How did the idea of Atem come about? When putting together the images for the book, what were you looking at?
ATEM, the book, is a further development of the work The Narrow Door (TND). TND was the matrix from which two exhibitions, one fanzine and one book were obtained. The reason TND was made was to undermine all the conventions of the photographic practice dictated to the photographer; in a way it is a declaration of freedom. From the idea of a photographic project to the planning of the shooting, from the selection to the outcome, all these rules and steps that are generally accepted slavishly by the photographer were capsized during the making of TND. For example, its theme is too general, too broad, and not precisely defined: I wanted to record events that fall out from socio-political interest, occurrences that would never have been considered interesting for rhetorical political use or for commercial use. I wanted to capture the nature of low light, crepuscular conditions, survival, the state of stasis, the lack of energy or phenomena caused by natural powers. I was, and still am, interested in the mysterious, enigmatic presence of Otherness in daily life. I always look for an escape from custom and habit. I am in search of one tiny particle that may destroy a building and I want to see how what looks solid is actually frail and what looks minuscule is actually mastodontic. Even though photography may not be able to capture that particle, at least, one can try to summon it.
The selection, to answer your question, that led to a collection of more than 2,000 photos was made to confuse (myself and others) and not to clear up ideas. This criterion came to me as a result of my annoyance towards of the positive, proactive, synthetic idea that a series of photographs used for a work has to be small, consistent, clear, and definite. I wanted to show the impossibility of reducing reality into a limited number of photographs. Reality is complex and nobody who calls himself realistic can synthesise it in a few visual sentences. I am amazed by the complexity that truly governs us, and I detest any type of simplification, especially when it is made to please the public, or, even worse, a bored, contented and specialised crowd. As expected, in fact, at the beginning almost no one took seriously TND, a work that is not defined by quantity, sobriety, discipline and self-imposed rules.
For TND the shooting was random. Every time I came across something that somehow seemed to emit an eerie, undefined light I took a photograph. I never planned one single shooting, I just lived a normal routine and every once in a while I would come across some scenes that I felt could be translated into photos. I never travelled to shoot, but I shot while I was travelling. I did not live to photograph, I photographed while I was living. In the end, the outcome, which is also a very important issue generally rendered by the single possibility of an exhibition or a book, a fixed package that the photographer carries from place to place like old theatrical venues on tour, had to find its own spontaneous and logical rendition. I wanted to make clear that nothing can be translated precisely into a set, exhibition or specific medium. I do not like how an outcome has to force the liquidness of visual forms into a fixed, stable, coercive and permanent container.
As for the book, well, its form fell perfectly into this idea of practicing, opening, ripping apart the original work to the extent that its author is willing to give up the safety of an art product to expose its content to chance and randomness.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you started your collaboration with Yard Press?
I used to be a pharmacist who worked for a long time as such, and who very soon got sick of repetition and comfort and decided to kill the convenience of a deadly boring job. Even before the moment I decided to quit my job, I had worked with images taken from the porn world (the title of that work was Pornofiles). I was interested in the faces of amateurs caught while they were having an orgasm. Their facial expressions looked like death masks. Back then I did not know anything about cameras and photography. I went to Austria for a very intense and exciting course on Visual Studies and I realized that I had to start taking my own photos. I went to two different schools in Rome to learn the technical aspects of photography. That really did not help me to focus on concepts, since most of the Italian Photography schools are still focused on reportage, considered as the most important application of photography, because of its presumed political/ethical aspects and its close affinity to the illustrious experience of Neorealism. A few years, after receiving my diplomas, I left Rome because I could not stand living in that city any more. I moved back to my hometown in the South of Latium, where I still live, and this homecoming was followed by an intense production of photos. My isolated condition deeply helped me to rethink everything I had learned up until then.
As for my work with YARD PRESS, whose members became my friends over time, I have to thank the curator Paola Paleari who introduced me to them. When they looked at the photos of TND, they almost immediately came back to me with a book layout that perfectly rendered the idea behind my work. It really was a positive meeting.
All spreads courtesy of Yard Press
Do you think that your previous career as a chemist informed your perspective in some way?
Somehow yes. I tend to radically question things, everything, continuously, incessantly. It is sickening at times and tiring. I consider a work good when it reaches autonomy and does not reveal anything of the will of its author (we would better call him the facilitator). I tend to work behind the scenes in order to let the work talk for itself. Maybe the attitude of treating the photographic work as an entity that has to achieve internal autonomy may come from the scientific method, or at least it is related to my scientific education. I think a work has the nature of a monad and I have just to assist it along its path towards full expression.
Then, the all-inclusive procedure when I shoot or (do not) select a work is also a twisted reminiscence of the experimental method because the data of reality have to become a corpus in order to go through any type of analysis. I collect corpora, which is somehow scientific, but without commenting or contextualize them. The sense that a work should be able to evoke, on the other hand, is external to the scientific method; its presence has to be traced back to the phenomena and our reactions to them, in the existence and in the inherent economy of our agency. And the expression/grammar of this sense has to be poetic.
I wanted to show the impossibility of reducing reality into a limited
number of photographs. Reality is complex and nobody who calls
himself realistic can synthesize it in a few visual sentences.
At the very core of the book Atem there is an accumulation of more than 2000 photographs concerned with the theme of ‘survival’: all those states, people, events and atmospheres that are ignored by the standardized and conservative practice of the society of merchandise. The book is a pulsing container that houses the images without holding any control over them, but at the same time giving them the uncommon freedom to create new ones. Is there anything you would like to add to expand on this?
Yes, I think there is also the important acknowledgement of the Enigma of living that I would like to recall through the photographs in TND. More and more I believe that life, in order to find fulfilment, has to recognise the presence of an invisible agent, an unnameable agent that permeates reality but yet remains silent in the background. We all feel a connective entity infiltrating reality, that keeps fragments together. It is quite obvious to associate this entity with death, with its absolute royalty, that also possesses a power of insemination and energy.
This enigma is exemplified by an impossible figure: Atropos in the act of severing the thread of one’s life. This suspension, this frozen action in time, is the origin of the deepest mystery. This action in a way is related to photographing. Photographing has nothing to do with illustrating a process, recording an action. Photographing is not the adherence to common sense, the reproduction of shared visions that rhetorically propose a series of figures already decodified and in use by the majority of people.
Photographing is an utterly unnatural act that is able to slice the flow of time into tiny segments. Stopping time puts into question the nature of time, consciousness, and duration. It deals with Telos, goals and finality. It fractures any flux and natural occurrence into illogical and estranged fractions. When an action is decomposed, even the goal is dismembered, and when the goal becomes uncertain and vague, death becomes the most important agent of permanence and truth. Photographing, then, connects us to that suspended action that potentially pulverizes any reason, any structure, any need to find reason. If we do not look at a photograph for its form, but we throw ourselves into the true ontology of the photograph, we find the most important question, the question of all questions, as Maurice Blanchot used to say. It is just a generic ‘why’, but it has the power of a lucid apocalypse. Photographing has the power to lift antimatter to the level of our eyes. We hear, then, the mute murmuring of dead languages.
With TND and Atem I wanted to approach this uncertain area of unutterable sense. I collected questions that daily life makes surge, brings to the surface and that photography cannot handle but just to elliptically evoke. Is photography an allegory of a terrifying mystery?
And also another thing: the importance of rhetoric. In TND many photographs were taken to copy exactly how a photograph should look according to styles and contemporary procedures. This is apparently nonsense, since I have been telling you about how necessary it is to see things differently. On the other hand, though, I also think that what we do see in life contains based large on rhetoric. Some of the things we see, but especially that we represent are not merely respond merely to subjective point of view. They come from conventions we are exposed to. In the TND all-inclusive process of recording I had to insert images that are plainly banal, plainly derivative. This was also my personal idea about how to be realistic. This is also what language is about.
You mentioned in the text that the images were chosen at random. Random is a term that is hard to define as an order can be imposed on chaotic events quite easily. How did you go about doing this? Was it an algorithm that was programmed by someone else or did you “randomly” choose the images? In other words what criteria did you use to produce the chaotic results demonstrated in the book?
Chaos and order in life come at the same time. It is a question of gradients or percentages, so that we cannot detect what is what, what is chaos and what is order. There are waves, at times, of events that seem to be chaotic. At other times, a predictable sequence of events seems to respond to an order whose reason yet evades our expectations. In TND I had to represent them both. There are sequences in which sense is excluded. There is a reason after all in such a mixed process, the reason itself becomes a liberating non-reason, according to common sense, but this non-reason is the only realistic logic behind things. This is the only legitimate reason I have found. That is how I thought to proceed with my shooting and, then, with the selection.
Now, of course, a selection, more than a shooting can suffer from an imposed method or logic, as you suggest. For this reason I thought that the best way to present the work was to present it with all its photos and, at the same time, to modify continuously the number of photos that constitute the work so that the overall direction/sense could be intermittent and discontinuous, always doubtful, always skeptical, always apostatic. In fact, TND went through numerous transformations. I have kept at least a dozen different selections throughout over the years. Every time I was asked to send the work I added some other photographs on the spot, according to my emotions or intuition of the moment. TND is not finished, but I have stopped working on it for now. I got sick of it. It may be the only natural reason why the work stopped. I may go back to it one day and re-transform its combinations/associations/sequences. Who knows??
TND was given to the publishing house during one of its moments of stasis. Then, all the photos were put one after the other according to the order I gave to them, a temporary and partial order. Then, using InDesign, once all the photos were ordered in a continuous strip, a few of the pages were manually moved to a different position, and the InDesign algorithm did the rest: it reassembled the pages but also messed up all the photos, fragmenting them, disseminating them in different parts of the book. The result is what you see in the book. And what a proper action that was, for which I have to thank the intelligence of Yard Press.
Is there perhaps an ‘archival impulse’ at play here? A drive towards constructing an alternative archive or what has been called an ‘anarchive’? There is something inherently open-ended about this project, beyond its presentation as a series, perhaps it relates to that?
No, actually I was not thinking about making an archive even though it may seem so. My true intention was to twist or to play around with the practice, the fruition and the use of photographic works.
Yes, my idea was to represent a different type of work in which nothing is defined because its true core revolves around the idea of imprecision, existential uncertainty, enigmatic presences, erratic wandering and asystematic poetry. And to me this is an attempt to leave the work open.
Photographing has nothing to do with illustrating a process,
recording an action. Photographing is not the adherence to
common sense, the reproduction of shared visions that rhetorically
propose a series of figures already decodified and in use by
the majority of people. Photographing is an utterly unnatural act
that is able to slice the flow of time into tiny segments.
As Agamben commented, as the set of rules that define the events of discourse, the archive is situated between language, as the system of construction of possible sentences – that is, of possibilities of speaking – and the corpus that unites the set of what has been said, the things actually uttered or written, or the system of relations between the unsaid and the said. Where (if at all) would you place your work in this debate?
First, I would like to say again that I do not consider my work archival-like. On the other hand, though, recently I submitted two projects to institutional archives. My idea is to re-read documents of the archives from another perspective or taxonomy that absolutely cannot be considered useful, practical, pragmatic, rational or necessary. My intention is to prove that another reading (or assemblage) is possible, and that potentially infinite archival taxonomies are possible. Archives generally have a huge amount of documents and surely such vastity does not always holds onto a logic. This is also due to the fact that each document alone, especially a photograph, cannot explain, foresee or exhaust its possible connections. An isolated document is basically open. A photograph alone, separated from its context, isolated from the reason that made it come to life, is not sufficient to reveal the surface of its consistency: that surface solidifies it incidentally within a broader discourse, but it reveals just one of its potential directions, which are often curved or segmented. This open nature of documents interests me most.
It is the historiographic discourse, based on utility and exploitation, that validates documents, considering them both a reliable source and a stable foundation for an outer scheme.
Skeptically, therefore, I can conceive of a heretical taxonomy that may prove the truthfulness of a document within a regime of legitimacy which is exactly opposite to the one to which it institutionally belongs.
The archive closer to my idea of documentality is the Warburg Library and the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. Here the vicinity and complementarity of the documents are not defined by exact terms of structure but by polysemy, lineage, heritage and likeness. The document, therefore, is a heterotypical organism; it is not a defined text but a faceted surface that reflects the light of different sources with which is also both contiguous and separated.
In the specific case of documentary photographs, their partial nature and their estranged alienated character (being unnatural ultra-thin slices of an action) provide them with an even more vague and open disposition. A photograph does not have the definition of a sentence or a text and therefore it is always tangent to any type of discourse that may employ it. This is not a relativistic approach to the visual document. On the contrary, I think it is the most realistic appropriate view of nature of a photograph.
How has the role of the archive changed to address issues in contemporary art? And what do you think is the role of the archive in contemporary art?
I see that many artists are using archives these days. I think, though, that the extensive use of documents may lead to danger, i.e., that documents may become merely figures, surfaces, aesthetic elements. I am afraid, in a few words, that archives can be considered a tank from which to extract beautiful photos while neglecting the political use behind their origin or goal.
I prefer archives made to serve a linguistic purpose and utility, as in the case of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: a series of tables and photos that have the double purpose to serve as a model for his painting (personal utility) and to be read as a possible collection of documents whose reason is to be found in the organization of the fragments (general artistic purpose).
I think that the most beneficial way to use archives, though, is to deal critically with the regime of historicity, which is able to bend documents to find their inherent purpose in the declaration of truthfulness related to the political goal. This is exactly how the political legitimation of any ideology finds its confirmation, i.e. in re-reading and interpreting the past. The reason that governs the interpretation of the archives is therefore connected to the wheels that move institutional history. And because of this serious aspect I always prefer reading scientific literature than to looking at art made through using the archives.
Do you have any current projects that you are working on that you would like to discuss?
When I finish a work I usually let it rest for a few years. I have six, or seven finished works that comfortably sleep in my external hard drives. Some of them, in the meantime, have become so old that they are already dead. When I feel they are dead, I let them rest in peace. Others instead continue to live, and when I have the proper chance I expose them to the air.
It seems that my next work to be shown is called Die andere Seite and it deals with that dangerous aspect of uncertainty related to the use of single photos, as I have discussed with you before. This work is composed of more than 1,500 photographs and was finished five years ago and only last year I added some more photos, the decisive ones.
These are all photos made shooting the computer screen while hundreds of amateur YouTube videos were running. The idea of DaS is to prove how a document, singled out from a documentary source (a video, in this case), becomes a beautiful object without any meaning. This image, isolated from its context has nothing except its aesthetic attractiveness. Beauty is a terrible tyrant that is able to deprive a document of its nature and in the end also its sense, leading us all to a state of idolatry. This is why among the Die andere Seite collection of photogenic photos there are more than thirty frames taken from the personal videos made by Eva Braun in which Adolf Hitler also features. In these photos, though, also due to the low quality of the videos, the Führer is not immediately recognizable. He is just another human figure amongst many others.
The whole work is a translation of a dreamy-like experience or hallucination where images seem to have all the same quality or nature, no matter what was its source or original identity. The photographs of Hitler are a trojan horse dragged inside the walls of our city.
The name Die andere Seite is taken from the title of the book by Alfred Kubin, the Austrian illustrator, who invented the story of Perle, the city created by the mad visionary tyrant, Patera, where all its citizens would only live out of dreams, artistry and pleasant visions. Perle’s utopic project ends tragically. Destroying Perle is the ultimate necessary act for the main character of the book so that he can feel alive again.
The image alone not only is insufficient but is dangerous when it does not have any purpose other than to fascinate and mesmerize. The image alone is a harmed phalanx ready to hit us if we are half-asleep.
Interview by Francesca Marcaccio / Published 2 May 2017