerful, with their own seductive magnetism that risks prevailing over any other thing or person in the vicinity. It is the power of the absolute masterpiece. “For no one has ever sailed past this place until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips",  these artworks seem to say to the visitors who gaze on them, enchanted, “then goes on, but well pleased, knowing more than he ever did”. And in the meantime, however, “all about is a great heap of bones of men, corrupt in death, and round the bones the skin is wasting" (Odyssey, book XII).


Botticelli’s “Insectophone”

What we can say though is that the creative humus of the artistic and performance panorama is surprisingly fertile and that the final projects selected for Uffizi Live are unexpectedly dense and relevant, as well as having excellent aesthetic quality, even when measured against the great masterpieces in the Gallery, including its modern-day “icons”.

One such example is a performance that was a great success with the public last year. An experimental contemporary music collective built a network of oxymoronic relations with Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring.

The artists first created a clear glass case into which they brought real insects from the meadow of Spring to live and move (crickets, grasshoppers and beetles). After amplifying the case to the maximum and placing it in front of the painting, where all visitors could see it, like an installation, they stimulated the insects to move. When the insects jumped about, crawled, ate or chirruped, their movements produced sounds (hence the name “insectophone”), which when amplified, were sampled by musicians in real time, creating melodies and adding sounds and life to the green carpet of Spring. This is an operation that not only achieved a significant aesthetic quality in terms of music, but which was also dense with meaning. This is because against the neo-Platonist vision of Botticelli’s painting, where the ideas of Beauty and perfect, idealised Form are triumphant against the background of a floral meadow with its many symbols and allegories, it pitted an anti-Platonic, empirical, material vision. The starting point of the naturalist’s observation, i.e., the inevitable vital, invisible and formless principle that literally comes before the idea because it is the starting subject - the inspiration - is then separated from the perfect, idealised and neo-Platonic Spring. It is what we fail to see in the world’s most famous meadow, but which necessarily does exist. It is what perhaps threatens and undermines it from below; what cannot be seen but can be heard: the sound of the mysterious meadow.

This was a fascinating operation and a great success with the public on many levels, breaking many binomially opposed vectors of sense: up-down, shape-shapeless, sight-hearing, beautiful-ugly, ideal-necessary, spirit-matter, flora-fauna, etc.  The performances built on an oxymoronic relation with the art work are, of all the projects presented at Uffizi Live, those that have been most successful with the public. We might say, they are the ones that work best. “Breakdowns” pay: the mark of discontinuity, friction, polarity and the coincidence of opposites, if done intelligently and with sensitivity, finally seem to reward the audacity of the artists that propose them.


On-site dimension + Online dimension: the paradigm of Uffizi Live communication

Up to now, we have described the perception and experience of Uffizi Live seen by the public and the artists, as we have brought together and identified it in the past editions and up to today. From an in-house viewpoint, seen by the Staff and Management at the Uffizi, what is the aim and the expected result of a collection of performances of this type, designed especially according to a formula and a model as described here? 

The aim is twofold but related. First of all, there is a definite desire to promote and enrich the on-site dimension of the museum experience, making suitable, original and detailed use of the collections in the Uffizi to improve the quality of the cultural offer and at the same time, attract a larger number of visitors, bringing in different sectors of the public, including - and why not? - those who don’t go to museums much, but who might be attracted by a varied range of performing art styles, or those who enjoy the idea of a more “personal” museum experience, with the emotional involvement that can be stimulated by performance. It is an experience that is also offered at unusual times for a museum - the evening, when the atmosphere changes, when dialogue with the artworks is different, and more intimate, when the light of the summer sunsets in Florence adds glorious view upon glorious view to the Uffizi. It is also an extra opportunity for those who are simply - as it was - seeking new, alternative ways to enjoy institutions and places of culture across the board.

On the other hand, there is also the wish to promote an online dimension for the museum experience, communicating events in a collection of performances broadcast on digital channels and by live streaming. The aim is to attract public and followers who are geographically distant, through the social networks of the Uffizi Galleries, which serve to promote both artistic heritage and the desire of users to be “there”, in a temple to art, to share in the all-round experience of a large museum, even from a distance. It is a way to make everyone feel as if they are taking part, even on a more emotional level. In this way, we are boosting the numbers of “virtual visitors”, together with the desire to live the experience in situ one day, incentivising the organisation of trips to the Uffizi, from all over the world, perhaps thanks to the content transmitted through the Gallery’s social networks and website. This is why, as already mentioned, the two dimensions - on-site and online - for promoting the museum experience must always be considered in a correlated, seamless manner. If this is true, as a general part of a constructive and sound use of the museum’s artistic heritage, it is even more so in the communication of a series of live shows inside the museums where word of mouth, as triggered by social media, is now an essential means of promotion, appeal, and “communication of new features”


The “Circle of the Muses". The Uffizi’s historic vocation as a “meeting place”

In conclusion, in this look at the thus far successful “case of Uffizi Live” it is worth remembering that through an operation of this type, the Uffizi has actually rediscovered a “vocation” that is already written in its genes since it was built in the 16th century and beyond, at least until the 18th.

The Uffizi was historically created as a meeting point and a place of convergence and cultural, social, economic, political, administrative and juridical exchanges. From an architectural viewpoint, this - completely humanistic - vocation for contamination is restored in the creation of spaces dedicated to a wealth of different activities, brought together, to be adjacent and in some cases, intermeshed. It is certainly true for the spaces dedicated to the display of masterpieces of art and science, adjacent to the “uffizi”, the building for economic and legal affairs, together with the spaces dedicated to the performing arts. A complete autonomous universe that encompasses itself.

On the second floor of the building designed by Vasari, the architect Buontalenti created the Tribuna to house the works of art from the Grand Dukes’s private collection, while his collection of scientific instruments is housed in the adjacent Stanzino delle Matematiche. On the first floor, he built the so-called Teatro Mediceo, a theatre just a few metres away from another, pre-existing and more popular theatre, the Teatrino di Baldracca, which is now part of the modern-day Uffizi Library. The Niobe Room, on the second floor of the Gallery, was for a long time known as the Theatre of Niobe. All of these examples show us that in fact we are talking about a place where, in the full humanist spirit of the Renaissance, the arts and sciences conversed and were mutually influenced, much before there began to be any of the specialisation of knowledge we see in the modern era. The sense of the experience and the new nature of the Uffizi Live project are therefore paradoxically in the rediscovery of the oldest and almost philological value of the term “museum” which - as the etymology suggests - is the “place of the Muses”, of all the Muses, not just some of them: art, literature, science, song, theatre, dance and more. Therefore, it is a place that is not just about preserving memory (it is no coincidence that in mythology, the Muses are the daughters of Memory and museums are mainly set up as places for memory): a “museum” may also be a meeting place, a place for exchanges, aggregation, research, contamination between areas of knowledge and ideas. It is a place in which to rediscover a collective, lay ritual that may - among other things - be the experience itself of being inside a museum. This is because the Muses have “dancing” among their prerogatives, i.e., movement; mixing together, touching, and creating movements with their thoughts. It is no coincidence that the Muses often have an aptitude for exchanging positions in their dancing circle.

Exchanges of content: global connections and interconnections, hyper-connections, cross-media systems... This also seems to be what the circle of dancing Muses is all about: examples and models that, mutatis mutandis, echo from the ancient world (almost an archetype of the myth), through to our times, to offer new ideas on which to build new ways of looking at and experiencing museums in the 21st century.

The rediscovery of certain archetypes can have the value and flavour of something avant-garde and this is the successful case of Uffizi Live.

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