by Patrizia de Mennato

The virtuous circle of The Traveling Canvas

The Traveling Canvas is a very special project ideated and realized by Cynthia Simonelli over a period of more than one year; as I see it, it is essentially a concrete manifestation of an artistic discourse that centres on complexity. This is a theme that is very dear to me, but it is cannot be fully appreciated unless one is familiar with the relationship between the limits posed by complex thought and its simultaneous ability to meander into unusual and unforeseeable territories.

What is an artistic discourse on complexity?

Complexity has represented, and represents, the real challenge to every form of traditional knowledge, and some of its highest accomplishments are seen in the visual arts, because complexity is first and foremost “a gaze at things” that is capable of constructing reality by interpreting it as a “non-banal machine” (von Foerster). This assertion definitively dispels the illusion that the gaze can be independent from the observer, and that the realization of an artistic project may be a banal reproduction of reality. Indeed, the self-same Walter Benjamin stressed and highlighted the subject of the uniqueness of the work of art, subject to possible replicas “at the time of its technical reproducibility”. What the subject observes therefore cannot be simplified or decomposed because it is singular; it defines a portion of reality built on the basis of a historical, local, localized perspective space. And it is the “hic et nunc of the work of art – its unique and unrepeatable existence in the place in which it is located” that modifies the object which is known precisely by virtue of the personal identity of the artist.

The work of art is, therefore, a “mosaic” formed of the neurobiological construction of the artist’s own perception, technique, sensibility and culture. It is an “action” that the artist performs on his or her cognizance, long before it is manifested on a canvas. It is a description which is “virtuously” partial, that takes on a terribly practical significance: it centres on the meaning of the individual and the world, the system, which is often implicit, which we all use to arrange our trajectories of meaning according to hierarchies and priorities. It is a way of judging the importance, or irrelevancy, of the things that inspire artistic creation. In fact, this terribly serious “game” uses ideas like tesserae in a mosaic, and these ideas are the part of us that come into play.

We create personal meanings and philosophy with our thoughts, thus “creating” the reality in which we live; thoughts thus have a decisive influence on our activities. They serve the purpose of filtering the significance of the world, allowing it to be manifested in the work of art.

It is on this node that The Traveling Canvas project is based; it establishes a relation (another term that is essential within the context of complex thought) between persons, rather than between artists. It introduces their identity in the subtle and subterranean play of the ingenious theories and cultural convictions that guide their art. To participate in The Traveling Canvas, the artists have had to accept to share a lot, to be linked together by the work they have made together. At the same time the identity of each artist has been enriched, through the association of this work and his or her artistic and existential choices.

The singular “aura” of the work of art, as Walter Benjamin calls it, in this case becomes “collective”. The synchrony of time and space (the artists belong to different continents, and their contributions to the work cannot but be made at different points in time) is cancelled by the great trajectory that links the artists in a circular development where the interventions, that may take the form of reconsiderations, overlaps, alterations – and sometimes even superimpositions and concealments – all contribute to produce a collective web that can no longer be linked to the identity of a single artist.

 “It would be truly naïve vanity to think, just because we have found a given path, that this has to be the only possible and thus “real” one”, says von Glasersfeld, another important scholar who studies complexity. The originality of the project therefore lies precisely in the indispensable interruption of the linearity of the artist’s personal trajectory, in the fact that he or she is forced to interrupt it before it feels natural to leave it, in order to allow another artist to intervene on his or her work while it is only “partial” (another term dear to complexity). The process which leads to the finished work therefore becomes inclusive; it is built through a cooperation based on a dialogue. This dialogue, however, is “concrete”, made of personal stylistic and narrative dimensions that take place in an agreed space and time.

The forms of artistic production reveal a lot about who we are and what we know; they assimilate the tensions and differences that make us become who we are. All our experiences involve all aspects of our being. It is virtually impossible to conceive of an experience that does not imply any emotional, moral and aesthetic involvements. And it is true that what we know about ourselves is an aesthetic and “affective” kind of knowledge. The relationship between the authors is characterized by an aesthetic kind of response.

The artistic trajectory which has been ideated in this project features a circular development. It is, in its very essence, based on the explicit choice of a “background” created by the first artist, which is then defined during the following phases of its construction, in a procedure that makes it possible to go back, elaborate, and clarify previous graphic interventions. In this circular development the first artist begins his or her “story”, but has to let go of it before it is finished, in order to allow the second, and then the third and the other artists to continue the work. This makes it possible to build itineraries that do not consist of separate, distinguishable elements, but take the form of a hologrammatic result of artistic individualities who dialogue with one another.

Each artist acts and observes – always and in any case – from a certain perspective. In other words, the significance attributed to the previous trace is not neutral, and it does not represent an absolute or abstract entity, as it is altered by the perspective of the artist or artists who subsequently intervene on the work. Every painting therefore becomes the history of a “vision” which is composed through the “nexus” given by the individualities of the artists in a development which we may therefore define as circular.

The proof of these conceptual developments is observable in all the processes. If we compare the first stage of the construction with the subsequent phases and the final painting, we find moments of agreement and union expressed by both a smooth progress and by refusals and superimpositions that alter the previous trajectory.

The photographic documentation of the process, which is indispensable to understand the methodological aspects and the very personal dialogue established between the authors, makes it possible to reconstruct the technical and aesthetic operations, and above all the reflections which have resulted in those particular constructions. It gives, in other words, a concrete example of the interdependency that is created between the artists, and shows the relations, hierarchies and configurations that have served as basis for the artists’ alterations and interpretations. The viewpoint, the choice of materials, the singular graphic lines make it possible to become familiar with the profound “cognitive equipment” of every single artist. One thus comes to realize that a synoptic observation of the phases involved in The Traveling Canvas reveals an overall trajectory that is both capable of “capturing the differences” between the interventions and to “make” the differences.

Every painting is therefore a manifestation of both a meeting and of a confrontation between different logics, where both disorder and order contribute towards the construction of the final product, encompassing the many “truths” of the artists and at the same time highlighting their contrasts. It therefore becomes a process of deconstruction and construction, often in combination, where an idea of the world is launched precisely to be recreated in a new one and all of them, as a whole, provide clues for understanding not only the single artistic gesture, but also those complex operations which take the form – in this case – of true collective works.

 “Every new acquisition regenerates thought” asserts Edgard Morin, and these compositions or decompositions highlight some elements of reality rather than others, in a constant alteration of the relationship between things, in a search of new equilibria. The artists come to define the salient elements in their poetic; by separating, distinguishing, uniting, outlining or accentuating the creative gesture, they explore the essential aspects of their art, while respecting them. The result is the construction of an intricate, complex and polychrome forest where abstraction gradually comes to prevail on the figurative outlines as the cooperation proceeds – as in Mayer and Rodriguez – or where the figurative dimension comes to play a central role – as in Vivarelli and Kinè.

In spite of this the interventions do not contradict one another but coexist and dialogue. They find a way to share the same space in a hologrammatic manner. If “everything is in the part, which is in the whole”, every finished work includes all its authors, who nevertheless maintain their own identity. At the same time it transcends them, because it transforms their contributions into a collective “aura” which nevertheless is embodied by the singularity of the artistic experience.

This “multicultural artistic experience” centres on the concept of the negotiation of the work of art within the context of a cultural encounter. It is the result of subjective constructions and reconstructions, of a constant confrontation with others and, as Paul Watzlawick puts it, “with life itself”. Cognitive systems, social interactions and historical conditions give rise to the exchange that we refer to as culture. A “selective filter” which controls and constructs the stimuli and provides a basis for governing social behaviour, as Turner observes. The cultural identity thus appears as a complex cognitive structure which mediates the meaning of the world in an individual manner. To use a metaphor, the cultural dimension acts as a “deforming lens” of our awareness, through which we observe the world, actually creating different, specific and original worlds. Culture thus forms a kind of spectrum of priorities that is anything but alien or superimposed on the reality of facts; it is part of our mindsets, a product of the feeling of belonging with which we identify. It may appear blasphemous to say so but, as Neisser points out, “much of what one must know about society, about others and about ourselves may only be learned through the experience of others”.

However, The Traveling Canvas artistic production project shows that culture is not a monolithic block which fanatically holds onto its own rigid way to see the world, but a fluid and permeable substratum that we have to deal with every day, while we are “busy living”. Each of the artists involved in The Traveling Canvas influences the other artists and their worlds with his or her own vision of the world, and is thus invited to contribute to the “creation of a new culture”.

When we assert that our way to think and to act is directly dependent upon the aggregate of representations which we use to understand and to explain the world, what we really mean to say is that the artist, “by inventing reality”, stages symbolic ways of interaction with it, both in its most tangible forms (painting techniques, perspectives, preferences in terms of materials…) and in its more allegorical ones (the sum of beliefs and cultural values dear to the individual artist…). This project creates an experience that never ceases to change, precisely because it is multicultural and because it features a circular development. It cannot be reduced to a banal cumulative evolution of graphic gestures; it centres on an invitation to participate in a confrontation that takes the form of changes or alterations that only art, in its highest form, is capable of achieving.

The possibility to intervene on someone else’s work, as in this praiseworthy artistic experience, opens for a possibility to create new “versions of the world” and new exchanges within this world. And it is in these exchanges that the work takes form. These complex works show us, not only by effecting radical changes to the work of preceding artists but also by acting as transforming agent for the following ones, how established cultural equilibria have been challenged. In other words, The Traveling Canvas represents a virtuous example of cognitive change that plays a concretely "generative" role,  which necessarily must take the form of encounters that deeply affect those involved, making us consciously recognize the dignity and legitimacy of versions.

If we merely take note of the interruptions and incompatibilities that may arise between cognitive heritages, renouncing the challenge of possible connections, then our inability to communicate and the conflict between different cultural worlds will be worsened, and every strategy aimed at dialogue will be weakened. This radicalization is the product of the misconception that culture may be understood as a unitary, homogeneous and coherent entity, rather than as a complex system of cooperative intellectual strategies.

The beautiful end products of this project, that may be unsettling because of the transformations they have undergone in the course of their production, therefore vaunt something more than their undoubtable aesthetic value. They are the result of a prolific multicultural integration of which revolutionary significance will only be fully understood in time.

6 September 2018

Patrizia De Mennato

She is professor of general and social pedagogy at the University of Florence's Faculty of Medicine and Surgery;

She is president of the degree course in professional education Faculty of Medicine and Training Sciences of the University of Florence;

She is coordinator of course of "Development of Knowledge" in the PhD "Quality of Training" of the University of Florence;

She is coordinator of the National Research Group on pedagogy of the professions and health care of the Italian Society of Pedagogy Siped (University of Florence, Bergamo, Bologna, Florence, Foggia, Milan, Naples Federico II, Naples Parthenope, Piacenza);

She is responsible for the Florentine section of the Italian Medical Pedagogy Society Sipem

She is part of the medical Humanities center of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Florence.

She taught at the University of Naples Federico II, at the University of Naples Parthenope at the University of Catania and at the College Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples

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