The Community Whisperer: How Marinella Senatore Is Taking Social-Practice Art to New Heights
Currently the subject of a Queens Museum survey, she brings together thousands of people for large-scale public performances.
Marinella Senatore is full of energy. In a conversation over Skype, she speaks a mile a minute with righteous enthusiasm, full of joy and excitement. Her demeanor is friendly, sweet, and welcoming. Above all her spirit is contagious. You can’t help but be immediately taken by her kinetic vigor—and all this just from hearing her voice mediated via the Internet.
This, of course, comes as no surprise, for Senatore has made a career of doing just that: inspiring large groups of people with her moxie and drive to participate in her large-scale social engagements.
The artist, who is not very well known in the US, has for the better part of a decade traveled Europe and the rest of world working with small communities to create public performances, dance pieces, films, plays, and photographic projects.
Currently, she has a retrospective at the Queens Museum titled “Piazza Universale / Social Stages,” which showcases archival documentation from some of the artist’s projects since 2009 to the present. (It closes this weekend.)
Senatore shifted from working simply in collage and video to public art in 2006, and has been known to bring together very large groups of people (as many as 20,000) to collectively activate their creative abilities, often bringing participants from non-art backgrounds to create and be part of the artistic process.
Most recently, in 2016, the artist and more than 200 participants presented Modica Street Musical: The Present, the Past, and the Possible. The two-act performance that took place in the public plazas of the Sicilian town of Modica saw participants engage in dance, music, and acting to reflect on the culture and history of the site.
Additionally, for the opening of her retrospective at the Queens Museum, the artist presented a public performance titled Protest Forms: Memory and Celebration: Part II. The spectacle brought together 350 participants from a range of activist groups and cultural organizations throughout the city, including members of Black Lives Matter NYC and the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Symphonic Band. The performance was held as celebration of the civic engagements in New York City.
The impressive output of her work, the sheer size of her productions, and the artist’s ability to bring so many diverse groups together to work in harmony all amount to quite an amazing feat. The question is: How does Senatore do it? What is her secret?
Born in 1977 in the small Italian town of Cava dei Tirreni, Marinella was trained as classical violinist at a very young age and was encouraged to play professionally in an orchestra. To the dismay of her family, Senatore gave up her career as a classical musician and decided to become an artist instead.
But the experience of working in an ensemble seems to have never left her, and has become an integral part of her practice. “It’s a core structure,” is how she puts it.
“We are all telling the story, which is the script, and in the orchestra it is exactly the same,” she elaborates. “I play the violin, my sister plays the cello, but then at the end we are all playing the same sonata. At the end of the day we have one symphony to play for people. So we are all together with our individuality, but we are together in a collective environment.”
Senatore, as an orchestrator of giant performances that often incorporate dance and music, is not without precedent—think of Tino Sehgal or Suzanne Lacy. But as opposed to establishing herself as the director or exclusive auteur of the project, she invites people to become creators and collaborators to produce something that belongs to them and is reflective of the needs and wants of their community.
“I don’t want employees, I want participants,” she says. “It’s a chain. We are all part of the chain, and it matters who is in front of us and who is behind us.” Her process is indelibly community-forward, driven by what she calls a “horizontal structure of didactics,” creating an environment where the people become not only the focus of the work but also what propels it.
Perhaps one of the more impactful qualities of Senatore’s practice is her dedication and sheer grit to meet and talk to as many as possible, face-to-face, and to be involved in the process of activating communities to work collectively to produce art. More importantly, she is adamant that old-fashioned, grassroots methods are the way to go—and that social media is not best suited to getting large groups of people to engage in these big projects.
So how does she recruit her collaborators? “I do open calls to find people that aren’t affiliated with art, not necessarily museum-lovers or something like that,” she says. “I produce leaflets, I talk with local radio, newspapers, sometimes bloggers. I also try to find out how these communities communicate, and how best to reach them.”
Senatore recalls spending one month in 2011 knocking on the doors of Lower East Side residents to invite them to work collaboratively on a film project. After one month, she recruited over 300 participants to produce the film Variations, a film for and about the inhabitants of the Lower East Side.
It is noteworthy that the political valence of Senatore’s work seems to be predicated on this notion of finding ways to communicate with communities and to engage them in artistic projects, whether it be by learning their language or more intuitively getting a better sense of how to interact with them in their own environment. For Senatore this is at the crux of her work, and is perhaps why she is so successful at it.
“Of course, I also have a very great passion for political and social issues,” she says. “But what I learn after traveling so much and meeting all kinds of different people, is that the most political act right now is to stay together—and how to stay together.”
Marinella Senatore, “Piazza Universale/ Social Stages” is on view at the Queens Museum, New York, through July 30, 2017.
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