On the Inventions of Art. An Interview with Paolo Fabbri

Artecontexto, Madrid, Tuesday, 1st December of 2009.

Paolo Fabbri is one of the most important semiologists working today. He is currently professor of Art Semiotics and Artistic Literature at the Venice University Institute, and throughout his career he has covered a wide range of subjects linked to the study of sign systems, as he himself tends to say, always anchored in the field’s intellectual tradition. At present he combines his teaching work with his position as director of the International Semiotics Laboratory of Venice (LISaV) and as a member of the Cultural Semiotics Study Group, which depends on the Instituto Ortega y Gasset, in addition to being director of the Quaderni della Biennale of Venice and co-director, along with Mario Perniola, of the cultural and artistic magazine AGALMA.

In the last few years there have only been a handful of academics who can rival Fabbri’s study of the status of signifying systems from such varied disciplines as linguistics, science, art, literature, etc. Perhaps the only handicap to his work is the fact that, apart from his articles, his refined thought has been concentrated in the two works which have been published in Spanish (El giro semiótico and Tácticas de los signos [The Semiotics Turn and Sign Tactics]) and a third, which is yet to be translated into Spanish: Segni del tempo. Lessico e dialoghi politicamente scorretti. Because of this, interviews and lectures are appropriate ways to access his thought.

He himself defined semiotics, in his article Mass Communication in Italy: the Semiotic Gaze and the Evil Eye of Sociology (1973), not as an “objectual ars inveniendi (although, like sociology, it is made up of interstitial objects), but as an ars interveniendi: its concepts are linked, and involve psychology, linguistics, sociology and theory of information, logic and technology, game theory and psychoanalysis. Its sphere of action is orthogonal with regards to the classification of other disciplines; rather than a new land (the Eldorado and Tule of the latest impossible superscience) it is a journey, a network of communicative knots, conceptual dispatch points; its complexity is similar to that advocated by Wiener in the field of cybernetics: a land occupied by many armies. Semiotics articulates a fecund hybrid”. Fabbri gave his latest interview in Madrid, at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, on the occasion of the seminar entitled Semiótica de la Cultura: Historia, Arte y Moda [Culture Semiotics: History, Art and Fashion] organised by Jorge Lozano, which featured the contributions of other important figures in this field, such as Boris Uspenskij and Omar Calabrese. At the seminar, Fabbri again revealed his interest in hybridisation, which forms part of the theoretical foundations of cultural semiotics, a field which sees the semiosphere as a group of cultures which share a mechanism of the translation of sign systems.

During a lecture entitled Traducción intersemiótica [Intersemiotics Translation] professor Fabbri described, with his usual subtlety, the way in which the globalisation discourse is articulated, by means of a gradual process of hybridisation between the different branches of knowledge, and, in particular, of art, where he observes a radical mutation, which took place between the late 19th and early 20th century. He spoke about changes in narrative identity in relation to prosody and to the mimetic system with regards to the world, particularly in the Avant-Garde movements of the 20th century. In this sense, he described the way in which the art world can be used by scholars to observe forms of cultural change, and therefore, the transformations in narrative identity. His proposal was to exemplify the possible forms of translation between artistic visual systems and linguistic systems (histories, narratives, etc.). In order to do this he chose Utopia, or, to be more specific, the myth of the Golden Age and its various translations in the pictorial and visual art produced between the late 16th century and the most recent Avant-Garde trends, paying particular attention to the work by Bruce Nauman.

During your latest lecture in Madrid you highlighted the role of translation in the emergence of new languages and cultures. Your examples were mainly taken from the art world. In what way can we use art to understand the concept of intersemiotic translation?

Above all else we must keep in mind that semiotics interprets culture as part of the semiosphere, a concept which refers to the immersive landscape of signs inhabited by each of us, and that this semiosphere is essentially a multimedial field, or, as Sloterdijk says, that we live in a multiverse, i.e. the signs are manifested through different expressive substances, which in the field of semiotics we refer to as modalities. Signs are multimodal, and this multimodality defines what we call the semiotics programme; in other words, we speak of systems made up of a range of expressive substances, such as linguistic and non-linguistic signs. In this sense, translation must not be seen as an exclusive translation between verbal sign systems, but also between verbal and non-verbal signs. Because of this, the semiotics project is absolutely equivalent to the project of a generalised semiosphere which, today, characterises the only narrative which has survived modernity, the discourse of globalisation as a semiosphere discourse, and, therefore, as something entirely multimedial.
Therefore, the problem lies in understanding the way in which several types of signs-which express different contents with different expressive substances-can be understood individually or syncretically. There exist syncretic semiotic systems-such as opera and cinema, or even contemporary artistic installations. Therefore, by getting to know the semiotic project of globalisation we can understand the translation activities produced by the semiosphere.
Going back to the Tower of Babel, I suggest that the result of its fall has been the multiplicity of languages, as well as of architectural styles: the Tower of Babel was built in one particular style, whereas we can now see very different ways of building. Its fall caused a diversity of sign systems which in turn gave rise to the need for translation. This need has been seen as a punishment, but cultural semiotics prefers to see it as something positive, given that, precisely because of its multimedial nature, the semiosphere can generate new information by sharing translation mechanisms. Translation is therefore seen as a place where happy mistakes or unexpected novelties crop up, generating new information, multiplying existing languages without removing any of them, and perhaps generating new languages, such as Creole. Translation is something we all do: from literature to cinema, from cinema to other languages, etc., we hardly realise we are doing it, but we do it constantly. And art offers clear examples of translation processes.

Additionally, you suggest that we are experiencing a hybridisation era…

Exactly. The question we must address is: how do we translate different signs? For a long time our culture has been obsessed with the specific: the specifically filmic, the specifically literary, the specifically pictorial, the specifically scientific, etc. Today we think in terms of hybridisation, which is an important step forward, in my opinion. We should be wondering about the nature of these hybridisations. I don’t trust the consensus, and in this case there seems to be a consensus to talk constantly about translation… There are two ways of understanding translation: as a way of avoiding incomprehension -i.e. of rendering something comprehensible- and as a form of conflict -think of the Italian proverb which reads “translator, traitor”-. The world of translation is a battlefield in which a complex conflict is being fought. By understanding translation we can leave behind a number of problems with regard to the definition of culture.

You propose a concept of translation which, in fact, goes beyond the conflict between culture and nature, found in Structuralism, and becomes a conflict between cultures and natures, as you explained in your lecture…

Ever since Edward B. Tylor proposed his description of culture, which is now a classic in the field of anthropology, it has found numerous new meanings. Yuri Lotman, for example, described culture as the transmission of non-genetic (or hereditary) information. The problem with this definition is that no one can truly determine the border between the genetic and the non-genetic. Its limits change according to the level of knowledge, and therefore, the culture in which we are located. We must consider this limitation as a symbolic element of culture. In this way, we can state that there is no ontological definition of culture. The question, therefore, is badly formulated: we should not be wondering what culture is, but when and how it is. It works in the same way as language, the primary sign system; in the same way that Language is manifested in each different language, Culture is manifested in each different culture, though, we cannot see each culture as a translation of an unstructured nature, with its own syntax and rules. In addition, it is not a single Nature, but numerous natures. In this sense, man is the creator of natures, regardless of whether they are artificial or not. And the relationship between these natures and cultures can take many different forms: symbolic relationship (as in the case of bullfighting in Spain), nutritional relationship, fetishist relationship, etc., and, here, art offers the key to understanding some possible forms of relationship, as ittranslates narratives, stories, etc. In fact, the translation between cultures teaches us that there are two possible trends: one which attempts to preserve the integrity of a culture subjected to translation (in the sense of simplification), and the other (the one which cancels the other culture), without respecting its point of view… Therefore, we can speak of three possible kinds of translation: translation in terms of expression, translation in terms of content and translation in terms of enunciation -or translation of points of view-. In art, these three forms of translation can be clearly observed.

What contribution does art make to our understanding of a certain culture?

There are many. When we speak of a culture we are also speaking about a narrative identity. This is Lotman’s main interest when studying culture: we are what we say we are, i.e. what we tell ourselves. There is another form of identity, which is established on the basis of the relationship with what we are not (but not with the other, which refers to a very specific form of alterity). Narrative identity, which is so intensely developed in the fields of anthropology and phenomenology, is rooted in the myths of each community. In this sense, I worked hard to analyse the myth of the Golden Age and its pictorial manifestations, i.e. the way in which this myth has been translated by different cultures and periods. The reason behind this was none other than the fact that we live in an anti-Utopian culture, that is, one which denies the possibility of the existence of Utopias. The myth of the Golden Age is rooted in the work of several classic authors: Hesiod, Ovid, Horace, etc. In fact, these narratives do not tell us much, and only speak about a fecund world, with no work, only fun, guiltless sex, etc., and I am not referring to the Internet! The trees produce honey and the lakes are made of milk, and animals are not under the rule of man. I am sorry for those who believe that nudity appears in original texts from the Golden Age; it is only a pictorial translation of the narrative, where nudity is equivalent to innocence. Historically, all representations of this myth preserve some elements which are essentially the same: nudity, a group of men and women, an individual who lazily picks fruit from a tree etc. However, a gradual and radical change is taking place in the field of representation: from the scatological history of the origin of the world we move on to a personal fable, so to speak. From the mythical history of Man we go on to the life of a man, and the age of innocence of the naked and harmonious man is translated into the childhood of a man, as can be seen in the case of the famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin, who also offers a translation in terms of expression: when he represents the Bronze Age, for example, he uses bronze, and the same happens with the Golden Age and the Silver Age. This expressive translation can also be found in numerous examples in the Avant-Garde movement, as is the case of Henri Matisse, whose Bonheur de vivre (1905) observed a tendency toward the chromaticism which would eventually destroy the organicity of the naked body and mimetism, in order to simply and firmly offer a chromatic sensation. Semantics are maintained but the expression is modified. In other cases, such as that of André Derain, it is the content that is translated, with other elements being represented, as can be seen, for example, in the way the harmonious understanding between animals and men replace the nude. As early as Yves Klein’s Monogold, we can see a radical trend toward expressive and content-related translation.

Up to now you have offered clear examples of the possibility of translation in the field of expression and content, but what about the field of enunciation and points of view? How and when does it take place?

The translation of the point of view is simply the possibility of incorporating or distancing the viewer with regard to representation. In this sense, an author who I have always found interesting is Bruce Nauman. Nauman was an artist who found anagrams and palindromes highly seductive. His practices allow us to observe an operation of movement from linguistic figures, iconic figures and experience architecture figures. These are the terms chosen by Nauman to refer to the figures that follow explicit rules. His interest in word play has led many to see a direct relationship between him and Wittgenstein. However, it is not the same thing to follow the methods of an author, using him or her as a model, and to interpret that author… I do not doubt the latter. In Nauman’s works we find a tendency to play not linguistic games, but rather to conduct a sort of linguistic play, which takes the shape, for example, of anagrams-a figure which also interested Saussure a great deal-and he also sought the possibility of varying the point of view: the work could be seen from the reverse or from other points of view, generating a double interpretation. On the one hand, we find an anagrammatic or palindromic reading (from one side to the other of the word), and, on the other hand, we find the reverse of the writing, with the inversion not of the word but of the point of view.?In his work we can establish analogies with certain cultural phenomena which Lotman described as enantiomorphism, i.e. the effect of the reflection in the mirror, the inversion of the image. Let us take one of Nauman’s works in order to explain this. In AH-HA we see a spectacular composition with a central axis, but, to achieve this, the artist must modify the colour of the background and of the letters of each of the symmetrical parts. This chromatic change is comparable to what in linguistics is termed ablaut, or dissimilation. A linguistic example of this can be found in onomatopoeic words, where, between two equal parts, an ablaut or dissimilar element is placed, in order to make symmetry possible. In the word kikiriki it is the r that creates the symmetric effect of kiki-kiki. What Lotman proposes is to understand the way in which the specular image enables us to generate new information, as, ultimately, culture uses similar mechanisms: certain cultures are symmetrically reflected in their identity with a certain sense of immobility, at least in their origins, but as soon as we introduce a similar dissimilar element or a dissimilar similarity we give rise to huge variations in signification. Therefore, Nauman offers enormously radical thought, based on the way the way the meaning of certain phrases is open to interpretation; just like when we read, in other of his works, the “reflected” sentence RUN FROM FEAR/FUN FROM REAR. The most interesting thing is that Nauman also applies this palindromic technique to his figurative works, in order to represent dialogic gestures and forms, which can also include sexual representations. Language, when seen as a conversation, is also palindromic: one speaks and the other responds…

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