Hierarchy of Genres is the latest body of work that Alessandro Calabrese is currently tackling. It is a project born of an idea that, having been left to sediment for years, returned at the perfect time to structure and formalise itself. The project brilliantly captures the spirit of its time, encapsulating traces of the past in dialogue with the discoveries that pervade our lives on a daily basis. From classical pictorial classification to the production of digital images through AI. From printing techniques to experimentation with material and support. Past dynamics reappear in different forms. Hierarchy of Genres moves in a broad area in which the author vanishes, leaving room for ideas and the unexpected.
Giangiacomo Cirla: We are here to talk about this new project of yours, Hierarchy of Genres. The theme I am interested in addressing right away is the dialogue you establish with the photographic. Your work moves away from traditional photography as a faithful representation of reality to experiment and discover new approaches and methodologies. What is your relationship with photography today?
Alessandro Calabrese: After years of not picking one up, I recently did a couple of small projects with a medium format camera, in both cases a series of still lifes functional to an entirely conceptual discourse. Otherwise, I continue to use my camera—when it’s not being repaired—to take the somewhat random photos that reconnect me with the reason why I started all this in the first place: photos of my daily life, where I live, and the people around me. The result hardly matters, I do it more to savour that pleasant feeling that stretches from the moment I put my eye to the viewfinder to when I press the shutter button. Safe to say that I prefer to look at photographs that other people have taken. There are some people who I feel have a duty to continue photographing and I hope they do so as long as they have the strength.
GC: The fact that you predominantly use photography as a means of formalising your work remains consistent in your practice.
AC: I come from what I would call purist photography and I used to be completely against the use of photography as a medium. I placed maniacal attention on composition because I wanted complex, visually challenging images. Perhaps those photographs were one of the reasons for starting the research I am now doing because they were never enough as they were. Something of that approach has remained with me today in the form of a total disinterest in the narrative side of photography.
GC: There is a certain appropriation of typical artistic dynamics in your work that indicates a kind of liberation from the need to carve out reality and photograph it. You make works from your own photographs and existing archive images. Has drawing on images found online or creating them with technological support influenced your decision to move away from photography?
AC: A short response to this question could be that I don’t believe I’ve moved away from photography; instead, I’ve delved deeper into it. Rather than using it to look outward at the world, I use it to look within photography itself, or more broadly, at the world of images and its structure, understood as its grammar. Although my latest project, Hierarchy of Genres, is structured into six different chapters, each with a very specific subject, the pool I draw from is almost random. Some might be personal images, others archival, others are screenshots of a computer screen. Some images are even AI-generated, for sheer speed and convenience. It all started with the Still Life category, where I used photos of flowers in vases taken by me during lockdown. I wanted to reactivate them in a way. They were the photographs I mentioned earlier, the ones with an almost therapeutic effect on me. For each category, I choose a subject based on what I have, for example I have a lot of landscape photographs so for the Landscape/City category, I’ll use photographs I took in my early years of practice. But if I have never photographed something, such as people hugging, I pull the material from external archives, such as films and TV series. I have no interest in the origin of the images. I no longer feel any anxiety about justifying their provenance.
GC: This work represents the period we live in…
AC: There was a moment when I concluded, at least in my head, a cycle of projects that had lasted about six years, which in a way was supposed to end my work with the static image so that I could move on to the moving image. I started with landscape photography and came back to it in eighteen streets in Rome that don’t exist on Google Street View with technological contamination. I used a view camera to photograph different streets in Rome that had not been mapped on Google Street View for various reasons. I had returned to landscape photography, yes, but with the excuse of error, oversight and, above all, the virtual. What interests me is removing the question of authorship. It is something personal and psychological, but I am embarrassed to give life to something new. I find it almost sinful, in the sense of “hubris”. Through automation I can at least relieve myself of the responsibility of deciding what to do and how to do it. This happened again with Hierarchy of Genres, although it was an unplanned project. I didn’t really count on doing it, I thought I had abandoned experimentation and reflection on the medium. It all happened almost by chance after the closing of this hypothetical cycle of works and it is the piece in which I probably feature the least as creator but in which I seem most present. I do think that in some ways it speaks to the period we live in, especially in aesthetic terms because the images I find seem to be a strange mix between certain contemporary Luc Tuymans-style paintings, with all due and obvious proportions, and the first results, however glitchy, from an AI like DALL-E. From a socio-economic perspective, just to give an example, I think it speaks to the anxiety and responsibility linked to the production and consumption of images and more that characterise the entire system, especially in the West.
GC: The lost authorship comes through in technological apparatus and planned error. Is a planned error still an error?
AC: I feel I have struck the right balance between giving enough freedom to the technology, device or moment I interface and collaborate with. There has always been a certain control in letting things go freely. I am curious about what happens in the process. I have always chosen where to start and then comes a random moment where I don’t control anything and anything can happen. And then I take over again at the end when it comes to the selection.
GC: In this project, you classify your work according to classic art genres. Why refer to a system of categorisation from a pre-photographic historical period?
AC: I wanted to reflect on something that no longer exists because of photography. With the advent of photography, painting went into crisis and re-emerged transformed, avant-garde, and freed from the responsibility of portraying reality. But if I’m being honest, first came the contrivance of how to make the work and then this justification. To me, the justification seems to lie in pure linguistics. The moment photographic images become art they pay tribute to those pictorial images swept away by the advent of the photographic. I have always discussed the question of genres as a teacher and I found it interesting to explore this fact in a project now that photography is experiencing a similar crisis.
GC: The dialogue between painting and photography takes many forms. I am thinking of the use that Ingres made of it for portraits or Delacroix and Manet in the study of details. Not to mention the new viewpoints offered by Nadar’s landscape photographs taken from a hot-air balloon. What are your references?
AC: What I like to think is that your examples illustrate how photography, technologically, has helped painting evolve, while my work attempts to do precisely the opposite, which is to use painting to reflect on the photographic, leaving aside all the technological matters that have never particularly interested me. My major references in the visual field are pictorial. I remain attached to the Baconian clash between abstract and figurative, my entire photographic evolution, I believe, owes a lot to this fascination that began a few years ago with reading Gilles Deleuze’s writings on the subject. Today, I follow with interest the Italian painting of my contemporaries even though I often find this wave of new surrealism a bit excessive.
GC: How does the creative process of Hierarchy of Genres develop?
AC: The process I follow to create these works is very simple: I select a photograph I’ve taken myself or one I’ve obtained from the web, such as an archival photo or a screenshot, and occasionally, an image generated by artificial intelligence. I print it on the “wrong” side of an A4 sheet of glossy paper, so the inks don’t penetrate the paper but remain on the surface, floating, creating an effect that resembles watercolor. After taking the print, I place it on a horizontal surface and, as quickly as possible, photograph it with a camera, freezing everything before the colors begin to blend too much or dust settles. From here, I can have a negative or a starting file that allows me to print the final work in the preferred size.
GC: We were talking about the genres into which you divide this work, such as still life, scenes of everyday life, and portraiture…
AC: There are six genres and at the moment I have completed three: still life, which as I said is images of flowers in vases taken by me; scenes of everyday life, which are screenshots of films or TV shows or AI images; and animal portraits, which are taken from archive images of animals with deformities. I am currently working on portraits, which will probably all be images of people close to me, both emotionally and intellectually.
GC: Are faces easier to recognise?
AC: It depends on the base colour of the image. Dark colours have more ink so they move more and deform the boundaries of the image more. I am interested in working with these superfluous technologies, using obsolete or already investigated tools, such as printers, to find out what remains to be discovered. This project waited three years before coming to light. I was an assistant at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo and one day I printed a photo on the wrong side of the paper. I printed onto the waterproof side of the glossy paper. That mistake remained tucked away until it came back to me. At that point, I researched to see whether this kind of language had already been dealt with so as not to run into issues of plagiarism/repetition/copying.
GC: Although you wish to eradicate authorship of the artistic gesture, you seem to have been careful not to overlap with other existing practices. You also pay a certain attention to the photographic transposition of these works, which I would call performative photography. I don’t find a clear difference between your photographic output and the documentation of a performance.
AC: It is very important to me not to use processes that have already been investigated by other artists. It seems an obvious thing to say but it happens far more often than you think. It is inconceivable to me. As a big fan of stand-up comedy, I always liken it to repeating another comedian’s joke. And yes, in a way you can talk about performative photography, although as a viewer you only see the end result, never the process. There has been one exception for the time being, last year at Volvo Studio, I did a kind of performance in which, with the help of four printers and two assistants, I live printed a large photo across seventy or so A4 sheets, with a total size of about 3×2 metres. It took me about an hour—it was quite tedious actually—all in the presence of a select audience. I didn’t want them to sit down but they were free to talk, walk around the space, have a drink, go out smoke and so on. I didn’t re-photograph the final set of prints as I usually do with my solo works, but it is all still stored at the Volvo Italia headquarters, technically constantly changing, never dry and always a little fresh, alive, unstable. Very little is truly photographic for me. The problem is that a lot of photography does not look in certain directions so consequently, somewhat by force of circumstance, I look more to contemporary art than to photography. As mentioned before, I am not interested in narrative photography, which is an essential characteristic of certain photographic genres and artists, as well as in almost all cinema. Values beyond the narrative are often difficult to find. For me, literature is still the primary narrative medium. One thing I do really like about some photographic projects is the seriality, repetitiveness, and obsessive perpetuation of the same subject.
GC: So many authors care about narrative. This is something that then affects the positioning of the work in a specific and bounded niche…
AC: And rightly so, in part. Photography has the advantage and disadvantage of being everything and everywhere at the same time, it is ubiquitous. If we discount the vast chunk of commercial, commissioned photography, we are left with auteur photography, which on paper is seen as more cultured. I don’t think even this should be totally subsumed by contemporary art, as I have thought in the past. It is right that it should be mostly independent, with its fairs and festivals, were it not for a purely economic fact: it is a minor and poor system compared to other industries, such as cinema. But as a producer of images, rather than photographs, I don’t feel very comfortable in it. The distinction, at least as far as my thinking is concerned, is above all the narrative present within a project. I could make dozens of exceptions, of course, but I often find it difficult to see photography hanging on the wall. It is also a question of how well it is displayed, what the exhibition space is like etc. but the more time passes, the more I am interested in seeing photography in a book, or a magazine of course. The wall is becoming an increasingly thorny question in my opinion.
GC: An advantage of traditional photography is the limitless reach offered by publication and the fact that it is easy to transpose into such a form. Transposing a pictorial work is a modification of the form and in a gallery environment that kind of work risks losing so much. Today I perceive a strong divide between authors who experiment with the medium of photography and others who use it as an end. Have you ever felt a repulsion towards photography?
AC: The issue of transposing and reducing a photograph became particularly evident with the advent of digital technology when a photograph ceased to be a tangible object, something we hardly remember anymore. There are a few authors who have used large-format cameras and have printed and exhibited works of the same size as the negative used, to remain faithful to what you are saying. All the others, however, have immediately taken advantage of the possibility to change the size of a photograph as they pleased without altering its authenticity, if we can call it that. For other classical art forms, except for video, which has similar advantages and disadvantages to photography, this is not possible.
As for my thoughts on using photography and experimenting with it, I try to simplify with an example: in the 1960s, photography reached a crossroads. On one hand, you had Robert Frank, who traveled extensively throughout America, documenting the nation as much as possible. On the other hand, Ed Ruscha drove a short distance between his home and his parents’ home, photographing every gas station he could find. Beyond the fact that it seemed like a more or less deliberate taunt from the second artist toward the first, I believe that at that moment, photography split into two: one side was documentary, and the other was conceptual. I have always found it difficult to take a position, but fortunately, no one asks for such a thing, not to mention that nowadays the boundaries have merged considerably, and the issue is more related to the market of affiliation. Therefore, I will continue to appreciate both, even though it is undeniable at least to me that, in a sense, I align more with the latter with the hope, however, of never failing in relation to photography while making use of it. Regarding whether I feel repulsed or not, I would say it’s an everyday occurrence, which is why I persist in it.