Adelita Husni-Bey, Politicians, 2014, C-print, 57 3/4 × 43 1/4". From the series “Agency-giochi di potere” (Agency Power Games), 2014.

Adelita Husni-Bey, Politicians, 2014, C-print, 57 3/4 × 43 1/4". From the series “Agency-giochi di potere” (Agency Power Games), 2014.

Adelita Husni-Bey

Laveronica arte contemporanea

Adelita Husni-Bey, Politicians, 2014, C-print, 57 3/4 × 43 1/4". From the series “Agency-giochi di potere” (Agency Power Games), 2014.

“2014, Italy: The national youth unemployment rate has reached 40 percent. Factories are closing. The number of families living beneath the poverty level has increased. The government is finding it difficult to project growth. Soon there will be new elections. How would you like this situation to change? What are the positions held by various groups and what requests would they like to make?” The voice of New York–based Milanese artist Adelita Husni-Bey can be heard at the beginning of Agency-giochi di potere (Agency Power Games), 2014, a video work born from her recent social research. She has examined in detail both the ways in which societies produce and distribute knowledge, and the conditions required for an alternative social imagination to prosper. Her questions are directed to a group of thirty-five students—volunteers from the Liceo Manara, a public high school in Rome geared toward political studies—who were asked to consider the dynamics of power in contemporary Italy during a three-day workshop organized by the artist at the MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts in May 2014. The project revealed Husni-Bey’s interest in the emancipatory potential of radical pedagogies and the ways in which they might encourage the development of heterogeneous individual and collective identities.

Agency is edited documentation of the MAXXI workshop. To develop the project, the artist appropriated participatory exercises from a model for a class on citizenship developed in the United Kingdom. After a series of preparatory meetings between the participating students and real-world economists, politicians, journalists, and activists, the artist began the experiment by dividing the students (a rather homogeneous group) into five fictional categories: journalists, politicians, workers, activists, and bankers. The groups were invited to respond to Hunsi-Bey’s questions by enacting a series of social and political scenarios through which each contingent would express its stance. The goal of this “game of power” was to achieve consensus via honest and transparent initiatives and gain influence by sharing original ideas. In the video, we see the students holding debates, conducting interviews, and participating in newscasts. They organize subversive activities (sit-ins and protests) and they lose an election. Remarkably, most of these efforts eventually end in failure. No group succeeds in attaining power by legitimate means. Ultimately, the students—in solidarity—turn their backs on the experiment after having unwittingly reproduced the status quo.

Born in the second half of the 1990s, these students belong to a generation whose language and behaviors are deeply marked by the media, television in particular. Because the social, political, and economic structures dictating the actions and events that transpired in the workshop were based on those that exist in contemporary Italy, it wasn’t surprising that the students expressed their own proposals for reform utilizing existing language and strategies. But in the end, the participants were radical in their willingness to become more aware of their roles and the repercussions of their actions over time. While at first the students easily slip back into their everyday personae and seem embarrassed or annoyed by the experiment, over the course of the video they become visibly invested in the project. Agency thus finds criticality in play, as it emphasizes the benefits of imaginative activity (the basis for the invention of alternative worlds) and illustrates what might be achieved by experimenting with phenomenological and social-anthropological experience.

Throughout all this, Husni-Bey stays behind the camera: She observes, lingers on certain moments, and focuses on one or two leaders. As the narrative unfolds, the artist’s striking compositional talent emerges, and the focus of the work seems to alternate between her research methodology and a series of abstract chromatic sequences. At Laveronica Arte Contemporanea, the video was accompanied by a series of photographs depicting the students, installed to frame the entrance of the dark gallery where the video played. The youths strike rigid poses with their cohorts, reflecting the professions assumed during the experiment. Their bodies appear flat and typological. Functioning somewhat like stage portraits, these images underscore the importance of disguise and pretense; they are, Husni-Bey seems to tell us, necessary precedents of significant change.

Paola Nicolin

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.