Who Are I Santini Del Prete And Why Do They Always Dress As Railwaymen?
by Vittore Baroni
Like a hybridization between Abbott and Costello and Gilbert & George, Franco Santini and Raimondo Del Prete have merged into an indivisible two-headed entity called I Santini Del Prete. This joint company name has a lovely built in pun that is totally lost in translation. Prete means “priest” in Italian and Santini are the small holy images, often with a prayer on the back, that beggars used to give you in exchange for small coins outside churches on Sunday mornings. So the duo’s nickname sounds in Italian as something like “the priest’s holy images”. What exactly this religious twist has got to do with two adult men dressed in full uniform as railwaymen and showing up regularly at performance festivals and contemporary art exhibitions, is anybody’s guess. And are these stationmaster uniforms, or head technical supervisor dresses, or what? Their exact duty is probably of little relevance, since there are no railways and train platforms to be taken care of inside art galleries and museums. But uniforms are important a) to standardize their look as a duo, and b) to give ’em a certain reassuring air of authority. Anyway, there are some differences between the two, stemming from their geographical origins: Raimondo is from the South of Italy and Franco from the Centre. So the first has got a hint of Punchinello’s (Neapolitan mask) friendly vitality and the second retains the stone faced but witty demeanour of a Buster Keaton. It is more than a little surreal to see a full dressed stationmaster, not to mention two, blowing his whistle far from the train station: you do take notice, even more so than if he had been covered from head to toes with tattooes (everybody does that now, right?). The truth is that both Franco and Raimondo do work as railwaymen during their busy weekdays, so they simply keep their job’s uniforms on when they go around pursuing their non-art practices.
Non-art? Yes, you read that right. ISDP (short for I Santini Del Prete) do not pretend to be artists – they are railwaymen after all – so they consider themselves non-artists. They are in fact major champions of “non art”, the twin heroes of ephemeral creative gestures to be found in everybody’s lives, the serious researchers and theorists of the most amazing non-artifacts. If there is an antimatter opposed to matter, there should be a non-art opposed to art: this is their sound line of reasoning. To alert everyone about non art, they juggle in the space between art galleries and private homes (La Casa dell’Arte, “The House of Art”, is the small and homely museum they co-direct in Rosignano Marittimo near Livorno), they also mix ’n’ confuse the roles of art superstars and common workers, exposing collective “networking” ideas through their staged personae. The roots of ISDP’s non-art are in fact to be found inside the wonderful and underrated history of “mail art”, an activity that the two have practiced for a quarter of a century. Born long before the invention of the Internet, mail art was (and still is) a worldwide open circuit of one-to-one horizontal, free and democratic exchanges between all kinds of professional authors, amateurs and non-artists. Correspondence art is art injected into life to an higher degree than ever before: more than Dada and Fluxus, its respected older cousins. Mail art is an utopian’s dream become true, a (net)working model of planetary friendship and non-competitive collaboration. ISDP also often dream of peace, love and understanding, collaborating with other (non)artists in imaginative projects: they once exhibited a series of their “self-portraits” commissioned to various friends. In another series of lyrical photomontages, Raimondo and Franco picture themselves flying like free birds over their favourite cities. Their work mimics popular art, choosing as non-art vehicles – or “gadgets” as they call them – cheap and ephemeral media like postcards, soccer trading cards (we are World Champions, after all) and, yes, small holy images…
What ISDP do in person is not a theatrical act or a straight performance job. There is never a strong physical contact between the two, gags are light innuendos not slapstick. And you never see them crying, screaming or losing their temper. Mostly, they just signal their presence with simple gestures, such as carrying a banner (with slogans like “Multiplicity, Creativity, Solidarity”), leading the audience in a non-art procession, or directing a choir of non-singers. They are often mere “living installations”, whimsical reminders of trains arriving well past their appointed schedule, two real and quite normal railwaymen materialized in the middle of art festivals and show openings, those outerworldly spaces inhabited by alien weirdoes. If art is now everywhere and everyone can be an Artist with a capital letter, then it is so much more exclusive and cool to be real outsiders, proud working-class heroes and naive non-artists. “We are not artists, we are railwaymen!” is the motto that Franco and Raimondo didn’t steal from Devo. The fact that they decided to follow this statement to its extreme consequences with such an unrelenting energy and faith, is what really hits a deep chord. Why do we spend so much time looking at distant stars, when we may acknowledge the beauty and dignity of what is here around us right now?