A conversation with Claudia Zanfi
CZ - In 1966: “Esposizione Internazionale di Poesia Sperimentale” at the Casa del Mantenga in Mantua; “Poesia Visiva” at Feltrinelli bookshop in Milan; “La Lettura del Linguaggio Visivo” at Castello del Valentino of Turin. Your artistic career started off in the field of visual poetry. How did this come about?
FV - I initially studied sciences and graduated in physics. At the same time, I had a strong interest in the arts in general, but in poetry, photography and cinema in particular. In 1965 I had a book of my poetry printed up. It was then re-published the following year by the Sampietro editor, which was preparing an anthology of visual poetry. And so that is how my path came to cross that of the visual poets like the Florentine group made up of Miccini, Pignotti, Ori, Marcucci, Ketty La Rocca and Isgrò “the nomad”.
CZ - In the same year, your first film Nei Sotterranei (Underground) came out – a story told using 16mm film. Did you intend to start a parallel career in cinema?
FV - As I said before, I was interested in photography and I was also what you might call a film lover. Sampietro again published a book for me entitled Le Tracce (The Traces) which dealt with graffiti as a form of anonymous poetry, poetry to be discovered. The film Nei Sotterranei (Underground) was largely put together using that material. The Italian title reflects the English word ‘underground’ which was starting to circulate at that time. It is a typical word on the alternative culture scene; it’s the term which marked out the opposition to official culture and which helped set the scene for the events of ’68.
CZ - As far back as 1969 you took part in the “Cinema Italiano Indipendente” season at the Nuovo Teatro in Milan, while ten years later you were to be found at “Cine qua non” for the “Giornate Internazionali del Cinema” in Florence. What influence did these experiences have on you?
FV - The word ‘cinema’ used to describe those experiences is perhaps a bit too much. The films only lasted a few minutes, they were usually the only existing copy, and if the artist didn’t want to lose his film, he had to keep a constant eye on it. I nicknamed that type of cinema “films with director attached”. I lost three films myself there.
CZ - Some time later, in 1974 you took part in the “Rencontre International de Video” event in Buenos Aires, and in 1977 you attended the “Cinema d’Artista e Cinema Sperimentale in Italia” season in Paris. Did those experiences abroad give you the chance to meet other artists who understood the range of research projects that you were carrying out at the time? How did your career develop in the light of those events?
FV - My most meaningful experiences were those at Graz in Austria on the occasion of the “TRIGON 73”, which was one of the first exhibitions in Europe dedicated to video-art. Appollonio and Gillo Dorfles had organised the Italian component which was made up of Baruchello, Gianni Colombo, Agnetti, Patella and myself. There I met Richard Kriesche, Sanja Ivekovic, Dalibor Martinis, Valie Export and Peter Weibel, and I had the chance to see the video works of Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Baldessari, Keith Sonnier, William Wegman and, most importantly, Vito Acconci.
CZ - Again in 1974, you took part in the “Narrative Art” exhibition at the Galleria Cannaviello (which was based in Rome at the time). We could say that the sense of semantic incisiveness – be it writing, photography or cinematography – is one of the constant elements of your artistic research. Would you say that your concept of the work of art goes beyond conventional distinctions in favour of seeking a universal poetic language, a sort of narrative art?
FV - I could now say that there is a narrative tendency running through all my works, but this was recognised very early on in my career. In the two “Narrative Art” exhibitions at the Cannaviello in Rome, I was the only Italian artist present. Narrative Art marked the turning point between the cold, conceptual period and the warmer one which then blossomed into the post-modern experience.
CZ - What kind of relationship did you have at the time with artists such as Kosuth, Paolini, Isgrò and others who were already starting to work using a multi-faceted approach to art, exploring the word-object- action- meaning relationship?
FV - I was friends’ with Isgrò right from the moment in which I got interested in visual poetry. Paolini, undoubtedly one of the most interesting members of the “poveristi”, always belonged to a closed circle which did not try to make friends or to be made friends with by others. Why disturb this condition of self-sufficiency? There lies a philosophy behind every artist. Behind Kosuht there is an anglo-saxon one – logical empiricism – which he tends to absolutify, but which has been on the wane over the last few decades. I’m interested in other philosophies, ones rooted more in history or simply in life.
CZ - Let’s go back a moment to 1968/69. These years marked the start of a new, unprecedented project, revolutionary at the time, and a work which is still noteworthy today for its outstanding originality. We’re talking about the “Esposizioni in Tempo Reale” and the ‘technological sub-conscience’ which you explored from both a theoretical and practical point of view through an on-going series of projects ‘in real time’. How was this concept born? What kind of relationship did the project have with other cultural events of the time?
FV - The expressions in fashion at the time to indicate that an artistic experience was not closed in by a picture frame were installation, environment, action, happening, performance. The latter three, which are the ones that refer to an event, an occurrence, are characterised by their linear development. There’s a sort of framework to follow; only the most marginal aspects are ever left to chance. This makes it closer to theatre: Herman Nitch, for example, used the "Orgien – Mysterien Theater" formula for his own performances. Oldenburg and Kaprov, who coined the term ‘happening’, also worked in a similar direction. There was, however, a structurally new element to what I was doing. Instead of using a linear development, the trajectory altered continuously in merit of the degree of interaction with the participants. This novelty was allotted the term ‘feedback’ in reference to the retrospective effect which conditioned the very cause that generated it. In order for this to happen, the interaction needs to take place in ‘real time’. This is the origin of the name ‘Esposizione in Tempo Reale’, which I believe I ought to be credited with. As far as the other concept you mentioned is concerned, the ‘technological sub-conscience’, it’s very difficult for me to explain even in general terms. To do it any justice, I had to publish a book called “Fotografia e Inconscio Tecnologico” in 1979.
CZ -The technological sub-conscience debate seems to be anything but over – it continues to play a key role in current discussions. What is your impression of the huge quantity of photographic images which we are confronted with on a daily basis?
FV - There was a great turning point in the interpretation of the ‘photography’ phenomenon when Peirce’s semantic analysis, dating back to the beginning of the last century, was acknowledged. This analysis made it clear that photography is not so much an iconic as an indicative medium. In order to gather the immense importance of this interpretation, we would have to look at it alongside the concept of the ‘technological sub-conscience.’ One of the elements which characterises the contemporary era is that which we might call ‘hyper-production’ – an element whose meaning tends to pass us by completely. With reference to the images around us, we might say that this element leads us into a state of ‘perceptive bulimia’.
CZ -You were among the first Italian artists to undertake on-going research into means of artistic communication. What is your attitude towards the latest technological developments (Internet, Net Art, etc…) and their use in the field of contemporary art?
FV - Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed a rapid and on-going change in the media around us which has changed our habits of perception. There are two main issues to be dealt with in the light of these changes: the first is to do with using the new media adequately and fruitfully, and the second is about realising that these media can cause imperceptible changes to our view of the established media.
CZ - What is your attitude to young contemporary artists who use video images as a means of communication? And with regard to great artists such as Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Shrin Neshat, who have obtained outstanding results through their use of video, preferring it in fact to all other means?
FV - That’s true, they prefer using video to all other media. Italy is a country like a noodle: it’s long and thin. Opting to specialise in a single medium is possible only in ‘squarer’ countries where the artist has more space in all directions like in the United States or in Germany.
CZ - “Proletarismo e Dittatura della Poesia” in 1971 and “La Pratica Politica” in 1979 are both works rooted in a specific political standing. What was your role in the political and social events of 1968/69?
FV - Luckily, given my age at the time, I was largely unaffected by the events of ’68. Had I been younger, I probably would have got involved. My interest in politics dates back to before those years.
CZ - Your social interest can also be seen in your work dedicated to the liberation of Silvia Baraldini. Can you tell us about it?
FV - I’ve always been shocked by the underlying tendency over the last few years to close off art in a privileged world where it is allowed to judge others without being judged itself. In other words, a world where the risks are minimal because its values are established beforehand and then withdrawn from the debate. When I put the ‘Baraldini case’ at the centre of my work at the Biennale of Venice in 1993, it was with the intention of getting out of the suffocating artistic circles in order to make contact with a wider sense of reality, with fewer guarantees but more truths. Apart from this, my contribution to the resolution of the case consisted in showing that placing it at the centre of a piece of art drastically changed the way in which it was perceived from outside. As I said at the time, “If Silvia Baraldini had declared that there was an aesthetic meaning behind her actions, she would have ended up on the front page of Artforum rather than in prison.”
CZ - What does Franco Vaccari have to say in view of the events of the last few months – from the repercussions of the G8 meeting in Genoa to the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York?
FV - The twentieth century started with the pistol shot in Sarajevo and ended definitively on the 11th September 2001 with the big crash of the Twin Towers in New York. At Genoa, we had a foretaste of the climate that had been building up. Tornadoes are created when the atmosphere is saturated with energy and there are extremely polarised atmospheric conditions: a perfectly comparable situation to that which led to the attack on New York. Now it becomes clear that the West has gone too far in a state of arrogant blindness which has stopped it seeing what a state both itself and the Other are in. And art over the last few years, for how it has been organised and for what it has come up with, is a rather disconcerting example of this arrogance, presumption, and narcissistic uselessness which has characterised our world. Just think of the unbearable performance at the Palazzo Ducale of Genoa at the G8. The same thing can happen to art as what happened to the ‘space shield’, which fell apart like the towers all because of a few cutter-knives.
CZ – Which is for you the role of artists and intellectuals today facing the actual conflicts?
FV - If the artists and intellectuals simply managed to stay awake that would already be something.
CZ - What freedom of expression is left to be found, what videos are there still to be made after the images broadcast around the world of the collapse of one of the greatest symbols of the western world: the towers of the World Trade Center?
FV - From the narrow point of view of contemporary art, we might say that as far as video art, behaviourism, conceptualism, body art, etc. the attack on the World Trade Center was about as far as you can go. On the ‘spectacularity’ level, there’s nothing to compare to it, but we’re all sick to the back teeth of spectacular art. Ipervisibility can be a form of blindeness.
CZ - Let us go back to your film works. In 1971 you shot Cani Lenti (Slow dogs), a story of stray dogs, filmed with a heavily stressed slo-mo effect. The camera travels at dog’s eye-level along streets and alleyways, and the soundtrack is taken from a wonderful piece by Pink Floyd. What is the meaning behind this so carefully constructed work?
FV - It’s a constant feature in what I do that I try to reach my goals with a bare minimum of effort and using the most elementary means possible. I’ve never been very interested in special effects, and in this sense, I suppose I am a minimalist. I use ‘slo-mo’ in order to penetrate certain phenomena, to keep comprehension in line with perception. I think it ought to be made clear that the ‘film’ you’re talking about was made back in 1971, while the use of ‘slo-mo’ in video started to spread after Bill Viola used it for his “The Greeting” which we all saw at the Venice Biennale in 1995.
CZ - In 1968 you created La Placenta Azzurra (The blu placenta), with images taken from television. We find ourselves faced with a ‘televisual sub-conscience’ in which the entire story is made up of frames taken from television, de-contextualised and re-edited together. What were your points of reference for this work?
FV - Actually, when I was using the film camera, I concentrated on the parts of the transmission which the producers seemed to have lost control of, giving them a somewhat subliminal nature. But more than the film itself, I think that it was the title which was most effective. By “The Blue Placenta” I meant that we are all sort of connected by an umbilical cord to the television which constitutes our collective perceptive horizon. The blue was because, at the time, television broadcasts were in black & white or rather a kind of light blue.
CZ - Feedback and Esperimento col Tempo (1972 and 1973 respectively) both deal with one of the themes which is most dear to you: the relationship between time and the artistic event, or rather, the effect of the ‘counter-reaction’. What attitude ought an artist assume with regard to the relationship between time, memory and their representation?
FV - That’s a pretty hefty question! You’ll have to give me some time to think over that one.
CZ – Il Mendicante eletronico (The Electronic Beggar) (1973) represents a kind of ‘performance art film’. You filmed a man begging for alms who is subsequently replaced by a monitor showing a hand and a hat and a sign saying “The blind man will be back shortly”. Here the play-on-roles between fiction/reality/mis en scene is multiplied. As often happens in your work, you are the director who creates a meta-reality in which the audience is itself required to participate. In this case (and in general in the “Esposizioni in tempo reale”), how important is your passion for theatre?
FV - As I was putting together the material for this publication, I realised that I had experimented with the medium of television in all possible areas. Unlike cinema, where decent results have to be laboured for and where the editing process is based around a kind of ‘structure’, with video the biggest risk is that of wasting time. If you record for an hour, you need another hour to view the material you’ve shot, then you watch it again and another hour has gone by. If you then think back to the fashion in those years of producing long tedious videos, you will understand why I quickly lost interest in video art, which churned out all those tapes suitable only for inducing advanced states of narcolepsy. I used this medium to create some video installations, one of which was of course Il Mendicante Elettronico (The Electronic Beggar). If there was anything that made you think of theatre, it was perhaps due to the atmosphere created by shows like those of the Living Theatre or Kantor.
CZ - What are your points of reference in the visual arts and in cinema? Are there any artists towards whom you feel in debt?
FV - It’s difficult for me to list them; however, I would like to acknowledge my debt to Rossellini. But perhaps ‘debt’ is not the right word, as it gives the idea of there being some sort of link between our respective works which I wouldn’t dream of making. It’s Rossellini the man himself that fascinates me. He has the manner of a truly mature man, and that is something that you don’t come across so often nowadays where laddishness is so widespead, a childishness which lacks even the grace of innocence. One has the impression that he feels artistic circles are getting uncomfortably tight for him, as if they were no longer becoming of a man of his years. I like his impatience which is his love for the essence of things, his evident annoyance in the face of unwarranted poetry or the unwanted baggage of artistic mythology. Despite being an artist who makes so few concessions to ‘spectacularity’ as to seem bone dry at times, I feel that the sentiment underlying all his works is a closely guarded tenderness, which is a thousand miles from the current taste for excessiveness and cruelty.
CZ - La Via Emilia è un Aeroporto, your latest video experiment, deals with themes of great contemporary relevance: the multicultural and multiethnic society. However, at the same time, you bring out certain elements which thread together all your various artistic experiences: your liking for ‘suspended’ spaces like stations, airports, hotels, motorways. Do you feel like a bit of a nomad yourself? Is this not perhaps a necessary condition of the artist?
FV - I’m pleased you use the term ‘suspended spaces’ rather than the over-pumped ‘non-spaces’. To be more precise, I myself have started using the term ‘suspended identity spaces’ because the people who go there experience their own identity weakening and, at the same time, the temptation to take on other identities. Freedom and flexibility. A bit like a hermit-crab uncovering its abdomen as it passes from one shell to another. I believe that the artist places himself in similar situations: he accepts his own deconstruction so as to be able to rebuild himself all over again.
CZ - The theme of the journey (inner or not) can be found in many of your works. In your videos it turns up in the road sequences, the long voyages, the passages from one place to another. How do you yourself live the notion of the journey? Where in the world fascinates you the most?
FV - I’m not interested in the journey from a symbolic point of view, but as a powerful device to be used to activate reality, to invigorate chance. I have used travel as a way to escape from getting too blocked up with particular projects and as a way to give them shape. You asked me what places in the world fascinate me. Please bear in mind that my journeys have all taken place over short distances, and never in particularly well-known locations. I feel as if distance had lost all the seductive quality it once had and that it is no longer really possible to think about wandering around the globe as if it were also some kind of pilgrimage. Mine are ‘minimal journeys’; perhaps I will let you down if I don’t talk about India, Patagonia, Iceland or High Egypt. But by cutting down spaces, I wanted to highlight what might seem insignificant details: real movements which share common ground with the notion of sacrifices. The sacrifice – which derives from ‘sacrum facere’ – is the action which allows us to pass from the virtual to the real. Another aspect of the choice of the journey as a medium is the fact that it obliges us to get out of the art galleries which are now pervaded more than anything by a sense of suffocation.
CZ - Three years ago you dedicated yourself to what was a totally new kind of experiment for your work: the Atelier d’Artista ( Artist‘s Atelier) CD rom. How did this project originate?
FV - I was supposed to put on an exhibition at the Casa del Giorgione in Castelfranco Veneto so I decided to turn it into the house of artists from around the world. I was only able to do this thanks to the help of a group of specialists in the new techniques of communication like the Internet. Thus, a few months before the date of the exhibition, a request for information on artists’ ateliers was posted on the net. There were hundreds of answers. All of the material collected was viewable at the exhibition, projected onto the wall. More and more material came in throughout the exhibition, at the end of which it was all saved for posterity on a CD/ROM.
CZ - Most of your work takes the form of interaction with the audience, and your work develops and grows on the basis of putting together your ideas and people’s responses to them. You seem to treat the Internet as a tool which lets you explore vast horizons but with a sense almost of amusement. Your desire to escape from artistic pigeon-holes, from the forms which constitute the parts of a particular style belies an approach of great creative freedom which reflects the trends of art today. What exactly is your attitude towards the present generation of artists? Do you feel that there is space for a fruitful dialogue between them and your own work, or do you feel that your generation is light years away from the present one?
FV - For the first time in my artistic career I feel that my work is not only understood but also studied. I’m given this feeling especially by the young generation like yourself. I have always been curious of other people’s work because it gives me the chance to leave behind the personal obsessions which are part of every artist.
CZ - In all your multi-faceted research, the underlying intention might be said to be that of countering the shift towards mass standardisation, with all its codes and rules. What are your future plans?
FV - In order to check how a plant is growing, it does no good to constantly pull it out of the ground to see what state the roots are in. There are things which have to take shape in the darkness, and one’s plans are among these.