[…]Chiara Costa: In America you met several different artists, from Dennis Oppenheim to Christo, and especially Robert Smithson, whose work you were already familiar with, from Asphalt Rundown the emptying of a truckload of boiling asphalt along the slope of a quarry on via Laurentina in Rome, organized by Fabio Sargentini in 1969. You also exhibited at John Weber, in New York, in 1972 in the same building as André Emmerich, Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. The Weber gallery took the baton (in terms of artists) from Dwan Gallery, where in 1968 the legendary "Earthworks" exhibition was held. Those were the years in which Soho exploded as the "heart" of the art world, and you experienced it in first person... But interested in how you felt once you returned to Italy: did it feel provincial, or equally stimulating?


Gianni Pettena: To be honest, it didn't feel provincial at all. Thanks to the spirit of extreme openness that characterized those times, information traveled along with us. You might say we had our own internet, made up of our youthful culture in other words the music, literature, super graphics, the visual arts and very little architecture. In America, I'd become friends with Smithson during those years, before he met his tragic death. But back in Italy you had Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Boetti, and Tommaso Trini among the young critics. They were my interlocutors, and were already reasonably well known, albeit within a somewhat restricted circle. I started making art around 1966, in my studio in Piazza Donatello, which had ceilings six meters high and seemed like a painter's studio from the 18th century. That studio was like Grand Central Station, with lots of people passing through. Remo Salvadori had a studio on the ground floor where his classmates from the Accademia would visit, including Sandro Chia, Marco Bagnoli and lots of young  Fiorentine artists who then, especially in the winter, wound up at my house because it was warm and full of magazines and books, from Artforum to Data and Flash Art and lots of others. There was constant exchange of ideas. If anything, the problem was my backward thinking that Europe was too preoccupied with the heavy presence of the past, in the city but also in the countryside, even out in nature. Whether a parcel was woods, or cultivated land, had already been decided in some historical period. People had already chosen to leave a stretch of woods as woods, or to cultivate olive trees or vineyards; the fact that there was a design, in other words the presence of the past in various different stratifications, was at once evident and condition-ing. Basically, there was no carte bianche! There was a piece of paper that already had traces—some languishing, others not of earlier passages. These were entirely legitimate, but I definitively aspired to a clean sheet.


C.C.: This need for an element of unpredictability makes me think of John Cage. Was music a piace for exchange or contact for you?


G.P.: It was through Giuseppe Chiari, who in fact knew Cage. It's important to emphasize just how much we ignored disciplinary boundaries back then! I also met the composer Vittorio Gelmetti though Chiari, who in 1964 composed the music for Antonioni's Deserto Rosso, and who had also worked with the Taviani brothers and Carmelo Bene. Chiari and I often went to Rome, where we stayed with Gelmetti. In the evenings we played with the MEV Musica Elettronica Viva, improvising in their studio in Trastevere. Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Steve Lacy formed one of the first groups to experiment with the possibility of transforming sound through a synthesizer. In 1967 they played with Cage too.[…]