The Artist as a Nomad


Stefano Pasquini


How important is for an artist the place where he or she lives and works?

Rosemary was getting frustrated with her art career and decided to leave New York. She thought about it for only three days. Then, one day, instead of getting ready for her weekly grocery shopping, she filled her suitcase with random items and waited for the bus to take her to La Guardia airport. In those 13 minutes her mind was numb, she had no worries or ideas, she knew her subconscious would pick a flight for her, without giving her the trouble of having to make a decision. Life is funny like that. She ended up in Addis Abeba, after flying to Washington DC. There she trained as a nurse and never touched a brush again. She claims she is happy, and her only regret is leaving her cat on her own locked in her flat.

Displacement has always played an important part in art. Lioba Steinkamp developed a project called “The Immorality of Space” as an interactive work between six artists and herself. The attempt of the project is to “transplant” a fictive reality as experienced in film (as the prototype of the moving, fictive image, a hyper-reality) back into the daily perception of life.

The structure of the project refers to the structure of film as the organizer will be in the role of the director and the participants take over the part of the actors.

The artists Dylan Graham, Theun Karelse, Rob Verhagen, Jennifer Tee, Mascha de Vries and Gijs Muller will each be asked to live the life of a fictive character for the period of one month at a location which will be chosen for that character (USA, The Netherlands, South America, France and Africa). Each personage will be circumscribed by a video compilation tape, showing key scenes from movies, cut in a way that the tape itself functions as a screenplay, sketching the character type, the location and also implying a question or task.

These questions/tasks will relate to “contemporary myths”, created by the film industry as a metaphor for questions, hopes and desires of mankind (such as future fixation, new dimensions of violence, love and guilt, the distribution of power, etc...).

During the period of their stay the six participants will describe their life as this fictive character by means of short film/video episodes, reflecting on that stereo- or archetype and re - interpreting it. As this project can also be seen as a different approach of analyzing the moving image, the theoretical aspect plays also an important role. As a philosopher - working on theories about subjectivity and nomadism - Robin Brouwer is a fellow traveller in this project. He adds his vision and knowledge to the process of development, reflecting on it from his point of view in order to create an interactive theory with the audience: “Present nomadism has been influenced by postmodernism. Certain aspects like heterogeneity and multiplicity refer to a post-modern heritage. However, the micro political awareness of the present mentality shows a break with the political naiveté of postmodernism. Nomadism requires a combination of an experimental “élan vitale” with a pragmatic ethic. To be able to move in-between territories, identities and dominant meaning, one has to navigate in order to escape coding, representation and organization, which are imposed on us every day. Dominant form of representation, within arts, science, economy and media, constitute the present forms of production within every domain of our society. Nomadism expresses a sensibility and practical logic to mutate and therefore escape these boundaries. It is this micro political mentality which differs nomadism from the current post-modern tendencies which seem to have degenerated into a blind affirmation of our western culture.”


Rosemary kept seeing a graffiti whilst walking around New York: “When in doubt - GO NOMAD”. Could this have been the dominating factor for her change of life? Rosemary did not go nomad. She just moved town and changed job. Ok, maybe deciding to quit her art career is not just a change of job, however, she didn’t go nomad.


Clemente Padin sees Mail Art as the highest expression of artist’s “nomadism”: “My attraction to Mail Art was the responsive, genuine nature of communication exchanges. Mail Art is an artistic school without any "isms". As such, any "student" can enter this "school" and participate by using a diversity of new techniques or media for creating artwork in all disciplines. In this non-commercial and non-consumer domain, Mail Art has endured and remained a viable force for nearly thirty years. Originality in Mail Art stems from the revolutionary communication of people through the mail. This and other characteristics of Mail Art are essential if we are to understand appropriate concepts.

Mail Art emphasizes the importance of communication, rather than a mercantile product subject to the laws of the marketplace. Mail artworks are not made for the art market to be consumed. Rather, they are products of communication. The aesthetic value of Mail Art lies in the communicative effectiveness of transmitted ideas. Yet, the cultural regime dictates in an oppressive system where certain privileged beings are "allowed" through divine mandate to produce art.”



The question is: is it really worth for all the young artists to come to look for fortune in a place like New York? Would their possibilities be diminished by staying in their home town, whether it’s Addis Abeba or Appleton? Kaz (Kazuhiro Takabatake) is a young installation and video artist based in London: “The society operates in such a manner that a large percentage of people live in clearly defined areas such as a banker, a bus driver, a bottling plant worker etc. Artists are defined as artists but what they do vary greatly and I personally think that one of the roles of the artist is to keep on redefining him/herself and not really fit anywhere and move around from one place to another. Moving from one area to another is what the nomadic people do, looking for new pastures, and in that sense, artists are very much like nomads.” What essentially Kaz is saying is that no matter where you are, you can still be a nomad. In this sense Rosemary’s decision was not to become a nomad, or to experience displacement; simply, she quit art.


Roberta Piccioni lives in Riccione, a seaside town near Rimini, in Italy, where she makes beautiful videos: “I think of a nomad as a traveler. Personally, I don’t feel like a nomad when I travel. I feel like a nomad in my way of thinking about the future. I think the traveller’s “state” is what fits me the most, when I travel I feel like I am finally inside my life. The word “nomad” reminds me of instability, I feel like a nomad within my city.”

Philosophically, thus, any artist must have a nomadic nature, at least in the sense of search within their work. Roberta’s boyfriend, Marco Fantini, is also a video artist. On the subjects of nomadism he tells me: “It’s first of all an uncertainty, like the length of a snog, a trip or vagabonding. I like it and I feel privileged when I can do it. I tend to become nomadic - to trip - even in conversations, especially in the act of listening. It’s a necessity, but after a while I wanna go home”.


Geert De Decker, from Sztuka Fabryka sent me an e-mail about his last trip to Vienna: “In Vienna we have visited almost every day sites that are so close to the subject of death. Travelling is for us a way to gain some new ideas on what we are working on. We have chosen Vienna because it is a town where Thanatos is so close to Eros, two strong philosophical ideas that are almost a permanent subject in any artist works, and also in ours.”  

What would have happened to Rosemary if she kept making art in Addis Abeba?

Nadia Filippini, a conceptual artist based in Bologna, tells me the place where she lives is fundamental for her work. “I have the need for a place that I can call mine to develop my work, I need this condition of stability. After that, I can materially realize the work anywhere”.


Emilio Fantin is also based in Bologna. He recently realized an installation in New York called “Nomads and Residents”. He recorded the dreams of people who work or live closely together and made a piece where their whispered recordings come out of tiny holes in the gallery. In order to listen to the voices the spectator has to put his ear against the wall. “It’s a work that illustrates well the nomadic quality of my work, always searching new territories. It shows how the artist can be nomad within himself, how he doesn’t need to justify his being an artist by constantly referring to himself but he is “lost” between people. His work is diluted within other things and other people, in the air: it’s the fruit born out of an unexpected meeting, a way of working characterized by movement to discover new things and new people. A sort of seaman always at sea, never tired of finding out at night, through dreams, what happens in new ports”.


Simone Rondelet is a Paris born artist and poet. I heard rumors that she is actually a fictional character, however, she is allegedly based in New York. When I enquired to her about the concept of the artist as nomad, she sent me a photo of a hat she made, with the sign “Hated” printed on it. “The artist is a nomad in the moment she or he doesn’t accept the rules of our society, and has a certain incapability in adapting to it. Ethnic minorities are forced in this nomadic experience of our society. Being exploited, being an artist, a nomad or a punk are equivalent”.