A FOREIGNER’S PEDAGOGY – Casting Castaways, Asinara AA Visiting School 2019Profile

by Paolo Emilio Pisano and Sabrina Puddu, AAVS Casting Castaways Programme Heads

 

 

12 August 2019
Asinara in Sardinia, Italy

The Plain in Fornelli, credit: Paolo Emilio Pisano

The Mediterranean is populated by a range of islands that were formerly used as prisons, and are now mostly abandoned or converted to natural parks, an easy prey for penal tourism. The pedagogy of Casting Castaways builds on our condition as visitors – foreigners – in this carceral archipelago, and in what follows we delve into this relationship, with specific reference to this year’s location for our Visiting School: the island of Asinara in Sardinia, Italy.

Everyone is a foreigner in Asinara. Some, very few, were born on the island. Others, who dwelled there as prison staff or family, claim to be affected by a strange disease – a kind of nostalgia – that constantly draws them back to it. But none can state that they belong to the island. Thus, Asinara has no trace of a local community as we usually define it, and any politically-correct attempt to build ties with the locals is out of question.

Ever since its prehistory, the island has been subject to a violent course. It stands just a stretch of sea apart from the north-western tip of Sardinia – the mainland, yet itself another island – divinely separated by the grip of mighty Hercules – in the words of Pliny the Elder – to become the legendary Hercules Insulae. Part of the impervious sea since then, it alternately offers one benign face, while against its sinuous back the waves roar and crash in a crazed dance.

Abandoned Outbuildings in Tumbarino, credit: Paolo Emilio Pisano

The many would-be inhabitants who for a period took temporary quarters on the island moved it from the realm of myth to a more human domain, renaming it Sinuaria, for it sinuous shape. But shape and position only exacerbated the danger of living on the island, as open as it was to possible incursions by pirates and city states claiming hegemony over sea routes. For most of its history then, the island was a strategic battle-ground for different powers trying to establish their control over that stretch of sea. Only shepherds, primeval inhabitants of the nearby mainland countryside, settled on it from time to time. Seasonal transhumance? Occupying vantage points on the mountains, the shepherds enclosed pieces of land calling them tancas, and imported institutions from the mainland that regulated the land’s right of use. Successive waves of civilian colonisation attempted to turn the island into a thriving community by encouraging settlers to reside on it, but with little success. The shepherds, displaced to make place to the new settlers, kept coming back to regain their tancas. It was only with the arrival of the military in 1885, that the colonisation of the island finally acquired, at least in the documented official history, a stable character. One that would in fact turn Asinara into an unprecedented production machine, under the guise of an agrarian penal colony deemed to occupy its full length. Evicting all of its inhabitants and replacing them with inmates, the penal colony machine thus altered, once and for all, the feeble trace of localism and branded anyone and everyone as a foreigner. Everyone, except maybe for the animals that, after the sublimation of the agrarian penal colony project, remained as the only true inhabitants, and as such are protected by the National Park and the toponomastic Asinara – the island of donkeys.

A Marker Inhabiting the Landscape, credit: Paolo Emilio Pisano

There is a certain sense of liberation in accepting, openly, our own condition as foreigners on the island. Freed from any pretension of belonging, we can learn the island with no sense of nostalgia. Coming face to face with this strangely charged territory, we own it only as much as we can scratch its surface, tightly braided in physical and abstract threads. The scratching might be shallow to begin with, after all the island stratigraphy is made up of many a layer of hard matter, enveloping and conserving sedimented symbolism, stories, and prejudices. It might also very well be fragmentary, as we ought to dig locally through uneven strata, which might grow thicker or wear thinner somewhere else.

But as long as we engage with it directly, and proceed to reveal those formal structures on which power has invested so much, an alternative possibility starts to emerge. If we operate an action of estrangement, by shifting our relation with the island from a direct sensorial experience to a more abstract and formal level, we will leave the Asinara condition open to a wider interpretation. In this way we might free it from the stratified conundrum of symbolism and prejudices, while at the same time containing them all. Thus, we aim to dig, read, measure, de-structure, estrange and reduce to the most basic level of understanding in order to re-build what it means to engage with an island. Perpetually moving along a spiral, it seems to have gone full-circle, periodically erasing and replacing the signs of its past like an over-recorded tape.

The Lighthouse of the Island, credit: Paolo Emilio Pisano

Ours is a pedagogy that entrusts a de-colonising act to a foreigner. It operates where the indigenous is absent – or maybe dormant – removed by a coercive act of colonisation by a state power which replaced it with convicted foreigners and has now crumbled, leaving scattered debris. It insinuates where the self-proclaimed localism hides the presence of imposed colonialism and normalisation. It ultimately interrogates this territory on how and whether the project of architecture – one often carried out by foreigners – can question the very ideas of incarceration and colonisation. Our pedagogy does so by putting forward direct engagement with the substance of the island as the incipit to inhabitation, meaning and, eventually, the project.

The Island of Asinara, credit: Paolo Emilio Piano

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