A Book as a Bridge: Elena Berriolo in conversation with David Brody
Elena, I’m going to begin by quoting your report of a recent performance work with a sewing machine that you did on a bus full of strangers between San Diego and Tijuana in December, after the so-called election (it was, in fact, a coup d’etat):
The seats were small and the aisle was tight. After all seats were taken many passengers had to stand and hold on the best they could, the great majority of them were Mexican traveling with family and many heavy bags down in the luggage compartment. When everybody was in and the door had closed I said: “Hello! I am an artist and I would like to make a Book as a Bridge as an act of protest against the wall Trump is planning to build at the Mexican border. I am going to start sewing now on my accordion book and by the time we will get to Tijuana the sewn line will need to stretch from the back of the bus where I am now, to its front, having grown over the US-Mexico border from San Ysidro to Tijuana, making a bridge.
On the day of the Women’s March in D.C. you did a similar performance on the Amtrak from New York. These were fully politicized versions of a piece you had performed on the New York subway and the Staten Island Ferry, which in turn came out of much more contemplative sewing-book performances done as collaborations with poets and musicians. Obviously, the adaptation of your practice is a response to the political crisis— a brave and meaningful one, in my view. How did you get there?
The reason I started performing, in 2012 was because I believed the conceptual implications of the sewing machine were and are still unexplored.
The first performance in 2012 at Bravinlee Projects, with sewing machine and piano, Two Sided Concerto, came from the realization the sewing machine is a link/bridge among visual art and music because while it produces a percussion beat it also produces a pattern.
As you can see the machine can Jazz with a musician (Fiterman Art Center 2015): the outcomes are both audio (music) and visual (a book).
In 2015, a few days before the above performance, a lady from BMCC, at the Fiterman Art Center asked me a question that changed me and my career profoundly. That question was: “Are you a seamstress?” she asked me that question because she saw my sewing machine and she needed someone to help her with her sewing. I was outraged by her question: how did she dare to ask that question to an artist about to perform with two musicians, in an art gallery, to produce a book in the process?
But the next day I started thinking about the reasons why I was so outraged, and I realized that I was wrong and she was right. Since I made the choice to bring the sewing machine in the art-world, I also had to bring with it all its history along with the many stories of the millions of women through the last two centuries (the sewing machine was invented at he end of 1700) that found in the sewing machine the only possible opportunity available to them to be creative or to be economically independent.
I realized I had to be a seamstress. I thought about us, the female side, the 50% of humanity and the role of the needle through the millennia. Whenever we choose a garment to wear, from our underwear to our coats, we rarely think that while the cutting of the fabric is machine made, the sewing is not, and almost every seam in our garments has been sewn in a third world country, with a sewing machine of some kind, operated mostly by a woman, paid a starving wage, yes, but paid, and therefore economically empowered by the use of the sewing machine.
Because I am now a seamstress I also started to think more about the seam and its conceptual implications: The seam is the result of a true three-dimensional line embracing the two sides of a surface, made since the beginning of sewing, for linking and repairing. It is a line never used for dividing but for uniting. It is the most peaceful line you can find. Finally I understood why the machine is a link among music and visual art: because its very identity lies on the seam. Finally I also realized how much more could be done using the ability to link, to bridge, to unite of the sewing machine and I started a series of projects for repairing the social and economical fabric of the world, staring with New York City
A Book as a Bridge from Wall Street to the Bronx on the 2 train subway line Nov., 2015: The average yearly household income in the Wall Street area may be over $900,000 while the average income at 149th st in the Bronx is about $26,000. My decision to use the machine to make a bridge to link two communities so far apart socially and economically, came from the realization that only the sewing machine could make it possible, because its ability to produce an uninterrupted line through space and time, a line able, with the help of a moving vehicle, to cover 12 miles distance within the 50 feet of an accordion book.
A Book as a Bridge from Manhattan to Staten Island on the Ferry, June, 2016: The average yearly income in the financial district area is over 900,000 while the average in Staten Island is around 50,000.
In Nov 2016, after the election of Trump I realized how much more widely torn than I previously thought was my adopted country. I also realized I was fortunate enough to have a tool for mending it and I put myself to work, starting with A Book as a Bridge across the Mexican Border, Dec. 18th, 2016, and on January 20th, 2017
A Book as a Pink Line from New York to Washington, a book meant to make a bridge for all the women traveling from NYC and other different places to go to DC for the march. It is also a line aiming to repair with a pink line the widening gap among the government and its people.
Having grown up in Italy, I wonder if you are heir to a tradition of artistic defiance from the fascist era. The government here appears to be gearing up for a war with its people. What is the responsibilty of artists? To help lead the fight? To imagine alternatives? To keep the flame of civilization alive?
While a lot of Italian writers during fascism were able to resist in various ways, most of the visual artists had to agree and serve the regime or starve. It was hard to dissent as a visual artist, no one would buy your work.The fascism in Italy supported contemporary art and many artists supported fascism. The futurists in fact were fascist (they loved the fascist idea of the super macho Mussolini) and volunteered to go to war, as they loved war: hygiene of the world…! Then after going, some changed their mind.
While my mother’s side of the family was pro-fascism, my father’s side was very much against it. My mother’s family was conservative, coming from a rural area, and less sophisticated then my father’s side. All women in that family were totally in love with Mussolini and at the end of the war all of them cried when Mussolini was murdered. They voted for keeping the monarchy, and later against divorce and abortion. On my father’s side they were all very much opposed to fascism but they kept a low profile up to the time when my father at age 16, against his father’s will during the war, joined the “resistenza”. At the end of the war they all voted for changing from monarchy to republic and later for divorce and abortion.
I am grateful to my father for what he did. I probably would not have liked to endure the anguish my grandmother had to live through and I am pretty sure sure I would not be ready to take the enormous risks my father took, but I understand very well why he felt he had to become involved and do something meaningful for the future generations.
Now finally answering your question, as a visual artist living in US I feel privileged because I don’t have to think too hard about what to do to resist. I also feel even more privileged because I feel relatively safe while resisting.
I experienced how much healing I can bring to people by sewing: on the bus from San Diego to Tijuana, full of people I had never met, everybody was on board with the making of my book because I was protesting Trump with a familiar instrument they all knew so well.They felt I was like them, one of them, because we share the sewing machine.
On the train from NY to DC one of the passengers, a musician, started crying just by looking at the pink sewn line ( he wrote me a message to let me know about his reaction) and everybody cheered holding the unfolded book up while approaching DC.
Now after four years of experience performing with sewing machine I realize how powerful of a tool this is in protecting the seamstress. It is hard to attack a sewing machine and even harder to attack a gray haired woman sewing, therefore I am looking forward to further exploring the possibilities of peaceful protest while making books with my machine.
But I don’t think taking risks for resisting is the responsibility of artists. I believe making art and reaching for anything bigger than us is our most precious goal and that just by trying we are all the makers of a revolution.