Interview by Gaia Amorello
All Images © Alessandro Calabrese
Alessandro Calabrese (Trento, Italy, 1983) is an Italian artist based in Milan. After completing a degree in Architecture at the IUAV in Venice, he achieved a Master’s degree in Photography and Visual Design at NABA in Milan. His research investigates the liminal states of contemporary photography and its language through various practices. In his works he uses words and images (still or moving) that may be of his own making, reflecting on the nature of the author and the dynamics of randomness, or that are part of different sources that he appropriates. He creates small sculptures and short performances with the intention of experimenting with the translation of historical and theoretical research processes into material and tangible reality.
Gaia Amorello (GA): Hi Alessandro, it is a pleasure to have you on Pellicola, welcome! Would you like to tell us how your research as an artist began and how you have continued and deepened your research and experimentation on images?
Alessandro Calabrese (AC): Hi Gaia, I would say that my research began after my Master’s year in Photography and Visual Design at Naba in Milan, although it definitely has its roots in my university studies, i.e. a degree in Architecture at Iuav and a few courses taken semi-clandestinely at the Visual Arts department.
At first, I focused on landscape photography and everything that revolves around it, after which I gradually turned to a more conceptual photography, attentive to reﬂections on the grammar of its language and the crisis that has characterised it for some fifteen years now. Today this interest has waned somewhat and I concentrate my eﬀorts on projects that have nothing to do with pure photography, but which are open to reﬂection on the image more generally and which look in the direction of contemporary art. From a practical point of view, in recent years, I have experimented by often using technologies that are not strictly avant-garde, that are taken for granted and that no longer surprise, but that somehow allow you to find your own unprecedented or forgotten point of view. I am thinking especially of works made through the misuse of scanners and printers, it is as if I am trying to understand if there is still life in the use of a certain tool.
In this regard, I recently read an interview with Carmelo Bene in which he explains that since he does not believe in history as a chronological and linear series of events, he never would break with tradition but preferred to go and pick up from the old elements of theatrical practice that could always be contemporary. Today, however, there is a visual deepening that takes place on a regular basis without any targeted research. For example, in my daily life it happens when I look at other people’s works, in direct confrontation with friends/colleagues or during my classes at the academy. Then there is a more complex part which is building up a pool of references that over time broadens my horizons into other disciplines and which I then bring back to the visual. This is the part I enjoy the most, reading an essay related to world unknow to me and trying to extrapolate useful lessons from it to what I do. Not always with the utmost coherence, mind you.
(GA): Following the logic of the object trouvé, the appropriation and assemblage of images, you reﬂect on language and how it is possible to deconstruct the visual in order to reassemble and recode it. You often question the concept of authorship and thus of control in the production of images and reﬂect on the participatory role of chance and the capacity for autonomous action of the tool you use in your work. What are your cultural references and what kind of contaminations do you work with in your productions?
(AC): As mentioned above, the cultural references are of the most varied.
From a visual point of view, I remember the impact that certain conceptual art/photography of the 1960s and 1970s had on my way of thinking about why and how to produce my images.
I think of the works of Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, or Keith Arnatt and John Hilliard, to name a few, which I came across out of the corner of my eye while studying Land Art at university. There was something electrifying for me in this attitude of verification towards the language used, the not taking anything for granted, not just using something but making an extra eﬀort to challenge it and perhaps understand it a little more than one did before.
The rest came by itself, with the only diﬀerence that I had to take into account that certain discourses in the decade of the new millennium had necessarily been brought up to date, or that other fundamental and not strictly visual references, such as Carmelo Bene, Francis Bacon or the philosopher Gilles Deleuze were preaching almost the opposite, i.e. the need to leave room for sense (the logic of sensation) and the poetic rather than the concept (and all the intellectual structure that goes with it), which was seen by them as the end of art. In short, a fine mess to make the references that intrigue us coexist. In any case, and here I connect to your question, all the reﬂections on authorship in photography, rather than the participation of chance in the construction of my projects, are the result of the convergence of all these voices and many others that have led me to understand the desire to focus on some specific issues and not on others.
However, I want to close by saying that the need to work on the issues raised in this question have almost always stemmed from my relationship with the word: the participation of chance owes much to the fascination with Borroughs’ cut-up and before that of the Dadaists who made me appreciate self-generating works, not to mention the Surrealists with their exquisite corpses. The relationship with being an author, on the other hand, comes from my own writing, in the sense that there was a period long ago when I used to write a lot, I even had a blog, and I considered trying to be ‘serious’ about writing, only then, especially with the advent of social, expressing myself by writing I found more and more vulgar and pretentious, a bit like talking about myself, as I am doing now, so I stopped altogether, preferring the oral, and I transferred this discomfort of being an author onto the level of the image, trying to figure out how to solve it.
(GA): In your creative process, the theme of error as interference, a dysfunctional but generative short-circuit of something new, often comes into play. In A Failed Entertainment (2012-2016), you created a kind of visual glitch by overlapping and scanning sheets of transparent acetate with images from from web searches. In The Long Thing (2019), you directly intervened by creating a true interference in the scanner, inserting and moving random objects found on your desk, such as rubber bands and paper clips. In your most recent work Hierarchy of Genres (2022), on the other hand, you worked on the medium, printing images on the wrong side of A4 sheets of glossy photo paper, so that the ink does not penetrate the fibre of the paper, but forces the image to be unstable and deformed. In a society based on a continuous demand for maximum efficiency in which error seems not to be allowed, what does error mean to you and what do you think its function is? Do you think it has a diﬀerent meaning from failure?
(AC): I start from the last question, apart from the etymological meaning which brings them very close, I do not think that error and failure are the same thing, at most they can be two sides of the same coin. Do I fail something so I am in error or do I make a mistake and end up with failure? It sounds a bit like the same thing but I prefer to think that error retains a dose of potential. The term comes from errare, to wander, to go in search of a goal, not necessarily the end of something. We will come to David Foster Wallace in a moment, but, for example, in his book Infinite Jest, which had as its working title precisely “A Failed Entertainment“, this “Failed Entertainment” to which the writer refers, is nothing more than a videotape with unknown content that if you watch it you end up becoming so engrossed and addicted to it that you can do nothing more with your life until, literally, you die of hunger and thirst. So the film contained within the video cassette is the ultimate example of entertainment (but it could be a work of art) because it is so perfect and successful that a person can no longer do without it.
At the same time, however, it leads to the death of the viewer, so it is perfect but also fallacious because it is a work of entertainment or art that kills its audience. It is therefore nonsensical, since theoretically the author will end up with no audience, and therefore no profit. All this is to say, and here I venture, that perhaps error results in a possible vitality while failure finds its only success in killing.
Be that as it may, in more practical terms, it goes without saying that error does not interest me at all when it arises out of carelessness or ignorance, because it amounts to a joke, an embarrassed giggle.
On the contrary, it intrigues me when it arises from distraction, even better when it is conscious, when there is a voluntary action of letting things act on their own towards chance and waiting for the unexpected. Not being the author of anything, not intervening or interfering with the outcome. This attitude can certainly have something to do with a form of protest against, as you say, a society that does not allow weaknesses and imperfections. As far as I am concerned, mine is a denunciation of a certain type of photography that brings this extreme perfectibility into the visual. In any case, I am aware that I end up losing out again because all these eﬀorts find their outlet in the same polluting process that everyone goes through: produce a work, package it, move it, install it, put it on display, sell it, package it again, move it again, and finally package it all up again to share it on an Instagram server or similar. In short, I too am accomplice and victim at the same time. No one, or almost no one, is saved.
(GA): A Failed Entertainment, is freely inspired by David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, from which you take the book’s first working title. From the recovery of two hundred photos produced between 2012 and 2015 in Milan, the city where you live and work, and from the inclusion of these on the Google Images search engine, you compare analogue authorial photographic production with the proliferation of digital images that exist on the internet. The project was then published by Skinnerboox in 2017 with a text by Taco Hidde Bakker and an interview by Francesco Zanot. In the same way that the web is made up of several superimposed layers, this layered mode of construction also recurs in the individual images. Would you like to tell us about the architecture of the project and how the book came about?
(AC): I was still a student in the master’s course I mentioned earlier, we had been asked to do a small project on the art market for the course of the same name. A camera logo had recently appeared in Google’s search bar, when I clicked on it I realised that I could upload any image to the search engine and I would get in response all the images that the system considered similar to the one I had uploaded. At the time it was called Reverse Image Search, the ancestor of what we know today as Google Lens. Born to find and then buy real life products on the web, I decided instead to use it to make a selection of images similar to the ten most expensive photographs sold in history, in short the top ten of fakes. This intrigued me greatly, in its simplicity. After finishing my studies and in the grip of a deep, perhaps controlled and reasoned, crisis about what kind of research to undertake, I finally decided to do the same thing with all the photographs I had taken up to that point, over the previous two years. A total of about three hundred images, all taken with an old Pentax 6X7. The idea was to give up my entire authorial production to make room for the hundreds of images similar (according to Google’s algorithm that compares images pixel by pixel, hence similar in shape and colour) to mine already on the net. The subject of image proliferation was a hot topic between 2005 and 2010, investigated by wonderful works such as the ones of Erik Kessels or Penelope Umbrico just to name a couple. My response was to destroy my own work and retreat into a symbolic hermitage like De Esseintes in Huysmans’ Countercurrent, only to return admitting defeat (as I had already stated at the end of the previous question) and once again creating new images, which are those contained in the book or produced for the various exhibitions that followed. All in the manner you described. The project had a gestation period of almost three years, plus eight years have passed since the first exhibition and six since the book. Such a long time that in the meantime A Failed Entertainment has become even more layered.
I realised that it spoke of many things I was not yet fully aware of, such as the relationship between author and camera, the poor quality of images on the web in terms of pixels, the economic cost of storing the millions of images we take every day in servers scattered all over the world, and the factual pollution that can result. I believe it is a project that has shaped the way I look at photography and beyond.
From a book point of view it all happened very quickly and naturally. I had an exhibition at Fotografia Europea, there was a budget, plus the gallery that represents me, Viasaterna, was willing to help, so I spoke to Milo Montelli of Skinnerboox (with whom we have been friends for many years and we started our publishing adventure together by publishing Thoreau, the first book for both of us) and we got to work. Federico Barbon, with whom I had only spoken a couple of times up to then, made himself available to draw the book, which started a beautiful and lasting friendship cemented above all by a little trip we made together between Umbria and Marche on the occasion of the printing of the book. I had met Taco Hidde Bakker during my Dutch jaunts when I had been selected, with A Failed Entertainment, for the 2015 Foam Talent, a very sensitive person as well as his pen that had signed the text that accompanied my work in the magazine entitled From the Point of View of Images.
Finally, I liked the idea of having a simple chat with Francesco Zanot, who was the director of the master’s degree course where it all began for me and who over time had become a sort of big brother to whom I always owe a lot.
(GA): Six years have passed since the book came out. With today’s outlook and awareness, would you return to the project in any way? Do you have any work that you have put aside because you considered it a failure but would like to think about again?
(AC): Assuming that every book you publish, as soon as it is delivered to your hands, is never what you imagined it would be, in the case of A Failed Entertainment I would not change anything inside, maybe rather work on the cover and take more time with Federico to rethink some details of the object, but nothing more. Finally, I would return to the final section of the book, which we intended almost as an open ending. Instead of showing a dozen or so starting photographs, I would put all the photographs I had taken in the years leading up to the making of the book, in proof format.
From an exhibition point of view, however, I would change many things. I don’t think I have ever put A Failed Entertainment on display in a really satisfactory way.
It must also be said that they were my first things, I was very inexperienced, so I forgive myself. As for the works that I had left aside, no, the only one I had left aside was Hierarchy of Genres, born from a distraction error (here we go again) made at the academy a few years ago while I was printing some students’ photographs and which I resurrected for a collaboration with Galleria Indice and more recently for an exhibition and performance at Volvo Studio in Milan, also supported by Viasaterna.
Over the years I have started to think less and less about photography, although I always come back to it in the end. At the moment, however, a moment that has lasted about five years now, I am pursuing a completely diﬀerent project about which I have stopped talking about out of superstition, I will only say that it will be a short film accompanied by a non-fiction book with a series of guests.
(GA): Since 2020 you have been in charge of programming CONDOMINIO, an exhibition space in Milan dedicated to contemporary photography and research and experimentation on the image. You propose a programme of exhibitions by artists in dialogue with various professionals with projects linked to research and experimentation on the image. Would you like to tell us about how the project was born and has evolved?
(AC): CONDOMINIO was born out of a chat with Matteo Garzonio, the owner of the space, who asked me for help in creating a sort of gallery linked to the world of photography. Initially I was supposed to simply put Matteo in touch with a number of figures from the world of photography to start a probably more commercial project, but the two of us and Desiree Rita Mele ended up collaborating directly on something more hybrid and multiform.
For all three of us it is a project to which we can devote limited time, so perhaps it is not yet how we imagined it, but at CONDOMINIO a bit of everything happens: exhibitions, workshops, talks, we host institutional events of other realities linked to the art world as happened with Naba last summer, or we rent the space for private events completely unrelated to our programming, which in part finance what happens during the year. The initial focus was on contemporary Italian photography, now we are slowly moving to a programme that includes a bit of all the visual arts, but also performing arts and some music. The response from the public, especially younger people, was so strong and unexpected that we realised that there is a real need for a place like ours, especially in Milan, which, except in very rare cases, at least for contemporary photography (which for me is the one that wants to tend towards contemporary art and keep a dialogue open with it) has nothing to oﬀer, indeed, with its ghetto-fairs, self-styled galleries and improvised curators only does damage to this discipline.
(GA): Thank you Alessandro, it was a pleasure to dialogue together!