Triennale Milano

Artist Simona Da Pozzo dialogues with anthropologist Valentina Mutti about the value of monuments

July 21 2020
Public monuments, as symbols and expressions of power, have always been the target of interventions that can be definitive, such as the demolition, or temporary that, defined as hacks, can question a monument, developing a collective reflection on the relationship between them and their socio-political influence.
Hacking Monuments, Simona Da Pozzo's practice and artistic research, was born in this context, collecting in a blog the hacks made over the years by activists and artists. Following the Call for ideas - Urban Factor of Milano Urban Center and Triennale Milano, thanks to the collaboration with Visualcontainer, Marcio Carvalho (Lisbon/Berlin), Simona Da Pozzo (Naples/Rotterdam), Sophie Ernst (Rotterdam/Wakefeld), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Luanda/Lisbon) and Sara Vanagt (Brussels), artists* who work in a performative way on monuments, have been chosen from this developing archive to be shown in Hacking Monuments. Tips to make sense of them, a digital exhibition, visible in the following video.
The exhibition, however, is only a part of Hacking Monuments, a project that during its three years of life has met different personalities, making the blog a real tool for comparison and study. Afterwards a conversation between the anthropologist Valentina Mutti and Simona Da Pozzo is proposed to deepen this process.
Maasgod voice, Simona Da Pozzo e Roberto Fiorentini, Rotterdam 2020
Valentina Mutti What are your relationships with activists and artists whose interventions you define as hacking monuments in your blog? It seems to me that they cannot be clearly defined as part of a movement or a community. Is there a network?
Simona Da Pozzo There is no network, but I'm working to create it. In most cases, hacks are impromptu acts. I'm getting in touch with artists (and activists) instead more serial, like Ernst or Jankowski.
V.M. That of the Polish athletes lifting monuments (Heavy Weight History, 2013)?
S.D.P. Yes, Jankowski also did the actions with Japanese masseurs (Massage Masters 2017). Marcio Carvalho also carries on a stratified reflection through performances, such as the one in which he rests his belly on the head of monuments chosen in different cities, he is brought into balance. Last year he also curated "Demythologize that History and Put it to Rest" inviting artists from Angola, Cameroon, Gabon, Iraq, Mozambique and Portugal to create hacks on two monuments: Otto von Bismarck (Berlin) and King Charles I (Lisbon). Some hacks are created legally and some are not, but there are also cases of censorship a posteriori, i.e. with bureaucratic permits already granted, as in the case of Silent Emperess by Sophie Ernst: a hack on the monument to Queen Victoria in 2012 (Wakefield) which has become a case in Britain.
The hack also contaminates the monument with the words it creates around it (words of passers-by, newspaper articles, etc.) because the violation of the monument engages the attention, the look, the word of the passer-by, the citizen. A violated monument hits or involves.
V.M. I guess the line between legal and illegal isn't so clear...
S.D.P. For me the difference is strong, both for the repercussions on the hacker and the formalization.
Activist Therese Patricia Okoumou went to prison when she tried to climb the Statue of Liberty: she was protesting against Trump, against the kidnapping of the children of "illegal" migrants. The photojournalists portrayed her under her heel, with the police trying to bring her down, an iconic image. The legality or illegality of the hack affects its size and duration, both in terms of production and permanence. Legal hacks, for example, tend to have a more installed than performative nature.
L’attivista Therese Patricia Okoumou durante la protesta sulla Statua della Libertà nel 2018
V.M. Contemporary studies on material culture invite us to question the subject-object relationship, and it seems to me that's what the hack does. The monument and the artist define themselves mutually, just as in itself the production of material culture defines the subjectivities that produce it. The act of producing a series of objects, whether they are design, art or simple objects, enters into a dialogue with those who make them. This aspect of mutual definition, of the monument object and the artist/activist subject, I believe is at the heart of the action and should always be kept in mind.
Carvalho who puts his belly on the head of the monument is somehow shaped by the object, showing how materiality is not only of the monument but also of the artist. Just as the sound intervention introduces an immaterial and subjective dimension to the material dimension of the monument. In this way the artist becomes silent and acts in a somewhat clandestine way to let the monument speak.
In this archiving process, the aspiration is actually to create connections. First of all in your work, for example when you connect two monuments between Naples and Rotterdam; but this is even more true in general than the possibility to put together more people working through a similar language. I would extend the theme by referring to connectivist thinking, i.e. the principle that there are no closed categories or relationships: not only concepts but also objects that we use have wider connections than we are used to attribute to them. It seems to me that this has something to do with your work, both single and networked.
Also, since the body came out very markedly, it would be interesting to explore the topic of voice: do other hackers use sound? Do they give voice to monuments? And then you, how did you work on it?
S.D.P. Sara Vanagt with Little Figures has created a screenplay for three monuments in Brussels whose dialogues are played by three children that the artist met in the square. The screenplay is inspired both by the biography of the characters, the vicissitudes of the objects and the square. The Silent Emperees by Sophie Ernst, already mentioned, gives voice to Queen Victoria making her ask for forgiveness for the colonial exploits of Great Britain.
In other hacks the voice is used as in Kiluanji Kia Henda Segundo Regicídio's intervention. The Black Square (Lisbon 2018): while the artist places a cube on the head of Charles I (Lisbon) a group of women perform a decolonization ritual in which singing is an important part, but the voices are the performers' own, not attributed to the statue.
V.M. How did your project of connection between Maasgod and the God Nile come about?
S.D.P. I was in residence with Ex-voto (Radical Public Culture) in Rotterdam, and I wanted to develop a connection with my research on the Nile in Naples. The residence space overlooked the harbour, the water of the Maas. I spent hours watching the Maas swell and deflate based on tides, river flow, Dutch water containment work. I found almost immediately the Maasgod monument: a half bust dedicated to the river crossing the city, represented as a god. When I saw it, I wanted to make a video-call between the Maas and the Nile, to let their faces speak animated by the changes of light at dawn: Sunrise Gods' Call. But what do two gods say to each other? There have emerged instances related to the ecology of sound. Realized during the lockdown, the work portrays the gap between the usual urban sound landscape and the one born as a consequence of the strategies of prevention of contagion. Roads, waters and rivers sounded different. The dialogue between the two gods is the result of the editing of the sounds recorded and shared online by different users at that time.
Kiluanji Kia Henda, Segundo Regicídio. The Black Square, 2018
V.M. There is this combination of ephemeral and permanent, already present in your previous works such as Luminescenze and Borderlight. On this I wanted to propose you a short quote from Making by Tim Ingold, a reflection that can be put in dialogue with hacks, even if it is not its object.
"The paradox of monuments is that they can serve as memorials only because they have failed the objective set for them by those who originally established their construction. If they had in fact achieved their goal, (...) that is, to limit memory to its beyond, thus guaranteeing immortality to themselves, then there would be no future generations turning back on them and reeling over how they might have been built (...) the monumental structures were designed by their creators to confer precisely this immortality, yet, for those who rediscover them later, they are nothing more than irrefutable proof that the past is finished, dead and buried" (Ingold, 2019: 137)
The hack goes against this idea that the past is dead, that it no longer concerns us. But, at the same time, the hack revitalizes this dialogue between permanence and something that by its nature is ephemeral.  
S.D.P. Hacks in fact could be seen as TAZ, Temporary Autonomy Zones (Hakim Bey): more acts of momentary subversion than revolutionary motions. The latter tend more towards the destruction or annihilation of the disputed monument. The hack is a proposal more of transformation than of eradication.
Valentina Mutti is PhD researcher in Anthropology at the University of Milan - Bicocca, her research deals with migration, diaspora communities and education in Africa. She is tutor of the Course of Cultural Anthropology at the Degree in Cultural Heritage at the University of Milan.
Simona Da Pozzo is a Venezuelan research artist; she explores the public sphere as a space for political encounter and confrontation. She is member of the Ex-Voto association and has exhibited in international contexts, both museum and underground.
Cover image: SILENT EMPRESS, Sophie Ernst