Rossella Biscotti
A Preference for Key Moments

Issue no3
Jun -Jul 2021
Makers Of Their Own Time - Relational Activism

Everyone hastens to help with her research, from cleaners to eye witnesses. As a result of which the Netherlands-based Italian artist Rossella Biscotti succeeds like a veritable detective in unearthing unnoticed details from sometimes heavily loaded histories. She translates her findings in art that is simultaneously impressive and compressed.

Rossella Biscotti is – to cut to the chase – an amazingly conscientious artist. Her projects, developed through film, photography, posters, audio and performance, involve incredibly intricate research, often into highly significant, sometimes entirely forgotten or hidden (historical) events, or into the people behind watershed moments – be they politically or socially driven. For dOCUMENTA (13), she showed The Trial (Il processo, 2010-2012), a piece she first presented at the Rijksakademie. Through audio recordings of trials, testimonials, large-scale sculptural pieces and a live performance, she gives a picture of the infamous ‘April 7 trials’ held in Rome in 1983-84, in which Italian intellectuals (like Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri, members of the leftist movement ‘Autonomia Operaia’) were accused of inciting the terrorist acts of the Red Brigades. Importantly, this work focuses on the place of the trials, the Academy of Fencing (Accademia della Scherma), an exponent of Fascist architecture and part of a 1930s sports complex in Rome which was transformed in 1981 into a high security courthouse. It appears in Biscotti’s installation via the concrete casts she made of symbolic elements of the building itself. The importance of place lies in the placing of the work: Biscotti’s practice relies on dug-up historical material but extends these facts into material.

—Maxine Kopsa What triggers your interest in a given research subject? It seems you are looking for key moments or people, or even innovations. Do these things need to be related to the here and now? To our present?

—Rossella Biscotti‘Surely, I’m puzzled by individuals who have generated or participated in what you call “key moments”, but only when they touch some of our current narratives. In general, I always have a personal involvement in such histories; these stories touch me personally as well being part of a more collective consciousness.’

—Maxine KopsaIt’s amazing how you have managed to get your hands on sensitive material, and I’m thinking as far back as the access you got to the original government documents about the Chernobyl disaster via your research on the Russian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko (The Sun Shines In Kiev, 2006). For the piece Cinematography is the Strongest Weapon (2004-2007) you convinced movie theatres in Italy to allow you to project Mussolini’s slogan “Cinematography is the strongest weapon” before the regular program (obviously connecting Mussolini and Berlusconi’s governments). You managed to speak with the real Donnie Brasco (Joseph Pistone) for The Undercover Man (2008) and found and exhibited the large-scale bronze heads of Mussolini and King Vittorio Emanuele III, once intended for the 1942 World Fair but never shown (The Heads in Question, 2009).

—Rossella Biscotti‘The starting point of every work retains, whatever form it has in the final presentation, a documentary approach. The gathering of sensitive material, films and documents as well as conducting interviews stems from my documentary film “working method”. It dictates a deep archival research, coupled with a certain form of action that is probably more common among journalists than historians, avoiding bureaucracy by talking to people directly, creating a network of people that are interested in the topic and will use the information afterwards, taking some risks in a sense. I must say that I follow the official governmental path only at the beginning of the research and with a certain irony. For example, I like to understand how to apply for papers at the FBI office and collect all our communication that goes back and forth with stamps, formalities, huge delays, and at the same time gather maybe the same information from more informal sources. When I worked for the project The Undercover Man, I could compare the same documents – those from the FBI with censorship and the ones I received from a lawyer, with no information withheld. I have many funny stories for each project, like my first meeting with “Donnie Brasco” in a men’s toilet, or when I had an artist friend from Moscow exchange a cassette of Shevchenko’s film for money from a “distributor” at the Red Square. Or when I for weeks casted all the concrete sculptures inside the high-security courthouse in Rome without any official permission from the Tribunal. I then later managed to gather former defendants and other people for a performance, just thanks to the trust of a working lady who would hand me the keys of the building in the morning. This can involve a certain risk, namely the failure of the project, as well as a possible legal charge, though I have always found help and protection from people. I think art opens up a space of action; in people’s minds, the artist is still associated with a form of freedom, which is different from responding to the request of a newspaper or TV. There is no moral judgment in the way I listen and edit the information, and this is really important for the sharing of personal stories.’

—Maxine KopsaAll these ‘uncoverings’ are truly remarkable, not only in a highly seductive sense, but also in terms of an almost altruistic drive – one could say you are doing good by showing them. Do you feel this way – that your aim is to do some good?

—Rossella Biscotti‘I don’t think about doing good by unveiling something that was covered – much information circulates already. Many things are disclosed and accessible through open source canals, like the Internet, or through people’s knowledge. What I try to do is gather information, compare it, feel it, make it travel within a circuit and question specific people about it, connect it with contemporary life and edit it into a new narrative, which is precisely conceived after having taken all the previous activities into account. Though this narration is not a true process.’

—Maxine KopsaWhat do you mean by that exactly? You speak to real people, gather real information… What wouldn’t the narrative be true in the end?

—Rossella Biscotti‘I can assure you that the process is true, as I am testimony of it; but the narration has a variability that depends on our current reading of the art work. What I mean is that it is not set once and forever. There are works that acquire a certain meaning only after particular events, or a certain meaning for a particular category of people who share a specific cultural political identity. For this reason, I tend to re-organize and sometimes change installations according to the exhibition space and the public that will experience it.’

—Maxine KopsaPaolo Virno said of 20th century art, and in particular avant-garde poetry, because this is what he knows best: “It demonstrates the inadequacy of the old standards and suggests, in the formal sphere and through the formal work of poetry, new standards for the appraisal of our cognitive and affective experience. This is a point that brought the artistic avant-garde close to the radical social movement and in this sense there is a kind of brotherhood between the two: they would like to explain that the old standards are no longer valid and to look for what might be new standards.”1 Do you feel a kind of brotherhood with a particular political or social movement?

—Rossella Biscotti‘I do believe in the complete independence of art from particular political and social movements, though I think they can share knowledge, intense moments of creativity and action. I myself grew up with the anarchist movements. They were loose groups, left from the dissolution of the Italian Anarchist Federation, that worked in the 90s engaging social issues on a local level through the radical defence of free education and labour rights, addressing the problematic of the peripheries, occupying spaces for cultural activities, and in particular, in Southern Italy, dealing with new migrations. At the moment I’m interested in new cognitive movements that are developing in Italy and are involving mainly cinema and theatre workers, artists and intellectuals responding to the restriction of cultural polices within the country’s current political agenda. These people have been reacting through self-organization, by occupying and running important theatres in Rome (Teatro Valle), Venice (Teatro Marinoni), Palermo (Teatro Garibaldi), as well as exhibition spaces in Milan (MACAO) and Venice (SALE DOCKS). They are setting up and also experiencing new forms of organization within culture.’

—Maxine KopsaDo you feel a part of this movement?

—Rossella Biscotti‘I’m in a privileged situation by being able to work as an artist. I have chosen for and fight to gain my “precariat artist’s condition”. I hope art would never become a job for anyone. I wish everyone were in a position to decide what to do, how to live. It’s a different situation when people have no choice and no rights. I’m not a member of a movement as such. I think movements and politics need to be addressed locally and on specific issues.’

—Maxine KopsaA lot has been said about the relationship between your sculptures and the content of your research. Without wanting to sound too old-school, I’m referring to the actual ‘shape of things and their meaning’. It’s something I’d like to look at briefly here and play devil’s advocate for a moment: noting the level of abstraction of the shapes/objects/sculptures involved, is the realm of artistic production the best place for you to bring your narratives to bear? What I mean is, do you ever worry about whether these ‘things’ carry the weight of the narrative?

—Rossella Biscotti‘We are able to make these “things” speak to us. What today we consider “authored movies” – Antonioni’s for example – were filling the cinemas at the time they were made. Why could a person understand an Antonioni film in the 70s, and not now?’

—Maxine KopsaStill, I’m wondering if the physical translations in your works might be doing the impossible. I’m thinking here of you walking the line of the old concentration camp wall in Bolzano (Everything is somehow related to everything else, yet the whole is terrifyingly unstable, 2008) as well as the sculptures in After four rotations of A, B will make one revolution (2010), where you ‘transferred’ existing socialist sculptures by creating abstract, minimalist sculptures of the same weight, as though condensing them but remaining true to their material and titles. The objects never become simple illustrations nor are they separate from their source.

—Rossella Biscotti‘Lately I have developed a lecture to try to analyze how the spectator experiences The Trial, which was in this year’s Documenta, and the exhibition at De Vleeshal. How does narration unfold through the display of pieces in the exhibition space? And how do the space and the work create a certain experience? I have being observing people moving through the work in Kassel for hours, photographing them. For me, there is a big distinction between showing a single piece, say for instance, Yellow Movie (2010) in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which works or speaks on a one-to-one basis with each spectator, and installations in which the narration is constructed from the relation between the various elements and the exhibition space. For example, for The Trial in Kassel, I worked on the circulation of the public in the space (it had five doors) in relation to the display of the sculptures (concrete casts of the high-security courthouse) and the possibility to create a type of “square”, a kind of public space. This was my main point: to move from the constraints of the courthouse (and sometimes of our institutionalized cultural places) to the “freedom” that was advocated in the text of the defendants in the trial, which is heard in the audio piece and translated in the performance. The performance with the simultaneous translation activated this function of the space, changing the circulation of the public, which would stop and create circles around the translator in order to listen. People would sit on the floor in between the sculptures and become an active part of the work.’

—Maxine KopsaSo it’s not the objects working alone, but the objects and the viewer working together?

—Rossella Biscotti‘Absolutely. For me, the public has the same importance and function as the sculptures. In my installations and films, the public has an active function.’

Maxine Kopsa is associate editor of Metropolis M

  1. ‘The Dismeasure of Art. An Interview with Paolo Virno’, in: Open no. 17, NAi Publishers/SKOR, 2009. Also see:


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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2021