July 17th, 2013 · Performa Staff
Rossella Biscotti: The Trial
By Performa Staff
On April 7, 1979, a number of militants and intellectuals, formerly members of Potere Operaio (Workers Power) and Autonomia Operaia were arrested on charges of terrorism throughout Italy. They were accused of being leaders of the armed organization the Red Brigades, and were charged for the kidnapping and execution of Aldo Moro. As head of the governing Christian Democratic Party, Moro was on the eve of successfully engineering a “historic compromise” between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party. Evidence to support the prosecution was, and remains, unfounded, yet the majority of the prosecuted were held in preventative prison from 1979 until the trial’s close in 1984. It is this 1982–84 trial that artist Rossella Biscotti takes as her point of departure for the performance and exhibition The Trial at e-flux.
The core of The Trial is a six-hour audio edit of the original courtroom recordings. Initiating the show on May 11 and 12 was a two-day simultaneous live translation of this sound piece from Italian to English. The act of translation is central to the exhibition, both as a transferral and an embodiment of the trial’s language within the present time. Projected on the wall is a black-and-white silent film that traces a performance held in the high-security courthouse, designed by rationalist architect Luigi Moretti in 1934, in which the trials took place. Remnants taken from the courtroom, wooden benches, and keys are present in the exhibition, activating the history of the courthouse building. A series of red silkscreen prints are hung on the wall, and documentation of previous translation performances are on view. Over the course of the exhibition, Biscotti, Yates McKee, co-editor of the magazine Tidal, and special guests have co-facilitated a reading group devoted to the historical legacies of Autonomist Marxism relative to recent struggles including but not limited to those affiliated with Occupy.
The Trial must be situated within the period of social and political unrest experienced by Italy, beginning with its rise in economic productivity following World War II. Before its dissolution in 1973, Potere Operaio was influential in pushing for an alliance between the libertarian student protests of 1968 and the autonomous workers movement of 1969. This formed the backdrop against which Autonomia Operaia would emerge in the mid-1970s as a rhizomatic network of intellectuals throughout Italy. The thinkers of the Italian autonomia movement were the first to recognize a massive integration of labor, exploitation, and creativity that artists around the world continue to grapple with today. In unfurling a decisive moment in its history, Rossella Biscotti reminds us that our work still happens within a political project, even if its name is not apparent. (Text adapted from e-flux.)
The Trial is on view until Saturday, July 20, at e-flux in New York.
Performa: The first iteration of The Trial, in Rome, was split between the MAXXI Musuem and the Aula Bunker, the courthouse where the April 7 trial actually took place. In New York, the performance is in one location. How do you think this changes the process and meaning or reception of the work?
Rossella Biscotti: I think the New York show puts together what is for me the core of the project. In a way it’s focused on the text, the language, and the translation. It involves people in translating the text coming from the trial into another language but also into the present time. At the same time, the space is conceived in such a way that the spectator becomes part of the trial. The position of the spectator in the performance is important for me. In this case I think the spectator is on the same level as the performance. They become a part of the project.
Much of your work implicates the spectator as the public. Can you talk about this within the framework of the The Trial?
Yes, I always perceive the public as the main point. Often it’s something practical. In The Trial, I took benches directly from the courthouse where the trial took place. I placed them in the exhibition space, and these benches became seating for the audience. I normally try to leave the center of the exhibition empty. It’s important for me that the center of the exhibition belongs to the spectator. The performance takes place off to the side, and you are able as spectator to move all around the space. In a way, it creates a set, but it doesn’t create a scenography. The set includes the spectator.
Also important for the public is the relationship between the Aula Bunker, a high-security courthouse in Rome where The Trial took place, and the space. The courthouse is an important architectonic element. It was a modernist building constructed in 1938, which was then reused for trials in the 1970s. When I started the project in 2006, the building had to be renovated. Now, it is in the process of changing and becoming a museum of sport. When this building was a courthouse, it had a straightforward use. As a space, it enforced certain rules to anyone who entered. I think it’s important that you have points of view in the exhibition which give you this same feeling; the benches are bolted to the floor, so when you sit as a spectator, you feel that you are part of this bureaucratic machine.
Some of your prior work was filmic, and the script played an important role in your exhibitions. How do concepts like mise-en-scene play a role in the performance aspect of your work?
When I work with any media, I work with it as if it were film. The most important film concept here is editing: It starts with information, then structure, and all of the works have a narrative. The idea of narration comes from the script. But The Trial is freer than film because as the spectator you can choose your entry point into the exhibition.
What led you to this subject matter? You first visited the courthouse because you were interested in its architecture.
This is true. My first interest was in the architecture of this specific building. When I first entered, I noticed that the architecture was mostly unchanged. It was like a film set. But I first knew the space through media—the images coming from the trials. The most famous trial was for the kidnapping and killing of a Democratic party leader, the trial of the Red Brigades, and then this trial, which I ultimately decided to work with—the April 7, 1982 trial of Autonomia Operaia.
I wanted to learn more about the trial, but for me knowledge is usually a function of relationships with people, so in a way, it contrasted my first feeling of knowing through media. I knew the history, but I knew it through media. In the beginning, I ran parallel research both on the Red Brigades and on the 7 April trial. I found the 7 April trial interesting because it is much more contemporary. These lawyers experimented with legislation which later became standard practice, especially with regard to terrorism. For example, they first used preventative imprisonment for those who had charges. When a charge was invalidated, they could keep them imprisoned until new charges were brought, and informants could get immediate reprieve and had no obligation to swear in during the trial.
The trial begins with accusations against many defendants who were university professors. They were mainly people who during the sixties and seventies were teaching and writing books. They were observers of social movements. The main accusation was that they had shaped the minds of the students who later took up arms and engaged in political action.
The name The Trial recalls Kafka, while being charged for antagonistic speech or corrupting the youth brings to mind Socrates. Were these important touchstones for you?
Yes, of course. These things were even on the mind of the people in the trial, and articles written by Deleuze, Guattari, and Lotringer touched on this context as well.
Can you explain the gap between the performance and the historical material of The Trial?
A difference is produced from the historical material and the work. It is difficult to see. I find that interesting because in a way, a person who is familiar with the history would not know this material. The audio material, for example, which is the base of the performance and the work, is edited down from 200 hundred hours of material into six hours. A big part of this is choosing which people enter the trial, almost like characters. I consider it more like theater than cinema, so there is a completely different structure. The structure I gave through editing is completely fictional in relation to the original trial. In the trial, you have one defendant who goes to speak and is kept with a judge for days. What I did was make it more collective. For me it is mainly an idea of editing information. It comes from the fact that we have so much information that we have to mediate in order to give the material structure.
Is The Trial guided by your systematic approach to constructing narrative, or do you find yourself working more from the material history behind a given project?
It comes primarily from the material. The research process is huge. There are two phases: the research through documents, but also research through testimony. I don’t believe you can do everything through records or traditional research. It is also a way to create a group. I want to create a community around the project. That is my main interest. I want there to be something there when art goes away. Also, because of this project, I remade connections between people who were originally involved.
Tell us about the film in the exhibition.
I call the films “notes” because they are a kind of documentation. At a certain point, coming from film, I felt constrained by having a script, editing, and having a crew, so I transferred this to installation, and I retained the film as a more private way of documenting moments. The films are in 8mm, so I'm not tied to the time of editing. The films have their own time. They aren’t made specifically for exhibition. Another interest is disconnecting the audio from the video—it allows me to choose between film and audio.
In the film, you see different moments from the trial within the courthouse, as well as the architecture of the courthouse. Much of the architectural details have been removed during the building's transformation. It’s not a pure documentation of a production—it's documenting this moment in history. I created an encounter between various defendants, friends, families, and lawyers, along with people involved with my project, so the film shows an informal tour of the building.
What is the importance of language and translation within the performance?
Language is really a central point of The Trial. There is a point in the trial when a judge says to Antonio Negri, "We speak two different languages." This is really important. In the editing process I gave Negri the role of someone who starts primarily with a political defense and tries to give both a historical and political frame of the trial. He tries to explain specific political terms to the judge, explaining phrases that he borrows from Brecht. All of this is in the trial.
There is a second aspect of this that I identify as the core of the project. I began thinking about how to translate the political language and the history to contemporary time. The language is quite specific. It pertains to the things that are more difficult to translate to the present than they are to translate between languages, and this led to the idea of spreading this work internationally. So, the idea of translating, interpreting, and sharing this history through the process of translation became crucial.
Many of the original participants in the trial have become prominent leftist theorists. How do you think your work fits within this new context?
My interest came through strong connections to Autonomia, but also in how they worked with communication, politics, and life as well as the way they tried to connect these things. They were not tied to ideology, so they were constantly changing.
We used the exhibition space at e-flux to hold workshops which explored the possible connection between Occupy and Autonomia, which I don’t think is a given thesis. It is an attempt to discuss some topics and see if there is a line. I think if there is a connection, then it is about life, and whether it is sustainable. It is something discussed in terms of the Greek crisis and Occupy. For Autonomia, culture was a part of living. Fighting for free concerts, free university, for higher wages: this was all a part of the same point. If a factory worker cannot go to a concert, then there is no point in having a higher wage.
The Trial is on view until Saturday, July 20, at e-flux in New York. More information is available here.
All images: Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, 2013. Exhibition view, e-flux, New York, 2013. Photos: Ray Anastas.