The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 3, no 1 (2020)
ISSN 2612-0496

Artistic and Curatorial Power in Cities’ Historic Spaces

Cristina GarzilloICLEI (Germany)

Employed with ICLEI since 2005. Having almost 20 years of experience working in and for local governments, Cristina is recognised for her work as expert in local sustainability processes, integrated management and governance as well as author of numerous publications in the field of local sustainability, cultural heritage and knowledge brokerage. Cristina is an external evaluator for the URBACT III programme and an expert for the European Commission and the Committee of the Regions. She can also draw on a wealth of academic experience gained from previous role as contract professor at the University of Parma.

Submitted: 2020-10-06 – Accepted: 2020-10-06 – Published: 2020-12-21


This article analyses and compares three neighbourhood/site projects in Athens, Salerno and Sunderland. Despite being on a small scale, they trigger vitality and revive spaces that invite creative uses. These examples have the aim to involve local residents and artists in creating public places and claim their right to oppose top-down impositions and globalization of cultural consumption returning decision-making power to the local communities. The ambition is that small artwork interventions can gradually propose meaningful transformations in a wider perspective.

Keywords: creativity; urban revival; curatorial light; performing arts; community knowledge.

This article critically examines, through the analysis of public spaces, the transformation and redefinition of historic areas of 3 European cities during the last decade. Streets, squares, open places and public buildings have long been evoking social practices and traditions but also progress and modernity and are now becoming the driver for curatorial activities, borrowing their methods from artistic and museum practices. The decision to concentrate the analysis on three very different sites grew out of the need to examine urban renewal strategies and narratives, where ideas about artists and community building can take shape and be challenged. Each selected site encapsulates a new model of cultural space beyond the traditional categories of “protection” or “enhancement” and tries to respond to the questions on how are the new interventions created regarding a diversified contemporary cultural production.

The first site, the Church of San Sebastiano del Monte dei Morti (Mountain of the Dead), known as “Morticelli’s church”, is located in the historical centre of Salerno, in southwestern Italy. In the 80s, the church was completely abandoned as a consequence of earthquakes and lack of maintenance and became a synonymous of decay with few connections to the “lower” historical centre1.

The “San Sebastiano del Monte dei Morti Living Lab” (SSMOLL) is the process activated in 2018 by the Blam association group, the Municipality of Salerno, currently the owner of the building, and the Federico II University of Naples, aiming at reopening the former church, inserting it into a wider process of urban regeneration and social innovation applied to the “higher” historical centre.

The reopening of the former church in December 2018 indeed marked the start of a process of adaptive reuse of the historical asset through a collaborative process in which the community becomes the main interpreter of the new use value of the asset. Developed and generated over time inside the former church, the Creative Living Lab becomes the brain of a culture-led regeneration process, in which an abandoned ecclesiastical space becomes a place of community and incubator of creativity.

Since 2018 key ad-hoc performances are held in and outside the square adjoining the church with specific site installations as when curating an art show. A team of local artists has installed artworks and has worked together under the coordination of Flavia D’Aiello, a storyteller, puppet master and producer responding to an art call launched by the group association Blam. The living performances have built interactions and reflective relations among performers, a double-bass, video makers, ballerinas, illustrators and designers, as well as architects. Artists and assistants have installed the artworks on site, and the technicians set up the lighting and technical equipment exhibiting how culture enters into action while simultaneously proposing a connection to the topics of love and death in line with the symbolic meaning of the church. Contrary to the idea that curatorial activities are only interested in large budgetary works, candles lighting a temporary pottery exhibition in the square adjoining the church demonstrate the willingness to arrange a lot with very little, warning us on the theme of abandoned souls (so-called “anime pezzentelle”).

Figure 01. Church of San Sebastiano dei Morti—Blam Ludovica La Rocca
Figure 01. Church of San Sebastiano dei Morti—Blam Ludovica La Rocca

The idea of using artworks as a tool to activate participatory processes for regaining spaces in the collective urban imagination also exists in the creation of the “Museo Luminoso Diffuso”, a Luminous Museum spread all over the city, starting from the ex-church of the “Morticelli”. The aim of the project is to build a map of interventions able to bring light to abandoned and neglected places, maybe in popular quarters, traditionally seen as the “anomalous” localities of the city, and to examine how such images may change through the redefinition of urban space.

In a similar fashion and without the fear of attributing new spatial experiences, the intervention “Lumina Minervae” in the Minerva Garden creates an unusual scenography and crafts a stage of lights, images, costumes and sounds to represent the history of the Salernitan Medical School.

The Giardino della Minerva (Minerva Garden), a 12th century terraced therapeutic botanical garden, is not exactly the first place that many visitors see when arriving in the city. It is indeed located in the highest part of the historic centre of Salerno. The Garden was part of the Scuola Medica Salernitana (Salernitan Medical School), considered to be the first medical educational institution in Europe and one of the forerunner universities. Salerno has been the home of the Salernitan Medical School since the 10th century. More than 300 plant species are grown here, arranged according to the ancient principles of humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) and linked to the fundamental elements (air, water, earth and fire) found in ancient medical literature. The temporary light intervention has the fundamental premise to emphasize the timelessness and secrecy of the site and mark the hidden alleys to reach it.

Figure 02. Minerva Garden, Salerno—Luciano Mauro
Figure 02. Minerva Garden, Salerno—Luciano Mauro

The second selected project2 is a micro-experiment of urban revival consisting of a participatory light installation and artistic interventions aiming at “illuminating” the abandoned Pittaki Street in Athens, Greece. From 2012 until 2018, the project succeeded in establishing a profound dialogue with the local reality, addressing the concept of the place, the people involved and the power of curatorial light. It included creative groups in the placemaking process and engaged citizens to co-create a homely public space attempting to offer an alternative to the dominant trajectory of urban decline. The project was initiated by Imagine the City3, an informal network of citizens focusing on urban regeneration, and was developed in partnership with Beforelight4, a creative group focusing on light design. The light installation was initially supported by the Municipality of Athens in terms of permits and technical support.