Andrea Lissoni: Passi leggeri is a kind of subjective anomaly. The camera is at waist level and is filming the interior of a house. At times, the images are almost abstract. At any rate, a bit because of the position, a bit because of the space taken in, a process of “de-identification” of the subjective is clearly negated. What is happening here? What we have are small, everyday paths, and therefore a work on personal experience, or is Passi leggeri a work that relates more to your photographic research on the marginal spaces?
Marina Ballo Charmet: I think that it is a bit halfway between the two. The marginal, the things that we see out of the corner of our eye, and therefore that series of photographs that you refer to with the zones of my house, are no doubt closely connected. The idea was to present and put in the centre those things that we never see because they are a part of our mind and our life, and which are outside the field of vision, or outside our attention. On the other hand, there is a close relation with the discussion about everyday paths: once again we are putting at the centre something which is apparently common, banal, and quotidian, filming it though with an eye that becomes a body. What we are dealing with is taking the argument of non-consciousness to its extreme, of the non-rational and therefore of the non-attentive or, better yet, attentive by chance. I thought of pushing the argument of pre-consciousness to its extreme, of our pre-conscious seeing, together with the unconsciousness of the camera. The mind that wanders, the distracted mind, without attention and without intention, was the objective of that series of photographs –but undoubtedly, in part, also of this video.
A.L.: Passi leggeri is a very significant title. It gives a connotation that is both of sound and of image. However it’s not just an image, it is a sound image, it’s an image that evokes sound, and viceversa.
M.B.C.: Indeed. In the video the sound of steps is very noticeable, as if, paradoxically, they were heavy steps. The project consisted in filming daily life. The camera was tied to my waist all day. The material that came out of it was immense, perhaps too close to the experiments of the Seventies. On the other hand there was another level that didn’t satisfy me very much: the domestic level. Overly “domestic” sounds brought me back excessively to my day-to-day life. I am more interested in “our” day-to-day moving and walking, a recurring action that we never think about. For this I extracted the sequences where the objectives were not evident… An action which we remove, in that it is taken for granted and is part of our daily habits. It is like showing a breath close-up, as in the video Conversazione. A common action which “lies underneath”. It is the sound of the steps that is important because it becomes an action that is common but frozen and even a little bit disconcerting. The sound, the repeated action and the height of the camera during the filming was of utmost importance.
A.L.: But if these aren’t paths with a certain objective, for however useless – and in this sense my mind goes to the extraordinary videos of Samuel Beckett – then what do we have here? In my opinion they are trajectories, that are almost metaphoric.
M.B.C.: I wanted to leave a dimension of suspension. That looks as if an exploratory dimension emerges, that we are searching for something. In reality, in fact they are trajectories, it’s the wandering of the body at home, it’s about working on the repetitive actions which we don’t give any importance to but which are, in fact, fundamental.
A.L.: It is a journey of automatisms therefore. Even if there seem to be betrayals. For example, I am thinking of the “identification” device of the subjective in that moment, more extended in time, in which the camera focuses on that stupendous beam of light on the ground.
M.B.C.: The light conditions inside the house were very particular. It might seem unusual, but it was a moment of complete unconsciousness of the camera.
A.L.: Stazione eretta is a shot of steps from a similar point of view, but of a very precise subject, a baby taking his or her first steps. Heavy, uncertain steps. This video also follows a trajectory, an unmarked path, evidently because of a habit or the fruit of an automatism. It’s a movement on a terrain without conscious points of referral. Having said this, what are you interested in exploring with Stazione eretta?
M.B.C.: “Upright position” is a clinical, cold definition, in reality the opposite of the effort of standing up. Verticality, the homo erectus, is perhaps a possible trace. The video at the waist is as if it were at a child’s height. It’s a kind of view that interests me. It goes as far back as my photography series Con la coda dell’occhio, where I positioned myself low to the ground and filmed a situation of noncontrol of the city, of a vision where the sidewalk, the garden, emerge, and take form. It’s a seeing through something less vertical, less codified.
A.L.: With Lettura we start to talk about the body. The body is evoked in Passi leggeri, it’s filmed in Stazione eretta, it’s clearly perceived in Lettura, it even goes so far as to determine the field of the image of one of the two projections. It is a radical work, extreme in its apparent simplicity. It made me think about structural experiences, on the language of the video using the body, in particular of Gary Hill’s experiments.
M.B.C.: Once again I was interested in habitual, day-to-day action… The reading is emblematic: there is a body that is annulled, forgotten, in reality it is the head, through the eye, that “eats” the book, that acquires it. I wanted to put the breathing body close up in the exact moment when we carry out an action which is, in reality, mental, not at all physical. It is something marginal, indicated as a significant zone that can make sense. It is on the margin, but on the margin of perception. It is about the mind-body relationship.
A.L.: Yours is a complex research: it is not about the border, the edge, or the margin explicitly. That is, it is, but not at first, on another underlying level. The margin – the meaning, one of the meanings – is activated starting with something that is already marginal, the already perceived or not perceived. In Dimmi, the discussion concerning the body is even more evident. An equality between body and language is structured. Aphasia and word oppose each other starting with an effort or a more corporeal action.
M.B.C.: The man says “tell me” and commands. Even if it’s not a communication, in a certain sense the man pronounces the word, he is not addressing another person. This command creates a break in the communication. It is as if we had to work on the recovery of the langue, the relationship between speech and languages. It is as if the cultural and codified aspects were too heavy, overpowering. There is, therefore, a discussion on the preverbal. It wasn’t totally intentional, but I preferred to attribute the preverbal aspect, that of speech, to women. With Dimmi, it seemed important to investigate that which lies below languages. Giving a meaning to what is senseless – this is the problem that interests me, which perhaps arises from my training, at first philosophical and then psychoanalytical…
A.L.: It almost reflects, therefore, the development of that which is, in fact, your first video work,
M.B.C.: Conversazione is the first work in which I passed from photography to video: it came out of a photographic series of people seen close-up (those in Rumore di fondo) and together with that on folds. The fold is an element which repeats itself in both my photography and videos, particularly this one. This is a work that uses several monitors (from four to ten with loops that last approximately a minute). Every monitor shows a person, or a part really, a part of a person, while that person breathes.
A.L.: No one speaks, as in Dimmi, but there is a form of conversation…
M.B.C.: Indeed, this is a “degree zero” conversation. It is a conversation without words. What interested me at that time was to put the margin in the centre, that which we normally take for granted, a removed action, but one that is vital and primordial all the same: breathing – which is also the body’s first sound – and barely perceivable, minimal movements, such as swallowing. There is something there that makes us resemble l’enfant sauvage. The spectator therefore stands in the centre of the installation and finds himself in the middle of a type of experience that is somehow removed, and therefore surprising.
A.L.: I would close the circular trajectory on your works by looking again at the image of the glowing beam of Passi leggeri. Disattenzioni is a series of shot sequences in which new forms are designed by starting from the light. It is a video where the categories cross over into each other, inverting and overlapping themselves: solidity and lightness, material and immaterial, ephemeral and lasting, everyday and magical, internal and external. They made me think again of those experiences in the early Seventies in a California ambience that treated light as if it were a sculptural material. I am thinking of Maria Nordman, James Turrell, and Robert Irwin… These are video of pure perception, which invest the perceptive sphere of who is looking and address the plastic decodification of the one who looks.At the same time it integrates and overlaps architecture and image, design and architectural space, but also internal space and external space, making the idea of internal and external “world” slide, of interior and exterior… It is a visually delicate, light work, but very important and intense, because it gives credit to a fluidity, almostan absence of frontiers, even while visually laying claim to them. In this sense it is a “marginal” work, because it works on the margin giving form to a new and different territory. You have worked on points which were in themselves thresholds, door-jams, corners… And what emerges is the representation of a territory which is neither physical nor immaterial, in which the internal and the external landscapes penetrate each other in a multi-plane dimension. And here we have the ideal ending with the same question from Passi leggeri: What territory is represented? What kind of territory are we talking about? Recognizable, but at the same time abstract, it is marked, or rather designed, like an urbanistic reading, even if precarious and unstable…
M.B.C.: It is really the fringe territory between internal and external: it is important that there are traces of the house and the light/time trace from the outside. Precariousness – the instability and also the ambiguous – is one of the important points of my work.
A.L.: Later on, it seems as if you found a new direction. What is happening in Frammenti di una notte? You are in a hospital for an entire night. You observe, but do not show. The “structure” resonates everywhere in the video. You decided to confront it through capturing expansions in time, variations in the light, the echo of scattered sounds. It is another work of complexity, similar to certain research documentary styles, which brings it within the “ideal constellation” of the works of Johan Van der Keuken, Frederick Wiseman, but also where certain echoes of hints of Chantal Akerman resonate or the fragments of the Robert Frank’s pure visual poetry.
M.B.C.: Yes, in fact, I am in a hospital, but I purposely did not show sick people, except from far off. The small, handheld videocamera was a way to let me be involved in a kind of participatory observation that was not invasive. My interest lie in getting the sense of the experience to emerge of what it is like to be in an institution as a sick person at night. I decided to “tape” the life of a department from 8 in the evening to 7 of the following morning. I did this because it seemed important to me to emphasize the marginality – and the passage of light from darkness to light again – which is the liminal state of a sick person who must face abandonment to the dark and to sleep. It is suspended time with its small rituals of cures – and with these, the nurse, who, together with the structure, is one of the subjects of the work – and the times and lights which are objective, but also expanded by the real state of the sick person in hospital. The decision to film at night was done so as to reveal thresholds, the margins between sleep and waking, between rational control and abandonment. The presence/absence of outside and inside light was very important.
A.L.: The attention given to light, to its variations, to the “not normally perceived”, remains at the heart of your research in Frammenti di una notte as well.
M.B.C.: Yes, I think that this video points to a new direction, but only partially. It is the result of a commission – by Linea di Confine per la Fotografia Contemporanea and AUSL (local health authority) of Modena – which asked us to consider the hospital as an institution – something new with respect to my previous videos. The themes of light-darkness marginality, of rational control (conscious or unconscious), are, however, central points of all my research. Also, I think that in this work my visual vocabulary – the way I use the camera and the de-centred view – is the usual one.
A.L.: In a certain sense you are expanding the extent of your research. And today, how do you see the effect of video on your photographic work? Has your way of seeing been affected by it?
M.B.C.: In the video Poco dopo I filmed a street in central Milan at the moment when the market was closing, using a videocamera fixed at a rather low line of vision. Once again, removed dailiness is in the centre. Things that we never look at but that we always see. Those tiny moments of routine life, which drift off in search of something… far away. In another project, I am making a video together with Walter Niedermayr, in the prison of San Vittore in Milan. The theme is the presence of children under three years of age in prison, who together with their mothers live in a separate part of the penitentiary. This is a delicate and problematic theme, because it deals with the necessity of mother and child of being together, in order to promote a reciprocal attachment and to avoid separation during the first years. On the other hand this means that there are (at least up to now in Milan) children inside prisons. The video follows thepath of a child from the nursery of the prison – where it lives with the mother – to the outside, where volunteer workers take it for few hours every day. It is quite a long path (about 5-6 minutes): the child is filmed from behind with a handheld videocamera, held low, through various areas of the prison. It is both a direct and open work. In the later works, it is the relationship to institutions which prevails – as seen by a sick person, or a child. But I think the way of filming, the lowered videocamera, the “de-centred”, the light and theme of the marginal, are a constant however. To answer your question: in my opinion, some parts of Frammenti di una notte are similar to Disattenzioni, and I think they are very close in spirit to my photographic works, from Rumore di fondo to Primo campo… The way of seeing may change, at least in part, but it will fundamentally remain the same.
A first version of this conversation was published in Marina Ballo Charmet. Video 1998/2003, edited by Gabi Scardi (Milan: Careof/La Fabbrica del Vapore, 2003).
A.Lissoni, “Presences Almost Invisible. The Video Of Marina Ballo Charmet” (conversation with Marina Ballo Charmet) in Marina Ballo Charmet, Fotografie e video 1993/2007, Electa / Jarach Gallery, Milan, 2007