Meet Argentina’s Punk Grannies

Virginia Francia is an Italian artist working on an intriguing maker-tech-art fusion project; empowering elderly Argentinians to overcome their fear and frustration with technology by embracing the cathartic power of punk music. Using plants as instruments... Dave Barton found out more.

Elderly people? Playing punk music? On plants? Please explain!
I got tired of seeing socially-based art projects where artists assume the role of ‘savers’ while the subjects -- those directly involved -- get bored to death doing ‘therapeutic’ tasks such as making pasta necklaces (!). I also noticed that more playful interactive workshops are mainly directed at younger audiences rather than the elderly; who tend to have a lot more free time, even though they’re often lonely.

So, my response was to give them an opportunity to express themselves freely. And what’s the best way of doing that? By forming an experimental punk band, of course! From an artistic point of view, my main objective was to demystify the preconceived ideas imposed by society around how elderly people should behave. This included overcoming a fear of technology. I wanted to invite them to interact with it in a more playful way, and give non-musicians the chance to make music and see what younger generations take for granted as everyday elements with new eyes.

But… plants??
My vision is that a group of frustrated pensionados would cathartically scream their thoughts into voice-distorting microphones and perform songs titled something like: Nephew, I'll never buy you PlayStation 5! using accessible interactive instruments -- maybe aubergines, pumpkins, mushrooms; or perhaps even their favourite flowers.

SHUT. THE. FRONT. DOOR! Someone’s actually letting you do this!? How did this all come about??
I first came up with the idea when I was in Buenos Aires for a few months and I proposed it to La Paternal Espacio Proyecto (LPEP) -- a cultural centre that offers several artist residencies each year and has an inclination toward technology and socially-engaged art. They offered me a studio to work on it and I developed some introductory workshops at a senior citizens’ activity centre two blocks away. This helped me test some initial ideas and shape the project.

But it wasn’t easy. The ‘convincing process’ meant I had to attend the senior citizens’ disco every Saturday night, in order to gain their trust. I danced with them and eventually introduced myself on the PA system. They stared at me as if I was some sort of blasphemous alien, or simply a liar.

On reflection, perhaps my opening gambit, stating I was a non-musician who wanted to work with them to play punk music on plants, was a step too far...

It worked! Who’ve you got working with you?
I had a great team of talented artists working with me who really dedicated their time and energy to the project: Lucia Ananda Fernandez documented the workshops, while Juan Rodriguez (who goes by the artist name, Sleepy Caju) and Barbara Salazar curated the musical aspects. Lucia and Barbara were friends of mine, but Sleepy Caju was a total stranger; someone I met him at a concert, who I told about my idea. He’s a young and talented musician, so he’s a great addition to the project; which is basically about generational exchanges.

Moving forward, the project will take shape in a couple of different ways. Firstly, in partnership with LPEP and the senior citizen’s center in Buenos Aires, and secondly, at another site in Cazon, a very small rural village about 200 km from the city. I’m taking up another artist-in-residence position there, Trans Acciones Utopica at the Centro Rural De Arte, during the first half of November and will head back to Buenos Aires after that.

How do you see the whole thing -- well, both mini-projects -- taking shape?
In Cazon, I'm planning to use plants as the village has a vast plant nursery and I imagine the inhabitants there have a strong connection with nature and the outdoors. In Buenos Aires, as I'll have much more time to get to know the participants, so I'd like the instruments to be related to each participant’s personal stories and dreams.

I won't impose any preconceived creative ideas on the senior citizens, so this will keep momentum free flowing, meaning the project might shift in new and unpredictable ways. I might also consider developing the same project in different countries in the future.

I’d like to see some crossover between the two projects, but I also want them to grow organically. Even if the main structure and objectives of each project stay the same, I’m keen for them to constantly take different directions. I also aim to collaborate with musicians and artists from a number of different disciplines.

Once a band’s formed I'd like ‘the grannies’ perform in different venues -- to create a real exchange with various generations and to give them an opportunity to express their thoughts to an actual audience.

What led you to Makey Makey? Did you investigate other technology too?
I first thought about using Ototo, created by Dentaku studio (Yuri Suzuki and Mark McKeague) but this isn’t in production anymore and is quite expensive. But I decided against it for this specific project mainly because it has a very limited variety of sounds. I also looked at the CocoMake7, created by the Hackteria collective, which I discovered while visiting a friend at the Solitude Schools residency in Stuttgart, Germany. We ended up playing a mushroom which I'd picked in the forest! However, it involves some basic building and programming.

I finally decided to opt for Makey Makey as I think it’s one of the most straightforward and accessible pieces of kit available; particularly for this project, given the participants’ unfamiliarity with technology. In fact, for an elderly person who’s had little or no interaction with technology, every extra step -- such turning on a computer or launching an application -- is a huge achievement. What's so great about Makey Makey is that you just have to plug it in and it just works. It’s extremely user-friendly.

I first bought one as a Christmas present for my brother a few years ago and soon realized that I’d bought it for myself really :). I used it during a two week residency workshop at Fondazione Spinola Banna in Italy, working with a chef who secretly wanted to be a drummer. We created a performance in the residency kitchen in which he played a bossa nova drum kit made of fruit, built with Makey Makey, and connected to a MAXMSP.

I see the punk grannies piece coming together in a similar way.

What do you think will be the most challenging part of the project?
The most challenging part will definitely be changing the routines of elderly people. I think will be worth insisting they keep at it, and I hope they’ll love the experience once they trust the project enough to try something new.

Thanks Virginia! We look forward to hearing more very soon :)