An ongoing investigation into the sentimental properties of reproduced experiences by artist and writer Michele Manfellotto
TOUCHABLES 4: CATCH THE BUTTERFLY AND EAT IT
“Do you know what happened to the people who wouldn’t believe Cassandra?”
“Yeah, the Greeks got them.”
Rumble Fish, 1983
According to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film theory, on which this enquiry is based, audiovisual narrative, like that of dreams and memories, develops by way of synthetic figures. These are nothing other than physical places and bodies, through which reality, which Pasolini understood as a language, continuously expresses itself.
It was on the wave of this intuition that the poet came to imagine a future in which humanity would speak a language of pure cinema. It was not, however, an optimistic prediction.
Pasolini thought that technological developments would sweep away local traditions (particularly the patrimony of the peasant world) and coerce individuals into turning towards an unrelenting, aimless consumerism that would make them unhappy, and ultimately violent.
This genocide would be perpetrated by public education and television, which the poet opposed immediately and with dogged conviction.
In NERO no. 30, I reconstructed Pasolini’s biography through to 1963, the year when he made The Gospel According to Matthew, the related Sopralluoghi in Palestina, and La rabbia, underlining that the individual I was describing wasn’t the actual person, who lived and died in his time, but my own version – an arbitrary image of Pasolini, entirely functional to my private symbolic system. I have every intention of completing the portrait, but I will do so in subsequent issues.
Here, instead, we will examine one very original extension of Pasolini’s reflections: The Saprophage, a film made by the visual artist Nathaniel Mellors, which may help us hypothesize a means of updating those reflections, well beyond the apocalyptic drift that the poet experienced during his last years.
Had he lived in the future he so feared, Pasolini might have attenuated his own catastrophic historical analysis. Instead, he was murdered.
This took place on the night between November 1 and 2, 1975, under circumstances that have never been clarified.
The person immediately arrested and tried for the murder was Pino Pelosi, aka La Rana, a minor from the Roman outskirts who Pasolini was assumed to have taken out of town, to the Idroscalo in Ostia, with the aim of engaging in sexual relations.
In the midst of his fascination with cinema, Pasolini wrote that death corresponds to the final edit of a film: the act of dying (and therefore the way one dies) gives each existence its ultimate meaning, thus transforming into a sort of apologue, or parable, that which just a moment earlier had been only a “chaos of possibility.”
The poet’s murder – that sadly necessary conclusion to his portrait – will also be dealt with in subsequent chapters.
For now, suffice it to know that, in the days following his death, very few people believed the official reports. The intellectual circles angrily branded it a political crime (it was Pasolini’s entourage that always helmed this thesis), and the possible proxies were long debated, but never revealed: fascists, secret agents, the mafia.
Supporting the hypothesis of an unplanned murder would perhaps have burdened society as a whole with a graver guilt.
It would have been necessary to explain the existence of the obscure place where the poet had met his death, a no man’s land worthy of Ellroy. This would have required some painful introspection, which, in turn, would have forced the hypocritical Italy of the time to accept responsibility for its own unhappiness.
“The youth, at once presumptuous and frustrated by stupidity as well as by the elusiveness of the models offered them by school and television, tend, unstoppably, to be either aggressive to the point of delinquency or passive to the point of unhappiness (which is no less a fault).”
Pasolini had written this two weeks before his death (Corriere della Sera, 18 October 1975, republished in Lettere luterane, 1976) and it may be that those who argued, without a shred of sympathy, that the poet was assassinated by one of his own characters, weren’t altogether wrong.
We might ask, ad absurdum, how Pasolini would have commented his own murder.
The article just cited may suggest a response. Its title is “Two modest proposals for eliminating crime in Italy” and, together with a few other journalistic pieces (all collected in Lettere luterane), some of which were addressed to Moravia and Calvino, it documents the poet’s last public polemicizing.
The subject of the article is the Circeo massacre, which was perpetrated by three neofascists against two girls from the borgate.
The murderers, bourgeois Roman youths, had lured the victims to a seaside villa that belonged to one of them, raped the women, tortured them, and killed one of the two. The other survived by pretending to be dead. She was saved by a passer-by, who heard her pounding on the trunk of a parked car, locked inside.
Two of the culprits were immediately captured, the third was never found. Politicians and intellectuals expressed their opinions, united by the scandal that a crime of the sort had matured within the privileged and educated realm of the bourgeoisie.
Only Pasolini differed, reply ing that the horror of the Circeo incident was similar to many other crimes perpetrated in the outskirts of Rome, and asserting that the heinous actions of the young fascists were analogous to the actions of other, subproletarian delinquents: while keeping intact longstanding inequalities, or even intensifying them, the falsity of the neocapitalist model (it, of course, the same for everyone) had eliminated every cultural difference between the classes.
In the poet’s extreme analysis, that which marked the end of his beloved mondo popolare also signified the loss of the quintessence of human nature.
Which is why those who saw a likeness between Pasolini’s assassins and his street youths, whom the tragedy of an atrocious social experiment had turned into their evil doubles, were not entirely wrong.
Further on, I will relate what is, in my opinion, the most plausible reconstruction of the murder (proposed by the director Sergio Citti) and will confront it with the interpretation that other successive readers have given of Pasolini’s death.
For now, the most important thing is the role the poet had in death, because it is to this that we owe the annulment of the value of his own intellectual intransigence.
After his disappearance, Pasolini was often treated as a martyr; or, better, his legacy was sacrificed to the rigor of his own thought, so that his experience might be seen as nothing more than a mere testimony.
The predominantly communist Italian cultural elite used his dead body as a shield, and it appropriated the very categories that he had elaborated in order to stigmatize, in the eyes of the public, those popular masses to which it no longer knew how to speak.
For posterity, the intellectual was replaced by a caricature, and Pasolini was reduced to a kind of Cassandra of globalization.
Recent collaborations before (and after) The Saprophage
And if Pasolini were still alive?
Perhaps the simplicity of his message would be betrayed by our systems of communication, so constricting and crudely selective.
The finesse of his reasoning would be dispersed in an overabundance of partial images, annulled in the syntax of a discourse that proceeds by continuous copies, each one of which corresponds to a synthesis, a simplification, and therefore a possible misunderstanding.
Pasolini himself had imagined a scenario of the sort in 1968, in a project for a film about Saint Paul that he never shot.
The film would have taken place in the United States, and while the Americans would have spoken the language of the present, Saint Paul would have preached the scriptures verbatim. Exacerbating the idea behind The Gospel According to Matthew, the “exclusively religious” language of Saint Paul would have celebrated the archaic languages, and this linguistic fact (the opposition between the two registers) would have counted as a metaphor for a historical conflict.
In Pasolini’s vision, the inventiveness of living languages (above all dialects, whose end is always expressive) was opposed to the austerity of technical languages (whose end, on the contrary, is communicative), in a dichotomy that, despite being crucial to his poetics, today appears perhaps too rigid.
Digital technology has given life to communication that increasingly entails the users’ self-representation. Every service requires a profile, according to a model in which – since the individual’s private dimension is identified with his public one – the expressive aim of every enunciation coincides with its communicative aim.
The typical functionality of the new codes forces us to compress articulated concepts into quickly decipherable syntheses, yet it is to this same functionality that – spontaneously and from the go – we entrusted even intimate questions.
Perhaps Pasolini’s fantasy of a purely audiovisual language wasn’t so naive. Is there anyone among us who hasn’t shared a video on Youtube in order to communicate a state of mind?
More or less every exchange occurs by way of images that are universally legible, that are recognizable because they are prominent. These images retain a margin of interpretability, and ambiguity, but they produce meaning only on the condition that the interlocutors all refer to the same cultural heritage.
Nathaniel Mellors’ The Saprophage, inspired precisely by the Saint Paul film that Pasolini had in mind in 1968, consciously starts from these premises.
Born in 1974 in Northern England to a working class background and a graduate of the Royal College of Art, Mellors became rather well-known thanks to a series of installations that integrate sculpture with filmic elements and animatronic techniques. Around these mixed media works, he has constructed an imaginary replete with references that move through academic and popular culture, literature and television, with equal nonchalance.
Like Pasolini, Mellors is also prone to turning towards the grotesque in order to lighten a vision that is anything but conciliatory, and, though he is first of all a visual artist, his interest in film genres, from television series to pure cinema, evidences a decidedly literary disposition.
The installation Giantbum, 2009, and the video series Ourhouse, 2011, were modeled on Pasolini’s Salò (1975) and Teorema (1968), respectively, re-elaborating their intuitions within an unprecedented intellectual mechanism.
Both works are intended to be staged in space, in an installation that integrates the video, but it’s precisely the latter’s narrative that inspires the design and justifies the plastic elements, which acquire meaning in relation to the story. Writing, in other words, isn’t annexed to the multimedia combination as a simple conceptual or realistic element, but rather provides the philosophical framework around which the piece is structured, necessarily excluding any didactic or decorative reduction.
It is with a more or less identical methodology that the collective exhibition :Hypercolon:, which I visited in Amsterdam in 2011, was structured around Giantbum and Ourhouse.
Conceived by Mellors together with Chris Bloor, an artist several years older who teaches with him at the University of Leeds, :Hypercolon: provided a large-scale replica of the motif of Giantbum, in which a group of medieval explorers get lost inside the body of a giant.
The SMART Project Space, a former morgue, was divided into an itinerary conceived as a journey through the human body, with projected pauses inside selected organs.
The main room, which housed Giantbum, was reserved for the favorite – the colon – while the third chapter of Ourhouse was screened in the brain area. A giant Ensor reproduction hung over the entrance, in line with a logic that indiscriminately amalgamated Vito Acconci, Basil Wolverton and Robert Abel.
Yet the absurdity of this mixture was entirely unaffected, and I noticed that Bloor’s contribution, a series of paintings, was titled Failures of the Avant-garde.
Last December, I finally met Bloor and Mellors, in Rome for the opening of The Saprophage.
In the six episodes of Ourhouse, Mellors had transformed Teorema into a paradoxical sitcom, substituting the angel played by Terence Stamp with a trivial character called The Object, who brings chaos into the family nucleus, not in order to free its sexuality, as in Pasolini’s film, but rather to unsettle its language.
The Saprophage likewise describes the collapse of a linguistic system, and takes advantage of Pasolini’s model (the Saint Paul screenplay, still untranslated into English), borrowing its general analysis in an attempt to translate it into a historical thought with which it is possible to live. The Saprophage of the title (David Birkin), a saint who literally lives on excrement, is another angel of vengeance, whose mission is to redeem a humanity held prisoner by its own entropy.
This humanity is exemplified in two other characters, Johnny Vivash (in Ourhouse, a working class custodian) and Gwendoline Christie (famous for acting in the fantasy series Game of Thrones: she too was in Ourhouse).
Miles apart (he’s in London, she’s in LA), the two chase each other through a dialogue that’s disconnected and distorted by the very mechanisms, technological or linguistic, that make it possible. Their identities are arbitrary, called into question by the symbols supposed to distinguish them, and even the backdrops are reduced to their most immediately iconic characteristics. Reality appears horizontal, and the languages that should be able to explain it result undeniably inefficient.
The characters are aware of this: in other words, they recognize and discuss the artificial nature of their condition, in an inversion of realism that allows Mellors to equate their existential crisis with a “cultural apocalypse” identical to the one prefigured by Pasolini.
The Saprophage emerges out of a Greek sea that smacks of mythology, a dimension that is more archaic than classic, opposed to the perpetual present without history in which the first two characters are frozen.
But the “decomposing matter” that he survives on isn’t simply a metaphor for an exquisitely cultural matter. The protagonist’s meal is, in fact, made from the leftovers of the most recent semiotic catastrophes, but it’s dressed with the anguish of the loss of a physical, corporeal dimension.
Eating shit in response to a society depressed by its own bulimia. It might seem like a prosaic image, but it’s worthy of a zen tale. More or less like :Hypercolon:, the exhibition Recent collaborations before The Saprophage at Monitor Gallery provided a continuation and extension of the film’s theme, with the direct participation of Chris Bloor and Gwendoline Christie, the protagonist – together with Mellors – of a second video.
While the latter is a kind of fake behind-the-scenes, in which director and actress discuss the film, further evidencing its artificiality, what appears equally significant is Bloor’s process for the series of paintings and prints titled Sapro-digitalis.
After receiving a few stills from the video, Bloor opened the images as word files and altered their algorithms by adding external texts, thus obtaining different, abstract and entirely accidental images.
The literary element (the text added to the algorithm of the image) assumes a primitive, originary value with respect to the digital communication – a value to which Bloor assigns the task of completely overturning the meaning of the figures, which thus return to the domain of the visible purified of their ambiguity, in accordance with a dialectic that replicates that expressed in the film.
Before leaving the gallery, headed toward the bar where our conversation took place, I exchanged a few words with Chris Bloor.
I summarized the subject of my investigation and admitted there’s one question I’d really like to ask him: if Pier Paolo Pasolini were alive today, who would he be?
Bloor replied, slyly, “Mario Balotelli?”
We couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Note: The conversation below, transcribed almost in its entirety, was realized with the indispensable support of Tijana Mamula, a visual artist and film scholar whose recent study of Pasolini appears in her book Cinema and Language Loss: Displacement, Visuality and the Filmic Image (2012). Together, we decided to alter the spoken word as little as possible, in the hope of conveying at least some of the rhythm of our interlocutors’ impassioned reasoning.
A heartfelt thanks to the artists and to Monitor Gallery, which made this encounter possible.
Michele Manfellotto to Nathaniel Mellors: Your six-part video series Ourhouse (2011) was loosely based on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), and you’ve also mentioned Pasolini as a major reference for your new video The Saprophage. How and when did you first approach Pasolini’s vast body of work?
NM: It was 2005 or 2006. I was teaching in Leeds and Chris showed me a copy of the Porcile (1969) DVD. We watched the opening sequence, in which the starving guy catches the butterfly and eats it. It was a revelatory experience. It’s a powerful picture – it’s done quite simply but there’s something genuinely mysterious coming through that scene. In particular, the way Pasolini’s film is structured around a continuous intercutting between the mythic and the contemporary opened a big discussion between Chris and I.
Chris Bloor: I’m a little older than Nathaniel, so as a teenager in the seventies I saw lots of sixties films broadcast on British television. Getting into the work of people like Pasolini or Antonioni was a real genesis for many of my interests in art-making and I would particularly emulate that special melting together of a very powerful visual content with a radical intimate commentary, which is typical of that kind of filmmaking. And that’s something I also saw in Nathaniel’s early work, when I met him.
NM: There’s quite a specific political content that emerges through Pasolini’s approach, which in other hands might be quite abstract and therefore non-specific. I think that combination of something ancient and something completely contemporary is a real hook. There’s a growth of some sort of timelessness in the late Pasolini, a kind of line that runs through Uccellacci e uccellini (1966), Porcile (1969), Il Decameron (1971) and Salò (1975), following his observations on the trajectory of Western capitalism and what would happen if it went on unregulated – a whole predictive set of reflections that he was making towards what unfortunately turned out to be the end of his life. I think Pasolini put a lot of these ideas into Salò,which is like an exposé of the fallout of neoliberal philosophies that were starting to happen at that time. By looking at the shifts in local culture, just within his lifetime, he seemed to be able to project his vision – of the upcoming collapse of those structures that underpinned Western economy and politics – right into the future. It’s kind of visionary and incredibly specific.
CB: The famous interest Pasolini had in Friulian dialect, and in the loss of it, proves how sensitive he was to what I would call a certain breakdown of the local. And there is also a strong relation between structure and improvisation in his filmmaking. Pasolini’s films are totally scripted and thought-out on a conceptual level, but in the making there are moments of immediate reflection. I remember thinking that his films don’t seem to be overly edited or overly contrived: he sort of sticks with improvisation and there’s also some kind of satire, some kind of humor. I was always attracted to the idea that, in their constant rejection of materialism, these films are a reflection on Neorealism but also a refusal of it. Pasolini constantly plays with the feeling that you’re actually watching a crafted movie, but he doesn’t throw it in your face. It’s a much lighter touch.
NM: The French New Wave, for example, fetishises experimentation in a way Pasolini doesn’t. I definitely agree with Chris about this idea of an enhanced version of realism, which isn’t naturalistic. Think of Salò:it looks so incredibly theatrical and formalized, yet it’s still horrifying. This non-naturalistic realism had an influence on my own work: it made me realize you can process specific elements – whether taken from politics or from the broader cultural condition – and articulate them together in a liberated language, which might involve using absurdism, or the grotesque, or the theatrical – but not necessarily.
CB: The way Nathaniel and I work together depends on this constant mixing of languages, which is fundamental if you want to draw upon a lot of reference points. Pasolini likewise had his own special way of remaining contemporary by rejecting the contemporary. Just look at the situation he was in. There was a lot of cinematic free-form psychedelic experimentation going on at that time and what does he do? He latches onto the idea of the parable, the straight story, just to get his point across.
NM: It’s true. These are like closed texts – in no way are they conventional exercises in deconstruction: they are stories, with a very peculiar and precise content.
CB: That’s why, when compared to those made by others who wanted to be more experimental, all of Pasolini’s films always say something. It’s because he was so connected to the idea of some kind of story.
MM to NM: Chris has mentioned a “breakdown of the local,”which is a central issue in Pasolini’s work. Did you experience any similar breakdown in relation to your personal life?
NM: For me, the idea of the rupture of the local is very specific and goes back to when, as a child, I moved with my family from the North to the South of England. At that time, in the eighties, you would often hear about the “North-South divide,” and there was definitely an aggressive philosophy of Thatcherite individualism prevalent in the South. That kind of Eighties culture, the idea that people should go out there and make money, wasn’t really a philosophy that existed in the North. A kind of real class warfare was being perpetuated in England during that period, which was attempting to destroy the power that the British working class had traditionally exercised through the Trade Unions. The Thatcher administration more or less militarized the handling of the 1985 mining strike, which ended up becoming a key event in the break-up of Northern working class power. I was only a child when a lot of this stuff was going on, but moving from a local culture, with roots in a particular class identity – in Northern working class identity – to this new world with a totally different value system was difficult and upsetting.
CB: My father was a similar age to Pasolini. He and his two brothers fought in the Second World War and my relatives had some socialist-communist tendencies in their ideology, so I was raised in a typical postwar expectation-of-change atmosphere. I was a teenager in the seventies and therefore experienced the lead-up to this conservative backlash Nathaniel was just describing. My father’s generation had fought – or at least they sort of felt that they had fought – for some kind of decent cause, which was to push things to be more classless: but that conservative backlash restored the same divisions in society as before.
At that time, I was being schooled in a completely analog, pre-digital environment: today we’re possibly a step ahead of what Pasolini was experiencing, so what do digital culture and communication actually mean in relation to the local and the global? The diffusion of digital technology obviously made local communication easier, but it also spread a sense of globalization that can become a threat to any maintenance of local culture.
MM to NM: The Object, the Ourhouse character inspired by the mysterious host of Pasolini’s Theorem,wears a white tracksuit and not one but two Rolex-style wristwatches. The vulgarity of that figure is rendered through an association of iconic references that anyone can immediately understand. Is there a way to relate that kind of global language to the notion of classlessness that Chris was talking about?
NM: Teorema influenced the structure of Ourhouse and got me intothe idea of the avenging angel.Originally, I wanted the angel’s vengeance to be a more explicitly class-based vengeance, but in the end something less literal came out.
The Object’s cheap sportswear and knock-off watches belong to a residual set of markers that aren’t classless, but rather have more to do with a specifically lower-class aesthetic which clashes with the middle-class home in the background. What’s emerged through the dissolution of the working class in Britain is a kind of under-class, a cultural under-class that doesn’t have the education or the jobs the traditional British working class used to access – in other words, a huge group of people that this dissolution has just left at the bottom of society, further disempowered.
As an artist, I always make decisions quite intuitively, but nevertheless I know there’s an emotional core within me that comes from these experiences we’re now talking about. This kind of disenfranchised stratum of society has grown without concern and now that the national economy and the entire management of the country is in the toilet, these people even end up being blamed for it, like, “Hey, look at all these people on benefits!” You can't take money straight from the top of the system then put the entire Western economy on welfare. I mean, the banks that have been bailed out are already on welfare, in a way, and they cash welfare checks to the tunes of several billion. And the under-class, this mass of uneducated people, becomes a target.
Tijana Mamula to CB: You mentioned Pasolini’s interest in dialect in relation to the loss of the local.Have you experienced, in England, any crisis of local languages similar to that which Pasolini noticed in Italy?
CB: Many parts of England are seriously protective of local cultures, but now local culture itself isn’t just about how you speak anymore, it’s more about preserving identity through different languages or signifiers. So many traditions are dying out and, therefore, different approaches to the image are dying out.
As a poet, Pasolini very much dealt with spoken language, but in the last thirty years or so there has been a dramatic shift in the prominence of images as cultural objects, which has led to their fetishisation. This type of visual language has become prominent in comparison with the written word. So I believe Pasolini’s interest in the loss of spoken language could be transferred today to the loss of identity taking place through this massive rise of visual images, whether through advertising, or the proliferation of photography, or more recently the Internet.
There is a sort of raft of debris mashing together, of languages and identities, whether visual, written, or spoken. Some would call it post-modernism, but the idea that we’re just living in a perpetuated modernist situation seems to at least overlook the problem. Those very people Pasolini himself had so much interest in, have become so… I mean, here we go back again to the cheap sportswear thing. Everyone is identified with branding these days and it’s quite intriguing to see how a lot of this globalized branding culture – which has taken hold since the mid-seventies – has to some extent replaced local languages.
TM: Pasolini’s answer to this loss of the local was, amongst other things, the idea of cinema as a universal language. Chris said that since Pasolini’s death the world of images has proliferated and changed and, I would add, a certain specificity of visual language has been lost as well.
Is cinema (or the audiovisual in general) still capable of having the function that Pasolini envisaged?
NM: I think this is where Pasolini’s relationship with the mythic ultimately makes sense. Maybe he was quite romantic in this respect, but he seems to say that there are still archetypes that can be drawn upon if you can just go beyond this current systemization of things.
Commercial expansion has made us forget that just to make things is basically a local end, in some ways. But although the production is local, the consumption is international. This is maybe what’s being played out. There’s a broader force that pushes everyone towards a passive position of consumption of stuff. Obviously, everything has to be homogenized: everyone with the same apps, with the same powerful computers that sell you the idea of authorship.
I love terms like “prosumer,” which is kind of an oxymoron.
So everyone has these computers that are powerful enough for anyone to make a feature film within a year, if one gets together with the right people, the right minds as collaborators. But instead everyone is like, playing Angry Birds.
The other evening, we discussed the trajectory of a company like Apple, which gained its power by giving people genuinely powerful tools for authorship and creativity and then identified that there’s more money to be made with a more generic type of technology, like iPhones.
I think it’s all about automation, you can clearly see that: and it seems to be the same trajectory that Pasolini describes with his idea of bourgeois entropy in Teorema and Porcile.
This leads to a feeling of no outside, no exterior; a kind of internalized condition. Like in Ourhouse for example, where the story itself is being generated by this human form called The Object, who’s eating and digesting books: by half-digesting and regurgitating these texts, he determines the story.
Or in Giantbum (2008), which was influenced by Porcile and Salò,there’s no longer any kind of exterior to this system: Giantbum is the story of a group of explorers, lost in the body of a giant, who are starving to death and resort to self-cannibalism and coprophagia to survive.
It’s kind of a human feedback loop: eating yourself, extracting your filth and then rebuilding yourself out of your own feces.
Salò provides a phenomenally bleak view of an endgame of power and capitalism, and clearly this is where Pasolini was at in 1975. It would have been very interesting to see how he processed the developments in Western society from then on, for it’s hard to sustain such a bleak view in the present. The bleakness, the horror he was observing is still out there but culturally it’s very played down.
I tend to believe in the idea that people do naturally form local structures and cultures. It’s in the fabric of people; in the way they operate and do things. Even if they’ve been fed all this crap from the top down – through the way businesses have been deregulated and the way they’ve been sold stuff – people respond from the bottom up. That was my experience where I grew up, and I’ll always believe in that.
CB: We’re talking about the global and we’re talking about the local. What about prehistoric culture? Think of the Paleolithic. What is a bunch of people living in a cave, is it a local or a global thing?
NM: It’s just the Western European bourgeoisie, living in a cave. They came out of Africa like, “Oh, these caves aren’t bad! We’re going to decorate these cave walls! Let’s kick those Neanderthals out, get them to clean up the caves so we can do some art!” They were all wearing bad sportswear, none of which has survived because it was such low quality, so all we’ve got left are these frescoes.
CB: Both Nathaniel and I have been interested in cognitive archaeology. It isn’t simply about discovering artifacts through which you can assume the way people thought at that time: cognitive archaeology deals directly with advances in genetics and DNA research to define how programmed we are. Even to tell stories in certain ways, for example.
All narratives are fundamentally binary. Going back to the idea of the myth, lots of tribal myths or shamanic stories are based on the idea of opposites. Good and evil, black and white, man and woman, the sky and the earth, above and below. This order of opposites is a really fundamental aspect of the mythological culture of any storyteller. And this binary concept is also key in digital technology.
There’s quite an interesting relationship between where we are now and where we were a very long time ago: that’s why The Saprophage shows such a wasted landscape, in which there is nothing.
NM: And the landscape starts corrupting and so some kind of richness emerges out of… out of nothing.
MM: The landscape in The Saprophage (and in Ourhouse as well) is wasted because it seems to have lost its historical dimension, its relation to its time period. The English house shown in the film is immediately recognizable as an actual contemporary backdrop while the sequence shot in Greece appears to be totally out of time: can this idea of a perpetual, timeless present tense be placed in relation to Pasolini’s concept of post-industrial history as an eternal continuum?
NM: The idea of a homogenized permanent present, deliberately separated from any specific or local culture or history, is somewhat stimulating. Everyone is consuming the same crap and people constantly suffer the mediation – and the self-mediation – that’s imposed through consumer technology. The Internet and Facebook and stuff have given birth to a kind of weird digital folding, a hermetic digital present which is like a self-sealing vacuum that people willingly accept for themselves and perpetuate as a condition: and that condition is totally reflexive.
Even just this week in Rome, my old relationship with email got a lot easier by my not replying to emails for several days. The secret to emailing is not replying to emails. An email is like a hydra: you cut one of the heads off and it just grows four more heads. It’s not an efficient means of communication, not if you really want to get something done.
CB: And that goes back to the local again, in a way. Like, if you really want to speak to somebody just go down to the pub and speak to them.
NM: And here we are, exactly. But to go back to neural archaeology: the first emergence of human consciousness is reflected inside the experience of the cave. Furthermore, the idea of being in the cave, as well as the cave itself and the architecture of it, by degrees become some kind of model for the human mind. What people experience inside this very dark environment ends up affecting their own neural architecture and therefore their art language, which is totally reflexive. Look at some of the earlier pictures made by primitives: it’s basically what you see if you shut your eyes for long enough – spirals, zigzags, dots, entopic patterns.
The emergence of art-making and ritual religious practice seems to have occurred at the same time and to have been strictly connected to that moment when people learned how to think metaphorically. That was a proper evolutionary jump, which instigated the enormous outpouring of art and religious artifact-making that followed.
The concept of a neural architecture model that depends on the idea of the cave is fascinating because if you start looking, we haven’t evolved much from that point. People’s brains are the same, and no less sophisticated than they were five thousand years ago. If you think about buildings for example – people just started making caves above ground, with cave-like materials. A house is a cave-parody.
CB: The technology of image making obviously changes the way we see the world, but it doesn’t necessarily change the world itself. You’re not actually making anything when you’re taking a photograph. And in a sense, when you use a camera, you use some sort of apparatusto take the picture: it’s not you, it’s a device that’s actually making the picture.
So the world remains the same but in the process of image-making there’s no physical relation with it anymore: we’ve ended up being totally surrounded by images, and in a way we have no control over their making.
We talked about Pasolini and said, “Try to imagine him now.” Well, we could wonder, for example, to what extent Pasolini would have been adopted or seduced by America.
We’ve described how we saw the environment change throughout conservative Britain in the eighties, and that was the world Pasolini was about to move into at the time of his death. So how would he have dealt with these even more overtly conservative forces that he probably hadn’t experienced before? And how would they have dealt with him?
His film project about Saint Paul seems to treat these very issues and that’s why it stands as another important reference for The Saprophage.
NM: I have a copy of the Saint Paul script but there’s no English version, so I decided to riff on it from a very basic understanding of the premise.
TM: The images of Greece in The Saprophage immediately reminded me of the debt crisis, but I noticed a kind of strange inversion of roles.
The Saprophage – with his mythology, and timelessness, in the sense of space, or greatness, or something along those lines – is opposed to the English backyard and the bizarre Angry Birds outfit.
And it seems like Greece is sort of controlling Europe and America.
NM: There is some kind of transcendent force coming from this classical environment that’s right at the edge of Europe.
The character of The Saprophage and the idea that he lives on decaying matter, imply, in a loose and poetic sense, an ecological condition, which is related to my vision of a system that’s kind of torn to bits and suddenly has to scrape around the bottom of dustbins in order to survive.
In The Saprophage the figure of the saint, the traditional holy man, is combined with this kind of bottom-feeding device, which to me is a genuinely holy position, a genuinely loving position.
America is on the other edge of the Western border and the character invokes it, but America is just an idea. He doesn’t even know where America is, he just cries about the feeling of something missing until the sun goes down on the whole thing.
MM: Going back to Pasolini: if you agree with his film theory – according to which audiovisual material involves both our intellect and our senses almost as much as real life does – you have to accept the idea of a kind of second memory that grows out of the screen parallel to one’s biographical experience. Do you have any thoughts on that?
NM: We can call it a cultural memory. Following a turn in the late seventies, people have been kind of culturally socialized through these shared experiences. But there was a point, probably in post-digital culture, where those experiences stopped being linear.
For example, people used to watch television at a certain time. I think of Twin Peaks as a high point of late eighties American television, also in terms of international reaction. People were seriously following and discussing that show, excited to see it every week.
Now we’re in the post-Sopranos, post-HBO era of series like The Wire.
There’s a much bigger window of much more diffused experiences: people get box-sets and lend them to each other and watch a whole series in two days.
CB: What’s more liberating in the end? Being able to watch things individually, and experience things on your own whenever you want, or being part of a group of people that at any one time have a shared experience? Which one of those two is more liberating?
We’ve been told that the first is more liberating, in a sense.
On the other hand, the idea of various local groups with very strong local identities being given the opportunity to communicate globally could be quite a powerful thing and not necessarily a means to alienation.
NM: This new model poses no threat to any power structure because it sublimates – and so scatters – any social cohesion. We should strive for the inversion of this situation. Media should be used to support social cohesion in response to a system that’s trying to stop it in favor of this weird fragmented individualism, which is, like I said, constantly falling into a feedback loop.
TM: What do you think about virtual communities? I find that my generation often feels uncertain about them, but teenagers seem to be embracing this new model.
NM: That could be where we start to think about the re-emergence of the local, in a way. But something like Facebook is the perfect example of a mechanism that’s completely self-perpetuating – to the point where it starts to feel like it actually means something, whereas it’s just the world’s most expensive system for reminding people when their friends have birthdays. Basically, that’s Facebook’s core function.
MM: As teenagers, did you experience the local in relation to any specific music scene?
NM: When I was about fourteen I lived in a place called Southborough. It’s in Kent, in Southeast England. It was the late eighties and there were various local punks and hippies, but the people I became friends with were really into industrial music. One of my friends had every Psychic TV record, all of the Throbbing Gristle records, Nurse With Wound, Coil, Boyd Rice, Einsturzende Neubauten, SPK.
I remember that when I was about fifteen I went to see Whitehouse and that was kind of an extreme gig. That was the music my friends and I were into. We started making our own music using really minimal technology: a microphone and an analog delay pedal and some four-track tape recorders and maybe a little sampling keyboard.
Constructing weird, layered music using basic equipment and drawing on the local environment was really liberating.
At that time I didn’t know much about visual arts. At school I was heavily into drawing and painting but I only knew Francis Bacon or David Hockney. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art and I didn’t know much about the traditional avant-garde – maybe a little bit about Surrealism, but just standard stuff.
So I didn’t realize how knowing the approach to graphic design of a band like Throbbing Gristle was, that combination of packaging with their play on the political. Everything was so consciously done. As a kid, I responded with a very unschooled love for it.
But later on it was interesting to see all these books suddenly being written in order to kind of frame this stuff as contemporary art, as contemporary art products.
A lot of people from that scene ended up being represented by galleries.
Cosey Fanny Tutti is represented by Cabinet Gallery, but only for the Throbbing Gristle seventies stuff. She made New Age paintings during the eighties, like paintings of auras and things, which are kind of amazing, but I didn’t get the impression that they were trying to sell them.
CB: I’ve never really been involved in any music scene, or in making sound works. My trajectory in art making has come from an almost entirely visual perspective.
I mentioned cinema amongst my teenage interests. I feel like my cultural coming-of-age happened in relation to the so-called "Beat movement" that was primarily influenced by literature, especially poetry.
So my interest in music was strongly literary and it was further fueled by my experience at art school, during the so-called post-punk period. I was studying in Leeds, which is quite close to Manchester, and that was a hotbed for a lot of great bands, like Joy Division. They had a big influence on me, with those comical lyrics they used to write.
In the post-punk period a lot of people wrote quite clever lyrics matched to some interesting musical instrumentation, like David Byrne of Talking Heads for example.
NM: Or The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. The Fall were just unique in their understanding of creative structures. They had this transient idea of particular individuals being in the band from time to time, which is absolutely rare, like a special sub-structural confidence about the format.
There are very few genuinely literary lyric writers and Mark E. Smith has been amazing on that level.
There’s a literary line that is peculiar to a lot of British culture. Chris said his take on things is visual but I think it’s underpinned by a primarily literary take on the visual, which is something we share.
The purely visual in British art is pretty disappointing, pretty slim. Just slim pickings.
CB: Even as an art-school student in mid-eighties Britain I was rather influenced by a lot of Italian art, such as Arte Povera and the Transavanguardia. Stuff like that was much more influential for me than anybody working in Britain at that time or anyone who had been working in the seventies.
In the eighties, I experienced this big return to painting that happened in America, and in Germany with people like Polke and Baselitz. Or Kippenberger, an influence that Nathaniel and I also share.
NM: In that sense, Kippenberger is just like Mark E. Smith. They both say you can fuck with the format, and it’s never a surface operation.
Kippenberger happens to be working primarily in painting, but it just as easily could be anything else.
CB: Kippenberger has the confidenceto fold his personal experience into his work and mould it with all sorts of local political observations and historical material, which is something Mark E. Smith does as well.
In those days, musicians were drawing on the experimental literature of the fifties or William Burroughs’ cut-up technique. People like David Bowie made that popular, so this experimental literary element just slipped into more popular forms of culture in the sixties and seventies.
At that time we started to realize how things are deeply mashed together, and therefore how specialization is not just about doing one thing instead of the other.
On a personal level, I experienced a time when young artists were trying to be too safe, too certain about their work. It was sort of a necessity: like, have an idea, illustrate it, be quite secure in your understanding of some theoretical construct that surrounds it, and that’s the artwork.
NM: It’s still so encapsulated. A lot of this neo-neo-neo-neo-conceptualism is absolutely airless, but it seems to house a kind of generic approach to art for a lot of young people.
TM: Do you think that was fostered by art schools?
NM: It’s not just the art schools. It’s a confluence of the art school politics and the boom in the art market over the last fifteen years. There’s a kind of auto-conservatism involved – people want to produce and consume a product that everyone agrees is art, which naturally defaults to “a thing that everyone agrees looks like what we know art looks like.”
So then the idea of an art that is confusing becomes distressing. The idea that we might not know what art is: the notion itself has been completely marginalized.
CB: A lot of people have been schooled into thinking that art is about coming up with answers, not about asking questions. They make artworks that give little answers and the whole process suffers from a total lack of questioning.
There’s no dwelling on the existential, no self-doubt, and that’s where I think the art school rhetoric can become dangerous. The primacy of the art school experience should be about being able to make something rather than being able to explain it.
NM: It’s true, there’s no dissonance at all, really. It’s like the artwork and the press release become conflated.
Think of the idea of an MA where people learn the format of contemporary art. It’s just ridiculous, art should naturally be re-inventing its format with every generation, every individual.
CB: I see so many artists trying to present themselves as extremely secure in the understanding of what they’re doing, but that kind of unconscious, excessive seriousness moves the artwork even further away from its audience. That approach turns out to be homogenous and dull because it lacks in humor, and therefore in humanity.
Nathaniel has just mentioned the MA: some of the curating programs work the same way. They really get you into a program: like, if you want to be a curator you’ve got to do this everyday, you’ve got to do that everyday, you’ve got to talk to these people, you’ve got to sit at your laptop at least twenty-two hours a day, you’ve got to drink coffee instead of alcohol.
NM: And that last one is obviously the signifier of the end of culture.
I was reading about these American live action role-playing games that people do, where they dress up like barbarians and stuff. I read about this one where one of the rules of the game is that everyone has to communicate using seventeen words.
That’s kind of like the press release culture that we’ve just described.
And if they fuck up, they’re punished by getting a word removed.
CB: You have to consider, by the way, that all this is delivered with a great promise of success. It’s often a bigdisappointment for young people coming through the art school experience to realize that real success is just about being yourself and doing what you want to.
I believe it’s because of this kind of education that a very low percentage of students make work they feel really passionate about. They might be confident about it intellectually, but they don’t really feel attached to it.
NM: In Leeds, where Chris and I teach, you have the whole Leeds and Bradford environment, which is sort of more working class and ethnically diverse. It’s unusual to get someone coming in with an ambitious and professionalized approach to the art-world, we very rarely have that.
Teaching has been enjoyable there because in some ways they’re better students and that can be genuinely refreshing.
There’s art coming out of all these local backgrounds and brilliant ideas, without that consciousness of the proper seventeen words that one should use in contemporary art practice, or the seventeen approaches that constitute contemporary art.
Of course, there’s a broader conversation about how one might deal with these issues in the Internet age, where tuition fees have become crazily expensive.
In order to reform the idea of the art college you obviously need key individuals to be seriously involved in the courses, but the new structure should be, in first place, relatively cheap.
Otherwise the easiest thing to do would be to cynically open a private art school. People would pay high fees, so they would need their relatives to be privileged and being an artist would still keep on representing some kind of career path.
CB: It’s quite easy to be rhetorical about what would work. Global communication has spread a wide sense of possibility and there’s loads of people on the Internet saying things like, “We can make it.”
But even if they were the right people, and they were all cool, are you sure things would work? Maybe not.
It’s a hard job to identify a model and it takes time to impose it, to bring people to perform within it, and to see if it works.
There must be a way to circumnavigate this over-structured vision of society, but if you say that everyone thinks you’re some kind of proto-hippie and your dream object is a beanbag.
Students are taught how to get theoretical when it comes to describing what they’ve done, but they aren’t taught how to write in an inventive way.
NM: Despite theory to the contrary, reading often defaults to an extremely objective experience which is part of the problem. This narrowing down through reading and interpretation leads to the idea that artists should be able to observe some kind of objective theory about what they’re doing, which is totally deadening. The explanation is primary, as in some perversions of late conceptualism.
In terms of access I feel sympathetic to a lot of the broader public frustrations with contemporary art.
I see a kind of primal desire to protect a social environment that becomes more and more ungenerous to an audience outside of the group. And I can understand why some artists would get into writing to try and pull away from this…