Stefano Chiodi When did you start using photography?
Marina Ballo Charmet I’d say around the mid-1980s; I was doing personal psychoanalysis as part of my training as a psychotherapist.At a certain point I got the urge to use a camera – things took on a different meaning looking through the lens.
S.C. Were you already interested in art at the time?
M.B.C. I didn’t come to photography with the idea of being an artist; in fact, that was the last thing I wanted – I’d grown up among artists, but I’d gone in a completely different direction, I studied philosophy, then psychoanalysis… I’d say it came out as a passion for reality.
S.C. How do you mean?
M.B.C. Photography lets you see things as if for the first time – it creates a sort of “reparation”, as psychoanalysts would say. And it also has a magical aspect – it’s a reference to the status of things that refers to a status of the self.
S.C. Did you immediately consider photography the focus of your experimentation?
M.B.C. Yes, but not as work; I’d say more as a passion for a means that allows me to see certain aspects of reality. Maybe something was also happening inside me during analysis.
S.C. Your father was a famous art critic, an advocate of abstract art and of numerous artists, from Lucio Fontana to Gianni Colombo and many others. What did it mean for you, to grow up in that sort of environment?
M.B.C. It was certainly very important, especially because it galvanized my interest in things that flouted convention, the more provocative and political components of art, along with an antiexpressive ideal and an attraction to objective, neutral forms and languages. As for photography, my father was only interested in the avant-garde from the beginning of the century; his brother, Aldo Ballo, on the other hand, was an important design photographer and was the first to encourage me.
S.C. What experiences had the most impact on you during your youth?
M.B.C. Politics and feminism, certainly – I was involved with Lotta continua. And then philosophy – at university I’d attended Enzo Paci’s lectures on phenomenology, Husserl, Sartre, Merleau- Ponty, and I was interested in the anti-authoritarian ideas of Marcuse, Laing, Cooper and the Frankfurt school. Another important experience in the early 1970s was my involvement with the group linked to Elvio Fachinelli’s “L’erba voglio” and work groups on psychotherapy and Marxism led by Enzo Morpurgo. And also avant-garde cinema – I went to the Club Nuovo Teatro, which was animated by Franco Quadri, where we’d see films by Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Andy Warhol...
S.C. You’ve often referred to two seminars with Gabriele Basilico and Lewis Baltz that you attended in 1989-90. Were those important experiences?
M.B.C. Yes, they both were. In the case of Basilico, one day – it must have been 1987 – I saw a poster in a town in Umbria with some of his photos of Lake Trasimeno. They were images that lacked any dramatic aspects, with a sort of suspended feeling that was very close to what I was after at the time. Two years later I decided to participate in a seminar of his in Milan, and that was my first, fundamental self-reflective experience. I mean, Basilico helped me to clarify what I had in mind as far as photography was concerned. “Knowing where to put yourself” was the most important thing for him, and in my photographs from back then he recognized this quality, and he helped me to confirm my vocation by offering an external validation.
S.C. And how did the encounter with Baltz happen?
M.B.C. I’d gotten to know his work through Paolo Costantini and had seen a show of his in Milan. The repetition, the insistente on certain motifs, the relationship between nature and culture, the intrinsic political nature of his images – I found all of that very interesting. I attended his seminar in Arles in the summer of 1990. We went out from early in the morning till afternoon and photographed the landscape of the Camargue, near Beauduc, with the nomads’“minimal houses.” Baltz had an open, curious attitude and a respect for diversity, and he helped me understand the importance of light in my work.
S.C. Did Baltz and Basilico become models for you in some way?
M.B.C. I wouldn’t say that. They were reference points, not models. In general I was less interested in the documentation aspect of their work and much more so in the perturbing element, something that went beyond the reality they depicted. For my work at the time there were other reference points as well, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher and Robert Adams.
S.C. What was it that interested you about their photography?
M.B.C. The neutrality, the “presence” of Becher’s images, with artifacts that become sculptures, bodies. With Adams, I was interested in the way he shot the landscape, his simultaneously oblique and poetic approach, the emptiness, the “nothingness.”
S.C. Was Ghirri a point of reference for you at the time?
M.B.C. I really liked his Atlante and his more conceptual work in general; the later period less.
S.C. Did you have any “fellow travelers” among your peers in those early years?
M.B.C. Certainly the critics Paolo Costantini and Roberta Valtorta. Costantini introduced me to the New Topographics photographers, and then in ’96 he invited me to collaborate on the Venezia-Marghera project, while with Valtorta – who had created the Archivio dello spazio, a place for discussion and production in Milan – I had a continuing and significant exchange of ideas about my work; I did my first books with her. Linea di Confine was also important, a laboratory organized by Costantini and led by Guido Guidi and William Guerrieri. And of course Jean-François Chevrier, with whom I developed a dialogue over the years and a collaboration that was extremely fruitful for me.
S.C. What about photographers?
M.B.C. I’d say my relationship with Gabriele Basilico was very important, and therefore also with the young photographers associated with him, like Luca Campigotto, Martino Marangoni and Walter Niedermayr – in 2007 Walter and I made the video Agente apri.
S.C. Even before you started working with photography you’d made some videos.
M.B.C. Yes, in the early 1980s I shot some hour-long, ¾ inch documentary videos on a few children getting acclimatized to day care. They were made for the Center for Educational Innovation of the Municipality of Milan and intended for training educators. The visual document allowed for reflection on the experiences of children and mothers at the critical moment of separation, and thus offered educators an opportunity to relate to real experiences.
S.C. To me, there seem to be analogies between these works and the videos you made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in particular with Stazione eretta, where children are once again the subject, as bodies and also in terms of the point of view on the world. Is that right?
M.B.C. Maybe, but indirectly, because in the first videos the documentary element was predominant, while in the more recent ones the conceptual aspect took over. Certainly the identification with the child’s point of view is a theme that I’ve been carrying around for a long time – it’s a point of view that embraces chance, that’s still free of codes, rules and conformism.
S.C. Is that also a description of the artist’s point of view? In particolar the point of view of a woman artist who criticizes dominant visual models?
M.B.C. I think so. In photography what interests me isn’t the distancing, the rational, above-it-all point of view, but rather the being-in-the-place, where the element of control is slackened and has to be let go.
S.C. In effect, one constant in your work is an attention to the edges of perception, to what normally remains below the threshold of visibility – “peripheral or distracted” vision, as you once wrote.
When did you start using photography this way, and how did you come to do so?
M.B.C. I would say already with my first series, Il limite. They’re “white” images in which there’s a fusion of sky, sea and land, a “non-boundary.” I realized that I wasn’t interested in the definition of the object-place, the observation of the most minute details, but in being inside the place, giving a sense of the experience, of being there. In other words, I’m not interested in photography as detailed description, but as experience, as empathic rapport through which the sense of a place is manifested.
S.C. A sense that remains enigmatic, though, undeclared.
M.B.C. That’s right. In the images from Il limite there’s an idea of non-separation, of ambiguity: we can’t see the details of things. The abandoned oyster farm on Île de Ré is a chaotic context, a sort of ruin that has lost significance, immersed in a white light. The Bretagne series, on the other hand, is a pseudo-sequence of perceptions made in a random way – here, the gaze comes closer, but the images are full of random things, posts with barbed wire, the always-seen that we never really look at because it’s not interesting.
S.C. This effect of suspension, of emptying – is it amplified by the printing process?
M.B.C. I wouldn’t say so. I usually choose to take photos in the morning or the evening, because I’m interested in light without shadows, low contrast. The idea isn’t to give a detailed description, but to render an experience visible, to create “mythical,” archetypal images – beaches where water, sky and land evoke the idea of nonseparation, of the original indistinctness of elements. I remember that Roberta Valtorta, when I showed her the Il limite series, defined them as images that are about to appear or disappear…
S.C. So they’re vestiges or embryos of images?
M.B.C. They’re images that position themselves just bifore awareness, before definite perception – they recall what we see with our eyes half-shut. They lie on the borderline between mental projection and perception.
S.C. Right after Il limite you created a small series, Presenze, dominated by low lighting and a sense of indeterminacy, perhaps of a threat.
M.B.C. Those are images where, I guess I can say, things are just there, in their indifference. I’m not interested in describing them or analyzing them, but only in presenting them, beyond any consideration of utility or functionality. They’re images that may appear unsettling, and in any case aren’t easy to grasp.
S.C. Con la coda dell’occhio, in the early 1990s, was the project with which your photography reached full maturity. How did that series come about?
M.B.C. In 1992 I was invited to the festival of Graz to create a work on the city. That’s when I started putting the lens at the height of a three- or four-year-old child and using that point of view to shoot the urban fabric, in particular sidewalks, traffic islands, road construction, etc. I’d go out in the early morning or at dusk to take advantage of the diffused, shadowless light, and even though I used a tripod, the framing of the shot always came out of an empathic rapport with the place, a subconscious need, not a rational intention. The important thing was that the place presents itself in its neutrality.
S.C. Don’t the pursuit of neutrality and empathy cancel each other out?
M.B.C. No. I become a sort of absorbent paper that transmits the neutral presence of things. I think the important thing for me is that reality is presented in its naked objectivity.
S.C. Did you have any precedents in mind? Images that reemerged as you created the series?
M.B.C. I didn’t have any particular models or references. Many years earlier I’d seen La Région centrale by Michael Snow, for example, where the presence of the land invades the screen, and the relationship between land, sky and light is seen through a camera-eye. Or some photographs by Le Secq, Atget and O’Sullivan, extraordinary images completely without artifice, where nature becomes a giant body with no focal point. They’re photos that seem to have nothing in them; the camera disappears and only the eye remains.
S.C. Could we say that in Con la coda dell’occhio you assert a new sort of gaze in your work?
M.B.C. Partly yes and partly no. I’d already worked on edges and the ambiguous before. The new aspects of that series were the lowered point of view and the soft-focus. The important thing was to approach the object in an intuitive way, with no intentino of observing it closely or describing it. Instead, I was interested in creating a mental image, moving towards the unarticulated. In other words, focusing on and rendering monumental what lies at the edge of our conscious perception. And ultimately, it’s a paradox that this neutral object emerges from an empathic connection and from the subconscious.
S.C. In that regard you often cite two authors who pondered the creative process and the image, Anton Ehrenzweig and Salomon Resnik.
M.B.C. Yes – when he saw my work, Piero Quaglino, an art historian friend of mine, suggested that I read what Ehrenzweig wrote on “peripheral vision,” on what lies at the edge of consciousness, and is perceived faintly, “felt” more than “seen.” Resnik, on the other hand, insists on a sort of “distracted” awareness, linked to the subconscious, similar to what we have in early childhood, when we’re still immune to the influence of the dominant culture. The distraction of perception thus becomes a mode of learning and creating, richer than conscious ones – a form that culture has to take into account.
S.C. Isn’t this a different way of describing the old theory of the innocent eye?
M.B.C. I wouldn’t say we’re talking about innocence, but rather the possibility of recuperating aspects that some might consider primitive, closer to something archaic, unconscious. Art and symbolic processes in general work on these aspects, but they have to do it with a certain lucidity – they have to be able to manage these aspects.
S.C. In this attention to the non-intentional, to the formless, is there an inadvertent convergence between psychoanalysis and photography?
M.B.C. The central theme is shifts in perception, and this has a lot to do with the lapsus – ultimately, what I photograph are repressed parts of the city, and my work could be compared to psychotherapy: the central aspect isn’t the most important one – you have to scrutinize the edges, let the mind drift and listen to the patient. And that’s not much different from what happens in the creative process when you empty your mind, let it wander and put yourself in contact with what’s outside it without any rational control, with a fluctuating attention that mustn’t be controlled.
S.C. But isn’t photography, as a sort of “index” or imprint of the visible, the antithesis of these states of fluctuating between consciousness, unconsciousness and perception? Isn’t it always an intentionally clipped-out excerpt of the continuum?
M.B.C. Certainly photography can take the path of definition, of apparent rationality, and it can also fall into the trap of aestheticization of the visible. But I remember a photo by Robert Adams, a rock in silhouette, and in the background a sloping terrain, with no particular subject, no effect. The landscape in
this case is presented as the visualization of a phenomenological relationship – more than the result of looking, the image is presented as the possibility of having an experience, of abolishing the distancing inherent in photography. It seems interesting to me to pick up the idea of “distraction,” of fluctuating attention, of the wandering gaze.
S.C. Let’s talk more specifically about the images that make up Con la coda dell’occhio. While the stated subject is the contemporary city, your way of shooting it is unexpected, oblique. You concentrate on zones of passage, on the anonymity of cement or asphalt surfaces – in short, on everything that lies beneath the threshold of the describable…
M.B.C. It’s a tour of the emaciated edge of the city – I shot mainly the fringes, marginal, uninteresting zones, sometimes right in the city center. A relative periphery, explored at child’s-eye level.
S.C. Jean-François Chevrier spoke of the “dog’s-eye level.” Do you like that definition?
M.B.C. I would have said the eye level of a small child, but I understand what Chevrier meant – in his writing he was picking up on Raoul Haussmann’s criticism of the anthropocentric view, the tradition that associates vision with standing erect, and the loss of power that goes along with lowering the point of view.
S.C. Given all the obvious distinctions, do you read this “lowering” as a criticism of the modernist view, i.e. of the primacy of vision over the other senses, similar to the way Pollock’s gesture of dripping pigment on a canvas spread on the floor inaugurated a different way of conceiving the painted image in the West?
M.B.C. As a criticism of rational, conscious thought. I’ve always thought of my photography in a tactile way, in the way Merleau-Ponty intended it: in order to see, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a blind man with a cane that comes into contact with things.
S.C. So what does it mean to “lower” the point of view?
M.B.C. It suggests a proximity and at the same time an overturning of the upright position. Looking down from above is the same as keeping things under control. But to really enter into a place, to create an empathic relationship, you have to get close to the ground, to the horizontal dimension that contains us, and give up the idea of being able to control everything.
S.C. Passing from above to below, from far to near, there’s also an effect of scale: do the objects in your photographs lose their function, appearing enlarged and in a certain sense becoming “sculptures”?
M.B.C. I think so, although I prefer to call them presences. When I enlarge the photos to 1:1 scale, what was removed or excluded from the field of vision is transformed, and becomes significant.
S.C. I find an assonance between the primitive, rough, dissociated forms of Con la coda dell’occhio and certain post-minimalist experiments on the urban scenario, like for example Gordon Matta- Clark’s Reality Properties: Fake Estates, which plays on the interstitial spaces of the city, places that have lost their value that are acquired and photographed.
M.B.C. Matta-Clark’s work has always appealed to me because the indifference of the choices and the way it recuperates the poetic force of the useless, the non-functional. But there are also other artists from that period who interest me – Donald Judd, for example, with his elementary, serial forms, his reduction of sculpture to a strippeddown, archetypal simplicity, without romanticism.
S.C. In another series of your from the 1990s, Rumore di fondo, there are three very different types of objects: the facades of modernist buildings shot from the sideways point of view of a passerby, the corners of the interior of an apartment and the folds of a piece of clothing photographed from close-up. What’s the relationship between these elements?
M.B.C. I wanted to give the idea of a wandering perception moving along the edges of things. The corners are places where the eye invariably falls – they’re part of our everyday life. Outside of this context, as in this case, they also become sculptural presences. In the magnified folds I wanted to render the idea of the nearness of the gaze, of our proximity to others. In the facades, there’s a shifting of perception: the vertical planes are flattened and become horizontal, with no technical manipulation. They are stop-action shots of our daily lives as we walk through the city.
S.C. Your first video installation, Conversazione, also pertains to this phase.
M.B.C. I realized that I had to deal with what lies beneath language, beneath what we take for granted. Once again, the part outside the field of vision, everything that’s cast aside by our consciousness, is brought front and center. In Conversazione ten monitors arranged in a circle contain details, fragmentary images of the bodies of ten different people – knees, napes, feet, etc. – making tiny movements. There were no words; the most important element was the scope, the aspect that always eludes our rational attention.
S.C. The motif of the close-up recurs in another whole series, Primo campo, large color prints with details of faces in extreme close-up.
M.B.C. Here the original idea was the point of view of a very small child held in the arms of a familiar person. But it wasn’t an experiment. The photographs from Primo campo suggest an intimacy, a tactile and olfactory nearness. The piece of face, the neck, what lies between the eye and the chest is what you see when you’re very close to someone – it’s what we can have of the other person.
S.C. Do you mean that up close, we lose perception of the other’s identity?
M.B.C. Resnik says that a child’s field of vision becomes like a mirror, a blending of the body or face of the other or the familiar figure, and the child’s projection of his own body. On the other hand, from my point of view, nearness excludes totality, bringing out the amorphous and the monstrous, and the out-of-focus effect I use effectively renders the wandering perception. I’m interested in
rendering the intuition of a presence.
S.C. In effect, these images seem to me extremely unsettling, mute, anonymous. Is there a formless component rooted in surrealism?
M.B.C. I don’t think so. Certainly, the images from Primo campo are unsettling, but I was trying above all to render the shifting of perception in the relationship with the other. They’re not conventional
portraits, they’re explorations of fragments that express how we see the body of the other tactilely, from close up.
S.C. This nearness or intimacy with the body crops up again in the video Passi leggeri.
M.B.C. Yes, in that case I carried the idea of out-of-the-fieldof-vision – of what’s generally forgotten, like walking through our own home - to the extreme. I tied a video camera to my waist and subjectively filmed my movements at various times during the day. From that material – hours of film containing fragments of domestic life, noises, etc. – I created a sequence in which the territory of the house is explored in a random, repetitive way, with no narrative purpose. The title is a phrase from Samuel Beckett’s Footfalls that talks about “light steps,” an expression I find fitting for my video, because in effect, an important part of its meaning comes from the sound of my, and of our, footsteps. And random chance is central here: it’s the camera-body working with its subconscious.
S.C. What role does time and temporality have in your work?
M.B.C. I’ll give you the example of the videos from the series Disattenzioni. There the subject is light mixed with time, a light that appears and disappears. Again we’re in an interior, my studio. Once again I film a minimal phenomenon, but here there’s also the in direct evocation of the external environment, the movement of the sun. In Frammenti di una notte this temporal duration takes on a different meaning: the tracks of light are the indicator of the rhythm of the hospital, but also the sign of the patient’s dependency, his waiting, his finding himself alone. The interminable night of the totalizing institution.
S.C. Could we say that in a certain sense time pertains to the body?
M.B.C. In my videos, time always has an existential value – it has to do with a subject and the relationship between interior and exterior.
S.C. You made the leap from intimacy to public space with the series Il parco. What sort of place is a park, and how does it become a subject to photograph?
M.B.C. The park is a container of experiences, of possibilities that aren’t possible elsewhere, like encounters between communities, between individuals of different origins. It’s a discovery I made at Parco Sempione in Milan, a place I knew from my childhood that I saw transformed into a utopian place, a heterotopia, as Foucault would say. I photographed parks in European and American cities, each with its own characteristics, its own particular density, the various forms of “private” that appear in public spaces.
S.C. In this series you again adopted a low, out-of-focus point of view.
M.B.C. Yes, the intention was to exclude centrality and hierarchy.I didn’t want to film a scene, but to record unforeseen, improvised aspects that were different each time, to render the idea of sitting and looking around, without focusing on anything in particular. What appears if a field of perception, of experience, not an intentional framing – almost as if the camera were working on its own, shooting images of what lay around it. And that’s what I call recording, presenting.
S.C. Is the park imagined as a possible model of a space of tolerance?
M.B.C. It could be. Without idealizing too much – problema surely can’t be magically erased. But observing an urban park means getting to know close-up the various ways of inhabiting the city.
The park can be a peaceful container of differences, a public space that, if we let it live, as Bauman says, can become an experience of shared living and reduction of distance. Certainly it’s an interesting observatory, but the political component isn’t the focus. In the photographs, the essential point is the unforeseen and the testimonial of an experience in progress, the wandering of the mind and the eye.
S.C. Is that also true in the photographs from your recent journey in Greece?
M.B.C. There it was important to give a real, topical sense of a place that pertains to our collective imagery and imagination, a mythical place if you will – to look at it as it is today, walking through it. I wanted to create a mapping, without privileging the usual monumental aspects.
S.C. In conclusion, can we say that in your artistic practice, photography takes on a different role from that of testimonial of what “already was”, and that it shows us the indeterminacy and capriciousness
of the mental and emotional processes that underlie our relationship with reality?
M.B.C. Making people think has always been a main objective of my work. My photographs aren’t supposed to provide answers, but rather raise questions, show something of our everyday being, our living, something that pertains to us and is also an exploration of our perceptive and experiential changeability. They are not just testimonials. •