Once upon a time there was a man who was travelling with a donkey. With them was also a GPS, a solar panel, a PC with a modem and a video camera. The donkey’s steps guided the man through nature – steps that were very different from those that men have taken since they have been walking through cities. The donkey was called Minuto, and the Italian Cristian Bettini used him as a guide and as a metronome for his journey through an artistic project (Donkijote – third chapter of a complex project that started off as Lasino.org, and then continued as Donkeypedia) which allowed him to discover the fascinating Asturias region in Spain with his feet firmly on the ground.
By walking along paths rather than roads, armed with minimal instruments needed for communication and the company of photographer Martín Ruano, Cristian and Minuto tried to recreate a common memory, to remap a territory (that of the Asturias region, in Spain) and an anthropological heritage that risks falling into oblivion; to go in search of answers, information, a collective poetry that can be shared through digital media, but that takes into account the necessity of a more human and real way of life and experience. “Festina lente” is the motto that Cristian carries as a tattoo on his leg and that he tries to share by suggesting the act of walking as a cognitive process.
The project, which had already been created in the past in Italy and Holland, won the Digital_LAB contest of the LABoral of Gijón last year, and was therefore adapted to an exploration of the Asturian territory, becoming a kind of “contemporary tale” (this time set in the north of Spain), curated by Roberta Boscio and Stefano Caldana. The project was documented on the Internet during the course of its development and was open to the participation of the public in many different ways. First of all, it was possible to follow the journey online: it was possible to read the log book, see the photographs, find the travellers on the map and contribute by leaving comments.
Those who wanted to could join them physically on their journey, even if just for brief parts of it, which quite a few people chose to do. And finally, people were able to take part in the exhibition at the LABoral in Gijón and other workshops, which Cristian attended at the end of each journey (in all, in the Asturias he made four journeys). A real cross-media project on real and virtual platforms, with the integration of technologies for localisation and networking to allow for the co-participation of the artists and the public.
All the documentation is still available on the website and on the artist’s blog and the information is so rich that it will certainly satisfy the curiosity of our readers. Here we will make room for a chat that we had the pleasure of having with Cristian Bettini during his days at The Influencers festival in 2010 in Barcelona.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: So Cristian, do you want to tell us how Donkijote started?
Cristian Bettini: The project comes from an inner need, from philosophical thought about contemporary life and on time and space, on how we come into contact with the world around us: concepts that in the past century have changed considerably, disorienting us somewhat. On top of that, there’s my personal anxieties: I see a society that is increasingly hegemonic and heavy for anyone, and I see that people are looking for alternatives, for an escape. For this reason I need to find a personal narrative that isn’t mainstream and I need to connect to a place where I can find everyone else and where in fact there are many different people who think differently.
There’s also the poetic image of a man and a donkey, which is a distortion of reality, in our Western society it seems to be almost like an error, because it’s something you hardly ever see. This creates an immediate reaction in the people who see it: it’s as of they remember, as if something seems familiar to them. Artists, economists, physicists and scientists say that we are going in the wrong direction. There cannot be any change, because narration was taken away from us, this was the poetry that united us all. Once upon a time people gathered to sing, they would sing while working in the fields or the mines. We no longer do this. Therefore I, with my modest capabilities, am trying to recuperate this contact: I walk, I write, I take pictures, I talk to people.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: Don’t you think that this narration, this poetry, which has been lost in day-to-day life, is being recovered by various forms of artistic expression, and thanks to new technologies as well?
Cristian Bettini: It’s a path for research that has begun. But for now I have the feeling that the years that we are facing are sterile, and can be translated into a period of time where all we can do is resist. Everything works in waves and the cultural and artistic innovations come in predetermined phases: there’s the boom and then a moment that is a preparation for the next one. I see the next few years as being difficult ones. Perhaps it is just a personal feeling, but until recently when there were Yes Men, Wu Ming, and 01, I didn’t have that feeling.
It’s been some time now that something doesn’t happen to make us turn over a new leaf. Perhaps it is a transformation that is still underway. I think that the people who participate in events such as The Influencers for example (not just those who present their projects, but those who come along to merely take part in the event) work as “antibodies” in society and will always resist, will always be there, even if in greater or lesser numbers depending on the moment in time.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: You chose the name Donkijote for the Donkey, was that because of its physical component?
Cristian Bettini: The name Donkijote comes from the connection to the donkey and Spain. The project started in Italy with the name Lasino.org, where it began as an independent project. Then I found a producer after presenting two seminars to the European Community, and so they allowed me to do Holland, with the Creative/Media Industry where the project became Donkeypedia. Finally it moved onto Spain, in the art centre called LABoral in Gijón. Therefore it’s three projects that in reality are the same but came about in different ways.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: What are the differences between the three experiences?
Cristian Bettini: The first was characterized by its independence, which allowed me to experience it with extreme gratification. In the others there were other kinds of pressures. When I had a production backing me up I wasn’t forced to do anything but I found myself in another kind of environment that functioned with another language and other methods that had to be respected. For example, in the project in Italy my face never appeared at all but after that I had to take on a defined personality that related to the audience. I think that the best realisation of the project compared to what I had imagined was that with LABoral, but the best journey I had was in Italy, perhaps because I rebuilt a memory of my land and also because it was the longest journey.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: Now for an open question: the supporting concepts of your project are slowness, silence and communication.
Cristian Bettini: Once I was walking for a whole day, side by side, for more than 30km, with a Canadian person and we only spoke in the evening. But in the evening there was a deep recognition between us. Silence is one of the strongest forms of communication, because it makes you aware, it’s a language that leaves room for a deeper kind of contact. Today, language itself leaves me perplexed because often the words have taken on a new meaning compared to the etymological meaning of the word itself. Think of “economy”, which was the synonym for saving and now mostly means waste, at least when it comes to using resources. “Voyage” (the Italian word “viaggio”) comes from “viaticum”, the food that people took with them for their journey, which then became a journey from one place to another.
In our society to travel means to go somewhere so quickly that the journey itself almost ceases to exist. Slowness allows me to be myself again, to posses my own being, which is something that isn’t to be taken lightly. Think of all the things that we do every day: they are so many, too many. I have another speed; my heart has another rhythm, and walking, even more so with a Donkey, allows me to find that, to come into a state of trance where thoughts slowly go their own way, in a kind of meditation. And that isn’t just a personal need: in history there were writers and philosophers who would go mad if they couldn’t walk. Walking is the first thing that a child learns to do, before even learning to talk. With Martìn, the photographer with whom I travelled through the Asturias, we often spent days without talking.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: Can you tell us some anecdotes from your journey, something special that happened, some special encounter?
Cristian Bettini: There are many stories that stuck in my mind. In the Asturias I really liked the story from the past century of an Italian who went to live there to be a whale hunter. Yes, up until the past century there were whales in the Biscaglia gulf! It was also really nice to cross the mine areas, where there’s a really important piece of history from the Spanish revolution, where the people are still generous and genuine. Say a person stops and sees you, they then go to the baker and get some bread for you. If you ask someone for directions, they’ll invite you into their home. I met a pensioner who still had two years of prison sentence to go for having done union action when Franco died – these actions were carried out in the woods, because they were illegal. The last Maqui descended from the mountains during the 60’s.
Another interesting example, is that the resistance in the factories that were occupied in the Asturias was made possible (it seemed to me) because everyone had some land, a vegetable patch, a pig, an apple tree to make cider. So if you wanted to fight the system you could, because you had food to eat. We have nothing and we can’t strike for too long because if not we pay for it the following month. This was taken away from us in one generation: my grandparents had everything.
Another memory that I have is of a monk in Tuscany who said that the word “person” comes from the Latin word “personare”, to “vibrate with”: we exist from the moment that we relate with one another musically. That’s beautiful, don’t you think? Or in Holland I went to visit this farm that produced milk and some fascinating things came from that visit. First of all, milk that is commercialised is no longer natural, because to be sold it must have certain chemical parameters and specific organoleptics.
Furthermore, this family produced 20,000 litres of milk a day and had a farm that was thoroughly industrialized where everything was mechanical. They were really happy about it because thanks to this job their lives had changed over 20 years: they finally didn’t have to wake up at 5am and could sleep until 8am, for example. They tried to convince me that we live in the best possible world, but then one detail struck me: they invited me back to their house for coffee and the milk they used was bought from the supermarket! The umbilical chord between man and Earth is becoming completely detached. Once that is gone, and only industrial produce is made, we lose everything, we will live in an artificial world, as happens in the cities. I am interested in the fact that in certain territories there is knowledge that has not yet been lost and that our generation can still save.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: You’re an optimist. Do you believe they can still be saved?
Cristian Bettini: I believe there will always be someone who will not accept this change, those who I called “antibodies” earlier. The morphology of a territory holds everything in itself: you can observe everything that is in books, like the economy and history. With an attentive eye and time on your hands everything comes to the surface, but with an important measure. For example, lately, mapping is very trendy, it’s almost become redundant. But there’s a big difference between looking at a map and knowing the territory, which takes experience: if we give that up, if we do not connect the two, then it just becomes sterile information.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: Yes, the over-abundance of information that we have today, and its easy access, allows us to know much about a place before even visiting it. For that reason we think that a brief journey is no longer necessary, but rather a longer trip for a month or a couple of months in one place is necessary to discover those places that information cannot reach, but only experience can.
Cristian Bettini: I agree totally and that’s how I’ve been travelling for years now. If I happen to go to France or England I’ll stay there for at least four months, to give myself the time to understand. I don’t care about spending a weekend there. Another thing that’s happening is that we’ve now reached every place on Earth, and quite heavily at that. When I went to India, with the image that we have of it and the information that we receive about it, especially through those people who go there to find a refuge and a more humane dynamic where life is cheap, I realised that we have taken those things that we are escaping from to those places. I met travellers who have been travelling for 30 years and say there’s no place left to go: everything has already gone everywhere.
The statistics of the past few years reveal that there are more people living in the cities than outside those same cities. This change is very important: it becomes a focus point, which strangely is emptying those territories that have always been populated, as I found out when in the Asturias. Those territories are rich with resources. Some holes are opening up on our maps. At just 100km from Oviedo there are villages inhabited only by pensioners that in 30 years will be deserted. Man has gone walking in order to discover the world and now in some way there’s an opposite process going on. It’s fascinating.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: More than fascinating, it’s strange. Actually it’s quite sad.
Cristian Bettini: No, not at all. For me it’s a hope. (He laughs).
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò:Of course, there are still areas that are free and can be “colonized” according to one’s own philosophy, but perhaps from the point of view of a collective it would be better to be able to live in the world with a more homogeneous distribution and in a more natural way, don’t you think? And going back to your trip with Martîn and the donkey called Minuto, where did you sleep? Did people give you rooms? Where did you eat?
Cristian Bettini: We had a tent, sometimes we slept in barns, sometimes in people’s homes, or in hotels for the pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. We had a very tight budget. We carried a camping stove, we ate bread and cheese, sometimes people invited us over for dinner but that was not the norm.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: What was your rapport with the donkey like?
Cristian Bettini: I learned how to deal with donkeys for two months with an association in Pragelato, close to Turin, and also through my previous experiences. With Minuto we had to establish a form of hierarchy to start with, but after a few days of him being away from home he established us as his new reference points and everything became natural. We even asked ourselves if he was enjoying the journey. We had some comments from the Internet that said that we were taking advantage of him, but we never rode him, and he never held all of our luggage. We tried to establish a rapport that was as equal as possible: the weight was distributed evenly and we often allowed him to guide us, especially on small paths.I believe that he enjoyed the journey, even if in a different way than a human being would have done. Minuto had never seen the sea and when he saw it for the first time he stood and contemplated it.
His owners said that when he came back from the journey he was more sociable, as if this experience had been “therapeutic” for him. They wanted me to have him but I have no place to keep him and I believe he’s better off where he’s always been. Travelling with an animal is lovely because it makes you take care of someone before yourself, which is great practice, which has been advised since the Cabala. Animals are interesting because they always know things before you do: Minuto brayed in the morning as soon as I opened my eyes, but I was inside the tent and he couldn’t see that I was awake. Or he realised that the journey was over long before we reached our final destination.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: Does this project have a future?
Cristian Bettini: I don’t know. My relationship with donkeys will definitely have a future as well as my desire to walk 1000km a year. Will it be a Web project? I don’t know. I definitely want to use free forms of communication and I don’t want to write a book about these experiences. It could be interesting because of Martìn’s photos, but I like the fact that this project had a beginning and an end and that people could have enjoyed it in real time and for free.