Paolo Fabbri: art as a future memory

By Sara Fiadone and Daniela Panosetti, the Citizen-Art. engineering new communication systems for the communities of the future, Fausto Lupetti Editore, Issue 3, January 2017.

The great cultural scholar Juri Lotman once said that art, as a communication method that brings order to chaos, has the ability to change society’s mindset, an ability to create “second-level languages” that can reveal phenomena and facets of the world – secret correspondences, sensory-rich contrasts – which natural language on its own can neither grasp nor communicate.
Therefore, if art is in some way a sign of the present, the path and the direction of its changes can be seen as a sign of the change to come. A path that is not always defined by shape, but which is already able to make its effects felt, in some sort of emerging and subterranean way.
And while postmodernity, the reigning golem of late 1900’s cultural theory, had marked the triumph of “re-iteration”, today, in an era many call hyper-modern, art seems to have gone into an era of re-production. If in music (and other fields) we’ve gone from the triumph of re-mix to that of mashup, the same seems to be true on a larger contemporary cultural scale. With increasing frequency, the phenomena of recombining extant elements is joined by a trend towards the hybridisation and therefore the blending of different modes of expression that eventually lead to the start of very real new means of expression, the precursors of new perceptions. But how can these new dynamics bring about any sort of real innovation? And how can art continue to serve as a privileged environment in which these processes develop? We turned to the semiologist Paolo Fabbri, who reflects on a possible “future in a nutshell” already present in the substratum of collective memory. But at the same time he warns: revamping the old does not make for new.

Over the centuries, art has been a tool for communicating with the people, a way to express collective values in a pleasing way. Does contemporary art also have this social function?

That’s a big question! Generally speaking, when it comes to the public dimension of art, we are faced with a paradox. On the one hand museums, those institutional places whose job it is to share art, have become art’s greatest promoters. On the other hand, the audience for whom contemporary art is being crafted is increasingly critical of it, they find it hard to relate to. Furthermore, due to inadequate institutional advertising, the public is having a hard time understanding it because they can’t decipher it due to a crisis in critical discourse, to hermeneutical difficulty. The problem is, therefore, not so much that this art is self-referential but that it lacks the ability to communicate.

Contemporary art is effectively increasingly able in its usage of languages, but also able to reflect in them. In this sense, it can be considered, more so now than before, a formidable laboratory of linguistic experimentation. Do you agree?

Here we need to recover the distinction between transitive and reflective function of communication, that is, between the ability of a message to speak of other things or speak of itself. There is no doubt that contemporary art has a transitive function, something that can be measured in terms of aesthetic, political and humanitarian activity, as well as by the inordinate amount of money spent on it. Yet, at the same time, it imbues its own discourse with a salient, meta-linguistic component.
It’s a characteristic that has always been a part of art – accords, citations, pastiches, and so forth – but which is especially evident in contemporary art. For example, contemporary art often uses irony, and this is aimed not only at the audience as a whole and at the system of art itself, but also at other artistic activities: an aspect which exacerbates the problem of comprehension. For example, many artists refer to the work of other artists, but for anyone from the general public who is looking in from the outside this would be impossible to perceive. And so even the critic is increasingly “embedded” in the work of a single artist. In order to understand the work he must speak with the artist to have the subtly ironic references explained. The number of interviews increases, essays become fewer.
Speaking of which, one of the topics most often touched upon is that “the time for avant-garde is over.” I don’t agree. I think the avant-gardists were actually able to forecast artistic trends that are very significant today.

In fact, many expressive trends that have now gone mainstream – like mash-up and the aesthetics of the recombination in general – were once a prerogative of the avant-garde movements, post-modernism in particular. How does the concept of creativity change in the transition from the artistic sphere in the strictest sense to that of “productive consumption”?

Considering that even for Lyotard postmodernism was not an annalistic concept but rather an analytic rethinking of modern thought, of the roots of modernism and its paradigm, there is no doubt that the aesthetics of recombination is inextricably linked to our time.
Actually, if you reason in lexical terms, every message is in some sense a citation. Case in point, the Wittgensteinian artist J. Kosuth wrote a book entitled Purloined. A Novel, which was composed entirely of pages taken from other books. But if we reason in terms of that which Saussure called parole, the real spoken word, great creative opportunities emerge. As Chomsky so clearly stated, the difference is between “execution according to the rules” and “creation against the rules”, an aspect that is not always easy to prove. Let’s take mash-up, for example, a dimension with a potential experimental nature. You have to see just how much it actually results in a rewriting of the rules. Lots of the mash-up work that declared itself innovative was really nothing more than a new version of an extant score. In a nutshell, to be truly creative you need more than a computer with which to mix up texts. You have to create a whole new grammar and the results must be tested each and every time.

True. Sometimes the remixing that new technology allows us to play with is casual, mere exercises that often do not generate anything new in terms of art.

I agree. But that doesn’t mean it’s a negative thing. The avant-gardists began experimenting with this sort of effect a long time ago. Think “cut and paste” – which dates to Tristan Tzara, and then to Burroughs-Gysin – and Nanni Balestrini’s work when he says “I have never invented a word that wasn’t the assemblage of other people’s work”. Sometimes this recombining and remixing ends up in something really pleasant and easy to understand. The point is that without this kind of experimentation, we can’t even consider an exploration of new rules. Like all research, however, they may be looking for absolutely nothing, or to just “reinventing the wheel”. Not everyone is an artist!

Compared to the postmodern aesthetics, which was founded on the concept of re-combination, a re-blending and hybridisation logic seems to prevail today. And the difference is noteworthy.

That’s right. And let’s not forget that hybrid is not just an assembly of pieces, it is the chance to “mount” different expressive systems, in a way, though, that allows a sort of “mutual translatability” between them. Let’s take music and images. It would seem there is no translatability between these two mediums. One develops in time and other in space. But that’s not the case. Music can have a “spatial dimension” and painting can represent time. They are actually translatable if, in their composition, they are able to reach a level of abstraction that is sufficient to make them compatible. And this is why the word “composition” counts in both fields: think of Pierre Boulez’s intervention on Klee. The Fertile Land (1989).

We are experiencing a moment of extreme de-materialisation of communication. On the other hand, and perhaps as a reaction, there is a strong revivalist trend towards the sensory dimension. How is this reflected in artistic communication?

The focus on the sensory dimension is, without a doubt, strongly marked but not limited to the five senses. As Deleuze said, the task of art is to give the spectator new senses, organs for a new sensitivity and affectivity to change our “somatic and semantic memories” through imagination. It is the most fascinating result of the phenomenological tradition.
But more than the arts of the senses, fascinating stimulus can also be obtained through conceptual art, as its sometimes extreme originality forces us to review some conceptual organisations. Conceptual art actually calls for a translatability between mediums which is quite stimulating in this era of multi-media and hybridisation. We have to be able to recognise, however, the difference between real discoveries and the mere recombination of the extant.
Conceptual art has managed to realize what the semiologist Juri Lotman identified as the main function of art, that is to make us think “thoughts that are still unthought”, using your own innate devices. In this sense, art, because of its structural articulation, becomes a “future memory”.

Going back to the revival of the sensory dimension: according to Gilles Lipovetsky it can be seen as either a symptom or the cause of the progressive centrality of the aesthetic dimension in our consumption habits. What do you think about the concept of “artistic capitalism” and, generally speaking, of the commercialisation of beauty?

Let’s look at a practice we’re all familiar with: cooking, a prime example of aesthetic sophistication tied to the senses. The global market today has absorbed culturally specific cooking traditions through fusion.
Another example is fashion, and I don’t mean just garments – I’m thinking the names we choose for our children, often tied to specific trends (in literature, theatre, TV and music, for example). Fashions are processes of creation for new aesthetics, new perceptions. So are good manners – using the informal mode of address with strangers, physical contact: these days there are even courses on good manners – which is really just another form of sophistication, a style to be used in interpersonal relations.
The point is that global capitalism has made the phenomenon a general one, but it has not learned to entirely control the processes of meaning. Trends, fads and crazes still pop up seemingly from nowhere, from the people – see tattoos. Rethinking these places where semiotic values are created is a challenge art still has a role in. See the artistic activities that exercise control over communications in society, namely through the imposition of transparency. Art can defend the secret.

But if art is cutting edge and invention, reshaping the modes of expressing reality and, through this, ways of thinking, doesn’t this capitalisation of aesthetics bring about a general creative malaise, an artistic block? In these conditions, how can art still express something new when the artistic quality has become a functional and economic parameter?

Without a doubt. It is the process of “artification”, as Natalie Heninch calls it, and it is quite widespread and relevant in our current culture. From film to the photography, to hiphop dancing, semiotic practices are headed irreversibly towards becoming arts. If you think about it carefully, there is no aesthetic or communications discipline that is not following along the same path. And it’s a process that follows a defined set of criteria: collectors, museums, galleries, shows, magazines, reviews, etc… For example, I wonder why magic has not yet become an art. And football? Why has that not yet been “artified”, while the circus has had its own arts for a long time now. In a nutshell, the process is there, and it takes place in a less casual manner than you’d think.

Infographic design has become one of this era’s most powerful communication trends. A phenomenon with a strong artistic component that puts together the functionality of data with aesthetic parameters. How do you see this?

It’s a trend that comes from the predominance of the dimension of the visible, with the idea, which I think is debatable, that the written word is not enough, that it always needs to be embellished with an image. I’m not really in agreement with this modern legend, if you will, with the rather naïve idea that an image is “worth a thousand words”. The right word at the right time can be far more powerful than a thousand TV images.
This idea can create some confusion, as in the perception of science, one of the fields in which infographics has been the most successful. Up until the last century, science – much like art – was very abstract, it used very few analogical images. There were graphs, like the famous Venn diagrams. Thanks to new technology that permits the manipulation of images, science produces a vast number of amazing images that are brightly coloured and a pleasure to look at – think of fractals – enhanced with a sort of kitsch info-graphic, flair that serves to advertise lab products.
But these images are often without any scientific basis, in the sense that they have little to do with the various visualisation techniques that are actually involved in the real scientific processes. They are tools for the dissemination of scientific results and undoubtedly an efficient way for science to “advertise” and promote itself. But sometimes, because of their simplistic nature, they can lead to the erroneous idea that one is actually looking at a scientific process, which obviously requires other far more complex knowledge, both visual and verbal.

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