Artext meets Michele Dantini


Artext - Let’s start with “Cythère”, your recent exhibition in the contemporary art space at Villa Bardini, in Florence: a solo show on the theme of the “complex relationships between museum and myth, modernist architecture and travel narratives, encounter and discovery.”
How do you construct an exhibition, the relationships with the space?

Michele Dantini - Cythère is a project about relationships between collecting, art and nature.
There is an “immaterial” architecture that sustains every new project, a fantastical and desirous dimension that has the impulses, the episodic peremptoriness, the impasses, the discontinuities and the silences of a conversation.


Artext - Do you favor an “absolute” mental context from which to investigate the process of imagination, the genesis of the image?

MD - In part yes, we could say that. I’m seeking a duality capable of arousing simultaneous and contrasting emotions. Proximity and distance, familiarity and estrangement: like a sort of dizzying domesticity, a remote and unexpected, slightly astrophysical friendliness.


Artext - Are we talking about a “genealogy” of images, which, in persisting and mutating and turning, create unexpected connections, and open up territories and pathways – almost “emotional geographies”?

MD - I’m very keen on the term “care”: consideration, involvement, fidelity to the social and natural history of places. There are many artists who work earnestly on the theme of mobility, first in the mental sense, then also in the topographical sense.
Personally, I believe there is a connection between “archive” and biography, narration and desire. As for my emotional geography – do you know about these remote little islands between the gulf of Guinea and the lesser Caribbean islands, that UNESCO has classified as “Small Island Developing States”? Because of their small size, they’re extremely vulnerable to demographic, social, economic and environmental changes.
They are privileged observation points for measuring the invasiveness of the processes of globalization. The communities that inhabit them have histories of forced displacement, subjection, diaspora: they’ve had to create strategies for adaptation and resistance, and they’ve done it in the most inventive way. I have a penchant for “little worlds” and their contemporary authors, Walcott, Kincaid...

Michele Dantini
Michele Dantini, Cythère #5, 2008


Artext - Specifically, you interest in photography, and in the theories that, between the late Sixties and Seventies, were the basis for the criticism of the documentary image…

MD - Objections to the shrewd and ferocious voyeurism of reportage photography were very important to me, especially in the early years of my career, between 2000 and 2003, in terms of pushing me to organize a sort of work protocol in non-western contexts, in fieldwork situations.
The placement of the mobile and privileged testimonial within the western cultural industry can transform suffering and insignificance into spectacle and authorial marketing: one can’t help but reflect on such a circumstance. I have a favorable view of the contemporary interest in “research-based practices” and social sciences, but I’m convinced that art has no need to set impersonal and dogmatic protocols for itself. Dialogue and conversation have a place. There are ways of knowing, of approaching things, that don’t require concatenation. Do we have good reasons not to experiment with this or that form of oral expression as a model for exhibiting or for relating? In 2003 I decided to stop my documentary performances, and since then I’ve sought to narrate rural West-African or Antilles communities only more indirectly, by means of their own self-representation, committed to fragile and eventful little books that are absolutely unobtainable on the global market.


Artext - Would you like to talk about your narrative and editing choices?

MD - My point of view, at the moment when I’m preparing to construct a narration in the context of a gallery or an exposition center, is that of the elusiveness of the information we have available. In other words, my intention is to address a sovereign spectator, of whom I ask an autonomous contribution of elaboration I choose discontinuous and fragmentary narrations that creatively involve spectators and encourage distrust in official and definitive versions (historiographic or other). It’s not a question of favoring fragmentariness for its own sake, but of recognizing ethical-political (relational) dimensions of the tale, in particular the modes of its construction.
Editing is extremely important in preserving discontinuity, producing silences and impasses. It’s important that the sequence be removed from the fiction (the ideology) of authorial exhaustiveness, but rather turns out to be indeterminate, at least in part random: it should produce uncertainty, questions, reflections. This type of narration, in visual arts as well as in non-fiction literature, follows different rules and responds to different demands than those that are valid for reportage: the mass media today are all hostile to complexity, they’re manipulative and didactic. They neither seek nor recognize a free and reciprocal interlocutor in their audience.
As for the archive: the narrative sites or “fields” to which I dedicate myself to exploring are not already present, already demarcated and available – on the contrary. In fact, the “archives” I refer to – dispersed or sealed, ironic, spectral – exist only in the encounter with their elective seeker.
Understood in terms of its discovery, the “archive” is created at the same time as the narration and is a place of desire – it has no prior existence, except as potential. “Archive” and “narration” produce case histories and imagined futures.


Artext - “Reenactment” and “augmented reality”: these seem to be the poles of your current work.

MD - For about the last four years I have idiosyncratically been passing through years of conceptual art, and I make use of performance, statements, congenial works. I reinterpret, I dislocate, I bring things back on-stage. Sol Lewitt, Bas Jan Ader, Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, On Kawara, Paul Thek, Lee Lozano, Giulio Paolini, Alighiero Boetti. In this case as well I compose an elective geography, in ways that are at times even puerile: I use carbon paper to retrace covers, frontispieces, indexes and colophons of books or statements that captivate me. For example: «Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists».

Artext - Rosalind Krauss talks about a visual power called the “optical unconscious”, an indomitable and destructuring force that traverses the sphere of modernity. In our western and European universe, the comparison is continual, its ambit, the iconology that explores its parameters of continuity and contiguity.

MD - I think that for my generation, formalistic and medium-oriented esthetics aren’t that appealing. I use photography along with other languages - textwork, drawing, installation, narrative performance. I don’t make use of a great deal of post-production; I prefer rapidity and simplicity of execution.

Michele Dantini
Michele Dantini, Cythère #19, 2008


Artext - Can you tell me something about your personal “museum,” if you have one?

MD - There is a sort of internal intention of the image that pushes to establish or re-establish connections, to put together families. I don’t know: during the months when I was working on Secrets of perfect opalescence, a project on the cloud forests and oceanic volcanoes between West Africa and the Caribbean, the lonely, devastated, arcane forests of the German Danube School painters like Albrecht Altdorfer, and of Marco Ricci, Alessandro Magnasco and Tiepolo, accompanied the process. Bewitching. Returning.
In spite of that, Secrets of perfect opalescence is a project on the borderline, intended in the political, geographic, cultural and even linguistic sense. The dense, torrid, opalescent fog that envelops and conceals the forest at the bottom of the cone of a volcano seals a world up within it.


Artext - Your work is complex and involves different spheres from contemporary artistic experimentation. Narration, performance and performative lecturing, media criticism, relationships between photography and painting, video, writing, installation... What’s the connection, the idée fixe, than binds the parts?

MD - I suppose it’s the rather ecstatic and secret, completely uncontrolled moment in which the practices of formalization – no matter how elaborate and ritualized – finally become a discourse on the world. The star: aesthetic and political at the same time, desire and world.
I have great esteem for civil writers and artists, to whom late-Twentieth-century Italian culture owes much: Pasolini for cinema and journalism; Fabro for visual arts. During the period of my education – prolonged and peripatetic like those of many other Italian students of the Erasmus generation – I lived in Germany, in Berlin, Stuttgart, Tübingen and Munich, and in London, Paris, Zurich and New York.
I came into contact with a conceptual tradition that wasn’t at all self-referential or academic, which I think I assimilated, at least partially: an interest in contiguous or apparently remote disciplines, and in collaboration with city planners and landscape architects, anthropologists, naturalists, commentators and progressive administrators, is part of the artist’s profession.
I’d be thrilled if there were artists capable of writing editorials, called upon to comment on circumstances or episodes of collective importance. This doesn’t seem to happen in Italy, although I observe, with masked interest, that a certain neither intimist nor simply aestheticizing orientation is forming around the Wu Ming literary group and the “New Italian Epic” manifesto (which has tones that are at times a bit too pompous).


Artext - What about the many authorial “egos” – how should we talk about them?

MD - I have some difficulty with emphasizing the authorial “ego,” in fact, in my projects I try to avoid it. I don’t think it makes sense today to presuppose a heroicness as a default of the artist: that position has lost credibility. Great travel and non-fiction literature, from Conrad to Naipaul, brings the complexity of cross-cultural processes of comprehension and translation onto the scene in dramatized form. But today the “heart of darkness” comes in post-ethnographic form: distance – if that’s what we’re talking about – has been pulverized, diffused, it’s interstitial and ubiquitous, it shares the spaces of proximity. Circumstance adds difficulty, and disseminates the travel, the shift, the uprooting, within us and immediately surrounding us. I find it fascinating.
For me, the “author” is mainly a space of interrogation, an attitude towards deciphering, towards touch, a style or a threshold of attention. As such, and only if it is so, it’s inexplicable, it allows for an inexplicability. With regard to practices of mobility and fieldwork: the 1990s opened with a project of hyper-professionalization of the artist’s voyage. The artist became a sort of ethnographer, or natural scientist. He mimed scientific protocols; he wore a different hat.
Almost two decades later, I think we can rightly recognize the equivocalness and fallaciousness of that approach. I find it more fitting to acknowledge that the voyage is a genre of performance, congenial to artists characterized by a pronounced interest in installation and outdoor experimentation. There’s absolutely no need to acknowledge, assimilate or validate the scientific and academic pretense of an impersonality of processes. A performance tends not to follow pre-set choreographies; it has an internal growth linked to situational contingencies and audience feedback; it has arbitrary dimensions and needs.
Randomness has enormous value: if an academic ethnography text is forced to expunge all ordinariness and contingency from the treatment in order to privilege the irreprehensibility of the process, it happens in the context of a bureaucratic fiction, and reproduces an authoritarian model of experience or knowledge. Artistic fieldwork, on the other hand, can be placed on the level of travel writing, or non-fiction literature. The decisive interlocutor is the one you meet by chance, the digression or the impasse of pre-constituted expectations reveal the most penetrating understanding.

Michele Dantini
Michele Dantini, Cythère #14, 2008


Artext - You speak of Cythère as an “experiment in anthropology of the “immaterial”. Can you tell me something about this apparent antithesis?

MD - Pushing the image (photographic or other) beyond the margins of the documentable.
Dissolving. Displacing. We pass through infrastructural networks and metropolitan territories – hyperconstructed, artificial contexts – accompanied by mental and libidinal landscapes established over the course of thousands of years, in the long process of the biological evolution of species. The desire for tree-dotted savannahs and nocturnal nests hasn’t left us, to the point that we pathetically try to salvage patches of primordial splendor, the Land-before-Man, in the very places of its transformation, in skyscraper penthouses or under the immense glass roofs of greenhouses and artificial pavilions, in corporate headquarters and big professional offices, along urban and inter-urban roadways, in institutional contexts with the (sometimes ambiguous) mission of “conservation.”
The split between mind and world is growing: in each one of us, deep down, is the archaic appendage of a residual species. Cythère is a project on technologies of mirage, of desire, of the “biophile” obsession conducted through attention to the fictions of distance, shift, splendor, and to the devices, signs, lines of consolidation or rupture of the illusion and the artifices that supported and generated it. We push ourselves to reconstruct costly and vulnerable in-vitro Edens while we squander other things, one after the other. This compulsiveness is incomprehensible in anthropocentric terms: we have no awareness and no control.
I’m not making the obvious denunciations: my attitude oscillates between fascination and perplexity.


Artext - If art is to continue to have a civil function, it’s going to be that of “narrating culture,” changing attitudes, reconfiguring knowledge hierarchies: you say it’s almost a form of “social sculpture”…

MD - I conceive of images as spheres of relation, agencies of non-violence established in opposition to the aggressiveness of the current discourse. Day after day, we’re all “targets” of authoritarian political, economic and cultural marketing. A work of art stands on the threshold of communication, chooses and plans its own dissolution. It doesn’t deprive the spectator of his cognitive or emotional territories, it doesn’t try to overpower: it’s egalitarian.


Artext - Some of your known references for environmental art, architecture and political ecology are Hans Haacke, Bas Jan Ader, Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Rem Koolhaas, Diller+Scofidio, Atelier Bow-wow. Would you tell us something about your references?

MD - I think that I, like other neo-conceptual artists of the generation of the beginning of this millennium, fit into a constellation where Bas Jan Ader and Robert Smithson intersect. “Art comes out from the inexplicable”. I like to play with elective genealogies – I find that they have an inventive dimension, they reveal future dimensions.

Michele Dantini
Michele Dantini, Cythère #3, 2007


Artext - Can you tell us about your micro-town-planning-green-space and urban parks projects?

MD - I tend to develop projects that have bio-ethical meaning, oriented towards the notion of “ecological citizenship.” I don’t think that the city will is an exclusively anthropized place. Spheres of inter-specific co-habitation may exist, and even be encouraged. Concretely speaking, for me, it’s a question of planning green spaces that aren’t sculpture gardens.
The environmental art we usually refer to is constructed around a pathetic misunderstanding; it’s permeated with antiquated-humanistic and celebratory narrations. It ignores, it occupies, it invades.
What I intend to do instead is to contribute to the dissemination of patches of “wild”, unregulated nature within the city: birds, insects, spontaneous flora (“weeds”), micro-fauna. Our minds need to meet with unregulated natural processes: it’s essential for our equilibrium, our sense of boundaries. There’s an evolutionary co-dependency.
For example, in the park of Villa Bardini in Florence, a classical, Italianate park, I set up gentle little infractions to the activity of the typical gardener. The typical gardener is historically an alter-ego of power: the Italianate garden is the full manifestation of vertical control. I tried to block pruning and regular maintenance in patches or sections of the part, encouraging the growth of wild plants, the passage of birds and insects from the countryside around the city center, the promiscuity of architecture and wild area. There’s something simple and glorious in a blade of grass, an insect.
Today we’re seeing a global process of anthropization. Stephen J. Meyer, biologist and naturalist, speaks of a disappearance of the Great Nature.
I admit that I’m moved by the theme, which is obviously as much an ethical and political theme as an environmental one. Will we be able to preserve hints or memories of Gea, to construct temporary lodgings, biodiversity cells, nurseries? In producing a narration of a trip through the Chianti for Tusciaelecta 2007 – my own personal Baedeker – I proposed that local administrations support a project of micro-reclamations linked together to create a fabric of green corridors and edge spaces that elastically, passing through towns, deal with the continual passage from town to uncultivated terrain and countryside and back.
The fluidity of the passages guarantees that the territory will conserve its particular historic and cultural traits. In dedicating myself to the project, I discovered that the countryside is an industrial territory in transformation; the vineyard certainly is no longer a bonus propped up by the sharecropper’s apple or pear tree. Corporate decisions and business criteria prevail, and the use of machinery, along with the social and environmental transformations it brings, is irreversible. I agree with Boeri when he says that, along with territorial transformations in Italy and Europe, we need to disseminate and link “virtuous” micro-interventions, not build on a monumental scale.


Artext - You work internationally as an essayist and lecturer, and your collection of essays on the contemporary has just been published and translated by an American university publisher. Can you tell us something about that?

MD - For me, the essay is a literary genre, and the lecture a performance genre. Period. I see no meaningful differences between “production” and “reflection,” or between “art” and “criticism,” and I share the contemporary interest in discursive models or practices.
Among the authors who have had the most influence on me are essay-writers - Longhi, Benjamin, Steiner, Starobinski, Geertz, Said, Clifford. An essay requires perspicacity, simultaneous thought development and sensitivity approaching divination, and an unrepeatable mix of intensity and delicacy, gentleness and firmness, hesitation and ferocity.
The same thing goes for a work of art, I think, or for any aesthetic “form” or “production” as such. I cultivate the ambition of swapping text and image, word and exposition-oriented “figure”, subverting contexts, professional profiles, devices and statutes.

Translated by Theresa Davis


- Michele Dantini : «Secrets of Perfect Opalescence». pdf.

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