An Unexpected Influencer

Excerpts from the blog intervew with Chiara Capodici and Benedetta Cestelli Guidi



Could you identify some constants in your work? The passion for science, the creation of mythologies and the identification of personal symbols, the use of personal or others’ memory, the declination / adaptation of texts into images and vice versa …

I have always been fascinated by the manifold lives of images. The surface of images is always double, and the same counts for visual experience. Images transmit motifs and depict, but always reflect the (hi-)stories of their making and media. Photography as a medium is especially attuned to, and capable of creating and reflecting on this double surface. It captures, freezes the world and its visual texture into its perfect semblance and invites a particular kind of empathetic response. A specific motif that interests me is the way images can articulate  and mark disappearances. From empathy to entropy, from the family photograph and the selfie, to conceptual photography and the way it thinks its own conditions, from surface and pattern, to the mask, the photographic archive, and the atlas as its animation; all these photographic gestures articulate forms of visual thinking and invite strange form of empathy with images that simultaneously draw and resist the gaze.

How did you find out about Aby Warburg’s work?

My interest in Aby Warburg began when I was writing my doctoral dissertation. I was researching the life and transformation of religious motifs and the way they can completely invert their meaning in contemporary artworks. Later, Warburg’s ideas continued to be important in my research, specifically the Mnemosyne Atlas as accessing memory processes through visual constellations and forms of organization, and also as an image in motion, as related to intimate knowledge of the ways images ‘carry’ emotions and bind with them. In my current project I am looking at the way artists use the atlas approach, as used by many artists, and the role of photography and its relationship both to memory and forgetting.

How would you define an Atlas?

Atlas can be defined in a variety of ways. Atlases can be tools of positivist knowledge by illustrating orders, structures and organizations. Warburg used the atlas as research approach that reveals visibilities and connections and collective memory processes or their crisis, and not as a fixed illustration of an underlying order. In his key essay What is an Author? Foucault remarks that with psychoanalysis Freud established an “endless possibility of discourse.” Similarly, Warburg’s Atlas opens a particular way of historicizing through images, which can generate endless variations. For me the atlas is a dynamic surface that has capacity to expand and put into play variety of principles, and approaches that consider the subject matter and the medium of images. It also allows for unconscious projections and  it is a tool for image analysis and for making connections and not only revealing them. In this sense it is at the heart of the creative process.  It allows for the simultaneous presence of fragments and does not to fix them in a linear narrative interpretation. The figure of Atlas, the titan that carries the world, suggests a representation of the world, but Warburg’s Atlas and the approaches it inspires, is in fact also a way of making worlds.

Atlas as a conceptual, formal and mnemonic device; do you use it in your work?

In my book Anarchic Infrastructures I am looking at the way artists use the atlas approach.

 A particular aspect of these atlases, which interests me is the way iconic resonances and resemblances allow establishing connections between images, but also allow for endless analogies between images and can result in a condition in which everything is potentially connected. This specific form of mimicry and erasure of distinctions can be understood as a double process – of searching for and establishing new networks of meaning and simultaneously as a process of loss of organization and meaning through oversaturation with possible connections, an entropic process. This is an aspect of image accumulations, perhaps mostly photographic images, in their role as documentation and reproduction of artworks and other images. For me the atlas is also a research tool, but a very open one. It is a puzzle without a final frame, which sets thinking processes in motion and allows images to be used as tools to look at other images and reveal histories. The atlas is also an anarchic space where meanings emerge from constellations of fragments. What is particularly interesting is its capacity to expand., it is a network, which can grow and complicate itself endlessly.

Recently I became very interested in fragments or ideas, concepts, images, research directions that are excluded from a finished chapter or book, simply because one has to make choices and keep a particular focus. But I realized that these exclusions, what remains “outside the text” have a very big potential and have a special status of unfinished thoughts and personal fascinations. Putting together fragments from literature, theory, philosophy is not random, but is formed by my interests and determined by me as a person. In this sense, this approach creates a form of a self-portrait, and it allows to consider the personal as intellectual. 

In another project of mine, it is a series of perfomative lectures, I use some principles that can be associated with the atlas approach. I reenact my working table and I create a constellation including all the abandoned ideas and excluded text fragments. It becomes a semi-structured journey through reading aloud quotes and text fragments, which I connect through association principles that are not always transparent and hold a trace of particular connection between concepts I wanted to consider, but they were never developed. The atlas approach allows for this association and conceptual travels. 

I use the atlas approach as a curatorial principle. It allows to make connections across time and media and to look at metamorphoses of motifs. It is also a metamorphic approach that allows for transformation and new articulations, to depart from the visual and not factual, and for different kind of knowledge. I have fascination for maps and territories of conceptual and visual spaces because they allow one to perceive images, objects and ideas, not as static but as having migrating identities. In teaching art students I invite them to engage with their own image archives and experience the process of creating their own atlases, create visual constellations and look to research through images.

Do you know about the existence of Mnemotechnics?


Which mnemonic system guides the organization of your material?

Before I start writing, I make maps, conceptual ones. The distribution and visibility of questions and ideas in the space of a page or a table, allows me to see connections and directions for further research. I am also very interested in the potential of chance encounters with material and the way this can sometimes have very big influence on my work.

Are there visual and emotional formulas (pathosformeln) in your project?

I am very interested in our empathy response to images and the way they bind with our emotional life. But this is a project I would like to develop in the future.

In your work, do you identify formal or conceptual recurrences such as repetitions and disruption, distance and proximity, identity and migration, conflict and colonization?

In Anarchic Infrastructures I am looking at the way artists mobilize processes and techniques as repetition, disruption, iconic and formal resonances and contrasts, but also subtraction and reduction in order to reflect on the histories of the media of film and photography, and to create critical visibilities, which are not often allowed by archival orders. I am very interested in  also analogy and mimicry as a way to erase difference and identity, and to invitinge to critical ways of looking. In a way some of these features also structure my own working process.

In your work, what is the balance between image and text?

Images have specific weight and effects beyond art historical questions of period and style. I am very interested in their emotional resonance, and their “valence” but also in their mediality. Images can be also a tool to see and animate other material. In Portraits in Reverse we are animating archive object by using images as “lens” to look at other images.

June, 2020

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