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by Antonio Cataldo

What Is Autonomy, and for Whom Is Autonomy?

In the following text, I will speak about economy and autonomy, inspired by my grandparents, who, close to a century ago, managed to find forms of freedom and dignity under the most challenging circumstances when state and local authorities used and misused the meaning of what is to be human. In the past few years, I have interwoven personal storytelling in formal essays, not for empathy or egotistical reasons, but to bring to attention and make visible the intersection of one’s life and societal infrastructure, determining who has the right to speak mostly under specific economic underpinnings.    


These days I think about my maternal grandfather, a statuesque man whom I mostly remember as pensive, silent, and not at work. He must have been already past his 70s in my conscious encounters and memories of him. I interviewed him when I was 10 or 12 for a school assignment about WWII. There was a strong sense of identity and language in the little town where my parents had their roots. An oral history in which the maestros—primary school teachers—self-invested themselves with great honorary power to master the grand narrative of the small town: writing down its language and the local history of the Hirpini, an ancient Samnite tribe of Southern Italy, preceding the settling in the area of the Romans. The maestros extended the town’s origins to prehistory, coinciding with the basis of the currently spoken language—today on the edge of disappearance. They would write down the words’ phonetics of the local dialect, annotating peasants’ recipes and creating tradition, belonging and land resources, poverty, and dependency on the Lords of Naples who actually held absolute power over the entire entroterra (the “natural” resources of the inland underground and overground of these inhabited lands). The feudal system had never really stopped and was still strong in the 1980s. Italy as a nation continues to be a collection of multiple cultures and people who never settled for a majority identity. I was a child from the North, relocated to the South, and alien to all sorts of traditions. I was also learning about the local people, like my parents, who despised these textbook recipes because of the reminders of times when there was not enough food.

My grandfather had been a prisoner of war in Russia. As I recall, he would tell me how he was dehumanized, ate potato peels for four years before the war was over in 1945, and was released and was able to return home. Illiteracy was prevalent, conscription was widespread for men aged 18–44, and communication with their towns and families relied on word of mouth. Suddenly, a generic narration of wars from time past construed in the Italian official schoolbooks cut so close and factual, as it changed the course of his life. And I believe he considered himself lucky because he had both survived and didn’t have to continue serving at the front, where the chances of surviving would have been even smaller.

I think about my grandfather because of my grandmothers. Aged 97 and 96, they are a living representation of a time when people were valued only based on their “provenance.” My paternal grandmother fell in her house a few days ago. Close to two decades ago, she also fell from a tree in her 70s while heading away from her home in town, where she had relocated after my grandfather’s passing, to visit her old countryside house and work in the orchard. Her leg took months to heal. No one can take care of her because of her strong will, self-sufficiency, and temperament. She eventually recovered, like she has done multiple times throughout her life, becoming autonomous again, and I hope this is one of those times.

She regularly walked from place to place for kilometers in her youth, not owning a car, and because she valued her independence dearly. Day and night, despite being afraid of the night because of ghosts and other magical beings, and in the daytime waking snakes and wild animals of which she is phobic. “Night” must be read as a different concept than in a city. In Italian Southern rural areas, electricity fully arrived only in the 1980s, and still, in the 2000s, sudden power cuts without warning were frequent.

My grandma kept a broom upside down outside the house’s main door to avoid visits from “La Janara,” a half-wolf creature attempting to enter the household and drag people away from their homes during a full moon. The thousand stiff fibers on the broom would keep La Janara busy counting until morning when the night creature would retreat. The description of this mythical figure changed from time to time, according to the women's gatherings I was part of as a child. At times, La Janara was described as a half-human, half-animal figure gendered as a man, and other times as a “lost” woman, a concubine of Satan, dragged by the Devil to a lustful life in search of other women to kidnap on behalf of “il Demonio,” the Antichrist. The purpose of the abduction was never clear. It was not sexualized, even though nakedness was always part of depicting these imminent incoming figures. It was more to symbolize stripping oneself of earthly possessions and, consequently, any rights and obligations. Despite sounding incredibly liberating, as they had no inhumane daily tasks or jobs to accomplish, nor did they have to submit themselves to the prescriptions of marital life, judgment, or constant subjugation to laws, they had no way of fighting because of the disparity of means that was impossible to overcome—the means of production and its jurisdiction were not mastered or created by them, they were only the objects of those—peasants feared turning into such a life. Dreaming of a freed and emancipated life was sinful. Civil servants would also retell, analyze, and academicize these legends, rituals, and beliefs endlessly, openly ridiculing these events as forms of paganism and primitivism in forming a more “scientific” world. And yet, La Janara was no less tangible for me or these women. She was a body that could not be controlled. She betrayed any form of financial capital accumulation in so many ways. She liberated herself from material property and dependencies, family ties, nuclear family duties, and reproductive structures. My grandma told me she had heard La Janara several times during her youth. I was never sure if these stories were told to make me aware of the dangers of the night, but it worked because, during my teenage years, I would hear La Janara outside the door on full moon nights. She was not counting. She was digging. It created an idea of a heterotopia and a call: a form of escape, a life was possible outside of such an oppressive community. To leave, to liberate oneself, was a reality, though the consequences were grave.

The Fascist period was ever-present in these narrations. As a thin woman, my grandmother’s weight was something that was labeled by the regime. She had to demonstrate her strength otherwise. She worked hard in the fields, making a living outside the house, and always loathed housework. I’m coming to understand her stubborn rebellion only after 41 years of knowing her, while I keep repeatedly hearing different variations of the same four or five stories. Her way of demonstrating she was more potent than any biological man was to be silent, work incessantly, and command and challenge other people who would always remain behind her. As she was heavily respected, she managed to be strong-minded, embracing loneliness and moving away from traditional forms of affection. She stayed “illiterate” for the rest of her life, unable to read and write according to mainstream educational standards. She must have been among the first women supposedly choosing between the Republic and the Monarchy in a referendum on June 2, 1946. Monarchy, in theory, fell. Yet, it must not have meant much change in her life because she does not mention it. So, she continued to sign with an X on official documents. She often says she was utterly confused and had to return to her hometown from Naples during her youth because she didn’t understand their language. Italian, the Northern “vulgar” tongue (lingua volgare) of Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio, turned into the dominant language with the formation of the Italian nation-state, replacing Latin in bureaucratic and educational institutions, and wiping out other languages in other regions, deemed as dialects. An easy way to acknowledge these proper languages as variants of the primary imposed language, a constructed and institutionalized lie. Roland Barthes would probably call it a mythology.

Today, as I think about my grandmother, I ask myself: Did my grandma ever care about art? Would her aesthetic life have been different if she had encountered or learned about the likes of Jackson Pollock, or Alberto Burri, who probably laid the groundwork for the great Arte Povera, the movement working with poor material? Carlo Carrà, Giorgio Morandi? Maybe Gina Pane, who addressed violence, domestic abuse, or anguished isolation?

I never made an effort to teach her art history.

My grandmother had always had icons and images. Yes, she did, and she does! But her idol is not Gina Pane, and probably not even the Virgin Mary, as the Virgin Mary is not a figure one can identify with (that would be sinful). Her house is full of saints everywhere, images, and small icons she hangs or carries around with her, as little figurines that open up to an afterlife. Transcendence. I have never asked her what expectations she really has for the afterlife since she believes in it, but I cannot be sure. I have not inherited the same beliefs, although she tried hard, and she secretly probably believes I do.

Her house is spartan, and her diet is strict. Her main room is filled with the overtly present Saint Pius of Pietrelcina TV channel; 24-hour broadcasting from the little town of San Giovanni Rotondo, where hordes of religious tourists fill the spaces, gripped by the mass inside, which spills out onto the street outside the church through loudspeakers.

As we inherit traumas, we inherit aspirations. My images probably came through television, too. A more Americanized version derived from a different revolution, the sexual liberation of the sort brought in through cheap TV predicates of the era of Berlusconi broadcasting channels breaking the existing rules of teletransmission from the dictates of national state TV rules. I wanted to become a fashion designer by 12, knowing little about what that meant and probably building on my mother’s occupation as a seamstress. I have no idea how I came up with such statements, which stayed with me for years and were far from the silent submissiveness surrounding me.

I never realized how much impact my grandmother had on my willingness to not submit to my surroundings and rules that are supposed to subjugate subjectivity.

When speaking about aspirations, I could not pursue my dream, or only partially, because I still needed to encounter the counseling and guidance needed to move fast in such a world. That world was too far away to even understand the basics of how it worked, and mostly I would not have been allowed. The doorkeepers were not my parents but society and judgment. I didn’t find any support from teachers, whose boycotting was partly due to self-defeat to a world that was ever distant from the normativities of a town life of unquestioned adherence to rules which seemed unobjectionable.

Curating has become that porous space with time demanding representation otherwise concealed. It still entails production and administration, allowing different voices to come in. Such a space enables others who do not belong to enter in several ways through persistence in the world of the arts. Flirting with private capital and public funding, the curator as a figure didn’t change the dynamics of representation overnight but continues to be the doorkeeper of historical narratives and what’s at the center, on the margins, and what’s left out of these sacred spaces. Curating rests, as a meta-discipline, at the intersection of practicing and analyzing power structures. If we need to change systems and networks of representation, we also need to maintain curating “in power” to show the conditions of exhibiting in space. Claim responsibility by taking responsibility for where one speaks, who is speaking, and from which position.

To rethink funding, one needs to review the structures enabling exclusionary or monolithic functions within existing institutional behavior.

When we speak of speculating on funding, I cannot help but think of the fabulation my grandmother assigns to money and power. Even today, when she gifts me 20 euros a year, she attaches a value to it far from monetary, pretending she doesn’t know the currency’s accurate market value. In her economy, she has, for different reasons, never fully engaged with a strictly monetary system. But she attaches an emotional and symbolic value to the bill. Marx would have been fascinated to study the sociological impact of my grandmother’s manipulation of money and its representational implications. She marks a pact between me and her of obedience. My grandmother knows I can’t very refuse well the money, and I have to accept whatever emotional labor comes with it, no matter the sum. It is a play she has been playing since I was six, and she has never given up—though the younger I was, the less I got. On a different scale, I assume she does the same with every family member, creating the bases for a micro and a macroeconomy.  

A real fabulation on money, aimed at changing structures within the art world, needs to rethink the system of empowerment within the arts, which cannot start or be limited to the exhibition space. When things and people have reached the exhibition space, they already belong to a specific knowledge space. It often ignores the many stories that have fostered the possibility of that space being there. We must change aesthetics and funding structures by rethinking the various institutions which enable people to come to the fore: primary and secondary schools, community centers, rural and remote centers, and the multiple places where different communities across different economic and cultural backgrounds meet. Such is an unavoidable task of institutions that are both publicly financed and have a public mandate to bring forward and elevate several pieces of knowledge and histories that remain on the periphery of museums and art centers. Because at this moment, we have to ask, who’s autonomous and for whom is this autonomy really?


When I was invited to speak under the rubric of Speculating on Funding, I first focused on connecting money to the formation of the concept of shame in psychology via Sigmund Freud and eschatology, reflecting on the secret unconscious conditions of capital. Shame, like laughing, may make us come to consciousness of our condition, as much as it may prevent overcoming it. While the private sphere is still a primarily ignored category of what comes into funding structures, unconsciously marking who is visible and who is invisible in the exhibition space, I spoke curatorially about structural changes in positions of power we attempted to draw at Fotogalleriet in Oslo by continuously studying and changing the governance of the institution. Legitimization happens through perception and is representational. Therefore, it is a matter of a lack of “images,” and thus, we can argue for why art and curating are central to the symbolic struggle for recognition. When writing and looking back at these thoughts, I wanted to point out something additional: people who are not part of financial art structures despite their use and perpetuation of images. I tried to understand other forms of agency tied to a different literacy, which is not based on written language but on other forms of intelligence, which still call and form autonomous subjects outside the cathedrals of the exhibition spaces. These individuals structured their oikonomia, household management, to preserve their dignity and integrity. It was essential to highlight these forms of resistance and image-making that too often escape the structure of production that most of us, as presumed equals in the art world, take for granted.

By the time this text reaches publication, almost a year will have passed since I submitted the original manuscript to the editors. Meanwhile, my grandmother departed for what she called “the world of truth,” which separates, according to her, the living from the dead, on January 29, 2023.

Antonio Cataldo is a curator and a theorist and, since August 2018, has served as the Artistic Director of Fotogalleriet in Oslo, a foundation primarily funded by the Ministry of Culture and Equality and the oldest Kunsthalle for photography in the Nordic region. Through exhibitions, discourse, and research for several internationally reputed organizations, Cataldo has championed institutional models rethinking their governing structures and how to reconsider traumagenic representation in the aesthetic field. Cataldo is an alumnus of philosopher Giorgio Agamben at Iuav, University of Venice, where he obtained his MA in 2006 and received his Ph.D. from the University of Reading, UK, and ZHdK, Zurich University of the Arts, in 2022. Cataldo chairs The Association of Norwegian Kunsthalles boards and sits on the Sandefjord Kunstforening Art Award jury.

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Issue 58

Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art

by Ronald Kolb, Dorothee Richter, Shwetal Patel

Editorial: Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art