Franziska Nori


Franziska Nori
Unstable Territory

Excerpt from the catalogue Unstable Territory, ed. Mandragora, Firenze, 2013.

The extraordinary increase in the mobility of people and goods, the digitalization of means of communication and knowledge, and increasingly global economic processes have radically transformed our perception of territories, frontiers and borders. Migratory flows increase and multiply in a progressively complex and often more dramatic way than in the past. In recent years, perhaps with an ever greater frequency and impact, we are witnessing natural catastrophes and wars that force the people involved, constrained to abandon their homes and everything they possess, to radically reconsider their entire lives. To this can be added the most recent migrations for economic and social reasons, migrations that no longer take place in one direction only, from the south northwards, from the so-called countries of the Third World towards industrialized nations, and they no longer only involve people with a low level of education. Modern migrations involve individuals of all nationalities, social classes and cultural extraction.

On the one hand this change of outlook on territories and borders has generated a new drive toward democracy, a new energy of confrontation and mixing among different populations, while on the other we find ourselves dealing with instability, an absence of solid references that has led to a pervading sense of precariousness and uncertainty among people.

The word “territory” brings to mind an entity that is at once physical and symbolic. It is the expression of a place of belonging, and it is also an instrument in the defining of identity since it delimits an area within which an individual or community can recognize itself, thus making it possible to draw a line between one’s own self and the other, between the us and the you, between one’s own body and the outside world. In a globalized world, where the digitalized sphere has become an increasingly important public agora, contributing to the breakdown of borders and frontiers, we may rightly wonder whether the relationship between territory and identity is still valid.

The Unstable Territory exhibition explores these issues by presenting the work of artists who have contrasting attitudes and ways of life and express different ideas on the unstable relationship between identities, territories and borders, at a time of enormous expectation (and illusion) of a borderless society, a shared global territory. The exhibition proposes a series of unique reflections on the idea of the frontier as a place of discovery or as a barrier, on the coexistence of cosmopolitanism and territorial claims, on the very role of the artist as a traveler, a nomad or an experimenter of possible new models.

The artists taking part in the exhibition represent testimonies of cultural practices symptomatic of our time, demonstrating that the figure of the artist is itself an example of the instability of territories and the contamination of identity. Tadashi Kawamata creates symbols and metaphors of a feeling of widespread precariousness. Jo Ractliffe and Richard Mosse present observations, documentations or researches on places in the world where often incoherent fragments of stories and accounts of the past and present emerge. Paulo Nazareth proposes a model of life diverging radically from the rules of an existence regulated by consumption in favor of a practice of personal encounter as opposed to possession. The Cool Couple offer the possibility of a confrontation with the present and past history of a territory, through archive images, texts and photographs which, assembled together, encourage the onlooker to think visually, leaving space for transversal reading, an interpretation going beyond the mere sum of the parts. As Georges Didi-Huberman underlines, the dichotomy between detachment and empathic involvement, between objective explanation and subjective implication, is fundamental in the language of art. What follows is the construction of a territory/identity relationship that calls to mind a state of exile, a condition of dramatic detachment that makes possible a different way of looking at things, from far off, empathically involved, yet at the same time external and more aware.

As the history of art demonstrates, from the exchanges between the European Renaissance courts to the diasporas of artists between the First and Second World Wars, art functions and thrives on the fertilization of thoughts, exchanges between different milieux and the circulation of ideas, notions, projects, information and people, independently of their country of origin. In the contemporary period, however, art has become one of the preferred means for observing semantic, political and social changes in the concept of territory. From the 1960s onwards a new vision has established itself, that one of the artist as a cosmopolitan individual proposing a new relationship with society. Performance, Land Art and Institutional Critique are all expressions of an experimentalism that attempts to analyze and, more often than not, criticize physical boundaries and politico-cultural barriers.

Territorial instability, as interpreted in the work of the ten artists represented in the exhibition, becomes a metaphor for social, political and cultural issues, an emblem for phenomena like emigration, the enduring state of precariousness of emarginated city peripheries, the persistent distinction between places and communities that are part of the same country, the search for lost identities and for specific expressions of character that have been leveled or even cancelled by economic and cultural globalization. Territorial borders, understood as zones of transition, can thus take on a positive connotation, becoming synonymous with free, neutral areas, where pre-established conventions are abandoned. The journey thus becomes an aesthetic instrument of knowledge and physical transformation of the area to cross. If on the one hand it allows us to rediscover our Self, on the other it places the individual in a state of attention and alertness.

Starting out with the conviction that every individual can potentially perceive and live in a “fluid territory” in which, ideally, demarcations are mere conventions, we can interpret the work of some artists, particularly those working in the field, as attempts to observe conflicts and tensions inherent in specific territories and actively intervene with transformational practices. Borderlands become the goal for those fleeing from danger in search of protection. What seems to be a symbolic area then becomes brutally tangible and concrete. In his celebrated work Planet of Slums (Davis 2006), the sociologist and theorist of urban development Mike Davis observes that at present, along the borders between States, a wall of technological barriers has been raised that has made it possible to block large-scale migrations. This has been done to safeguard rich countries, and therefore the only alternative for our century’s surplus of humanity is the slum, the outlying, marginal area of a city. The poverty distinguishing these desolate areas, with their makeshift, temporary constructions and disastrous levels of hygiene and sanitation, excludes those inhabiting them from the cultural and political life of a traditional city. This is the new face of inequality. These marginal territories, these borderlands, frequently the scene of bloody wars and battles, situated in the most far-flung areas of the planet, are characterized by misery, violence and suffering. Often they grew up illegally as temporary settlements, but then became permanent, integral parts of cities or territories: favelas, banlieues, shanty towns, refugee camps. They are areas we might describe as global, the result of programs that totally disregard certain sections of the population, the victims of world economic processes. In his work Davis asserts that only in higher military spheres has there been serious consideration of the problem of slums as the possible hotbeds of future revolts by the peripheries against the official centers, an eventuality that would overturn traditional military dynamics: no longer conflicts between States, but a global insurrection of emarginated people against the organs of control. It is in these territories that the fortunes of an anything but stable global equilibrium are played out.

The countries of the so-called South, with their contradictions and their ferocious conflicts, show us constantly how much the instability of some systems can be decisive for entire populations. However, the case of Europe is itself indicative of a cultural crisis that is no longer limited to the margins of the western world but is now very much within it. The whole continent seems to be in the grip of an ongoing emergency, an emergency that started out as a financial crisis but soon developed into a cultural and existential crisis, with a prevailing yet tangible feeling of uncertainty and an absence of any prospects for the future.

It was only a few years ago that European trans-national territoriality, based on the idea of a continent unified by such ideas as the freedom of the individual and the state of law, seemed to be a model, a symbol, an inspiration for other places in the world. What has happened in the last few years?

The concept of globalization, for decades now one of the most widely (and almost obsessively) debated issues in academic and cultural circles, is an inescapable cause for reflection. In his work Globalization and Its Discontents Joseph E. Stiglitz, the American economist who has worked for organizations like the World Bank, confirms the inevitability of the economic processes of globalization, yet at the same time believes it is vital to rethink its dynamics, primarily that it should adhere more closely to its true equalitarian potential: an economic redistribution towards the base and greater socio-cultural dynamism and mobility. Citing such phenomena as the transition from communism to the market economy in the former Soviet Union, the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 or the various speculative bubbles of the 2000s, Stiglitz denounces the fact that economic globalization and some of the bodies attempting to regulate its development, like the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization, have failed to protect social classes or entire countries in difficulty (Stiglitz 2002).

All this has led to a form of ideological defense of territories and a protectionistic reaction against the idea that sees in the superseding of national frontiers a model to develop. An increasing number of communities and single individuals have begun to re-evaluate regional and local traditions, seeking a response to the question of their belonging and cultural identity, but also to the need for economic and social security in the context of the mobility and fluidity of frontiers and territories. Already in 1999 a scientific text edited by Guntram H. Herb and David H. Kaplan entitled Nested Identities. Nationalism, Territory and Scale placed emphasis on the idea of nesting that contributed to our understanding of collective identities. In his introduction to the concept of “nested identities”, Herb asserted that the bounded area was one of the elements of major tension between political power and the identity of its citizens. Only the territory seems to allow a tangible national identification. The theory advanced by the two geographers, based on an analysis of new divisions within national groups now without their own State, shows on the contrary that individuals search for their roots in the areas nearest to them, according to a process we might describe as “micro-regional nesting”, exemplified in the independence claims of regions like Catalonia, “Padania” and the Basque countries. The creation of arbitrary zones and bordered territories opens up new horizons for a consideration on the relationship of either uniformity or contradistinction between the self and others. It is interesting to note, therefore, that the marginal territory, understood as an “area of exclusion”, becomes an area in which a state of emergency can become a driving force in the formation of alternative practices and social models (Herb and Kaplan 1999).

Here it is crucial to underline the importance of the observations of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, an article by whom appears in the present catalogue. Beck is one of the leading theorists on what he himself describes as the “cosmopolitan turn”, a totally new approach to the idea of cosmopolitanism both in political philosophy and in the sphere of sociological research. In his publication Der kosmopolitische Blick oder: Krieg ist Frieden of 2004 Beck lays the foundations for a theory that attempts to demonstrate how, in the global and contemporary era, there is an absolute need for a new cosmopolitan way of thinking. His ideas focus mainly on the idea of the protectionist state and spring from a study made in 1986, immediately prior to the Chernobyl disaster, in which he asserted that modern society is increasingly a “risk society”, a society characterized by the accumulation of ecological, financial, military, terroristic, biochemical and information problems (Beck 1986).

The only way out, according to Beck, is to go beyond the traditional concept of nation. Isolationism, protectionism and small territorial claims are the result of a way of thinking rooted in the culture of the nation. The transcending of this forma mentis can only take place by means of a way of thinking and a political philosophy that see beyond the limitations of national borders, therefore embracing a philosophy of inclusion and international cooperation. There is a need for individuals to open their minds, to break down the limits and barriers that create immovable thought and identity structures. Here we might borrow the words of Michel Foucault, when he speaks of freedom in the context of identity, the freedom not to be tied to a conventionally assumed identity, in other words, the capacity to transform, to lose oneself and one’s social context (Sorrentino 2010): an invitation to reconsider social, cultural and identity-related criteria in the interests of a new definition of the individual.


Franziska Nori (1968, Rome) is Director of the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina (Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence), where she has been responsible for the artistic program since March 2007. Among others, she has curated the exhibitions Emotional Systems (2007), Art, Price and Value (2008), Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of Image in Contemporary Art (2010), As Soon As Possible, Acceleration in Contemporary Society (2010), Portraits and Power (2010), Virtual Identities and Declining Democracy (2011), Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art (2012), An Idea of Beauty (2013) as well as a series of site specific installations presented in the Courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi by artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Yves Netzhammer and Loris Cecchini. She graduated from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, specializing in cultural anthropology, romantic studies and art history. From 2000 to 2003, she was head of the department for digital art and culture at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, which conceived the first museum collection for digital artifacts ( along with exhibitions devoted to phenomena in digital culture, including I Love You, about the world of hackers and computer viruses, and adonnaM.mp3, an analysis of file- and network-sharing on the internet. From 2005 to 2007, she was a member of the Scientific Committee of the New Media International School at the University of Lübeck. In 1998, she was appointed by the European Commission to draw up an appraisal of future strategies for European museums’ work with digital cultural heritage. Since 1994 she has worked as an independent curator for modern and contemporary art for international institutions including the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Vienna, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Fundación la Caixa in Palma de Mallorca and the Fondazione Lucio Fontana.

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