Lyle Ashton Harris (artist)
in conversation with Riccardo Giacconi
New York, February 2010
published on the book Spoilsport
Sport is a social arena, a social context with definite values, and the production of value is given by the context itself.
Yes, and that social context is not just in the field per se, but it extends to the spectator. In Untitled (Bourgeoisie) , I became much more interested in those who actually watch – the spectators – versus the object of their gaze. So I am much more interested in typologies of spectators and instances of acting out: class and gender issues. At the time I did Untitled (Bourgeoisie), I was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome – I spent nine months there in 2000/2001. The second month there I felt it was time to start to work. That particular year, issues of races in European soccer were very popular in the media. I just photographed Berlusconi for The New York Times, and I started going to see soccer matches. My access was to the field, and I photographed Roma-Lazio and several other matches all over Italy. I photographed and interviewed African black soccer players: Aldair from Brazil, Phil Masinga from South Africa… I never watched sports before. I became much more interested in crowds, and how crowds were acting out. It was about was happens in the fields, but also about what’s happening in the stadium.
What about the interviews with the players?
Initially I did interviews and photographs, and I was going to juxtapose the black soccer players against soccer hooligans, but then I realized it was not about the individual but about crowds. Crowds and power.
The team in Italy is not an ideology; it’s something more – you don’t question it. It is interesting to put it in comparison to political involvement. The connection to the team is more pure than current political involvement, you feel totally part of one thing.
Yes, but is it true that, depending on what team they support, you get a sense of the population in terms of the politics? Could you say that the Roma audience is generally more progressive than the Lazio audience? I went to a game in Verona; the audience seemed much more conservative there in respect to Rome. You get a temperature of the social context.
It is interesting how political involvement and sport involvement are sometimes intertwined. Politics in Italy is so messed up and it is hard to believe in the institutions in a total way, whereas I have the feeling that when you go to the stadium you can give yourself totally to the team. A community is built around it, and it is much more stronger than a political belief; happiness is much more clear…
Where does that energy go?
That is the question: is supporting a team a completely apolitical activity because that energy doesn’t turn into a political statement? Were you interested in the bourgeoisie because of a connection between power structures and the audience of a soccer game?
I think that piece is curious, because whenever Italian or international soccer press talks about hooliganism, there’s a class bias. They are often referred to as being a working class crowd, and you never actually see the other types of people who are attending the game. So I was interested in how you could read a certain amount of restraint within the body, the gesture, the physical expression of that particular crowd, and that in a certain sense it becomes a canvas of different points of society that are often not represented. Magazines or newspapers talk about people throwing down the stadium a motorino, but it would be curious if they printed that image of the bourgeoisie: they might not have carried the motorino in, yet they are part of the collective body – and they never get exposed. In that particular image there are politicians, dignitaries, writers etc…
It is one of the few events where you have a clear façade of a social class. Like in theatre.
Yes, precisely. And to really highlight that sense of theatre, I wanted the crowd to close in on itself. So the image has been cut in half and then reversed.
And that was only a part of the audience in the stadium. It’s interesting how social classes can be defined based on where they sit.
You live part of your life in Ghana. What about the difference between Italy or the US and there, in regard to the social value and importance of sport?
Ghana, from my experience, seems to have a temperature similar to Italy. Sport permeates all aspects of a cultural community. Nationalism is spread out through sports.
You can give all yourself to Italy, if ‘Italy’ means a soccer team during the world cup. Many say that a real belonging to the idea of Italy only happens when the Nazionale plays. So soccer does play a political role in a way, because it gathers together a community.
That is true. But within that, in the more regional plays, the splinter identities – Calabria or Naples, for example – emerge. So the national identity emerges only in an international form, whereas on a regional level you have these other tensions that exist within the identity. South versus the North, for example.