The Storm We Call Progress — In Conversation with Anna Franceschini
Artist Anna Franceschini, based in Milan, works across film, video, performance, installation, displays and theory. In the span of a few months, an exhibition of her latest work, CARTABURRO, first opened at ALMANAC Inn, Turin in November 2018, made a stop at its sister project ALMANAC, London in January 2019, and will be on display at the Italian Cultural Institute in Brussels from mid-March. Looking into historical archives to feed her visual imaginary, Franceschini explored the records of Carlo Mollino, the notorious Turinese architect whose best-known photographic output are his fetishistic Polaroids. Inspired by Mollino’s architecture of the gaze, Franceschini shot the impromptu animation of garments and objects on film and transferred the three digital videos onto sculptural objects that are both static and kinetic, seductive and cerebral. With their ambient character, the installations recall a stripped-down luxury department store, retaining the surfaces of shop windows and the smooth, sensuous reflections that capture the visitor’s imagination. We spoke with the artist about her research, her practice, and the importance of slowing down in the age of hyperacceleration.
NA: What are you currently working on?
AF: I’m a doctoral candidate in Visual and Media Studies at IULM University in Milan. At the moment I’m researching storefront windows and their displays as potential para-cinematographic devices. I moved to Vienna for a two-month research visit at the Frederick and Lilian Kiesler Foundation. Friedrick Kiesler was born in Vienna and was active as an architect yet very close to the artistic European avant-gardes. He worked at the very intersection between art, design, architecture. He moved to the States in 1926 and accepted an offer as storefront window display designer at Saks Fifth Avenue. His design for the luxurious mall was quite revolutionary, applying modernist formal solutions to the display of commodities. He wrote a book about the topic, Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and its Display (1929), where he describes the storefront window space as the “ultimate exhibition space.”
NA: You work a lot with displays. How do they cut into your practice?
AF: Most of the time my films and videos are displays for objects in movement. One of the first non-filmic projects I did was the “dressing” of a storefront window in Turin. I think the storefront window is a fantastic exhibition space. It reaches a wide public without any mediation. It is a cinematographic space, an actual “frame,” and the presence of more than one window increases the perception of the displays as a sequence. The movement is added by the spectatorship, differently from the cinema theatre apparatus, it is the movement of passersby, of the flâneur or the flâneuse. There is some sort of kinetic attitude to the vitrine. When I worked on the shop window in Turin, I added mechanical devices, rotating platforms for the display of commodities, in order to produce movement in the window. In my opinion, the urban territory is a filmic space. And, of course, windows produce images.
AF: They have an arrangement, a theme, a narrative, some of them become iconic, you have “characters” in the scene, the mannequins… The window is an incredible image-producing device.
NA: You have a background in theory. Did you study Fine Arts?
AF: No, never. I graduated in Media Studies, and I attended film school afterwards.
NA: How do you feel that sets you apart from other artists of your generation? Or how does it make you close to other artists of your generation?
AF: On one hand I am glad I took a different path and have a theoretical background; on the other, it has been more difficult to enter the so-called “art system.” I started to get closer to artists and spend time with them when I entered a residency program at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.
“I try to draw some other possibilities for what moving images can be, or how they can be conceived.”
— Anna Franceschini
NA: Where academic theory has been co-opted in certain contemporary artistic practices, it often results in discourse around accelerationism, or the speeding up and intensification of technology, often with a “crisis” at the end, which is popular these days in artists working in moving image and technology. You seem independent from such an accelerationist line of thought. You have focused on a period in which film was developed around the turn of the 19th century, and it seems like your theoretical points of reference in discussing the filmic medium surround that period.
AF: I think accelerationism comes from the fact that we prefer to visualize “the End”, instead of thinking about possible alternate ways. This epitomizes the way we live or think now. Yes, instead of acceleration, my way of thinking is more concerned with slowing down – deceleration. There is an epistemological vein I refer to called Media Archeology. It is pretty new as a field, but it draws back to Foucault, and it focuses on how knowledge is formed. It challenges the assumption of what a medium is, for example: why did cinema became cinema as we know it now? There are many occurrences that determine this: the economic, the social, etc. Media Archeology tries to take into consideration very specific occurrences in media history that had a different pattern, and that disappeared at some point to reappear, in different forms, later and somewhere else. History as we know it is one of the possibilities: and this is not only for History, it is for the history of everything, especially for media. In my artistic practice, I try to draw some other possibilities for what moving images can be, or how they can be conceived.
I refer to theory in Modernity from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s in philosophy. There is the so-called critical theory, with Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and the Frankfurt School. I am actually interested in urbanity and mass culture. The Frankfurt School is mainly critical of mass culture, a Marxist critical thinking, yet there is also an interest in what we see around us, especially in Benjamin and Kracauer’s writings, as widely documented in texts like the Passagenwerk or The Mass as Ornament. Both authors were deeply interested in cinema as a medium or apparatus and the “cinematic” as an implication of urban modern life: shop signs as well as storefront windows, flickering lights and advertisements were all considered cinematic occurrences. Beside it, cinema is the formal expression of Modernity. And I refer to “cinema” in all its plethora of its occurrences: it might be a blinking light; a small device that produces movement; it may also be a filmic expression: a short film, an installation, a cinematic way of addressing life.
NA: Walter Benjamin has entered the historic consciousness as a flâneur, an anthropologist or an ethnographer who walks through the city and comments on what he sees.
AF: The equivalent today is maybe going through Instagram accounts: it’s satisfying and sometimes surprising. We will see in the future what comes out of that in terms of media history and archeology. I am a big Instagram fan, because it is in a way a condensed window shopping experience.
NA: Shopping for identities?
AF: Perhaps, ephemeral identities. I would say that visiting Instagram accounts is more like passing by storefront windows for suggestions than shopping the possibilities for identity that are carried by the display, while producing images for our own accounts resembles the creation of a possible alternate identity. I am all the more interested in the phenomenology of identity, in the way a new, alternate identity is staged and displayed.
“I am not inventing other machines or techniques. I’m trying to use some cinematic possibilities in order to re-animate what is not animated.”
— Anna Franceschini
NA: One of the foundational media theorists, Friedrich Kittler, has been called out for spending too little time on identity in the way that somebody would in the field of cultural studies.
AF: Kittler was quite deterministic. I do think technology somehow leads us towards certain destinations instead of the others, for sure, yet doors remain open. It’s interesting to interrogate media history and create works around it. At the same time, in my own practice I use technologies that are present and efficiently working in the contemporaneity, as video or film (the latter quite obsolescent). I am not inventing other machines or techniques. I’m trying to use some cinematic possibilities in order to re-animate what is not animated, what is not considered a living being, via devices that produce movement but are not necessarily cinematic devices.
In one video installation I used an ironing machine, called the “Dressman”, which I saw in a laundry once: machines that inflate hot air into shirts to remove creases. For one second, it was pure animation: the machine gave life to these shirts and they became animated big beings for one second, with the sort of slapstick yet terrifying allure of cinema: life, anima and pathos. Spontaneously we tend to consider light the medium of life or, at least, animation but there are plenty of other ways to animate things. Air, for example, has been a major medium of animation from a historical point of view. Animals unlike vegetation, are “animated by air”. Air has been a symbol for life over the centuries; the Greeks called it pneuma, it was called the “breath of God”; even the technological symbology of the “cloud” is more related to air, climate and atmosphere than to light.
NA: That’s a fascinating idea; thinking about Christian symbolism and Western art history, animation is produced through the divine inspiration and the Holy Spirit, for example, but it also finds a form in the pagan Zephyr, the wind god, revisited in the Renaissance in Botticelli’s best-known works as blowing air to create movement throughout the paintings.
AF: Yes, air is such an important animating device. Think about the ghost that appears in children’s games, created through a sheet. It is not about light, it is about “air” underneath a surface, an empty volume filled with some anima [Latin for soul]. At the moment I am writing on something that could be defined “screenless animation” as an epiphenomenon, a byproduct of industrialisation: very often industrial production processes produce some sort of animated moments. When medical latex gloves or condoms are tested at the end of a assembly line, they are inflated with air or water and the visual effect is quite cartoonish, exaggerated and grotesque: they inflate very big, and then very skinny, like in an old Disney cartoon. Charlie Chaplin, as a director, but maybe even more as an “acting body” was a pioneer in tracing back a media archeology based on industrial processes. Modern Times can be considered a visual essay about it. It is interesting how processes of industrialisation imitate human morphology, habits and survival schemes, and how ridiculous they look like when we observe them. We seem to always reproduce ourselves, applying a human logic to everything, especially to mechanized and automatic processes. This aspect is changing now, we are starting to reconsider our hegemony on the planet in favour of other paradigms, as the human paradigm has been unsuccessful ecologically, economically and relationally.
NA: Your research has taken place in the archives of architects: Carlo Mollino and Frederick Kiesler. Tell us about the approach to architecture in your work.
AF: I’m interested in surfaces and screens in the urban landscape, the mise en scène of commodities and the cinematic aspects of industrial processes and manufacts. Cities have been considered media by many theorists and thinkers. Architecture is one of the tools to analyze and decipher the correlations that take place in the urban medium; moving images and urbanity are so interrelated that is difficult to disentangle them. Architecture might help to read a complex text. Studying the display of commodities, shopping malls become quite a crucial topic. Are shopping malls a filmic experience? Is shopping in a mall already a sort of narrative and movement-based experience? They are, maybe three-dimensional visual experiences.
Cities are now more than ever based on transactions than transitions, and the urban landscape is becoming less rich visually. Cities are probably reduced to become a medium of fast transportation. The “displaying” nature of the cities probably going to end. It stays on in historical centres, but it is more of a museification and the result of extreme gentrification. It is the end of postmodernity’s eternal fakery. Hors le mûr, back to the real, shops are closing, so you don’t have any more screens in the city. The morphology of the city is changing quite quickly, so you can see that architecture comes into discourse automatically. Everyone has to deal with that, because we live in three-dimensional spaces, still. And even in the hypothesis of a totalizing mental existence, who is going to be the architect of our dreams? We might live in sort of neutral space and somehow be the manifestation of sole cognitive activity. We will probably change morphology ourselves, our body will change, yet we need environments, whether physical or not, and these environments are not only made of social relationships but also of actual architectural spaces that contribute to building social and relational constructs.
NA: What are you currently reading?
AF: I am reading quite a few books simultaneously, probably a very bad habit, but I cannot avoid that. I’m reading Anne Friedberg’s Window Shopping, about the relationship between cityscape and cinema, in terms of spectatorship. I’m also approaching Gilbert Simondon writings about philosophy of the technics. I am reading The Invention of Every-Day Life by Michel de Certeau. I am interested in the difference between the “tactical” and the “strategic” use of the city he speaks about. The strategic use is bourgeois, requires a strategy and it develops in time: if I develop a strategy, I make plans for the future, I think I have time and space to make plans. The tactical use is of someone who has nothing to lose, who comes into an environment that is not his, and has to adapt very quickly. De Certeau was speaking of tactic use when migrants move to cities and have to adapt to what a city offers: in terms of space, relationship, food… How can you cook your own food if you can’t find the ingredients? This way of thinking can apply to many things, also in media studies. How do you use media? What is a tactic use versus a strategic use of media? Probably we all use both: you can be in an emergency, your laptop or phone are broken, and you have to apply a different protocol to get back to ordinary activities in a very short time. Every-day life is a continuous invention.
NA: So different from the apocalyptic technologically deterministic ways of looking at the world, for example. Which brings us back to our earlier point…
AF: I think de Certeau was very aware of the difficult time we are living in. I am charmed by catastrophic literature, but I don’t think there is any creativity in trying to conceive the catastrophe as a future plan or escape. I’m sure we can all make an effort in exploring the 80% of our more or less unused brain capacity…
CARTABURRO, a project by Anna Franceschini, curated by Guido Santandrea, ran from January 26 - February 26, 2019 at ALMANAC Projects, London. The project won the second edition of the Italian Council (2017), a competition conceived by DGAAP, an organism of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities. The project was funded by Arts Council England Grants for the Arts, Q-International (Fondazione La Quadriennale di Roma); has been realized in partnership with the Italian Cultural Institute of Brussels, Fondo Carlo Mollino—Politecnico di Torino, ALMANAC INN, Turin and ALMANAC Projects, London; and is supported by Zanotta and Film Commission Torino Piemonte. ALMANAC INN is supported by Fondazione CRT and Compagnia di San Paolo.
CARTABURRO will travel to Belgium, where it is on display until April 15, 2019 at the Italian Cultural Institute (IIC) in Brussels.