On the 21st of November, one of Trans_Muted’s editors, Riccardo, had the opportunity to meet and interview Selvaggia (they/them) and Guido (they/them) from Project Tiresias (Progetto Tiresia, in Italian), a cultural and artistic queer collective based in Padova. Discussing the themes of art and gender, community, and dialogue with them was illuminating. Project Tiresias is currently composed of six amazing people: Selvaggia, Guido, Sebastiano, Grazia, Giovanni, and Federica.
Riccardo: “How was Project Tiresias born? How did you folks meet?”
Selvaggia: “Project Tiresias was born around last summer, with a focus on gender roles and stereotypes, but as intersectionality has always been one of our core principles, our interests expanded and mixed with other issues and topics. Everything started with Grazia (who is part of the directive, alongside Sebastiano, Federica, Guido and I) and Giovanni. Giovanni, who is a psychologist and an elementary school teacher, wanted to find a way to talk with their students about gender roles, so they chose the fable as a means to approach this young ‘audience'. I am a doctor in forest science, but I have also been writing stories and making art since I was 12 years old, and I have always been passionate about gender and its deconstruction - I have just finished writing my last novel. So, naturally, the fable was written by me, and illustrated by Sebastiano. The project was called ‘Rosa o Blu, sii chi vuoi tu’ [‘Pink or blue, be what you want’]. The fable is very traditional, but typical gender stereotypes are inverted. The prince to be saved is portrayed as very feminine, while the love interest, the saviour, is a buff masculine princess!
Grazia, instead, was already working with MetaArte [a non-profit cultural association in Padova], so this encouraged us to form a collective. After the fable project, we started organising a photographic one, with both photos and videos. It started with a photoshoot of ourselves, it was supposed to be a simple presentation of our group. While we were recording the interviews, however, we decided to focus on our relationship to gender and gender expression, as it was such an important topic for us. In this way, it became a thing of its own, the exhibition ‘Fuck Gender Roles’. which includes includes pictures of both us and other people who wanted to participate - around 25 photos in total.”
"The idea behind our project
is to use art not only to talk
about the world and about gender,
but also to connect people."
Guido: “Then we put on the art workshop with Lucas [our friend Genitalia Panic!].”
Selvaggia: “We soon made friends with him and decided to organise this drawing workshop about gender together. Naturally, everyone could draw as badly as they wanted! The main point was to explore gender roles in society as well as in individual experiences as a group. It was really interesting. The workshop was open to everyone - so, there wasn’t just us non-binary, trans*, or other LGBT people, but also a lot of cisgender and/or straight people too (people who maybe weren’t even involved in activism!). The most interesting answers, in a way, came from cishet people! [Selvaggia laughs] You could see how gender roles are a pain for everyone - and even cishet people, who maybe never thought about their gender before, seemed to be having time with it.”
Guido: “‘La Melagrana’ [‘The Pomegranate’] is our next project. It’s a theatre reading, with a very intimate atmosphere. It will [did] take place on the 25th of November at La Forma del Libro, a bookshop in Padova which is renowned for being both inclusive and accessible. The pomegranate is a symbol of rebirth and elaboration of pain. It was a nice choice of title, because of the season - pomegranate is now seasonal fruit(!) - and because it has a highly symbolic value. This reading is dedicated to all women - not just European ones, but also those who live ‘on the other side of the world, and similarly, trans women, women of different faiths, and so on. Songs, poems and prose readings will alternate. It’ll be a simple and intimate night.”
Riccardo: “Art is at the centre of your project, as it is fundamental for both representation, deconstruction and reaffirmation of gender. What is, exactly, the role of art, for you? How do you understand this union of art and gender?”
Guido: “This question opens up a universe of possible answers! First and foremost, we use art because we are artists, and because it is a means to reach a vast audience in the most impartial and neutral way possible. By this, I mean that it is a way of speaking a language everyone can understand. Photography is extremely immediate. Similarly, poetry and music can talk to more people with different backgrounds, from different social classes.
Apropos of gender. The name ‘Project Tiresias’ comes from a poetry book by Kae Tempest called Hold Your Own. In this book there’s a strong presence of Tiresias [an ancient Greek mythological figure, who lived both as a man and a woman]. It’s an exceptional book. Kae reinterprets Tiresias on a contemporary post-industrial level. They make Tiresias a contemporary of ours. The name of the project comes from one of their poems - what’s more artistic than this?
Poetry is made of interpretation, it speaks in different ways to different people, and we like to offer the audience the possibility of interpreting and understanding poems in their own way. We like to provoke people. For example, ‘Fuck Gender Roles’ is not just a photographic exhibition, but also an interactive experience. Visitors can listen to interviews of the people that took part in the project, where they talk about their experience of gender, as they look at their pictures. The photos, by the way, were taken by Alessia De Gasperi. She is an amazing photographer based in Padova, who hosted us in their artistic space!
So many people wanted to tell us about their experience with gender - anyone, from the cishet man to the non binary pansexual person(!) -, so we collected a great number of experiences. Unfortunately, we had to say some ‘no’, otherwise, the exhibition would have been enormous. The exhibit is itinerary - ‘Fuck Gender Roles’ aims at reaching many different spaces, both specifically queer spaces and more ‘mainstream’ ones. The strength of ‘Fuck Gender Roles’ is that it’s a really political exhibition, which shows non-comforming bodies and often un-heard and under-represented experiences.
Selvaggia: “I speak more from the point of view of contemporary art. I was always passionate about writing and illustrating, but also about video games and animation series - especially those dedicated to a younger audience. In our contemporary culture, Animation and gaming helped make people familiar with the themes of gender and sexuality, I myself discovered my own sexual and gender identity through gaming and series!
Frankly - I think art is the only way to talk about gender. When we move towards more scientific or rational ways of talking, such as scientific essays, the fields of psychology or biology, or any other natural science, we risk de-naturalising the very concept of gender! Gender is something which ‘does not exist’ really, unlike chromosomes or other sexual traits etc. It is a concept which changes through cultures, space and time - it’s a social construct. Since humans have always talked about their experiences and their ‘time’ in history through art, I think art is the only way to effectively talk about gender.
Guido: “Thank you to MTV for making us discover non-binary people!”
Selvaggia: “I’m absolutely convinced that art is the only way to talk about things that change through time. Science usually analyses things that are ‘immanent’ - for example, atoms will always work in the same way. Sure, I have a background in science - but I think one cannot talk about gender, or even themselves in general, in a scientific way. To me, art is indeed the only way. And that’s why the project works with so many artistic means - theatre, fables, music, drawing, poetry, photography. The strength of the project is that - while we are small - for every individual project or event we get to collaborate with other people, artists, professionals, who share their own perspective on the topics with us. That’s how we got to work with Lucas, or Simone Riflesso (an Italian queer and disability activist). And the more people we work with, the more we discover about ourselves.
In the end, the strength of Project Tiresias is creating a community, networking. We connect artists and professionals. Also, we’re always present at our exhibitions to chat with the visitors, and many of them want to join our project or just follow our page! The idea behind our project is to use art not only to talk about the world and about gender, but also to connect people.”
Guido: “Art forces you, although very gently,to listen. Say you’re looking at a painting: you have to put yourself in a listening, receptive attitude. It’s like listening to someone, to the way they talk about themselves - for example, in order to guess what pronouns or gendered expression you might use for them, as one might do for non-binary people. To sum it up, some general characteristics of art are crucial to us: the role of listening, of community, and its broad scope of communication. That’s why it's our means of choice. Riccardo: “Speaking of community - anyone who does activism knows how both precious and difficult communities can be, especially within the LGBTQIA+ world. The TDoR vigils are an example of great and compassionate unity, but also inner divisions. What is the importance of queer communities? Are there issues in establishing one?”
Selvaggia: “It is easy to create a community. That’s how humans survive, after all. The hard thing is to maintain it. I am part of the LGBT community - as all of us are! But to stay inside it and keep it alive, united, alongside all the other subjectivities, can be really hard. The LGBT community, because of its very own nature, is very diverse, composed of many subgroups - and sometimes it’s very hard to keep these subgroups united and in dialogue.
Homophobia, transphobia, lesbophobia, biphobia, etc., plague the LGBT community too. At times, they feel even more rooted inside our community than outside of it, whether this is just because there’s only ignorance, or a lack of interest outside. People sometimes tend to stick with their own narrow group. Gay cis men will stay with the gay cis community, lesbians will stay with the lesbian community, ad so on. It can be a very difficult battle, to communicate with different queer people, and this internal battle affects also our relationship with the ‘outisde’. In our case, the LGBT community we are in as Project Tiresias is often intersected with the transfeminist community, or the community of people with disability, for example. In the end, it becomes so large that… it basically covers the entire world!
Communities are crucial, and big problems can often arise inside. It’s important to teach non-queer people, who often have no clue of what we’re talking about - but it’s also important to allow people inside to communicate, in a non-aggressive, non-violent, and safe space.
Of course, a healthy rage is good - like shouting in a megaphone in the public square during a protest, or throwing rocks at the windows of a fascist party venue. But, generally, we tend to distance ourselves from the most aggressive groups. If you have to communicate with the ‘enemy’, listening and reciprocity are important. Communities must be peaceful communities - shouting is good to express your ideas, but in order to unite the smaller communities, peace is necessary. Would you rather have a ‘council meeting’, or a ‘council party’?”
Guido: “As we brought forth a project about gender and gender roles, other communities ‘called’ us, interested in our point of view - and so, we got out of Padova!”
Riccardo: “There are never enough collectives! Sometimes, as an example, associations and collectives seem to live in different worlds, and struggle to communicate and work together. Have you ever encountered any difficulty in dealing with different communities - be it for ideological reasons, or because of someone’s phobia?"
Selvaggia: “So far, we have worked with both associations and collectives - we ourselves are a ‘collective’, but only because we are so small. For us, the important word is project. We want to bring forth some ideas and initiatives, but we’re always working with different people, collectives, and associations every time. Sometimes, other collectives or people can get upset if we collaborate with other groups that they’ve had issues with in the past. We don’t really care - if you agree with our ideas and really want to help us, we are glad of working together. But yes, things can be difficult. For example, the vibe was really tense when we joined the organisation of the Padova Pride this year, and yesterday for the TDoR there were different ‘alternative’ vigils organised by different collectives in different places. To me, this is unacceptable - if you act like this, you’re losing sight of the real goal.”
Guido: “Padova is a very diverse and active city, for many reasons.For example, it’s a student city. It’s a perfect environment for cultural development, initiatives and events, and through dialogue (and doing some work on our own identities as groups) we can easily bridge the gaps.”
Selvaggia: “In this region, Padova is a historically leftist city, so its activism isn’t as aggressive as in other cities - like Verona, a historically conservative city, where antifascists are much more antagonistic. Padova is a much more open and relaxed environment, and it’s possible to cultivate the cultural or artistic side of the city of the community. But for this very reason, people can let their guards down, and they think they can allow themselves to fight with other queer people and groups. And that’s how you get divisions such as what we’ve seen yesterday during the TDoR.
Riccardo: “As a final question, I would like to ask you if you have any advice, or message, to anyone who might be working and doing social or cultural activism within our community.”
Selvaggia: “I think we have to accept that if we want to do anything we need to compromise with our fellow queer friends and companions. To want and expect everything all at once leads to getting nothing. We have to adapt ourselves to others, and welcome even the smallest of victories. Of course - it’s good to have a great ideal, but compromise helps us avoid not getting anything at all only because we aimed for perfection.
After all, collectives are born to help others, and each other - if we start one only to do what we like, then it’s not a real collective, but a mere group of friends. A collective, by definition, has to work for the good of the whole collectivity. To do this, we have to listen to everyone, try to include everyone, and sometimes, accept compromise. Otherwise, we go nowhere, and we waste our energy.”
Guido: “Always ask yourself: what is your political identity? Write a manifesto, organise, find people with similar goals or that are ready to help you despite having different ideas - to quote Kae Tempest, ‘be yourself, hold your own’. Don’t let external influences stop you from reaching your goals - be it society, the State, queerphobia, or even the Church. And do not betray your ethics. Realise that your bodies are political - what are your tools? How do you want to speak?”
Riccardo: “So, you’d say that we can compromise on our actions, but never on our ideas?”
Selvaggia: “That’s how one should live life!”