Neapolitian painter and set designer Francesca Bifulco and her collaborator, musician and sound designer Alex Schetter, have recreated a virtual Naples streetscape that focuses on the timeless ritual of men playing cards. The title of the installation, Forcella Reigns, refers to the rundown neighborhood in Naples that is overrun with violence and organized crime. Yet amidst the poverty and chaos of the Forcella neighborhood, Bifulco has observed patterns of life that are universal in their richness.
Bifulco, a native of Naples, observed the men playing cards on her many visits to the neighborhood and studied the daily rhythms not only of the card playing, but also of the conversation, espresso drinking and gossiping in this exclusively male preserve. Although the men were always suspicious of outsiders, Bifulco gained their trust, and documented them in video and audio form as they played the traditional game of “scopa,” which is roughly translated as “broom” or “sweep.”
Adopting an anthropological perspective on the ritual, Bifulco came to regard the scopa game as a kind of open-air theater, and the players as actors in the drama. She viewed the daily game as not so much a routine, but rather a ritual that had likely been enacted over centuries and was as much a part of the neighborhood as the crumbling buildings. In fact, she adopts the symbols that appear on the scopa cards – dating from at least the Middle Ages – as one of the visual themes of the installation.
The multi-media installation, set in a black-box theater in North Hollywood, features a reconstructed silhouette of the staircase in Naples where the ritual of the game is played out on a daily basis. Using video projections, Bifulco depicts the actions of the players, accompanied by an enhanced video score of voices and street sounds. The effect is a moving, often haunting tableau of the streetscape that is abstracted to a more universal dimension.
Bifulco at work
The piece also features a series of paintings on wood, which carry out the themes of card-playing. Bifulco adheres strictly to red and black tones in the entire installation, including a black card table with illuminated red objects, as well as a charcoal black foot warmer outlined in red. The red and black theme suggests the medieval conflict between the black of the clergy and the red of the nobility, a conflict that persists today in the social struggle between the forces of good and evil, dark and light. This conflict seems especially highlighted on the rough streets of contemporary Naples.
The artist’s background in scenic design is particularly notable here, since she has in effect re-created and abstracted the “set” of a Naples street. Echoes of Italian cinema are apparent, from Rossellini’s Rome Open City to Fellini’s La Strada. Bifulco draws on the European tradition of cinema verite to communicate the imagined reality of a gritty street scene.
Bifulco’s goal in the piece is to involve the artist – and the viewer – in a scene where she is an outsider. It is clearly an attempt by the artist as observer to become a participant in a ritual from which she is excluded, but yet longs to understand. As a stranger in the neighborhood, an artist and a woman observing the male-only ritual, Bifulco embraces her role but also is exploring the effect of the observer on the participants. In that sense, this is an artistic version of the Heisenberg principle that observation itself can impact a phenomenon.
The complexity of Bifulco’s vision here is fairly obscure at first blush. It takes a pretty lengthy discourse from the artist for her vision to be fully communicated to the casual viewer. However, once it becomes clear what Bifulco is after here – a sense of timeless place and ritual – the richness of the installation is apparent and ultimately satisfying.
Hoyt Hilsman is a critic, writer and journalist. He has been a regular theater and cultural critic for Daily Variety and HuffPost, and has written articles for national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and others. He is a member and former President of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and served as Chair of the PEN West Drama Awards. As a writer, his stage plays and musicals have been produced in theaters around the country and abroad, and he has written screenplays for a number of studios and television networks, including Disney, Sony, New Line, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS. He has also written a series of political thrillers novels, including Nineteen Angels, which is currently in development as a feature film.