Quadrophonic Sound Piece - Total length: 21’ 19’’
Artist Valentina Vetturi speaks about her Alzheimer Café, Trivero, a work produced for Fondazione Zegna’s ALL’APERTO project, a sound composition to be presented in the garden of Casa Zegna on the occasion of the FAI Spring Days (Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 March 2017).
Barbara Casavecchia: Why did you choose Alzheimer Café as the title and what made you start working on these themes?
Valentina Vetturi: I’m interested in the experience of forgetting. If we are what we remember, what remains of us when it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to recall even our own name?
BC: Alzheimer Café is a series of works. How long have you been working on this cycle?
VV: I remember sending a document entitled “Alzheimer Café” to a curator in 2012. But if I had to define when it all started, I’d say before that, but no date. A woman, sitting at a table, chewing a piece of meat, indefinitely. She forgets it. The bit of meat keeps changing shape. Who knows whether the woman will ever be able to swallow it. Between this image and 2014, the year in which I received two different invitations to the produce the work, Alzheimer Café found a possible answer to the question: what remains when everything is forgotten? Musical memories, fragments of song, tunes. Alzheimer Café is dedicated to these memories, the last ones that, incredibly, survive the neurological degeneration caused by the disease. And it was these memories sung by people suffering from Alzheimer’s that generated the first works in the cycle.
BC: How do you collect material and how do you re-elaborate it?
VV: Though I start with reality, my work isn’t one of documentation. I go to centers that care for Alzheimer patients, I take part in the activities they’re involved in everyday, so they can get used to my presence (and vice versa). Then I record their voices while they sing: the re-elaboration comes afterwards, in the studio. I’ll try to summarize for you what is a complex and slow process. I work with a sound engineer, Roberto Matarrese, with whom I proceed as follows: listening, cataloguing, listening, selection, listening, composition... it’s the images suggested by those anonymous voices, with their sonorities and timbres, and their singing that guide the construction of the sound score. Each stage in Alzheimer Café, over and above the various forms it may take on, is conceived as a public space where private memories meet.
BC: In what ways have you presented Alzheimer Café so far?
VV: Alzheimer Café I (2014) is a permanent sculpture I produced for a public art program at the Kunsthalle in Göppingen, Germany. It is pyramid-shaped and red, and inside there are two bottles on the floor: if opened, there are two carillons that play musical memories. Alzheimer Café II (2014-15) is a performance that’s part of the collection at Rome’s MAXXI Museum, where I presented it at an exhibition entitled Open Museum Open City, curated by Hou Hanru: a future listening space, a sound cloud in which to preserve our memories before they fade away. And in November 2016 I was a guest at the Italian Cultural Institute in Stockholm at the invitation of curator Valentina Sansone. We’re working on a new stage in the cycle, which in my period of residence there involved various local bodies: Ersta, a center specializing in the treatment and cure of degenerative neurological diseases in Stockholm, Elektronmusikstudion (EMS), an electro-acoustics and sound art center in Sweden, AgeCap - Centre for Ageing and Health, and the University of Göteborg.
BC: Where have you worked in Trivero?
VV: Thanks to you curators, I’ve collaborated with the “Antonio Barioglio” Alzheimer Day Center and the "Sella Borsetti Facenda" nursing home in Mosso. If my recording sessions were prolific, l owe it the director of the Chiara Craviolo centers, to all the specialist staff - psychologists, social workers, nurses - and above all to the guests who were willing to sing.
BC: How many and what sort of voices did you record? What did they sing?
VV: First of all I encountered the voices of the women and the (few) men guests at the Trivero day center, where there’s a group of 15 or so who alternate during the week and spend the day doing various activities. I then met another group, of around 20 guests in the Mosso nursing home who are in an advanced stage of the disease. The songs here in Trivero are all rooted in the light music tradition and range from the ’20s/’30s to the ’70s. Piemontesina bella, Il fazzolettino, L’ambasciatore, Romagna mia…, to name but a few.
BC: How did you decide to install your work, in this case, and why?
VV: The work is installed outdoors, in the garden at Casa Zegna. Sound-wise it’s quadrophonic. I wanted to use a characteristic typical of recording choir music. The four speakers are at the corners of a square, a space in which it’s possible to listen to a collection of short pieces, compositions of varying lengths alternating with silence
BC: Is this the first time you’ve used choirs instead of solo voices?
VV: Here in Trivero I decided, already in the recording phase, that choirs would be the prevailing element, my guide constructing the sound score. This is certainly new with respect to the previous stages. Group singing sessions are a typical activity in day centers and nursing homes however, and there are also choral moments in Alzheimer Café I and II.
BC: Do you think that Alzheimer Café can also work as geographical and historical “mapping”? Nursery rhymes from infancy, songs from childhood are often linked to a precise place, time and atmosphere or to a particular cultural identity.
VV: I like to think that a work can be read in different ways and independently of the author’s intentions. This is maybe one of those cases: I didn’t intend Alzheimer Café to also work as geographical and historical “mapping”. Its fragments, songs, nursery rhymes are inevitably rooted in people’s cultural background and in a particular period of time. Patients generally remember songs from their youth and this is particularly evident here in Trivero. In other centers though, in Rome for example, I met 40 year-olds who sang the Beatles alongside 70 year-olds who sang Modugno, just as I met people of different nationalities in Germany and Stockholm. For me, Alzheimer Café lives in a perspective that’s almost inverse to the one it suggests: over and above every cultural background there’s a surprising poetic persistence of music despite loss of memory.
BC: How do you cope with the grief attaching to the loss of part of oneself, which inevitably entails the disappearance of shared memories too, and thus of countless other individual stories within a family or group?
VV: Shared memories, individual stories perhaps don’t disappear, rather they are transformed in passing between generations. Alzheimer Café preserves some of these memories. I also think that loss, absence, despite the painful side of it, is an integral part of life and gives it a sense. Which is why I treat it.
BC: On your part, do you also think about the relationships between our capacity to remember and the new technologies to which we increasingly often entrust the task of storing our memories?
VV: The relationship with new technologies is unavoidable when we talk about memory now. It’s a complex subject and full of dichotomies. Our capacity to store data is incredible, as useful as it is terrifying. We get technology to remember things for us, perhaps at the expense of exercising our own memory. Technology remembers us, even when we don’t want it to or when we don’t pay enough attention. And at the same time it becomes hard to forget, because everything is recorded.
Since 2015, I’ve also been engaged on another cycle of works, on hacker culture. The third stage is entitled A Better Chance to Gain Enough Entropy (Un’occasione migliore per far crescere entropia, which I presented at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome during the 16th Quadriennale, at the invitation of Matteo Lucchetti), and it concentrates on the digital revolution. I got a choir to sing some pieces I composed about anonymity, transparency, digital memory. And in a fragment digital memory is defined absolute. Alzheimer Café, in fact, might also remind us of the importance of forgetting.