Open Work in Progress

A new shape-shifting publication by the Milanese collective Gasconade 

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Profiles | 21 SEP 16

Le Petit Jeu: An Artist’s Novel (The Little Game: An Artist’s Novel), written collaboratively by the Milanese collective Gasconade, is due to be published next year. The book’s plot is based on real events that occurred between September 2014 and July 2015 – the group’s ‘sabbatical year’, which resulted from the closure of their eponymous small exhibition space, founded in Milan in 2011. With openings so jam-packed that the crowds of young gallery-goers spilled out onto the pavement, Gasconade was a non-profit space that had real energy and quickly rose to prominence as an exhibition venue, debuting both young local artists and ‘newcomers’ from abroad – Camille Blatrix, Kaspar Müller and Dena Yago, to name but a few. Recording the events that unfolded following the closure of this highly social space, the book is an exploration of an alternative form of teamwork as well as serving to fill a gap in the group’s history.

Written in the first person but collectively attributed to Gasconade, Le Petit Jeu is being penned by 18 participants (Alessandro Agudio, Viola Angiolini, Michele D’Aurizio, Lupo Borgonovo, Maria Giovanna Drago, Anna Franceschini, Lorenza Longhi, Andrea Magnani, Diego Marcon, Jacopo Mazzetti, Marco Pio Mucci, Matteo Nasini, Gianandrea Poletta, Ingrid Pucci, Andrea Romano, Mattia Ruffolo, Davide Stucchi and Marta Zanoni). No wonder, then, that the ‘I’ of this book is polyphonic and constantly shape-shifting. Two years in the making, the publication is an ‘open work’ (to adopt Umberto Eco’s famous term) in progress: its editing sessions, accessible to the public, are held at regular intervals at the ASK research centre of Milan’s Bocconi University and the book’s final structure is still under discussion. A chapter titled ‘February’ recently appeared in Flash Art, while drafts of other sections, arranged chronologically, will be exhibited at Rome’s Quadriennale this month, as part of a group exhibition curated by D’Aurizio, Gasconade’s most vocal member.

Gasconade writing workshop for Le Petit Jeu, 2016. Courtesy: Gasconade Milan; photograph: Pietro Coco 

Milan is the backdrop against which all of the stories in Le Petit Jeu unfold. The city acts as the epicentre of a sentimental geography based on shared interests and work connections (in the worlds of art, fashion, advertising and clubbing), with the protagonists gravitating towards a handful of meeting places: the Love bar in via Melzo, the gay-friendly nightclub Plastic or an old barber shop, whose owner mistakes his young customers for one another and cuts everybody’s hair the same way (hence replicating, over and again, a ‘signature style’).

Artworld hip, and its rapid turnover, has been at the heart of Gasconade’s practice from the beginning. The collective’s name is an ironic word play on the French gascon, suggesting ‘bravado, boasting’ and indicating an impudent attitude towards the establishment. In conversation, D’Aurizio cited as an example the ambiguous attitude of the poseur: somebody who appropriates the aesthetic codes of urban subcultures in order to assimilate. Is presenting yourself as someone who has adopted such trends the fastest way to gain visibility and acceptance?

Le Petit Jeu clearly pays homage to the novel Reena Spaulings (2005), collectively authored by New-York based Bernadette Corporation, whose incipit was: ‘If you look at a city, there’s no way to see it. One person can never see a city. You can miss it, hate it or realize that it’s taken something from you, but you can’t go somewhere and look at it and just see it empirically. It has to be informed, imagined, by many people at a time.’ Gasconade’s book also reflects on how difficult it is to make an independent local art scene visible, especially when it doesn’t generate an immediately consumable signature style or ‘brand’. Even in times characterized by global connectivity and the constant updating and exchanging of information, an art scene mostly operates within given geographical boundaries and is rooted in the direct experience of gigs, performances, readings, conversations, debates and dance parties, all of which are ephemeral. Fluid by nature, art scenes resist labelling and historicization, and are often quickly bound for either nostalgic evocation or oblivion. Yet, their energy fuels more visible and powerful elements in the art world (museums, foundations, the market).

Gasconade’s book reflects on how difficult it is to make an independent local art scene visible, especially when it doesn’t generate an immediately consumable signature style or ‘brand’.

While Gasconade’s website centres on a regularly updated, linear chronology of openings, publications and reviews, by contrast, the story-telling of Le Petit Jeu plays out as a set of non-sequential shifts and events that could be described as ‘micro-emotional’ (to quote Piero Gilardi, an artist held in high esteem by the group). In that spirit, Gasconade re-asserts the intimacy of the group dynamics on which it based its initial operations: sociability, appearance and behaviour. The book also helps the collective inscribe itself into a lineage of Milanese groups that have emerged in the city over the last few decades (some very publicly, others less so) – Brown Boveri, Lazzaro Palazzi, Isola Art Center, Le Dictateur, Motel Lucie, Lucie Fontaine, Brown, Mr. Rossi, MARS, Armada, TILE and t-space – and that often used independent magazines, fanzines or other publications as markers of presence.

Gasconade’s impulse to scrutinize the individual and the personal as a way of ‘queering the subject’ resonates with that of another book I’ve been reading recently: Les Années (The Years, 2008) by Annie Ernaux, an extraordinary ‘impersonal autobiography’, in which the author (born in 1940) marks the passage of her life to date by means of unsentimental, almost forensic snapshots written in the third person (referring to herself as ‘she’). Occasionally, the narrative shifts to the first-person plural (‘we’) and the ever-changing objects, clothes, books, hairstyles, songs, habits, advertisements, political slogans, TV shows, holiday destinations, home interiors and hi-tech devices described by Ernaux in vivid detail become the symbols of a generation ‘she’ can easily identify with and speak for. By contrast, Le Petit Jeu’s recursive portrayals of trendy outfits and style-defining accessories, worn by its nameless ‘I’, deliberately dissolve the group’s identity into the mainstream, in order to subtract it from more direct, art-related forms of definition and identification, and to preserve a degree of undercover freedom – recording, all the while, the swift and inevitable passage of time:

‘It seems to me that the continuity of the past, which has slipped away unnoticed, is more relevant than the choices – right or wrong – that we might make in the future. I turn the key in the lock, we say our goodbyes and I let the door slam shut behind me with a little too much force. The future is good, but we finish here.’

Lead image: Dario Guccio and Alice Ronchi, Thingies, installation view at Gasconade, Milan, 2013. Courtesy: the artists and Gasconade, Milan; photograph: Pietro Cocco

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.