A Conversation w/ Francesca Fini
The following email conversation took place in October of 2014, upon the acquisition of Fair & Lost (2012) by Francesca Fini for active Video Out distribution. This work will be shown as part of a Recent Acquisitions Screening at the centre early in 2015.
Still from Fair & Lost (2014).
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: There’s a lot to engage with in Fair & Lost (2014), but I kept thinking primarily of torture. The work seems richly informed by histories of performance art that explore the limits and thresholds of bodily experience — but isn’t there also a critical relationship to the spectacle of torture within contemporary global media, perhaps to do with the self-image and body modification industries, the so-called war on terror, entertainments, advertising, etc? Is Fair & Lost somehow informed by this spectacle in relation to your own professional background in television?
Francesca Fini: The project Fair & Lost talks about social conditioning, the conditioning that the society operates on individuals and the conflict that inevitably arises when we are born with a natural tendency to recognize and resist to this conditioning, simply because our spirit takes us elsewhere. The physical pain, which is an integral part of Fair & Lost, is here used to represent an anthropological conflict: the conflict between society and the individual; an invisible war that many of us struggle on a daily basis. You feel the barbed wire only when you try to run away, not when you accept submissively to move within the designated perimeter. When you accept the designated limits the barbed wire ceases to exist. No coincidence that when I speak of this performance I say that it’s a representation of social Hysteria. Hysteria is a term that has been used in old psychiatry to describe a type of neurotic attacks usually suffered by women. The term comes from the greek “Hysteron”, uterus. Hysteria, in most cases, was the symptom of a form of rebellion against social rules, and generally hit “female subjects” simply because women were the group most affected and oppressed by these rules. Their desire to live differently from the way the costume imposed on them, their attempt to escape the conditioning was considered a mental illness and a social threat.
Fair & Lost is the story of hysteria and schizophrenia arising from the conflict between our conscious will and outer conditioning. To manifest this conflict I use electrodes whose polarity are strategically applied to my biceps determining strong involuntary muscle spasms. These spasm interfere with the natural control of my movements and the brain is bypassed, in a kind of Parkinsons simulation. So a simple and everyday action – to put makeup on my face – becomes impossible, difficult and painful.
This “torture” machine recalls, even in its visualization, those scientific experiments concerning conditioning, performed on animals and humans in laboratories and protected environments. In my case this is the torture of everyday life for those who “walk on rough paths.” More subtly the performance recalls, as you rightly guessed, that great unofficial experiment which is the television show of reality and pain. In this sense, my past practice in the television industry plays an important role because I know certain inner mechanisms of this industry and I can tell you that it’s much worse than you can imagine.
At the end of the performance I look like a monster, because my brain can’t calibrate the movement of my hands and the makeup spreads everywhere on my face. I become “one of those crazy women on the subway,” as someone from the audience cleverly noticed talking to me after my last performance. I actually turn myself into one of those disconnected women who have something wrong, and you can tell immediately from their makeup. And it’s a great metaphor, because the mechanical routine, once disconnected, becomes monstrosity. I understand that this performance is somehow apocalyptic, because speaks of a society coming to an end and on the verge of collapsing. Moving on from the macrocosm to the microcosm, this performance also recounts the disastrous condition of the country in which I live, Italy, which has long reached the point of no return. Not surprisingly, the music in the background is the “prisoners’ chorus,” from the Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, somberly singing of a homeland which is “fair and lost.”
VO: Yes — the World and Italy too… I couldn’t help but recall those infamous closing scenes in Pasolini’s Salo. I also understand the hysterical body in Fair & Lost, a woman’s body, your body, as very important. Is the work in dialogue with some first wave feminist performance art (early works by Carolee Schneemann or Marina Abramovic for instance)?
FF: Certainly in my work there is Pasolini, and Fellini, but also and especially the Italian Futurist synthetic theater, to which I feel tremendously close especially for its explosive irony; For example, the direct reference is to the text “hands” by Marinetti and Bruno Corra. “An index is poking insistently in one nostril, two male hands folded in prayer, two female hands working to slowly slip off several rings, male hand in the act of paying a bill, a female hand shaking a handkerchief in farewell, a male hand holding a revolver…”
In this sense, the Italian Futurism, with its denunciation of bourgeois encoded rituals and roles, is a dimension of the spirit rather than an artistic movement of the early twentieth century.
My performance has a lot to do with the ridicule of the rituals, as I have already said. The daily act, which is encoded in a language of signs, once disconnected from the context, isolated from its “sentence”, it’s suddenly alienating non-sense, and becomes the denunciation of the grotesque inherent in human rituals. All humans rituals are profoundly ridiculous, including some repetitive rituals in performance art.
The manipulation of the body, in my performance, always has to do with trying to scrape off the golden patina and bring out the idiocy that lies beneath, because in every historical period there is always a “bourgeois society” that Art has the duty to violently unmask (Pasolini docet).
Feminism in my work is inevitable, because it’s a weapon against ritualism. In that sense I feel much closer to the irreverent irony of Carolee Schneemann, and the first Marina Abramovic. While the latest Marina I can’t understand since she looks more and more like the priestess of her personal encoded ritual.
VO: I think I share your sense of what’s become of Abramovic’s art practice. In relation to Fair & Lost I was considering canonized period stuff like Rhythm Ten or Five – work that was meant to put the artist physically and emotionally at risk in a very public way, provoking empathetic identifications, participatory confusion, as well as the possible exposure of psychopathologies (including unspoken, presumed patriarchal entitlements) within some spectators. This work suggests a kind of narrative trajectory in tension with these provocations. The audience can deduce that there is an intended beginning, middle and end with the make-up application process – that all will conclude as planned. Were you surprised at all by the passive spectatorship of those in attendance despite this? Was it expected? Was this an intended dimension of the work?
FF: The Rhythm project by Marina Abramovic is an absolute masterpiece in her ability to enter into a relationship with the broader spectrum of possible reactions from the audience and bring to the surface the “removed”, precisely through the exploration of ritual and gesture, the body and its impact on the observer. I think that Rythm 0 is still the highest peak reached in performance art, in terms of talent, generosity and artistic provocation.
With Fair & Lost, as you have rightly pointed out, there is an intentional dimension concerning the reaction of the audience. In the live version of the performance I put a webcam pointed at my face, attached to the reading desk that I use to hold the makeup. The macroscopic live camera view of my face is re-projected on the wall behind me. And I realize that – as was my intention – people end up progressively to fix their attention on the video stream, rather than on the physical act that takes place in front of them. They end up watching this giant face distorted by the wide angle of the cheap camera, that looks at them in the eyes . The video stream behind my back, despite the fact that it magnifies and makes more visible the violent component of the performance – the mascara that gets into the eyes, the skin getting wounded, the tears – is somehow “reassuring”, because its visual code reminds “youtube confessions” and harmless selfie rituals; it’s a filtered image and triggers a false sense of voyeuristic security in the audience. It’s like to be alone in front of the bathroom mirror and make faces: it is an intimate moment in which everything is permitted.
Despite this strategic filter the women’s reactions are always the most intense, especially in countries where gender roles are still very strong. Many women have told me, after the performance, to feel torn between a sense of rejection and hypnotized, just as when you are in front of a mirror. Many have confessed to hate this performance, for its narcissistic and exhibitionistic component. Although I am very focused in my action during the performance, I can feel people’s reactions and their movement in space, at skin level. Many women heave and leave the room as soon as I grab the mascara, because they know what will happen next and do not make it to watch. Many enter into a kind of “feminine” competition with the work, dramatizing their rejection and trying to take away their male friends and partners. Many, especially young women, come right up to the reading desk, sit down and never look away, as they were watching something religious. Some laugh. All these reactions are important to me. I do not seek general consent or provocation for its own sake, and not even try to convey a message that can be decoded and fully understood: I’m not doing theater representation or a political campaign – at least not when I perform. I am sharing an experience that, in my “performative intention” wants you to go out of your track for a few minutes, that’s all.
And it’s interesting that people always want to understand what you mean, and at the end of the performance come to you explaining their personal reading of the work. All of these reactions, and the words that people always want to share with me, help me to find out things about this performance – and consequently about myself – that I couldn’t even imagine. As the reference to the “crazy lady on the subway”, which I find absolutely brilliant. The relationship with the audience helps me to explore my process, which does not surprise me at all, because since I work on symbols many of my choices are unconscious, apparently meaningless, and their true nature is revealed only after a long time. This is why I love performance art more than any other discipline, because it is a journey of personal discovery. And this discovery is always because of the relationship with the audience.
VO: This is your first work with Video Out. How did you become aware of VIVO and what do you think of the organization?
FF: The 31st of October 2014 I will do a performance in Toronto, within the festival 7a*11d, invited by FADO Performance Art Centre and by the local Italian Culture Institute. Almost at the same time one of my videos will be screened in the “Mad Parade” video program of “Les HTMlles 11 – Festival féministe d’arts médiatiques + de culture numérique”, which will take place November 7 to 15, in Montreal. This “Canadian connection” prompted me to search the Internet for other initiatives related to video and performance art in Canada, and I found the VIVO Media Arts Centre website (and then remembered hearing about it earlier). I spent a lot of time on the website, and I have to say that I really like your programmes, your services and mission. There aren’t many organizations out there that seem so devoted to the promotion of a genre as difficult as video art. I visited the area dedicated to distribution and I immediately decided to submit my work. Then I discovered that dear friends VestAndPage, two artists I admire very much and with whom I have worked in the past, have already established relationships with VIVO. This confirmed the decision for me.
VO: Can you talk about some of your projects in development?
FF: There are a few projects I’m working on right now: “I was there”, the brand new performance that I’m premiering in Toronto, which is a tragicomic tale on femininity. It’s a very articulated work, ironic, baroque (as most of my pieces are), playing on the exasperation of iconography and absurdity. I had a lot of fun developing it and I think it will be my most bizarre piece so far. Then I’m preparing a multimedia theatrical play that will debut on December 21 at the MAAM Museum of Rome, with a text inspired by the Me-ti by Bertolt Brecht and the use of a big wooden structure that continuously transforms thanks to a complex system of video projections. The name of the piece is “Meccanimus” (mechanical soul) and will be my first purely theatrical work, even if there will be a lot of performative language involved, generative video and improvisation. I’m also talking with the Istituto Luce in Rome for a film made of original videoperformances and video footage of Italian life in the first half of the XX century. It will be a very challenging year, in which I will focus on the core of the research I’ve been doing so far, trying to find a personal language that effectively blends video and performance art.
VO: Thank you for this interesting conversation Francesca. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn more about you and your work. We look forward to your next submission to Video Out.