Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
Bruno Baltzer and Leonora Bisagno, Mao #72, 2015, 1:1 #077, 2016. Installation view Comédie de la Passerelle, Paris, 2016. Courtesy the artists
Today we're with curator Gaia Tedone, a PhD candidate at the Centre for The Study of the Networked Image, in discussion of Italian artists that "take up an expansive definition of photography and visuality, reflecting on the shifting roles and uses of images as shaped by different formats, technologies and apparatuses." These artists/collectives are The Cool Couple, Discipula, Bruno Baltzer and Leonora Bisagno. When did you first come into contact with this group?
I met with Bruno Baltzer and Leonora Bisagno in 2013, about the time they began working together, in occasion of the group show Rotta di collisione I curated at Gallery Artopia in Milan. Since then, our professional relationship has grown and this year I had the pleasure to curate Dispositifs d’occasion, their first solo show at La Comédie de la Passerelle in Paris. Around 2014, I got acquainted with the work of Discipula (MFG Paltrinieri, Mirko Smerdel and Tommaso Tanini) and met with members of the collective at different times and in different places. Like myself, the group was split between the UK and Italy, and only now is planning to re-join, establishing their headquarters and studio in Milan. Finally, fellow artist Alessandro Sambini, with whom I share a sustained dialogue concerning all things visual, introduced me to The Cool Couple (Niccolò Benetton and Simone Santilli). Upon a mutually inspiring conversation that took place in London at the beginning of this year, they promptly invited me to contribute as a visiting lecturer to the Curatorial Summer School they have been coordinating at Gallery A Plus A in Venice over the summer. Of them all, I admire the commitment to research, the eagerness to work collaboratively within the Italian context and beyond, and a genuine effort to push the boundaries of photographic practice.
You stated that, "to different extents, they share a fascination for the political power of images." How is that reflected in their work?
Each of the artists has a distinctive understanding of the word ‘political’ in relation to their own practices, which cuts across the choice of the subject matters addressed, the final shape of the work and the creative process underpinning it. However, I don’t think they would disagree if I suggest that the fascination for the political power of images translates in each of the above steps. Their expansive definition of photography, which is inherently dynamic and relational, is political in its own terms as it articulates the power relationships embedded in and through the act of seeing. This entails maintaining a critical approach to how images come into being, how they circulate and by whom and for which purpose they are manipulated. These considerations apply throughout the whole creative process, from the research phase to the conscious activation of specific visual registers and protocols.
Bruno Baltzer and Leonora Bisagno are often drawn to topics and locations that are politically and ideologically charged, as for the series of projects they produced while on a residency in Bejing, which explored Chinese photographic conventions, as shaped by censorship and propaganda. They are also not afraid to look closer to home, being often inspired by the unravelling of political events taking place in France and Luxemburg. The work of Discipula, which encompasses projects and commissions from publishing to fine art, articulates the ambivalent role that images play within our information economy and mediascape, where they interchangeably act as commodities, objects of desires, tools of political and marketing control. In their most recent project, they specifically appropriated the language of advertisement to promote the services of Aura, a fictional Big Data company that allegedly control all aspects of our lives. Similarly, The Cool Couple are concerned with issues of surveillance and with the invisible systemic mechanisms that define the contours of the visible. While in their work images can be political in so far as they carry cultural and social values, in their recent writings and philosophical speculations it is the gaze that turns political, or it is suggested that it should.
Why do you feel as though they're underrepresented? What do you find fascinating about their work, and why do you think it's worth spreading to a broader audience?
More than being underrepresented, I think these artists are slowly finding their ways into a slippery and hybrid territory, which is yet to be legitimised and operates at the crossovers between the fields of photography, contemporary art and visual culture. This inevitably prompts some problems in relation to positioning and framing their practices, partially due the scarcity of institutions that welcome and support this specific mode of research, especially in Italy. On the other hand, they are developing a very distinctive voice and their practices enable them to freely move across different contexts, audiences and discourses. In my opinion, their work is relevant as it questions the modes of visuality that we currently take for granted and forces the viewer to revisit her own position towards image making and consumption. The question of representation is not just significant in terms of their positioning as creative practitioners, yet sits right at the core of their work, as a provocative invitation to dig behind the surface of the visible. I believe their approach significantly points to the fact that the bending of the photography field is not only due, but necessary, as we are currently witnessing a deep divide between what gets exhibited and curated within the art and photography museum and what happens outside of it, within the realm of contemporary image culture.
Discipula, How Things Dream: Communication, 2016-Ongoing. Digital prints on aluminium, floor stand brackets on wheels, cm 190 (variable) x 85 x 70. Installation view Kraków Photomonth Festival, 2016. Courtesy the artists
How does collaboration factor into the work of the artists listed? In your mind, what defines a collective, and what makes it different from just being inspired by, or inspiring other contemporary artists?
It does not come as a surprise that the multi-vocal character of this mode of research is taken up by collectives and duos and actualised through dialogue, confrontation and the merging of different perspectives. For these artists, collaboration developed spontaneously and organically and plays a critical role in the process of the work and in its formalisation. There is a general recognition and trust of the other person’s skills and fields of expertise, such as for instance who is more apt for writing or for following the production, yet roles are not prescriptive and neither are tasks. For Discipula, who originally got together in the late 1900s as a punk band, collaboration is in itself a form of politics which resists institutional establishment and capitalist hyper-individualism, privileging instead ‘a do it yourself’ attitude. For them, it also promotes a self-critical approach and provides a safe place where a form of ‘quality control’ can take place. For the Cool Couple, collaboration is completely horizontal and takes the form of an osmosis, whereby the individual interests give way to a unified research’s direction. It is crucially informed by shared personal and professional experiences and extends onto a web of external collaborators, as each project demands. Similarly, for Bruno Baltzer and Leonora Bisagno, who met midway during their separate artistic journeys, each step is mutually agreed and closely implicates them both. Coming to an agreement might sometimes be the toughest part, but no matter how long it takes this is where mutual efforts are converging and dialogue plays a crucial part.
I agree with Discipula that collaboration, at its best, entails a form of shared political conscience. Not only it challenges all authorial stands and positions, but also has the potential to achieve more social impact as many different networks of relationship get intertwined. All artists and creative practitioners are inspired by and inspire fellow peers, yet the process of collaboration somehow requires putting aside individual agendas, accepting divergence and unpredictability as generative conditions and believing that greater results can be achieved when multiple creative minds come together. I know from my own experience that it can often be an excruciating process, requiring the ability to listen, speak up, mediate. Nonetheless, if the right peers are found, it can be an extremely rewarding process too. What I believe is important though is to always maintain a sense of integrity and coherence within the work and not disperse it.
The Cool Couple, Gesture, 2014, 40x50 cm, inkjet print on fine art paper, woodframe, plexiglass. Part of the project Approximation to the West (2013-2016). Courtesy the artists
Who do you think are the group's influences? How have they drawn from the history of art, and what, do you think, they'll contribute to its future?
A great variety of interests are at stake here, as the artists comfortably move back and forth between practice and theory, eclectically drawing their inspirations from the fields of contemporary art, visual studies, philosophy, literature and music, amongst others. For the Cool Couple, an important reference point is the practice of their mentor Francesco Jodice in tandem with the eclectic production of Thomas Mailaender as well as the work of artists such as Franco Vaccari, Trevor Paglen and Harun Farocki. Other important theoretical references for the duo can be found in the writings of Donna Haraway, Nicholas Mirzoeff, W.J.T. Mitchell, and Franco Berardi (aka ‘Bifo’). The latter is also an influence for Discipula as regard to political activism, together with theorists including Gregory Bateson, Evgeny Morozov and Timothy Morton and artists including Victor Burgin, Hans Haacke, Timur Si-Qin and Tom Burr. Music, of course, still plays a huge part for them, informing the layering of meanings and the experimental character of their work. For Bruno Baltzer and Leonora Bisagno, a great source of stimuli comes from the news and from intensive browsing through Google images and Google maps. Cinema is also a continuous reservoir of inspiration through the work of directors like Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Thomas Ruff and Hiroshi Sugimoto are amongst the artists they particularly admire, while Georges Didi-Huberman and Giorgio Agamben amongst the key thinkers.
As it emerges, while most influences evolve, few remain stable, forming the foundations of a shared aesthetic and political sensibility. Such eclectic tastes crucially reflect the strength of this set of practices, whose interests begin in ‘the photographic’, yet expand in multiple directions. In my opinion their contribution to the current state of affairs is precisely to stretch out the boundaries of the history of art and photography, through an engaged mode of research that not only follows the image as it migrates from the grains of the photographic paper onto the pixelated screens of the network, but also strives for articulating its renewed meanings and political resonances.