Interview: Marco Spaggiari's Moment of Knowability
This interview by Michael Behlen was originally published on PRYME Editions on February 7th, 2015.
Marco Spaggiari appeared in PRYME Magazine, Issue 1: "Instant Revolution," where part of his series "The Harvest Time" was featured. We got back in touch with Spaggiari to talk about his approach to instant film. Here we discuss his "moment of knowability” and his unique approach to instant images.
Italian Marco Spaggiari lives and works in Fabbrico, Italy. In 2009 he obtained an academic degree in Painting at the School of Fine Arts in Bologna. In 2012 Spaggiari went on to graduate with works in Art History and Aesthetic. He currently draws, paints, and uses photography to bring out the “moment of knowability,” as he calls it. He is researching ways to wake up human senses through art.
Marco creates collages of Polaroids that highlight the ambiguity of the world around us. Often dark and somewhat disorienting, his work captivates viewers by triggering a search for answers within the photographs themselves. He recreates these scenes, instead of merely documenting them, with the intention of making them real, creating a new world originating in the senses and imagination.
He says, “Every single Polaroid is a sort of device aiming to show the polarity governing the tangible world. The emergence of the irreproducible act condenses the senses and thoughts originating from a flowing world. Invisible actions are essential and they occur everyday, while we are living our lives without paying attention to them."
Connect with Marco Spaggiari on his website!
What type of camera and film did you use to create these works?
The apparatus that I used is a 1970 POLAROID COLORPACK III that I have purchased at a flea market with Fujifilm FP-3000B and FP-100C “SILK” films and some photographic filters. I didn’t use any tripod.
When did you become interested in using instant films to create art pieces?
I have been using a Polaroid camera and instant films since 2009 - but I have always looked at photography with the eyes of a painter. During my earlier studies at the School of Fine Arts, and later, I noticed that, most of the time, photography has the tendency to constrain the artist’s imagination, replacing drawing as a way to build up images. This is the case not just for beginners. Therefore, I realized that photography, being the closest art to actual appearance, forces people to reproduce what is visible: something similar to what reality seems to be. For these reasons I'm always searching for new ways to break the actuality of appearance, since daguerreotypes - the original form of modern photography - turned the world into an unexpected and positive “empty form.” In other words, since photography has disclosed what was not necessarily desired by the artist: the unforeseen event; the non-being. Let me just come back to this point later.
To return to my work, my objective is to present a subject with the intention of making it more real, tangible, expressive: in short giving a new sensation (new as it is subjective). I believe that if instant photography is used in a certain way - since it is analogical and does not allow any adjustment with post-production techniques - it should be considered as an expression of “here and now,” what Walter Benjamin used to call "aura." Only in this way will we benefit from an image, according to Benjamin in "A Short History of Photography" (1931): “What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer's noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance—this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch.” With this in mind, there are multiple reasons why I am using instant photography: the aura, the attempt to reclaim with snapshots the knowability of the drawing, the fact that instant photography is a definitive process and does not depend on any adorning rationality (since it cannot take advantage of any concrete post-production techniques).
Was your plan always to make collages? Did you start by taking single photographs?
I would define these kinds of images as montages rather than collages. Alluding to Sergei Eisenstein, the artwork should present things as if they were deconstructed first, then reconstructed. This operation determines the elementary process of montage. In fact, in a collage the content usually comes after the aestheticized arrangement. Instead a montage tries to alter the meaning of the content. These Polaroids come out from the shadows - the darkness - exploiting the light. This is nothing new actually, this is photography: “writing with the light” or rather “from the light.” However, hiding the light, based on Goethe’s Theory of Colors, also means to light up the darkness: you may think that I am playing on words, but the thing is that I would like to access a different way of thinking which also includes a change in perspective on what we already know.
The birth of photography is such an extraordinary event in the history of traditional images and consequently it deserves a special emphasis on the way it is considered and applied. Photography, just like any other artistic phenomena, is characterized by the ambiguity between concrete (real) and ideal (possible) so even professional photographers cannot take it for granted. Unfortunately this happens very often in my opinion.
What if we could stop distinguishing between photography and painting and finally start talking about creation of images! An image has a considerable value as is, regardless of the artistic discipline. Luckily the introduction of digital photography is slowly but surely clarifying this original ambiguity: whether we like it or not, digital photography in general is strictly connected with painting; not too far from the analogical post-production techniques performed by the fathers of photography in the darkroom. Therefore, does the apparatus leave any liberty to the operator? Framing maybe? or simply post-production? If no post-production is used, how much artistic weight should we apply to the optical unconscious or randomness in the birth of the image? We are "controlled" by increasingly sophisticated, fast, and depersonalizing apparatuses so we need to “fight” this condition by “playing” innocently as a child does, as suggested by Vilém Flusser in "Towards a Philosophy of Photography" (1984). Nevertheless, the tendency is to shoot by trials and without considering any specific set of problems. As a result most of the time the produced images assume aestheticized attitudes, yet they are nice since they do not suggest any “issue” or, even worse, they are rich in symbolism (the attempt to let the words prevail, regulate, explain the image relegating it into the limited and limiting domain of its meaning).
We must remember that the birth of an image is a complex experience. This process is slow, it thrills the senses and it is directly connected to our intuition, experience, and memories. Being a painter, after many years of academic study and drawing, I think that I have learnt the lesson well. However a painter who is worthy of his name does not copy, rather he creates. He needs to dismantle and reconstruct his “own” images offering to them a renewed structure. So do I. My work is a statement and a “learning by doing” process simultaneously. These latter points merit a closer examination as they could lead to a misunderstanding concerning the role of “chance” and the “unconscious” associated with the birth of an image. This is something crucial in my opinion. However, the artist’s intuitions pertain to the superrational: being the first viewer he forces himself to confront and familiarize himself with the amazing nature of the image. These “clarifications” were necessary to introduce my works and now I can say that although the single images were born first, they were the breeding ground for my side composite montages. The single ones represent a collection of many different light and atmospheric conditions; subjects; postures and procedures adopted while shooting. With this research - that was full of enthusiasm, surprises and unexpected gifts - I learnt and built up a sort of chromatic-formal ABC book. Picture after picture, these were years of "réalisation." Kurt Badt suggests in "The Art of Cézanne" (1956): “In the course of the nineteenth century... we find the "réalisation" of a work of art, of an artistic idea or of certain difficult aspects of form and of spirit, beginning to emerge as a problem."
The processes used to obtain a specific texture have assumed the function of the artist’s palette in the construction of the following composite images. This personal collection of types allowed me to switch from single montages to the following side composite montages: a sort of “double montage” with no aesthetic meaning except what is suggested by the morphological requirements of the motif. These pictures hold both a theoretical and formal history: fathers that I don’t deny but rather I should thank and reveal. At the same time, I also believe that we have the responsibility to “exceed” them, as we would do with a good father. I am referring to Paul Cézanne, Sergei Eisenstein, Alberto Giacometti, Johann W. Goethe, Vilém Flusser, Friedrich Nietzsche, Francis Bacon, Hans Blumenberg, David Hockney and all, definitively Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Your work often seems dark and slightly disorienting. Was it your intention to affect your viewers that way?
I always feel sensorially disoriented in front of an image that proves, within its own convincing nature, the extreme uniqueness of an individual who has the courage to deal with the results produced from the past and present history of the human being. Let’s take for example a brief text written by Goethe in one of his works on morphology: “Every new object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ within us.” This quotation is particularly interesting because it includes some implications directly related to the behavior of the viewer. First of all he should be animated by this inexhaustible desire of researching that allows him to discover ever-new objects. Nevertheless, once found, this is not enough... he should know how to “well contemplate” them. He should have a favorable predisposition to watch the otherness (the quality of being not alike) without stretching its meaning, or convert it to something that he already knows or he is familiar with.
Finally one of the greater artistic debates originates when he decides to focus on the phenomena of images: the issue between seeing and knowing. Is it wrong to say that we are used to see what we believe that we already know? Moreover, how many times we do not watch but we simply see? Isn’t it disorienting to admit that we do not necessarily know anything we see? Let’s pretend that we are driving a car and all of a sudden something pops up in the street, the car driver swerves to avoid what we think is a dangerous obstacle: it could have been a cat, a chunk of metal, a tire, a human being. But it could have been also an innocent pile of leaves dancing in the wind, a piece of paper, or simply a plastic bag. This, however, wouldn‘t have changed the unexpected nature of the sudden turn, since it was an instinctive action. Nonetheless people can also drive for miles absentmindedly: as if we were driving in circle without perceiving it.
I am confident that most of the people would not even realize that they were passing through the same scenario over and over again. This being said, it seems that nature wanted to make fun of us, considering our absurd behavior: the human being doesn’t seem to perceive the details, no matter if he acts on instincts or habits. But art is attention to Particulars identified with the Universal. So we need to recreate again the state of mind that allow us to live in the fullness of existence; in the aura according to Walter Benjamin; in the presence according to Yves Bonnefoy.
You suggest that your work is about searching for "the moment of knowability" and "researching ways to wake up new senses." Describe these interests please. What are your intentions for viewers?
This is a very interesting question. In order to better understand what is meant by the "moment of knowability" - a definition coined by the aesthetician and friend Prof. Luca Farulli in his book Immaginazione Tecnologica (2012) - we should learn to observe as if we were rubbing our own eyes; as if we opened our eyes for the first time in life. In my works, that's the sense of black that you were mentioning before; the sense of darkness vs. the light; what has taken a specific form beside what is taking shape; the sense of making visible as if we were drawing, the different formal adjustments trying to find the right array of signs. This is how I see everything around me, uninterruptedly crawling: this is the reason why I strongly feel the need to give it a structure. Everyday I live as if I am constantly hearing a background noise and hoping that, sooner or later, it will turn into sound, into language. If the language is made accessible inside the artwork, it can be a solid foundation in the relationship with the others. This is how I live: I’m always on the road between noise and language. I try to make accessible to people everything I end up seeing and learning. This is why I try to give it a structure, a sense, “my personal” sense.
However this cannot be considered only subjective since it was born to reply to the sensible form: this isn’t exclusively a rational decision or a total causality. Sometimes, when you attempt to exploit the media in an artisanal way, trying to better express the interaction between the legality of the sensible and your own feeling, a higher sense takes over and drags the rationality where it could not go on its on. This is what is called "the moment of knowability." All of a sudden, what you couldn’t imagine yet opens up into the medium itself, when “the Present” and “the Past” quickly connect themselves. It is a sort of miraculous experience that we can trace back inside the artwork: the artist, through his work, should be the first to experience it. The evidences of this miracle, realized inside the artwork, are then offered to the viewer who is interested to see it. The “actors” that the artist has included inside the image, exhibit his ideas about the world: they offer the aesthetic experience that the artist has lived first. You may wish to ask me what is the miracle that I am referring to. I think this miracle is basically an artistic answer to a progressive and everlasting familiarization with the following polarities: subjectivity-objectivity, rationality-irrationality, will-acceptance, conscious-unconscious, etc.
About your quotation in Issue 1 - "Every single Polaroid is a sort of device aiming to show the polarity governing the tangible world." - please elaborate on that statement. What did you have in mind?
It’s actually not just my opinion that nature manifests itself following the law of polarity: everything is equal and opposite (positive-negative, light-shadow, etc.). In his artworks the artist should turn this polarity “in a different way” compared to how it normally acts. In practice, if the artistic act were shown as a copy of something real, the viewer would not have perceived the differences between the artwork and the reality. As we know, this statement is strictly pertinent to photography. In this scenario, what would be the purpose of making art? Isn’t it true to say that art should be one of the options available to the human being to limit the complexity around him?
Art should make accessible to mankind what didn’t seem human. If that was not the case, art would appear so complex and impenetrable as a forest which is impenetrable by nature. The "réalisation" of the artwork would close the circle that was opened with the sensation. The experience matured by the artist all along the way from sensation to sense would concretize into a "sign" itself: the substitute of nature. That is, the active ingredient inside the artwork will become achievable since it is perceivable. In other words, the artwork marks the beginning of a new sense circle in the human experience.
Would you say then that your work asks the viewer to pay attention... to see what's really there?
That is correct. I really can’t think of any other way to observe the images. Images should be viewed the way they are, trying to respect what they wish to disclose. We should stop trying to find literal or conceptual meanings according to our desire: images should show a vision of the world that is different than the one of any single viewer. People should approach them open-mindedly with excitement and curiosity but respecting what images wish to offer: even when this is hard to digest.
What is in store for viewers from your next pictorial series? When can we expect it?
I am trying to skip the narration as much as I can and make things more vivid and present; I would like to make larger montages adding more pictures in order to create an immersive environment. I wish they could enjoy even more formal, chromatic, and textural liberty, still respecting the morphological character of the subject; moreover I would like to intensify the distance between “close-up” and “long shot” without losing clarity while shooting; I’d like to work on a series of horizontal subjects like the frieze of a temple staying away from narration; I would like to find a way to mix both B&W and color films in the same image without affecting the sense of entirety. I really can’t say now if and when I will be able to work on all the ideas that I have in mind: that’s the great thing about the research.
Will you ever be finished using Polaroids as a medium, or do you think you will become a life-long addict of instant film?
Should we consider dropping the paintbrush simply because we have been using it since the dawn of time? Serious, as I think I was quite able to demonstrate with this lengthy interview, the topic is wide and extremely current: it concerns people’s freedom of expression while interacting with machines. So I guess the appropriate answer to your question would be “until also the Fujifilm color film will be dismissed” - but, in all honesty I have to say “until I will take pictures with enthusiasm,” which means, up until these media, films, and apparatus, of course, will keep offering unexpected discoveries and the possibility to pursue a serious research.
Anything else you wish share or talk about?
In closing I just want to thanks my fiancé Flavia for helping me with this complex translation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Behlen is a photography enthusiast from Fresno, CA. He works in finance and spends his free time shooting instant film and backpacking in the California wilderness, usually a combination of the two. He is the founder of Analog Forever Magazine. Connect with Michael Behlen on his Website and on Instagram!