‘Non è importante che il fotografo sappia vedere, perché la macchina fotografica vede per lui.’
In early January 2014, Franco Vaccari brought to Florence his third solo presentation in the city since 1969. Called Col Tempo, it inaugurated BASE’s sixteenth year at Via San Niccolò by transforming this intimately-scaled and infinitely receptive venue into the image of a café, one which served no drinks but, like any social space, offered hospitality. Like many of Vaccari’s projects, a quality of theatre pervaded the room, as if a performance was about to happen. The visitor stepped into this imminence and soon realised that, with that action, he or she had transformed the atmosphere into one of actuality. It was the presence of that person, whether alone or in company, that brought the artistic encounter implicit in the latent installation, into a state of being, experienced individually by each visitor.
Vaccari is one of the leading proponents of conceptual art in Europe. Put simply, this artist has helped to alter the common experience of engaging with an idea of art by placing the encounter uniquely in the present moment. The effect is simultaneously exceptional and unexceptional, and in that contradiction lies the measure of his achievement. Vaccari’s work thrives on the ingredients of everyday existence.
On first encounter, Col Tempo was as spare and concentrated as the miniature gallery space itself. The hospitality offered itself in two forms. The first was the opportunity of entering another person’s space; on any occasion of that nature, exchanges automatically occur. The second and most persistent form (because it stays with the visitor after that person has departed) was intellectual.
The actual installation comprised only two images, both in black and white. Time and space emerged as telling factors in how the visitor reacted, and it revealed itself in different traces that combined to animate a larger space in the mind, and the transitory dimension of the modern digital environment, than the elements occupied physically in the confines of the gallery.
One image was a photograph, modest in size, which depicted people in a street or piazza. It had been modified so that all except two figures were blank silhouettes; the remaining pair, whose features were visible, were a woman with a small child in hand. The woman was dressed in the clothes of an earlier era, probably the late 1930s, and the picture, the visitor discovers, had been taken from the pages of Vaccari’s family album. His father was a professional photographer but this fact was not disclosed in the exhibition, nor was the possibility that the family portrait was his work.
The second image offered a complete contrast. Presented on the large scale of an artwork in an exhibition was the abstract pattern of a quick-response barcode, known as a QR-2D. Now in widespread use, appearing on documents, merchandise, publicity posters and even the printed tags that hang by a thread from brewing teabags, these systems of black cubes in a matrix on a white background resemble insoluble puzzles. But for those with the means to decipher the rebus of their composition, the arrangement of cubes provide instant access to innumerable products, services, modes of production and distribution, and consumer information.
The third element was provided by round-topped café tables and folding chairs. These had been set out on the narrow floor area between the family portrait on one wall and the barcode in the second room, on a wall at right angles with the photograph. Establishing the black-and-white theme were black tablecloths draped over the tables on which shaded black lamps emitted a discreet light. By that glow books are displayed on top of each table could be examined. Just like the family photograph spotlit on the far wall, these publications connected directly with Vaccari; each documented a phase in his public career, extending in print ideas manifested in projects created in Europe, but especially in Italy.
The books highlighted Vaccari’s interest in and adoption of the iconography of modern data collection. The history of postwar society has been as much shaped by burgeoning access to information, its harvesting and sharing, as by the capitalist emphasis on production and consumption. Together with the revolution in inter-personal communication, each development has interrelated with the others to facilitate successively more sophisticated ways to communicate information swiftly, comprehensively and impersonally.
A prominent feature of the expansion in information technology has been its preference for imagery over language. Consequently, photography – or the mechanical ability to reproduce appearances – has become ubiquitous. Since the mid-1960s, Vaccari’s instrument for reappraising the meaning of realism in art’s dialogue with life has always been the photographic image as much as the camera; the manipulation of light by lenses and sensitive materials fascinates him. He has used photography in its ever-broadening definitions to set up situations with which the general public are induced to interact. That ‘inducement’ is never coercive; instead, it manifests itself in an appeal to common curiosity so that the behaviours of these collaborators are as much the artwork as the elements, typically limited to the means of production and documentation, which Vaccari himself supplies or facilitates.
The outstanding feature of those elements, however, is that they are activated into relevance, meaning even, when people respond to them. They can take the form of documents, apparatus, a situation, imagery and text and what follows their encounter with an interested public is unprecedented action: because of their random novelty, history offers limited guidance to their interpretation. The public contributes time and its store of experiences, desires and associations to the task of making and interpreting. Once completed, the exchange ignited by this combination is unrepeatable, and the residue assumes a different character, as a record of past events, a memory or an archive.
A prophet not without honour, Vaccari’s importance as a philosopher artist has been recognised in his own country. The position attained by his various projects confirms his place in the intellectual firmament among practitioners and commentators. The publication in 1979 of Fotografia e Inconoscio Tecnologico remains his most significant book. This collection of essays, which has been amplified in subsequent editions, is a primer in considering the place ceded to photography in mediating our modern relationship with our surroundings. Yet the neglect of his achievement by galleries and writers abroad (he has rarely exhibited in the United Kingdom or the United States, for instance, and then mostly in large-scale group shows) leaves the later history of European modernism, as it is perceived worldwide, incomplete.
Of course, lacunae of this nature abound but, on this occasion, it arises more as a symptom of Italy’s recurrent institutional failure to promote its intellectual assets beyond its own frontiers than as a comment on the justified claim for this artist to be regarded as a modern innovator and theorist whose significance is central to the burgeoning awareness of how the function of imagery in contemporary culture. One suspects that Vaccari harbours no grievance at this state of affairs since, for him, it is sufficient reward to be able to continue thinking, making and connecting.
Nevertheless, this native of Modena has been instrumental in making apparent to us how important photographic evidence has become in our everyday experience and in our memory of the times we live through. It is conceivable that his background enabled him to think independently of precious conventions that regarded the medium as passively documentary, with the roles of subject and object clearly and irreversibly defined. He grew up with the paraphernalia of photography that belonged to his father and he embarked on his career from outside the art world, having studied the sciences at university in Milan, graduating in physics, the study of matter and its motion through space and time.
While his first photographs displayed a standard neorealist approach to observing people like him at work and leisure, by the mid-1960s he was photographing behaviours rather than events, moments rather than scenes. In Le Tracce (1966) he adopted the viewpoint, unusual in its time, of depicting people indirectly through their graffiti in public places. Published in book form, the series brought the diverse forms of these drawings and inscriptions indoors, as it were, into the private space of the reader. (The publisher announced on the jacket the cautionary prohibition of sales of the book to minors.)
Although an introduction by Maurizio Spatola, poet and journalist at La Stampa, accompanied the images in Le Tracce, the textual content was minimal. It was an art book, but not in the terms understood at the time. It mixed photojournalism with an eye towards the anthropology of the human species. The book recorded the traces that people leave on their environment as drawn, scraped, torn and written interventions. But it was more than being an album of modern folk art. By collecting imagery of a particular type or origin Vaccari was demonstrating an increasingly utilitarian and analytical attitude towards his material and medium. The imagery was readymade material; the photograph was evidence; and the book was a museum-cum-archive. Information, gathered and processed, was its principal theme.
Photography was making its way into art practice in the 1960s partly because of Vaccari and partly because of those thinking and working with the medium in similar ways at much the same time. The German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, for example, began portraying typologies of industrial structures in the early 1960s while Hans-Peter Feldmann published in 1968 his first book to group photographs into categories connected by their everyday banality and defined by their source or subject.
The dialogue within progressive circles grasped a dimension that had existed since at least Duchamp’s day and, in all honesty, has always been present. That is, an audience is exposed to the artwork rather than the conventional view which puts the encounter the other way round. Giulio Paolini was exploring this territory: adopting photography around 1965, he used the medium (then, as now) as an instrument of duplication that challenged the notion of originality and authorship. By reproducing Lorenzo Lotto’s sixteenth-century portrayal of a young man life-size in monochrome, Paolini stripped away more than the subtle colours of representation. His Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto (1967) is a lesson in cultural perception: the artwork returns our gaze – ‘what we see sees us’. In the perspective promoted by artists such as Vaccari and Paolini since that time, the artwork achieves a kind of autonomy that perennially exists in the present moment.
Perhaps the fullest and most satisfying illustration by Vaccari of how this relationship functions in his practice was provided by the project for which he is best known, his contribution to the 36th Venice Biennale in 1972. That Biennale is regarded as one of the most significant of the postwar period, remembered, among other events, for Gino De Dominicis’s decision to agree that a young man with Down’s syndrome could join his installation, Seconda soluzione di immortalità. (L’universo è immobile), as an exhibit alongside an ‘invisible’ cube, a ball and a stone. The controversy stirred by piece is undiminished.
Vaccari did not know the precise nature of De Dominicis’s contribution before any artist installed work. But he chose a room as far as possible from his contemporary because he had anticipated that whatever De Dominicis showed, it was likely to draw attention to itself and away from the presentations surrounding it. And perhaps Vaccari sought the element of surprise to maximise the effect of his own project. For, when the festival opened in June, Vaccari’s space was empty except for a standard Photo-Me booth, the type familiar from shops and railway stations for making identity-card photographs. There was a printed invitation at the entrance in four languages; it read: ‘Leave on the walls a photographic trace of your passing’, lines that provide the subtitle by which the project is now known, under its generic heading of Exhibition in Real Time, no. 4.
Vaccari’s precaution paid off. By October, when the Biennale closed, visitors had fixed to the walls of the room over 6000 strips of portrait photographs that they had made in the curtained booth. The show had made itself; the exhibition belonged exclusively to that time – its makers had scattered and so the show could not take place again in that form anywhere else. The artist’s intervention had been restricted to installing the freestanding compartment and the notice inviting the visitor’s participation. His final act of preparation was to set his intentions in motion by making the first strip and sticking it to the gallery wall. At that point, he withdrew and transferred the show’s realisation to people with whom he attempted no contact. An attendant conferred a numbered certificate on every donor of portraits, and this document declared: ‘Photography as action and not as contemplation.’
There were a number of radical ideas being played out in Venice, the most obvious being Vaccari’s readiness to relinquish – or assign – ‘control’ and authorship to the consumer who, in the case of (self-) portraiture, was also the subject and the spectator. By surrendering his position, Vaccari proposed a route forward based on transitoriness that gave to the artist, his audience and his media the permission to cross back and forth across borders, such as those between viewer and artwork, maker and consumer, giver and receiver.
This strategy was based on immediate interaction. Generating imagery ensured not only an end-product (so varied in content that it has prevented photography exhausting itself) but also a new locus in which the viewer experienced the artwork within the making process instead of at the stage where it is presented, usually in an environment dedicated to that purpose, for aesthetic appreciation.
Crucially, Vaccari conceived of the booth’s interior as a kind of social forum. This concept was built upon in subsequent real-time exhibitions, but in 1972 the scale of the forum was intimate, ‘a private space,’ he wrote, ‘in the midst of public space, in which to give free rein to desires and dreams’. Individuals, couples, groups and their pets interacted immediately with the automatic camera in a transaction requiring no special skill. The Venice exhibition was the embodiment of photography’s identification technologically and politically with the modern moment and confirmed the opinion expressed by the British poet W.H. Auden in 1937 about the cultural status of the medium. Writing to his fellow poet Louis MacNeice, Auden stated that ‘photography is the democratic art … and artistic quality depends only on choice of subject.’
In effect, the camera did the seeing as well as the making. It was the lens that precipitated a flow of improvised events or isolated ‘happenings’; identities were constructed and behaviours released in a reality placed in parallel with the familiar routine of daily existence. Whatever fantasies were in the mind of the individuals or groups in front of the camera that Vaccari had set up in 1972 were transferred from their minds onto undiscriminating film. Thought, as it were, was being made real and public. This ‘conceptual reality’ was constructed from the voluntary interchange with technology of people traditionally cast, in art’s relationship with the world, as the passive and receptive party.
The principal channel for Vaccari’s enquiry has been the Exhibitions in Real Time that by 2007 had evolved through 35 individual editions since the first in 1969. The Venice project had been the fourth. Interrogating the nature of looking by stalling and then inverting the viewer’s assumptions about observation has been the common thread, with the mechanically produced photographic image the constant medium.
But Vaccari has varied his approach with each real-time exhibition. The seventh instalment, Instant Myth, took place on the evening of 28 March 1974 at Galleria 291 in Milan, and Vaccari again rotated roles in the exchange between subject and object. The artist photographed people with a Polaroid as they arrived at the venue and milled around the space. Then he projected the pictures he had just taken directly onto the gallery wall. When subjects recognised themselves in these enlarged versions, they were spotlit and photographed a second time alongside and often responding with surprise to their own public exposure in image form.
The propositions tested in the 1972 Biennale piece were themselves amplified in 1972-4 outside the run of real-time exhibitions. The format of the self-generated situation penetrated public space when 700 public photo-booths were made available to the project that became known as Photomatic d’Italia. The booths are a common sight in Italy, as everywhere else, and are often located in ‘non-places’ throughout the country, such as in underpasses, municipal parks and railway stations. In the poster installed in every booth, the artist requested that participants send him their portrait-strips, claiming he was searching for ‘new faces’ with which he proposed to make a film. No film resulted (and may never have been intended) but, in effect, each booth became its own stage and studio, as much concerned with the act of taking a picture as generating the actions of its subject matter.
The project 40 years later at BASE was not part of the series of real-time exhibitions but continued Vaccari’s involvement with questions of participation and observation. In addition, the later installation was a reminder of his interest in giving a place in artistic practice to the increasingly technical means by which individuals and groups transact affairs with each other. The channel has become electronic and dominated by imagery, even more than by sound and text, and this development corresponds with the status that photography was, as it were, born into as society’s preferred if fallible proof of identity.
After all, the photo-booth portrait remains the standard proof of who we purport to be. The little photo-portrait is a staple of bureaucratic institutions, whether they are democratic or totalitarian, illustrating passports and drivers’ licences, employment files and membership cards. Through ever-easier forms of dissemination, it has spawned variants that travel between interested (and not so interested) parties like a coin in daily circulation (or even like today’s cash-less equivalents). At one extreme are the mug-shot portrayals of individuals under official charge; at the other are the recreational and experimental self-images that circulate instantly on websites accessed by numerous devices. These channels have come into Vaccari’s art precisely because they are commonplaces in everyday life.
‘La fotografia può essere vista come una forma di protesi che viene in soccorso della memoria quando il senso dell’io, nel tempo della globalizzazione, tende a perdere di consistenza.’
What relevance, then, did Vaccari choice of components at BASE have on how information is gathered for future use? At its core was a sophisticated question about how information, once put away, can be taken up again. For Col Tempo encapsulated that expansion in the technological distance perceived between the photograph, a wonder of the 19th century and the barcode, the stock management tool that, in the early 21st century, is supplanting manual actions performed by human employees with computerised instructions enacted mechanically. Indeed, Vaccari’s project in Florence represented a return to the theme of the photograph as a trigger to memory. In Vaccari’s twenty-first real-time exhibition, Bar Code—Code Bar, at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, a photograph was set next to a barcode. The project occupied a cubicle in a gallery that constituted a quiet, sequestered space in the heart of the hubbub, with café tables, a coffee machine and subdued lighting in an environment not unlike that created at BASE.
In both projects, the artwork was the situation engendered by the all the elements combined, rather than any specific object. What transpired within that location, therefore, was the work. The artist offers an ambience in which the pace of life can be slowed sufficiently to permit rest and reflection in the company of others. And in Florence as earlier in Venice, Vaccari placed information at the disposal of those who entered the room. The combination set off a thought process unique to each visitor; that person constructed his or her own narrative or assessment of events.
A café setting predisposes those present to socialise and, conceivably, to be more open to others and receptive to different opinions. In Venice in 1993 Vaccari inserted into that atmosphere a text and some images relating to the controversial sentencing a decade earlier in New York of Silvia Baraldini, a political activist long resident in the United States who was an Italian national, to a prison term of 40 years that was perceived in some quarters as politically motivated. The judgement had had a great impact on Italian public opinion at the time and Vaccari may have envisaged contrasting this cause célèbre for the left with bourgeois surroundings redolent of social equilibrium. The clash of elements was akin to spotlighting individuals in Instant Myth. Would it stir visitors’ consciences to action?
In fact, the effect was more subtle than the flash-gun approach. For, first of all, visitors had to recall Baraldini’s case., to recognise her features and to reconnect with opinion subsequently overlaid by so many events in public and private lives. Quite apart from its play on words (Baraldini, after all, had been ‘put behind bars’), the content played on memory. The most notorious events were already 10 years old and, after that interval, no longer at the forefront of the minds of most people: the mind, after all, can store only so much information. Time, like cognitive decline, eats away at memory.
Memory is itself a persistent theme in Vaccari’s work; as human software, it is apt to go soft in a chemically-driven process in which information is encoded, stored and retrieved, but also edited and lost. The photographic image, however, cannot forget: the impersonal technology of the medium records, in still and moving forms, events that can have private or public significance, and can encapsulate moments that, through a single image widely distributed through mass channels like film television and the press, spark a profound subjective response in hundreds or even millions of people. Images now have immense collective value.
At Venice, Vaccari contrasted these two archival systems. In the case of Baraldini, human collective memory was fading. Vaccari used a press photograph of the activist, one that may have appeared often in newspapers when her case was still fresh in Italian minds, which contained an undiminished store of information about its subject. Reconnected with human memory, it became the catalyst that stirred recollection through its familiar features and its pattern of highlights and shadow. Minds scanned the image to bring back to mind details of the case and their feelings about it.
Vaccari, however, did not include the barcode just to make a point about data storage and retrieval. By the mid-1990s, recognition of the barcode’s function was widespread in developed economies as a tool for consumption. It speeded up transactions at the checkout and it helped monitor stock levels on shelves and in warehouses. More than a code system it had become a widely familiar emblem of consumerism, the acquisitive impulse that had overtaken many ideals in the postwar era, even those of social justice.
Its inclusion, therefore, in Vaccari’s impromptu café was similarly symbolic. It prompted searching questions of visitors about the society of which, as consumers of culture as well as comestibles, they were part. Had Italy forgotten that once it had hoped for a civil society in contact with the world beyond material, work-and-spend priorities? If the photograph is the key to collective memory, the barcode is the universal badge of personal spending and consumption.
In the years since that Biennale, the barcode has been supplemented by QR-2D. ‘Time’, as it appears in the title at BASE, could refer equally to the span of years implied between historic photograph and these ultramodern graphics, between the figurative and the abstract. And it referred to the visitor’s contemplation of layers of meaning, an activity that consumes time and, in the modern rush of life, seems to slow it. In the environment of the Florentine exhibition space, unanticipated connections were made, such as realising that photograph, code system and books were all, at root, inarticulate archives of data. We transform them through our interpretations but each format remains inaccessible without the appropriate device to unlock it.
Vaccari is not so much the artist on these occasions as the curator of ideas. After all, he did not personally make any of the items physically on show but ‘borrowed them’ from their different functions in the world. His job was to gather and construct a situation, and then prompt creative responses in others. Nonetheless, despite the appropriated nature of the elements, there is no question that Col Tempo is his artwork, a definition of authorship that is essentially modern.
In fact, Vaccari was in the vanguard of attitudes in the early 1970s that affirmed that documentary material gathered, edited and re-presented in curatorial fashion in accordance with the artist’s concept, but not the direct product of the artist, constituted that artist’s work. Indeed, in the case of Vaccari’s Exhibitions in Real Time, this distinction is important. By their nature, the exhibitions cannot be recreated; existing uniquely in the time they were made through collaboration with the public, once completed, they enter a retrospective, documentary existence. It is this stage that, paradoxically, reflects Vaccari’s most continuous intervention: it shows itself as editing, arranging and exhibiting selected photostrips from what remains of Photomatic d’Italia, a kind of museum-grade memory of which Vaccari is custodian.
In a way, his contribution is as dispassionate as the barcode; the latter is an icon in the religion of depersonalised communication and rapid consumption. Whereas the photograph yields to memory or the evidence of history, the code is devoid of content intelligible to the human brain (except, perhaps, for a few specialists able to read its digital language by sight rather than with programmed apparatus). Systems withhold as much as they divulge and that is as true for art as it is for management codes and bureaucracies. The question is: How do we equip ourselves to ‘read’ these elements and so take part in the collective nature of society?
At BASE the artist disclosed a way forward. Printed in the gallery is his invitation to those with smartphones. For they have the advantage of moving beyond the impasse in awareness. To advance, they must involve themselves in the show, to act within its area. That response, however, has become second nature to those appropriately equipped; it is now a condition of modern living. The phone user simply has to scan the barcode to obtain a message from Vaccari that has been encrypted within it. Then, in the social spirit of the digital world, it can be shared, forwarded, tweeted far beyond the San Niccolò venue.
Time is not the only dimension affected by the conceptual shifts facilitated by photography or the mechanically made image. The conceptual space of an artwork is expanded by Vaccari’s projects; notions of independent and communal, private and public space exist in parallel or are shuffled out of their distinct definitions. While unified within a singular architectural setting, projects like Photomatic d’Italia and Col Tempo propose varied and simultaneous forms of engagement that multiply, as it were, the sites and spaces they occupy. These spaces reveal themselves as physical and intellectual: the emotional space of a family photograph; the technological dimension in which information is made to spill from a barcode; or the realm of fantasy triggered by the functions of a photobooth, a location momentary set part from the experiences of the everyday. Vaccari highlights these sensations as particular qualities of a medium that occupies time set apart from the general run of reality.
Not every visitor decoded this show and many lacked the means to do so. Vaccari acknowledges the dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion as a symptom of the age (a situation, moreover, not dictated by economics alone). The ability to connect is to have an advantage in a society increasingly inclined to tailor its personal and commercial relationships to the, more or less, open flow of data through digital channels. His own attitude to the social implications he highlights remains ambiguous. Alternatively, the work is simply and justifiably left open in this respect, as in others. Vaccari’s focus is resolutely on the current moment and others can form opinions from their experience.
The exhibition’s technological dimension, its emphasis on participation and its concern with the impact of digital science on thought and art, have clear affinities with the ideas discussed by Nicolas Bourriaud since the mid-1990s under the umbrella term of ‘relational aesthetics’. As this survey of a few completed projects from the past 40 years indicates, with their offer of interaction and their focus on human behaviours within various social context, Vaccari’s work has prefigured aspects of this contemporary theory, a realisation that underlines the progressive nature of Vaccari’s research.
For few artists refine their methods as precisely and as clearly as Vaccari. The strength of BASE, the creation of a cooperative of artists among whom are several highly significant figures in progressive Italian art from the past 40 years, is its view of art as a laboratory. Ideas combine and react with numerous, distinct approaches to generate a continuous, stimulating and even life-changing, commentary on our changing experiences of the world.
Franco Vaccari: Col Tempo
Base / Progetti per l’arte, Via San Niccolò 18r, 50125 Firenze
17 January – 20 March 2014 and on view by appointment until late June 2014
email@example.com / www.baseitaly.org
© Martin Holman 2014, Fisk Frisk magazine
Images © the artist, courtesy BASE / Progetti per l’arte, Firenze
With thanks to P420 Contemporanea, Bologna, Italy
Editing: Eloise Ghioni