THE PICNIC PAVILION: Unfiltered, Unadulterated, and For the Love of Art

On a less common morning in May 2014, I went out to drink my coffee in the beautiful backyard of the house where I had been staying overnight. There was another guy in the yard who I talked to. I invited him to the show I was going to present with Alice Pons that evening in the first edition of a house festival. The name of the festival was Hors Lits; the place where I spent the night was called Casa Punto Croce, a landmark of the independent culture of Venice, the one where I was going to perform was called Ca’raibi, with the same symbolic status, and my interlocutor was Gabriel Adams, American artist and curator. Five years later, after many other fertile projects in collaboration with Tobia Tomasi and Casa Punto Croce, Gabriel initiated and co-curated the project The Picnic Pavilion during, but also as a reaction to, the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale. Here is the story of a long-term collaboration.

How did you find out about Punto Croce?

Around 2014 I was working on a site-based research project called Jump Into The Unknown with a crew of artists and curators operating under the name of Nine Dragon Heads (NDH). We were in the initial phases of what we’d ultimately present at the 2016 56th La Biennale in Venice. Over the years that I had been visiting the city, I often caught glimpses of activity bubbling away beyond the merry-go-round touristic way I had experienced the city. With a big exhibition in its early phases, a need to have logistical knowledge to produce the show, and being on the hunt for a working concept regarding my own artwork, it was so clear that I needed personal time to get to know Venice.

What followed was a beautiful thing that I could never have guessed what would develop over the years. Fortunately, early on in these visits, I happened to meet a multidisciplinary artist from Milan via couchsurfing. Virginia Francia, my brilliant host, who has proved to be an inspiration from day one, helped to open the door to a Venice I hadn’t seen before. During my stay with Virginia I had a brief but impressionable encounter at an event happening at the neighboring Punto Croce. It wasn’t until months later and after many conversations that Virginia took it upon herself to drop a postcard in the Punto Croce letter box, asking if they’d consider hosting me for a period of time so that I could follow through with some of my research into Venice. Whatever magic she included in the postcard, it connected me with Tobia Tomasi, his sister Isadora, the community around Campo San Giacomo, and as they say … the rest is history.

How did you decide to have an event there? Did you manage more than one?

I landed at Punto Croce on a mission that was mostly research-focused, along with a deep and abiding curiosity to know Venice. As time passed, layers of the city peeled away and I got to know the place. Given the work I was engaged with, making an event came about as a natural evolution of doing time in Venice in relation to the people who were near.

The first event I made at Punto Croce was for the finnisage program of the Biennale exhibition Jump into the Unknown. Nine Dragon Heads had two projects at the time that ran along the bigger Palazzo della’ Ambasciatoreshow, and the one I curated at Punto Croce, called Ammaragio (a technical term used in aviation for landing on water), was a fabulous pairing of Nine Dragon Heads artists with Punto Croce. Philosophically there was conceptual overlap with the group and the space, and a smattering of Venice-related works were installed throughout the house, such as in the bathrooms, laundry, garden, kitchen, and projected into the campo etc. Everything pulled together with home-cooked food and drinks coming out of the kitchen and live music.

It’s important to note that there’s a team behind so much of what happens at Punto Croce, and with this project I’m fully indebted to Maria João Petrucci, who was living in Punto Croce at the time. She helped guide the way, along with a number of other team members, to a successful event.

In 2017 I had a solo show Caio Bae (Venetian for »hey bro,« a phrase I’d hear in the early morning when the garbage collectors romped through the neighborhood). That was also a whole home exhibition of works, most of which I had made while in residence and around the city over a couple of years of visits.

Then there was the Picnic Pavilion.

There is such a fullness to the projects made at Punto Croce. The way that Tobia has guided the space over the years has allowed a fantastic energy to thrive and tap into a generous, warm, and deeply creative community. It’s also remarkable as a space in the midst of a city that seems to be imploding on itself … due to so much global commercial interest and local governments mismanagement affecting the lives of local inhabitants.

How did the concept of the Picnic Pavilion come up?

The concept of the Picnic Pavilion was born out of so many layered experiences. It’s not so easy to relay as it was a moment in a larger continuum, but there was definitely a significant pairing between the desire to make an event in Venice during La Biennale, after having produced at the 56th, and the moment the Venetian authorities banned picnicking. That was crazy stupid: the local government made picnics a fineable offence in an aim to preserve a new model of public decorum. In part this was a move to improve tourist behavior in the city, perhaps in part to force them into restaurants, but in a classic backfire of public planning the »decorum police« ended up fining Venetians for having meals al fresco in front of their homes, a time honored and cultural tradition.

I also have a bit of a food and art bent. At the time I had been making historical research on picnics, specifically connected to the boat project »Pranzetto« (literally: the little lunch), and for years before this I had traveled with an old hand crank ice-cream maker on many projects abroad, where I literally made ice cream, off the grid, along the Silk Road.

What was the first, the place (Punto Croce) or the concept (The Picnic Pavilion)?

The place was definitely first. While I had previously worked with picnic concepts in my work, by the time the Picnic Pavilion came around I had a number of years associated with Punto Croce and the surrounding community. All those experiences eventually coalesced into the concept. As the years have gone by, it’s so clear that I’ve approached so many of my projects in this manner, getting to know the place and then the concept bubbles up from the abyss of research that’s been happening.

What was the context of your life when you decided to do it?

Looking back to that time and considering the melancholic pandemic slog that I see so much of contemporary life relegated to these days, including the art world, I’d definitely say that I (and many of us, no matter how theoretically depressed we were at the time) was riding a wave of concurrent events, all of which had required so much planning, energy, and teamwork. The outcomes were building off of one another, everything was stacking up, branching out, interconnected, and falling into place. There was certainly the sense that something bigger was at play with the rolling success of projects, and the generosity and exchange happening between artists and colleagues. I had been making projects in Korea, Turkey, Georgia, hell even in New Zealand and Mongolia. The positive flow was very palpable.

What is your relationship to mainstream art?

Mainstream art to me is somewhere between a glossy magazine and a wet sock. Sometimes I find meaning and value in this space, at other times it’s just something I’d prefer to be far away from. In terms of mainstream I’m talking about contemporary art projects, such as those presented at places like the Venice Biennale, including art museums and galleries as such, those which we might also categorize as produced by the power players, or as generated by those in the business of art. Or at least those in paid positions to make Art shows happen. I do pay a good deal of attention to these kinds of things, but at the same time I don’t really care too much. The main reason I don’t care is that over the years my attention has shifted to my colleagues and what they are up to. For me this is pure magic. After having consumed so much art over the years, enough that I should probably have a neurological disorder, after building a network, I got so close to the artistic process as something alive and present, that the overly illuminated display case, moth-to-a-flame art world way of looking all became a bit soggy. So, mainstream and the big production machine carries on, and sure, occasionally I’ll find something fabulous there, but like I said, I don’t care so much, as I’ve found something much more substantive.

What is the difference between the art exhibited at the Picnic Pavilion and the rest of the biennial?

This goes a number of ways. On one hand there is absolutely no difference at all, artists making art, art being presented. On the other hand, in Venice you’ve got massively inflated budgets and financing that pave the way to art with cash. There are some very good curators and artists out there who know how to wield this effectively, but Venice being Venice, it has the capacity to swoon people regardless of how good the art is and the money is often used to that end. At the Picnic Pavilion I’d say what you had was a much more democratic, egalitarian, and honest approach to art and humanity. A project without pretense or wanting, or anything to prove. We were all there to find nourishment through participation in one form or another, presenting art, receiving art, eating, drinking, and being merry. In this regard the art took on similar qualities, it was humble, beautiful, joyful, engaging, poetic, weird, critical, and curious.

At La Biennale maybe you find some well polished projects, but so often art is used for other ends and means. So much soft power is at play and manifestations of greed, of which I could go on and on about. But let’s focus on the positive: the Picnic Pavilion presented art for the sake of art, for artists, unfiltered, unadulterated, and for the love of art.

What were the criteria by which you selected the artists? What were the expectations from them and what did you offer them as curator?

Being the first iteration of the project we decided to have an open call and cast a wide net where all were welcome to apply and propose a work connected to the overall theme. In terms of selecting, the language of the project, as in the text of the open call and concept, acted as an immediate and effective filter to the artists that applied. So much so that off-topic projects were obvious discards from the start. Probably the most significant part of the selecting process came in the form of lengthy debates among the team about what would work and what wouldn’t. As open as my awareness and power of critical thinking was in reviewing the proposals, the team talks are what really drew out the strengths of candidates, and formed the basis of the selection processes.

Expectations of the artists were straightforward, but may deviate from what one might normally see at an art space or event. Artists were primarily responsible for setting up and taking down their work, with our guidance and support available where needed, and though not a requirement (as a few projects came in remotely), most artists were to be present at the opening. Though not explicitly listed, by nature and implication of the project, there was an inbuilt participatory option to support the overall event … in the kitchen cooking, working with other artists, and helping to cover any issues that came up.

Curatorially I/we offered artists a platform in Venice for communication, participation, transmission, and realization, a space to be in and act on, in a place (Venice) and a world (the art world) that is so often off limits with its high walled gardens and iron forged locks. We also offered a resting place. La Biennale is so fraught with a pervasive sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), with the events, VIP previews, and exclusivity in every direction, it’s possible to get lost attempting to be everywhere. With the Picnic Pavilion, we made a hub of creative production where participants, guests, and community could find an alternative place within the larger arts catastrophe.

What kind of artists are attracted to be part of this kind of project?

The Picnic Pavilion was an open platform for artistic practice and totally free to accept a diverse range of participants across the full spectrum of the arts. From professionals to deviants, I think artists who are looking for a venue with different values than the sterility of the cube find a sense of home here. If they have an awareness of the bigger system operating in the arts, they see how this pavilion cuts through the hype the artworld is saturated by. I think artists who are after a multifaceted environment that evolves much like the creative process itself, are also interested in participating because their work feeds into an overall atmosphere that gives a palpable return in a personal and direct way.

What is the drive that made you organize and curate this kind of project?

After getting to know Venice intimately over the course of a few years, and stacked on top of nearly twenty years of participation in the art system, the monumental push to produce Jump into the Unknown, and all of the wildly brilliant experiences I had with Nine Dragon Heads across the globe, the timely arrival of the Picnic Pavilion was an expression of this activity. I had the desire to make an event in tandem with La Biennale, but to approach it with maximum levity (such as joy, pleasure, and spirit), while also acting with a critical lens on the state of the arts. Without a doubt Punto Croce, the association Il Caicco (collective of traditional and shared/social boats), and other nearby cultural projects contributed to what I was seeing and feeling around that time, and furthered my motivations. I also had a desire to make something with Tobia, Isadora, and Silvia. And of course there was the triggering moment with the ban on picnics.

How was The Picnic Pavilion promoted? What is White Rabbit methodology?

One of the most important things to understand is that Punto Croce is first and foremost a home. At times it metamorphosizes into a venue, but even then it never moves out of being a home space. With respect to this Punto Croce flips the spectrum of event promotion in one crucial area, and that’s by not sharing its physical address. It’s not to be promoted or shared in any form. No advertising materials, on the web, in private messages, and certainly not on Google or anything geolocational. It’s all off limits. While Tobia can speak to this more directly, I can easily say that Venice is already so overrun that this is something that helps preserve the character of Punto Croce. It’s not an insider or exclusive venue, it’s simply a place that if you want to be there, then you will find it. So how then to find this place? Follow the white rabbit!

White Rabbit methodology: I never thought of it as a methodology, but it’s definitely a way of doing. Venice is a very social city, the streets are narrow and at most you walk two by two, unless you’re out on an esplanade or in a campo, and this shape of the city puts people to be in touch with each other, in close proximity, and often in conversation too. There is also the getting lost factor. Stopping and asking for directions, over and over again, is just part of being within a medieval maze. It’s easy to be repeatedly lost here and then find your way, only to be lost again. With an event in this context, word can travel very fast on the ground, person to person, kind of like the coronavirus:) If you’re not connected to the community, let’s say a visitor to the city, then you’ve likely made arrangements with a friend or colleague to meet up at a local bar, by an old well in a campo, or along a fondamenta so they can lead the way.

Sure we used social media, some internet event forums, and rock steady email as a big part of our outreach for the open call, event announcements, sharing the schedule, and artist roster etc. But Venice is a hive, and with the right touch it can do the job for you.

Is DIY culture important to you as an artist/curator?

Absolutely. DIY culture is imperative for me as an artist and as a curator. We need more of this in the arts and have to encourage this as a stronger current across society. The more DIY culture happens, the less reliance we’ll have on the dominant forces that are working to shape the space of what to like and appreciate. We have a say in this matter and should exercise it regularly under our own power. So much potential is drilled out of humanity in the push toward consumer normality and a profit-driven system, the DIY alternative is necessary and a beautiful thing. We can cook for ourselves, thank you. And by this I also mean to make art and culture, to develop our own sense of taste and appreciation for the world and each other on an upfront and personal level. DIY culture contributes to fresh and curious minds, it gives people a bounce in their step, and who wouldn’t want a bit of homemade enlightenment?

How do you divide your tasks and energy in projects where you are artist/organizator/curator?

This is a sticky question. Especially for those of us who start out in a defined category, say being an artist, and then migrate as time passes into other areas like organization, curation, etc. Let’s just call this overlap, the definitions blur, and there you are in the mix wearing multiple hats. This isn’t really a fine-tuned logistical practice but I field issues as they come in, work hard and play hard in all directions, and step back often for a broader view of the situation. With the Picnic Pavilion and other projects that have some scale to them, having a kick-ass team around you is crucial, and can be so supportive in helping one to move fluidly through roles. Also being able to share ownership and responsibility for a project with your team and colleagues makes all the difference.

Do you expect the art world to pay attention to this kind of project?

This question holds one of the fundamental problems with how we go about experiencing art, the projects we make in the space of the art world, and what happens in Venice. There is so often a drive and expression of need for external validation. I call bullshit on this. The art world is totally lost in a psychodrama and it’s messing with people in a counterproductive way. Meaningful projects take place all over, and we have to accept that so many of them, even the best ones, will disappear into the abyss. Even if they get significant attention at the time, this is still temporary, and so we have to be thinking bigger here, for what and for whom are we doing what we do? So under the topic of expectations, we absolutely have to reconsider what we’re after, and for me this is more on the metaphysical plane of existence. Projects take place and via experience and participation, memories and lived moments ripple through all those connected to the project, and those people connected to them, and so on. However subtle that may sound, when you touch on lived experience, that’s larger than what the art world can make out of having eyes on a project. Topically speaking, I’m also happy if the project gets noticed and is externally validated. But the project can stand on its own and that is enough, it doesn’t need to please abstract figures and gatekeepers »out there.«

How would you replace the expression »this kind of project« with a better term?

This kind of project would better translate to – a fantasticical happening, an alien landing of creative force, a rebellion, a fuck-you art party, a proper picnic with all the fixings, the thing that blew your mind, a Dadaists wet dream, the future of art.

What does the domestic space of Punto Croce provide for artworks in comparison with the white cube or the black box?

Punto Croce offers a home space in the heart of Venice with strong community attachments. When making a project there and showing art in whatever form, you’re not building on a blank canvas, you’re coexisting with a litany of diverse projects that have occurred over the years, all of which form some kind of social consciousness associated with that home. Okay, we can argue that cubes also form a historical ambiance, but a cube cannot come close to the intimacy of a home.

For art, this domestic realm offers up an unpretentious space, one that by nature is within a world of its own. We’re not dealing with a space of absence, it’s one of fullness and memory, of touch, of life and death and the passing of time. A Venetian home (or just home), is a totally different psychological space than a commercialized cube in the business of presenting. Some works thrive within the cube, but the domestic is a private space. It can have a warmth that relaxes you into settling in and receiving an art experience, without the bigger expectations of performance and judgment, and simply can lower your guard and leave your armor at the door.

Is the home/house a proper place for art? Does the space interfere with the artworks?

There are countless ways to approach how and where we experience art. I would lean into this question in terms of flavor: whatever you’ve got going on in your base will ultimately follow through to the final dish. With the Picnic Pavilion, the homespace was like a rich starter, maybe a sofrito, delicious. With other spaces, all homes are different, so it’s hard to make a sweeping generalization, but ok, the home space is absolutely a proper place for art. Maybe it’s even a better space, or the best place. Maybe art spaces interfere with art. At least in a home/house if the art is bad you can find something else to occupy your attention. One might also have the chance to be closer to art, to not feel an artificially induced division, and maybe you’ll also have a chance to stay for lunch, nap in the garden, or play the piano. I’m sure these would reinforce the memory of your visit.

Can the Picnic Pavilion be integrated into Relational Aesthetics?

So we’re over twenty years into experiencing moments of what Nicolas Bourriaud coined as Relational Aesthetics. With the way our hyperconnected culture approaches the past these days, Relational Aesthetics might as well be in the medieval era now, but my answer is yes, absolutely. I’d probably rephrase the question, though: can Relational Aesthetics be integrated into the Picnic Pavilion? We’re well beyond those foundational principles now, as we’re not just talking about artists letting the audience in, but a kind of cocreation and dependency on each other has happened. I see it as total integration. The Picnic Pavilion had a power-sharing modality built into it, open-format, open call, participatory with performances, workshops, and cooking, totally relational.

What does home mean for you?

I definitely have a few variations on the meaning of home. There’s the more immediate physical home-home, as in the countryside town of my childhood where I have a small studio on the edge of a forest. Being there feeds my soul in a way other places don’t, but that’s a rustic and isolated experience. It eventually drives me crazy if I stay too long, but I miss it when I’m away for extended periods. Then there are a number of places, and I’m talking about different locations around the globe where the feeling of home also exists. One part can be ancestry and heritage, where tastes, sounds, and smells deliver something elemental that I connect with. Then there are the places where community, friends, work, and a sense of purpose all coalesce, and I have a home in that space, too. Home is a place to be comfortable, a kind of refuge, and a place to be yourself in the company of others.