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Neighborly Interventions: The Art of Chiara Galimberti

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Curbed has been fortunate recently to make the acquaintance of local artist Chiara Galimberti. If you live in or frequent Logan/Palmer Square, you may have had run-ins with her installations. They range from the subtle ("window stickers") to the slightly less subtle and slightly more provocative (her "shrines" at the site of violent acts). The more you think on them, the more provocative each becomes in the sense of its power to startle awake a dormant agency or notion of ownership in one's community. We spoke with Chiara about the source of her art and its goals. Hailing from Italy, the city and nation are adopted homes, which lends a particular thrust to her work. While not of Chicago, she is certainly for it.

Chiara is currently pursuing her MFA in Painting and Drawing at SAIC. Visit her site for more bio and images.

Curbed: Much of your art consists of urban interventions. You deploy aesthetic tactics for dealing with threatening or damaged spaces, tactics that engage passerby in a comforting yet amusing way. In your recent fence and underpass installations, you seem to be performing a service (on a small scale) that our city is not- making mundane public spaces a little more safe and livable. What's the root of this focus?

Chiara Galimberti: My way of working comes from a slow process of becoming aware of the need for interventions that go beyond either community art projects or urban planning (though both those strategies have their place and value). I think of my interventions as being more an attempt to open up the space of what can happen in a specific locale, and about a sense of common stake and ownership. Ultimately I would love for people to feel a sense of agency beyond their private walls, both on the small scale of neighborhood quality of life, and in the wider sense of having agency and accountability within society.
C: Your memorials to violent acts in your neighborhood are not memorials at all. You describe them on your website as objects that "attempt to address the void and negativity left by the violence by harnessing a variety of strategies used historically to heal, energize and activate." What are the strategies you refer to here?

CG: I chose to address events that happened in my neighborhood that felt particularly powerful in affecting the sense of safety and well being of many people. When violence happens it has a demoralizing effect on everyone that becomes aware of it, and it also affects the way people use space. At the most basic level I wanted to create objects "overcharged" with positivity, less to memorialize the loss, and more to attempt rekindling a space marked by violence. There are many precedents of this "recharging", anywhere from religious objects such as shrines or reliquaries, to healing practices that look at the natural world for source material, to performative rituals. I wanted to "quote" and use some of these strategies to see
how they would function when applied to the urban space.

C: Your window stickers are among your more amusing pieces, yet very powerful. They have the feel of something that could really explode if they got into the public's hands. Would you ever consider flooding the city with these? If not, do you think, or hope, they might spawn copycats?

CG: I am not so interested in the "flooding" aspect of street art, as I want the interventions to be site specific, and ideally context specific. It seems that when there is a mass spreading of one intervention ( I am thinking the Obey face, or even the little robots on Chicago's sidewalks) it becomes about territoriality, establishing the artist's individual identity, and familiarity. I am more interested in opening up what is possible within the public space, to ultimately increase people's sense of agency within the urban environment. I would be happy to see copycats, but happier still to see someone add to or interact with my interventions thus enriching the conversation with their voice.

C: You've mentioned agency more than once. Do you perceive a particular deficit in your neighborhood, since that's where your work is concentrated? Or, is it just a matter of what you know best, where you might be able to detect the effects of your work? Would you say a couple things about your neighborhood?

CG: The choice to work in the neighborhood was made in the attempt to retain some degree of accountability and to be mindful of the context I am operating in. For example, I would not be comfortable going into another neighborhood and feeling entitled to intervene there if I have no or little relationship with that neighborhood. By living where I work I am able to see some of the dynamics that would be otherwise invisible, such as the heavy use of the highway underpass by children walking to and from school everyday. These observations are vital to how the work manifests itself and what questions I am posing with each intervention. Since I am an immigrant to the US, I am an outsider no matter where I go, but at least deciding to work within the spheres of the environment I inhabit allows me to retain some accountability to the other people in the neighborhood, I hope. The issue of agency is omnipresent because I have come to believe that a lack of agency is at the crux of many issues in the city and in society as a whole. When people feel like they have no stake in each other, or in their environment, they stop feeling like they can have an impact and become completely absorbed in their own survival.

C: In addressing voids and transient spaces, do you think the artist holds enough sway to dramatically improve the public realm given the very real, intractable problems of inequality, blight, and non-compatible urban land uses? It seems like, in the least, artists would make great consultants.

CG: This summer I was working as part of an interdisciplinary studio of architects and designers in partnership with a community heavily affected by the 2010 earthquake in Chile. As one of two artists in the group I was at loss at to how to address the very real hardships people were facing, and had to ask myself if there was a place for art at all within this equation. What became more and more apparent is that art is vital precisely because it does not have a nameable goal or ability to fulfill needs pertaining survival. In a context of crisis it seemed art offered a way for people to feel human in a situation that was dehumanizing. I am all for artists partnering up with urban planners or architects to open up the strategies that can be used in addressing public space.

C: Do you think your work is what it is because of an outsider perspective? Is your type of intervention something an immigrant may be more apt to seize upon because of a particular agency that's already been activated by acclimating to a new country and culture? Are the rest of us just stuck in the status quo?

CG: I am not in any position of judging other people's outlook other that my own. It is impossible to discern how my experience of immigration has impacted how I perceive the world as an artist. It seems that not being able to fit in with whatever the "norm" is forces you to question or at least be aware of social inequalities more acutely. In my experience it is harder to be aware of anything other that survival as an immigrant, as most energy goes to trying to pay for rent, food and bills, especially as a single parent. Artists tend to come from positions of privilege where they have the time, means and mind space to move beyond survival and engage in creative practices. It is important to me to try to make more space within the art world for people that come from a diverse array of histories, and whose voices have been historically overlooked.

C: Where should we look to for the next Chiara Galimberti project?

CG: I am currently participating in the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial project, with a collaborative performance piece. I am also writing for the Art21 Open Enrollment blog. I will keep working in the public space, so you may run into some stuff around Avondale and Logan Square if you are there!