Aliza Wong, now in her second full year as Director, spoke to us about what she is looking forward to this academic year, the upcoming I Nostri Pini di Roma concert, and the challenges of one-hundred-year-old plumbing.
How are you feeling as this new academic year gets into full swing?
As with every year, it’s always exciting to see a new group of Fellows come in. I’m getting to learn faces, getting to learn names, getting to learn projects, getting to learn people’s narratives, and watching them discover their own Rome. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they begin their relationship with the city itself. Some of them already have relationships. Some of them have already been in the archives, but even then, it’s a different thing, to live here, to breathe here, and to become in some ways an immigrant in Rome rather than a tourist in Rome. And so even those people who have experience in the libraries or the galleries or the museums find a different Rome because they themselves are different in Rome. I’m excited to hear how their stories change as they narrate to themselves the context of this incredible city.
Are there any programs that you’re especially excited for?
I am so moved by the work that our staff, our composers, our musicians are doing in preparing for the I Nostri Pini di Roma concert at the Villa Aurelia [taking place on Thursday, October 26]. This event is really a tribute to these incredible giants that have stood over us, have given us shade, have given us shelter for so many years. But it’s also a tribute to the giants who have, as Fellows, as Residents, as donors, as benefactors, given to us, to the Academy for over a century.
I’m looking forward to this concert where we will hear different soundscapes, see different lightscapes, experience different versions of what these pines have become and what they mean to us. And I am profoundly touched by these composers who, the minute we said, “Hey, we’re thinking of putting together this concert,” wrote back and replied, “I’m in. What piece do you want? What musicians do you need? How can I participate? How do I give back?” Having the genius of David Lang, Eric Nathan, Pamela Z, Andy Akiho, Chris Stark, Marco Sinopoli, and being able to pay tribute to Richard Trythall and Ottorino Respighi and the city of Rome itself, as we’re talking about the end of the lifespan of these pines is incredibly powerful for the American Academy.
Now that you’ve been at the Academy for more than a year and had a full cycle—has that changed how you view the Academy? Has it changed how you view your role as Director?
I think one of the most beautiful things that I experienced in my first year was seeing the diversity of experiences and diversity of practices amongst our Fellows. If you walk into the American Academy in Rome bar and you take a look at that wall of the Academy in the past, and then you take a look at the Academy in the present, and then you imagine the Fellows sitting in front of you as the Academy future, you can see that even as things stay the same— here in Rome, at the Academy, Villa Aurelia still stands, the MMW Building still stands—everything has also completely changed. And it’s very like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel, Il Gattopardo, right? “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è, bisogna che tutto cambi.” (“If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change.”) In many ways, that’s the way of the Academy. If we want to ensure the time and space to think and work that we have guaranteed for 129 years for over two thousand Fellows and Residents of AAR, then we need to embrace the diversity of faces, the range of practices, see the possibility of how we can imagine the Academy. Perhaps these people in the historic bar portraits would never have imagined that this is what the Academy would look like a century later, but isn’t it a fundamentally beautiful and powerful thing to see how far we have come and to see that the Academy is engaging in conversations about the “what next”? Who should we be, what should we be? And for whom should we be?
The interdisciplinary nature of the work speaks to an expansion of the definition of “diversity,” right?
I think in some way that’s what we’ve always been talking about what the Academy offers our Fellows, right? It’s that disconnect that happens, that level of discomfort that happens of moving out of your house, not having the same types of foods, not sleeping on the same bed, not having your favorite pillow, all of that, that physically, physiologically, philosophically, psychologically, emotionally shifts for you while you’re at the Academy. It is that here, being in Rome, being challenged out of what is most comfortable, what you have built, what you have come to rely on, what you’ve been most familiar with, pushes the level of nomadic subjectivity that each Fellow experiences. We move in and out of our identities with much more fluidity because we are forced to engage and face what we are most afraid of. What is our biggest obstacle here? How do we shed it, leave it behind, move beyond, or face it? Even if, like Peter Pan, we’re still making sure that our shadow is still attached, still sewn to our feet, we’re also, for the time that we are in Rome, willing to imagine that we don’t need that shadow to follow us because we get to leave it behind for a little bit, for five months, for ten months. We get to reimagine ourselves in a different context, throwing a different image, casting a different shape.
And how about you? Have you been seeing things with new eyes since living in Rome?
Yes. Every group of Fellows brings new vocabularies, brings new music, brings new artwork, brings new literature, brings new scholarship. Every new President brings a new vision, brings new expectations, and there are new Trustees, new staff members. So it’s a constant flux.
One of the things I think that maybe surprises people who wouldn’t imagine it would be part of the Director’s job is that I not only get to grapple with the intellectual and creative aspects of life at the Academy, but I’m also discovering things about plumbing, and things about electricity, and things about cornices, and pavements, and the paint on the walls. I not only have the great pleasure of learning the stories of our Fellows, I get to learn the stories of our staff members in Rome who’ve been here for decades, who lose loved ones, attending funerals with them, mourning with them, who find people, kindred spirits, watching them get married, seeing some welcome new lives, who have grown up together at the Academy and who have shared lived lives together.
And for me, it is really embracing new encounters and new ways of storytelling.