Chiara Ambrosio is a London-based filmmaker and visual artist, working with animation, documentary and sound to explore the ways in which we perceive, remember, articulate and preserve personal and collective histories and place through the filter of memory and the imagination. Her work stems from an interest in the moving image as a tool through which to experiment with the boundaries of time and space, both conceptually and physically, re-enchanting the experience and perception of reality through an encounter between the poetics of the real and the erratic and subversive language of dream and the imagination.
Building the Raft
“They tried to bury us: they didn’t know that we were seed” — Mexican proverb
Raft is a film I have been working on for the last couple of years, a portrait of London today, a way to work through my thoughts, hopes and anxieties about the city that has been my home for the past 18 years, and a way to share and celebrate all the incredible people and instances of counterculture that I have had the good fortune to collide with. In my film, the city is cast as a mythical landscape at a time of great crisis, when the rising tides of change threaten to swallow and erase the idiosyncratic, irreverent and quintessentially local forms of culture that shape its identity. Within this frame is an attempt to reconnect the many scattered voices of those who remain, whose insistent physical presence is an act of subversion in itself, whose clear and persistent gaze is a witness, whose work and ideas percolate into the soil of the city and keep its blood flowing.
Raft is a monument, a celebration, a gathering.
The landscape of the city continues its entropic journey towards erasure, constantly re-imagining itself at the expense of any sense of continuity, community and collective history. London, one of the cultural capitals of the world, is suffering from a mass exodus of its artistic communities, pushed away by soaring rent prices that have transformed space into an unachievable luxury. As an artist working in London, I am one of the many people to suffer from the disappearance of diverse, non-commercial spaces in which to gather and share work, and realize that engaging with this problem is at the foundation of the survival of community and culture.
Experimental artists and filmmakers like Jem Cohen, Jonas Mekas, and John Grierson have always been extremely sensitive to the role of the filmmaker as witness, the importance that individual observation and participation holds in the continuation of stories, both small and large, personal and cosmic. Their work shows that purely through the act of engaging with the world through the lens of a camera, one can physically transform its fabric.
Seeing cannot be undone, even less so once it is committed to the frame, and Raft—itself a form of intervention—seeks to continue in this legacy, celebrating the many instances of culture that illuminate the landscape of the city today, and that may offer a unique perspective on its story. It seeks to highlight the poetry of the small, the almost invisible, that without which meaning would be lost, the narrative of a place vanish.
I discovered the miraculous work of Robert Anton last year, quite by chance, in a tiny gallery housed in an apartment overlooking Central Park in NYC. Stepping into the penumbral chamber, I was greeted by a host of miniature floating heads, exquisitely handmade and intensely imagined, suspended over black velvet, staring out, inert but somehow still alive…
Robert Anton was an artist and puppeteer working in NYC in the 70s and 80s. His small and finely detailed finger puppets were handmade alter egos of the characters that populated his world—both real and imaginary. With them, he used to stage surreal performances inside his small apartment for an audience of up to 18 people: silent plays, dreamscapes, the miraculous journey of matter towards transcendence. He never allowed for his performances to be filmed: he believed that his puppet shows were an act of intense and sacred communion, a conjuring, and therefore could only be experienced in the moment, before dissipating in thin air … and so his stories survive only in the memory of those who witnessed these extreme moments of grace—and were transformed by the experience.
I love the sketches he made when planning the shows—a line drawing of himself and his puppets, kneeling between the door and the skirting board of his apartment, preparing to transport his small audiences (which included such luminaries as Susan Sontag, Stella Adler and Diane Vrieland) into unimaginable journeys.
Robert Anton died during the AIDS epidemic that devastated the city in the 80s. His puppets survived.
Naples is an intense, mysterious, overwhelming and contradictory city, a perpetual open-air theatre that lies in the shade of an active volcano.
It occupies a distinctive psycho-geographical position, framed by natural, historical, and literary thresholds (the sea, the volcano, the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the crater lake Avernus, mythical gateway to Hades, and contained within the Fiery Fields, currently one of the most dangerous Super Volcano in the world) and rising above a specular, labyrinthine "other" city, a hollow space—once an aqueduct—that stretches beneath a large portion of the historic centre, and that has grown to represent a physical manifestation of a complex and troubled collective unconscious.
Any coherent or rational attempt to understand the life that might grow and sustain itself on such mercurial terrain is literally undermined by the shape and consistency of the soil, of the landscape and of the city itself, that by its very persistence and survival subverts and challenges all preconceptions or rules of reason.
In Naples, life and death intersect in casual ways, whether through nature, organized crime or rather more miraculous occurrences. In the religious altars scattered throughout the city, the images of the saints sit next to the photographs of the young victims of Camorra, while below them ceramic lonely souls burn in the flames of Purgatory. Faith for Neapolitans is irreverent, crass and emancipated: the dead appear to them in dream to deliver winning lottery numbers, and they, in exchange, deliver cigarettes and drinks straight to the graves of the departed.
Naples is loud, heady, passionate, and overcrowded, its narrow alleys an intricate labyrinth populated by self-appointed chaperones that will reveal to you any one of the strange mysteries that breathe life into the city.
The last time I visited, I stepped through the gates of a crumbling hospital in the old town centre, still active today. There, a nurse unlocked the equally as derelict door to a hidden room- a spectacular late 17th century pharmacy, resplendent in its original baroque features: its walls wood-paneled and covered in ceramic pots filled with all kinds of ointments and ingredients, and on each wall an outlandish alchemical bas-relief made of solid gold. Like a vision, it disappeared behind me as I exited back into the black, sweaty streets, fragrant with a life so intense it might just kill you.
Paper is fundamental to my thoughts and to my work in so many ways.
What a powerful thing paper is! Folded and marked, it is the perfect vessel for powerful countercultural messages—the radical presses and DIY zines and flyers that were once the only way for culture to cut across the mainstream. Printed and bound it becomes the privileged place for dream and adventure, a book that completely absorbs and possesses you. Opening a notebook to pour inside it dreams, fleeting instances, tentative lines to capture what has already elapsed, one realizes the resilience of paper, its patience and optimism.
When I build my puppets, I inevitably turn to paper, the seemingly fragile but strong survivor; paper-mache can outlast us all!
When I visited Peter Schumann and his Bread and Puppet Theatre museum in Glover, Vermont, the thousands of paper-mache puppets that have been built since the 60s for their radical political puppet shows populate the enormous rooms of their barn and emanate the same unmitigated power. Paper absorbs intention and gesture, it makes your ideas and thoughts inherent and immanent, it holds your entire being inside of its creases, folds and grooves.
Paper is a luxury available to almost everyone, whether newly bought- fragrant and white- or found discarded on a pavement, ready to be repurposed. It is the democratic medium through which everything can be transformed and brought to life again.
The Centre for
Often I find myself talking with my peers about commitment, engagement, and responsibility, three words that are becoming central to my practice and to my everyday life, both as an artist and as a human being. We often talk about the need to share ideas outside of our own studio environment, and cultivate new platforms from which to do so effectively and without the constraints and biases of a predetermined political or financial agenda.
I firmly believe that culture is very much like an orchard, and that it needs a free space and a committed concerted effort in order to flourish.
One of the people who inspire me greatly is Sukhdev Sandhu, a British author, journalist, cultural advocate, professor and great connector of all things, who has been teaching at NYU for the past 15 years. Very recently he has become the course director of the Centre For Experimental Humanities, a new MA programme at NYU. The signature at the bottom of his official emails reads: "THE CENTER FOR EXPERIMENTAL HUMANITIES (est. 2017): little stabs at happiness”.
Their programme includes modules on Nothing, Aliens, Astronauts, and Immigrants, and David Bowie, as well as a weekly series of Friday lunchtime talks, open to the public, where a variety of different artists, practitioners, teachers and humans at large are invited to contribute their experience, thoughts and actions on topics ranging from decolonization to countercultural press to the breathing of puppets. The sessions take place around a table in a room with a fireplace, and food and drinks are always provided, because any good idea is absorbed far more enthusiastically when food is being shared.
It is no small feat to run a course like this within the imposing structure of an old institution such as NYU, but the curiosity, passion, commitment and childlike wonder that propels Sukhdev onwards on his mission to introduce underrepresented, outlandish, challenging and inspiring ideas and people to his students is a constant source of hope to me. The fact that it can find a way to survive is a testament to the unstoppable power of vision and engagement and the importance of taking responsibility for the shape of our future.
Here are a handful of other people and places I love, that advocate the dissonant, strange, and underrepresented and in so doing are actively carving the world we inhabit:
The Horse Hospital, London.
Gareth Evans, London.
Anthology Film Archives, NYC.
Printed Matter, NYC.
Walking on Volcanoes
Last summer I climbed a volcano for the first time in my life. Mount Vesuvius is the active but sleeping giant overlooking the city of Naples, so powerful in its potential destructive force and yet so placid when at rest. It is the dominating feature in any pictorial representation of the city, and since I was a child its inevitable presence has always fascinated and alarmed me in equal measure. My father, together with thousands of others, lives in a cluster of small towns that were built illegally on the flank of the volcano, and that now constitute the so called red zone, the area that is expected to be obliterated when the volcano finally awakes. Every time I would visit him I could see the crater looming nearby, and yet sleep was remarkably easy.
To reach the top of the volcano, I rode a bus for many kilometers up the mountain, which, until the terrible fire that ravaged it last summer, used to be entirely covered in plants, trees and juniper bushes but is now a tangle of skeletal burnt out shapes. I was dropped approximately 500mt. below the crater, for the last stretch of the journey on foot. The climb was steep but steady, and the sun beat strongly from above. Far below me I could see the late-afternoon sea shimmering like mercury, and the sky was of a brightness that almost blinded me. The ground beneath my feet felt hollow, and when I picked up a stone to drop it so I could listen to what sound might emerge, I was startled both by the porous lightness of the stone, and by the deep resounding sound when it hit the floor. The majestic mountain is made of lava stone, hollow and light, and it felt like a wondrous contrast to the ravaging potency of its invisible entrails.
When I reached the top and peered into the crater, I was startled by the sudden and complete absence of sound- nothing but my body producing organic sound. The stillness was so complete I almost felt compelled to stop breathing: no fear, no intimidating moment of confrontation, just the most complete stillness I have ever experienced.
When looking down from above, I felt a deep sense of relief, standing on this force of nature that simply is- whether in full eruption, or in deep slumber. It made me think of the many instances in which we feel compelled to justify our existence through work, or actions, or of the many vicious corporations and politicians that believe so blindly in their power to exploit the earth. I felt humbled and reassured by the unstoppable life force grumbling deep beneath my feet, and I felt a profound connection with this earth, that we have tried our best to destroy with our blind greed and stupidity, but that overwhelms us daily with its grace. And sometimes reminds us, through its sheer, indomitable, force, of how truly small we really are.