i have arrived in biella, a small town in the northwest of italy. biella itself is quaint but the landscape is dramatic. they call it the piedmont region, the foot (pied) of the alps mountains (mont). if you are at someone’s feet you are generally worshiping them or washing them or kissing them or doing something that requires a bit of humility. the mountains here are looming so high and sharp like the devil tried to punch holes through a steel earth from the inside with fists of ice daggers. with that intimidation factor in mind, being at the mountains’ feet is a perfectly appropriate way to think about it.
when i stepped out of the taxi here in the gravel lot of cittadellarte, i felt as if i was in some kind of top secret military outpost. a few people were standing around staring at me from the surrounding white buildings while i waited for a tumbleweed to blow by. it never came and eventually i found my way up some stairs to a small group of people with macbooks looking at a presentation in a large white room. the network of buildings known as citadellarte is not an italian military outpost but an old wool mill which has been converted into a several affiliated ventures including art galleries, a gift shop, a cafe, a clothing line, an architecture firm that uses only biological building materials, and an artist residency program. the residency is an annual four month long gathering of a handful of talented young artists, economists, and activists from all of the world working under the supervision of an elusive, eccentric but charismatic man with a white beard who slightly resembles sean connory and calls himself michelangelo pistolleto. he has recently published a book entitled the third paradise, about his new vision for the future of the human species. i’m not making that up. cittadellarte houses all of his pet projects.
the staff prepared me a room for two nights. i feel privileged to be here since overnight stays are only available for friends of the artists and the staff. my friend maggie is the only other american here. i had dinner the last two nights at the most international table i have ever sat at with fellow artists and thinkers from palestine, scotland, bulgaria, et cetera, with diverse skill-sets all speaking english at different levels of fluency. why this reminds me of the X-men i do not know. it’s not nice to pick favorites, but i’m not always nice and my favorite person here is Alioum, from Cameroon Africa. he is about my age, tall, shy, and dark of course with a huge toothy smile. he is well dressed and the kind of person you can tell is smart because their brain shines slightly through their eyes. he and i spent most of this evening listening to, discussing, and playing music. in Cameroon, shepherds play a two stringed instrument for their cattle and for themselves when they are lonely. although not a shepherd he plays a little. coincidentally (although Alioum doesn’t believe in coincidences) we found a guitar with only two strings sitting in a corner of a room downstairs. he played it for me the best he could although it had only a slight resemblance to his native instrument. then we watched youtube videos of african artists and i played them back to him by ear with my guitar the best i could, to his great amusement. i now have a good list of West African singers to download out on itunes. Alioum is a painter as well as conceptual artist.
my american friend maggie is not an artist in the typical sense of the word; she more closely resembles pistolleto’s conception of creator as an agent of social change. what is an artist anyway? a contemporary artist is someone who makes art for other artists and rich people. artists know, but they don’t often admit it, that facebook is more entertaining than something you have to stare at for an hour to wrap your head around. maybe there are more important roles in society for people who like to call themselves an “artist”? rather than or in addition to creating something strange and avante guard for its own sake or the sake of a shrinking number of art fans, contemporary artists could make things that bring about social change through the way they are made or the way they are viewed or work within society. that is what maggie seeks to do here through developing “assignments” that force the participants to think about their role in society and their interconnectedness with other cultures and the species at large. i participated in one of them today. it was hard for me to understand all this at first too but just trust me there’s some shit going on here that is probably important.
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biella is a small town with all the amenities of any italian small town including gelato, espresso, pizza, parks, piazzas, piadina kebabs and other things that begin with the letter p. but as best i can tell the most exciting part is the funiculare, and i know this because people would say “have you been to the funiculare yet”? we don’t have an english word for it so i didn’t understand what it was at first. but i heard it was so cheap it was almost free and i was sold by the first syllable anyway: fun. funicolare is pronounced funny colARE ay, which is kind of like funny car. and it turns out that funiculare means inclined train–basically a ski lift. so i bought a map and found my way to the edge of town. behind a large church near a park there is a rusted archway with faded letters on it saying funiculare. i walked under it into a small room with a turnstyle and two sets of tracks with two suspended wonkavators. oddly, i was the only one there; there was no attendant and were no other would-be passengers but the wonkavator door was open. so i walked in and sat down. nothing happened. i looked around and saw a big red button inside the car near the front window. now i already i know what you’re thinking: “whatever you do, don’t push the red button!” and that is what i was thinking too. despite not being able to understand a single word of the sign in italian by the button but i was overwhelmed by this urge to push it, which is what always happens when people are near red buttons and why i think they should never be red unless, and this has just occurred to me, that making it red was a secret ploy to get foreigners to push it. just then my right hand extended its index finger on its own and moved my arm toward the button and pushed it. immediately a loud alarm when off and without thinking i scrambled out of the car as the doors almost closed on me. the magic doors must have sensed my presence in the doorway because they re-opened. a few seconds later i reconsidered and walked back inside. the alarm went off again and this time, i let the doors close me inside the car and finally it began ascending the hill with me inside turning round and round to make sure i saw out every window. the button is indeed the button to make the car go and at the top there is an attendant watching video surveillance of the bottom. this must be one of the best jobs in biella since i am sure once a day someone like me walks in there and the attendant has a good laugh and then a couple minutes to wipe their smile off as the car ascends. it cost me 30 euro cents and was well worth it for the view of the misty town surrounded by misty mountains, or the feet of mountains.
right now i am on a train traveling from italy through switzerland where i will catch a connection in zurich and finally arrive in frankfurt germany. the roofs of the houses are going from red to brown, the bars to pubs and the landscape is becoming steadily more incredible as we pass lakes and enormous snow covered mountains. after a month of italian, i think it will be refreshing to hear another language even it if it is not my own.