curatorial lens vol. 6/ alice ongaro sartori

NowtilusLive! Ocean Space, Venice. Photograph by Clelia Cadamuro. Courtesy of TBA21–Academy.

Alice Ongaro Sartori (born 1991) is an independent curator and a PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg. Until recently she led the Public Program of Ocean Space, a center for exhibitions, research and public programs catalyzing ocean literacy and advocacy through the arts, based in Venice. She holds a degree in Art History from the University of Saint Andrews. She previously assisted Collections and Archives section of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh and worked for the educational department of La Biennale di Venezia Foundation and for the curatorial department of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Since 2016 she co-curated Microclima, a project that operates on the intersections of culture and ecology.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Until recently, you led the Public Programs at Ocean Space in Venice, where you still maintain a curatorial connection to the organisation. Ocean Space was founded by TBA21- Academy in 2019 and is an active long- term exploration in the understanding of the ecological systems of sea in cross-reference to human activity. How did this role open new possibilities in curating outside the traditional exhibition venues for you? 

ALICE ONGARO SARTORI: Curating art projects outside the exhibition format has been an experimental and spontaneous discovery that has occurred over the years since I joined MICROCLIMA in 2016.  With MICROCLIMA, which is based at the Serra dei Giardini in Venice, and with ramifications in other places (such as India and Mongolia) the need to work with spaces, and not in a given space, arose spontaneously – especially since we are talking about ecology and public spaces. With Ocean Space, in a sense, there was a meeting of attitude: interacting with the local community, through artistic language outside of predefined spaces.

Serra dei Giardini, part of MICROCLIMA. Image courtesy of MICROCLIMA.

LŠ: What are some of your most interesting projects realised through Ocean Space and why?

AOS: It’s hard to choose! Regarding exhibitions, it will also stay in my heart the opening show: Moving Off the Land II by Joan Jonas, curated by Stefanie Hessler. Following that, O.C.E.A.N.I.C.A (Occasions Creating Ecologically Attuned Narratives in Collective Action) by Isabel Lewis (and part of the cycle The Soul Expanding Ocean #2, curated by Chus Martinez) was also an exceptional project. A collective performance that took over the Church of San Lorenzo and the Campo in front of it for one month.

Regarding the public program, I choose the ones that interacted with the local community most, but Ocean Space public program is really vast. A series of outdoor walks called Walking the Trajectories: Venice as a Model for the Future? (curated by Barbara Casavecchia and Pietro Consolandi) aimed at discovering the lagoon of Venice through walking meetings with scientists, architects, and fishermen.

And Nowtilus. Stories from an urban lagoon in the 21st century, a podcast program, which I curate together with Enrico Bettinello. Nowtilus is a polyphonic archive of stories, notes, and themes relating to rethinking Venice today, dispelling myths about the city, and placing the lagoon back at the center of attention.

LŠ: Within the frames of Ocean Space you as mentioned co- led with Enrico Bettinello, Nowtilus – Storie da una laguna urbana del 21esimo secolo, which navigates the complex relationship between the city and the lagoon. How was the podcast initiated? How did you choose guest participants? What were you particularly excited to highlight through the conversations? 

AOS: The podcast was born a year after Ocean Space, during the first pandemic lockdown. Behind it, there was the need to give voice to a local Venice, and not just to organize and showcase stories and tales of other artists coming from abroad, as is often the case in the dynamics of the Biennale system (that is great to have, but an alternative is also necessary). The goal was and still is to show a lively and extremely creative and future-oriented Venice that does not surrender to mechanism of depopulation and goes against the trend of those who lament its unstoppable decline. Have chosen people from different disciplines, professionals and amateurs, people we knew but also met during our research. All of them are deeply connected to Venice, not necessarily “Venetians” by birth but whose lives and work have brought them very close to the lagoon, developing an extraordinary relationship with it. Writers, artists, poets, scientists, fishermen, photographers, booksellers, musicians. Through the different conversations we had, I was impressed to witness a real and sincere love for the city of Venice. I found that everyone, every single one of our guests who came aboard to be interviewed was madly in love with Venice, some more explicitly, and some more covertly. They were either in love thanks to traditions that have been handed down, or due to some belated rediscovery. It’s a love that’s permeated by profound respect, which I really hope will trigger some important and honourable activities within this small community. On the other hand, I was surprised and refreshed by the continuously changing perspectives and the different points of view on what Venice represents today.

LŠ: As an independent curator you mentioned in our initial conversation that you are interested in ‘alternative’ exhibition formats, specifically community projects – could you tell us more of the project Microclima and its role in researching the identity of Venice from the point of its lagoons? How was the idea of the organisation initiated?

AOS: MICROCLIMA is a cultural project that originated in 2010 from an idea of Paolo Rosso and a group of friends and collaborators, who, with the idea of creating a vibrant and inclusive cultural microclimate, began a series of programs and activities at the Serra dei Giardini in Venice, a late 19th century greenhouse that was the first infrastructure build for the Venice Biennale in 1894. It was designated to host the tropical plants then designated to the national pavilions of the International Art Exhibitions. I arrived in 2016. The intent was to create a series of programs related to themes such as ecology and the social sphere, in line with and in response to the history and space of the botanical greenhouse that housed the project.

LŠ: How was the idea and workings of Microclima expanded from the territory of Venice? How did you choose organisations to work with?

AOS: The Serra dei Giardini (the Greenhouse) stands in a strategic location in the middle of the Venice Gardens, just a stone’s throw from the Biennale entrance. We have over the years hosted many national pavilions or official Biennale collaterals, and in general, met a lot of people from all over the world passing through Venice. That’s how, for example, a collaboration with Mongolia has started. RedHero, a project related to Mongolian art and culture, and based in Ulaanbaatar, is an archive of interviews and videos, shot by Kinonauts (video-makers Matteo Stocco and Matteo Primiterra), and a research program for artists, including Mark Dion, Tuguldur Yondomjamts, Dana Sherwood, Michael Beutler, Zula Urchuud and many others. In recent years, MICROCLIMA, has moved to ‘uncharted waters’ in the south of Giudecca Island (Venice Lagoon) with the Floating Cinema project, an entirely aquatic settlement that for 10 days brings together local and international institutions, artists, musicians, chefs, and artists from all fields for a cultural program related to cinema and video art, and more.

Projects always arise from ideas and synergies with friends and people whose thinking and ways of acting we admire.

Cinema Galleggiante, 2020 edition. Image by Chiara Beccatini. Courtesy of MICROCLIMA.
Cinema Galleggiante, photographed by Riccardo Banfi. Courtesy of MICROCLIMA.

LŠ: Could you tell us more of how your educational background and studies at University of St Andrews, combined with your fellowship at the Peggy Guggenheim defined your curatorial practice?

AOS: They were both very important experiences. The department of the School of Art History at St Andrews is certainly outstanding, but I believe the most important things are always learned outside the university classroom. It takes curiosity and even a little bit of willingness to step outside the box. So, when I arrived in Venice, the reality of MICROCLIMA seemed like fresh air. Definitely complicated, not as linear as an institution or a museum can be, but very creative and sustained by spontaneous and direct human relationships generating new ideas and projects.

The experience in the curatorial department of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (I was an intern for about six months) was one of the most beautiful and rich formative experiences I have ever had. I worked on Peggy Guggenheim’s permanent collection and did research for the exhibition Surrealism and Magic that is now on view through the 26th of September 2022, at the museum (do not miss it!).

LŠ: How do you see the role of curator in the contemporary art field that engages with alternative exhibition spaces? What are the challenges of the role? 

AOS: I believe that working in spaces other than museums can be a means, but not necessarily a goal. Let me explain. Any activity must make sense in the space that hosts it, not be a prerogative of it. If the project is respectful of the place, approaches it in a way that is not extractive and not invasive then it makes sense. The interesting side of approaching new spaces is definitely to change perspective on things, and doing it from a physical point of view as well can be a start to develop new ideas and approaches.