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Email Conversation: Monumental Acts of Magical Thinking

Ilenia Rossi in conversation with Studio for Propositional Cinema

EMAIL CONVERSATIONS, A series that dives deep into the practice of artists, artworks and political dimensions of production contexts.

The artist entity Studio for Propositional Cinema re-imagines exhibition formats by addressing its spectators as active participants, inviting them to witness and experience the often dystopian narratives in form of texts, sound installations and architectural interventions that narrate “stories of worlds that we dream to inhabit or that reveal the nightmarish aspects of our own”. In its collaborative practice, SPC disassembles the individual elements of the cinematic narrative (image, sound, text, performance, architecture, scenography, etc.) and brings them together in unexpected ways within a space for experimentationthe studioand later the exhibition space. 

Ilenia Rossi: We met last summer while you were in Italy for a residency at Fondazione Morra Greco in Naples, preparing the show The Storyteller's Fountain: A story told by a gust of wind in the low and dark rooms, curated by Alessia Volpe. It would be interesting to hear more about your time in Naples and how it influenced the work you made for the show. 

Studio for Propositional Cinema: The exhibition centered around what we’ve referred to as a “site-specific fairy tale”, presented as an hour-long sound recording of an epic poem written for eight characters. It was written during a nine-month residency in the Palazzo Caracciolo d’Avellino, where Fondazione Morra Greco is located. When invited for the exhibition, we had recently written the Fabulist Manifesto, which proposed an engagement with our culture’s self-replicating myth-narratives, ie. fairy tales, as a means of examining their implicit ideological indoctrination and to “facilitate a relationship to our world based in both a rational connection to material reality and a spirit of wild, unencumbered speculation as to what our world is and what it can be”; in other words, to “use the fantastic to imagine a way out of the inevitable.”

 This thread of research led us to the writings of the 17th century Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile, whose stories in The Tale of Tales are the first known European literary versions of some of the classic fairy tales of our time, including Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, among others. To assist in our research into Basile, Maurizio Morra Greco arranged a visit with Basile scholar and translator Michele Rak. To our complete shock, Rak informed us that Basile was once the court writer for Marino Caracciolo d’Avellino, the prince who converted the monastery into the palazzo that was eventually purchased by Maurizo Morra Greco as the site of his foundation. In 1619, as an ode to his patron, Basile wrote the poem L’Arethusa, a retelling of the Greek myth in which the nymph Arethusa flees the unwanted sexual advances of the river god Alpheus, eventually evading her predator by becoming water and surfacing as a fountain in Sicily. Four hundred years later, while living in an apartment in the same building that likely also housed Basile, we composed a version of this myth, centered around the figure of The Storyteller, who is pursued by The Devouring Tide, an encroaching and seductive body of water representing our cultural and existential entropy, who is slowly devouring the planet. During her escape, she is joined by a group of characters who each represent a form and strategy for potential evasion or resistance. The chase culminates in the construction of an Ancient Knowledge Survival Kit in the form of “an enormous story-spewing fountain adorned with warnings and manifestos against the pulling death”.

 The sound work was installed across six exhibition rooms of the palazzo, each of which contain floor to ceiling frescos executed by Giacomo del Po in the 18th century. Various themes and motifs from the frescos were incorporated into the narrative, so that frescos functioned like illustrations-in-reverse. Hand-cut mirrors echoing architectural elements within the frescos were laid on the floor. Evoking portals, the mirrors created a durational pictorial space in which the relation between the textual aspect of the spoken (and sung) narrative and the contextual aspects of the frescos and architecture could be constructed through spectatorial movement and engagement. At every step the content and form of the work was composed in dialogue with the given elements of the exhibition and its physical, historical, and cultural context. 

 IR: I like this idea of the “site-specific fairy tale” and the frescos functioning as illustrations in reverse of L' Arethusa's narrative. 

When I visited the show it was enchanting to see how the work responded so intuitively to its  intrinsically Neapolitan surrounding environment, which in and of itself can be seen as resembling a fairy tale-like reality: a perfect blend of the mythological, the esoteric, the poetic and the chaotic.  

You mentioned that your interest and research in fairy tales, which culminated in the “Fabulist Manifesto” came about as a way of examining how our culture uses these myth-narratives to find a way out of the inevitable. Could you expand on this? 

Considering the “interesting” times we are currently living in, could you also recount one of the fountain’s warnings and manifestos against death from the Ancient Knowledge Survival Kit?

 SPC: Near the end of the story, one of the characters states: “As likelihood of survival declines, we can accept and fade out with the fate that ruin was in our species’ designs, or optimistically anticipate a possible future in the distance and leave, to be found in this far off date, some traces of a last resistance; our warnings as well as some evidence of the beauty found in our existence. So the moment before our severance I propose, as a final testament, a message to future intelligence in an ancient knowledge survival kit.” The group constructs this with three criteria: Legibility, Material Stability, and Distributability. This requires an approach to communication that does not presume that existent languages will be legible in the future, a material approach that attempts to resist potential degradation, and the goal of wide geographical distribution in order to multiply the chances for future engagement. The specifics of the messages are left unsaid in the story. Within the context of the story, the fountain is a hypothetical, a prototype.

Stories build worlds; worlds that we dream to inhabit or that reveal the nightmarish aspects of our own world, worlds that instruct us to accept the inadequacies and injustices of our present or suggest how to create futures in which they are made untenable. In other words, they are empty vessels that are stuffed with ideology in order to replicate the desires of their tellers within the will of their receivers. The shapes and trajectories of these desires are determined by the intentions of their ideological content, in directions toward or away from freedom, toward or away from self-destruction. Stories don’t exist in utopias, they are built for imperfect worlds. They are tools that humans have developed to convince societies to mould the existing world to the desires of those who control the narrative. Stories are dressed up to seem innocent, but let’s be clear: this is a dark and dangerous territory. But we have come here because it will take monumental acts of magical thinking to imagine our way out of the current entropic narrative of our collective suicide.

 It is now our responsibility to build and disperse structures that can facilitate the conception of a world in which desirable potential futures seem plausible. We must then rehearse these futures until they become probable. This is how we imagine our way out of the inevitable. The alternative is the unthinkable that haunts us because it is piercing our present, now. 

IR:Redundant as eyelids in absence of light., your show at Kunst Halle St. Gallen, speaks of "the human predicament as the result of a world filled with words, piled with images, networks of signs and gestures and noises, for an inter-subjective dialogue designed to fail”. Do you see any affinities between these narratives and those of 'The Storyteller's Fountain'? 

SPC: Both Redundant as eyelids in absence of light. and The Storytellers’ Fountain are set in a dystopian narrative space in which forms of cultural speech have been lost or occluded by nebulous forces. They follow a group of dissident figures, attempting to exist on the margins of this reality while resisting communicational impoverishment. These conditions reflect a logical conclusion of the trajectories of our own societies, where our forms of communication – music, literature, image-making, and so on – have been systematically de-legitimised and outsourced to devices and formats that are out of our ownership and control. This shift, which began with a utopian desire for free and easy access to production and distribution, has brought us to the brink of the potential, and therefore probable, erasure of each form; a kind of planned cultural obsolescence. The narratives share several overlapping characters who are resisting these entropic conditions. Each of the characters may be read as stand-ins for different ways in which such a resistance could be enacted, with a clear emphasis on the necessity of working collaboratively if any potential success can be achieved. 

Both narratives are set in a world where this fight has been largely lost, with both featuring an archive of the tools necessary for rebuilding and reinventing these forms. In Redundant as eyelids in absence of light., the archive is constructed by a state-apparatus that confiscates, catalogues, and destroys them. In The Storytellers’ Fountain the archive is the ancient knowledge survival kit that the dissident figures build together at the moment before their own demise. They build it not for themselves but for an unknowable potential future in which they could again be useful. The instinct towards the preservation of our means of criticism and discourse over our own survival is a lunacy that also has another name: hope.

IR: Another show of yours comes to mind, in relation to a Spectator:,  which took place at Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover in 2017-2018. 

The exhibition consisted in inviting 31 artists with whom you have collaborated in the past, or who had exhibited/ would soon exhibit at Kestner Gesellschaft, including Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Irena Haiduk, Cally Spooner, Jeff Wall, Lawrence Weiner and Christopher Williams.

I would be interested in hearing more about the collaborative nature of your practice and the role played by the spectator within the narratives that unfold both in SPC's exhibitions and text-based works. 

SPC: The exhibition in relation to a Spectator: started as a text written for a group exhibition organised by three institutions in Hannover; Kestner Gesellschaft, Kunstverein Hannover, and Sprengel Museum. The text was a series of statements about fundamental conditions of artworks as they relate to degrees of construction, conditions of presentation, and duration. The text was, and is, full of hypothetical, tenuous statements, and therefore we wanted to test it out in real time and space. We were subsequently invited to make an exhibition at the Kestner Gesellschaft, and invited several other artists, 31 in total, to respond to the text within the exhibition. Each of the artists were either close friends and collaborators, or were artists we admired who had recently exhibited at the institution. We built three large structures – a wall, a stage, and a table – and produced a book, and the artists were invited to present work on one or more of these formats. Over the course of the show, the works changed several times, and there were also several performances; the exhibition’s duration was an active part of its content. The text, in other words, was a hypothesis to be tested, and the exhibition functioned as an active laboratory in which to test it.

We believe that art – like science or music – benefits from, and usually requires, active and open engagement within a discursive field. The mythology of the lone genius artist is a construction of the media that benefits only the commercial art market, male-centric art historical narratives, and perhaps the odd Hollywood filmmaker. The CIA loved it, for example. From the beginning we decided to work outside of the standard biographical imperatives, and have frequently included collaboration into our work, in many forms. Collaboration includes co-authorship, but can also take the form of curatorial gestures, research, formal and informal conversation, and even just asking for or offering help from and to friends and colleagues when required.

We aim to maintain the spirit and ethos of the music scenes that we grew up in, in which everyone played in each other’s bands, helped record and release each other’s records, toured together, organized shows, and were each other’s best, and sometimes only, audience. It is in this spirit of community and support that we invite the spectator not just to watch, but to join and co-conspire. 

IR: So the spectator becomes an active collaborator in your work unlike in cinema, where the spectator might assume a more passive, perhaps even voyeuristic, role? How did the name Studio for Propositional Cinema come about? 

SPC: Not necessarily an active collaborator, but a potential collaborator within the discursive field. But shifting the spectatorial from one of passivity to activity has been a constant throughline in the work; the majority of our exhibitions have been based in this inversion, where the durational work unfolding for a static viewer has been eschewed for a relationship wherein the spectator activates the work’s duration and content by moving around and through the work in their own time, without the imposed duration and movement that most narrative works require. In this way the work resembles the act of reading more than the act of theatrical or cinematic viewing, but unfolding in a social space that does not negate conversation.

The origin of the term “propositional cinema” was to disassemble and isolate the basic building blocks of cinema – image, sound, text, performance, architecture, scenography, etc. – and explore potential combinations between them that need not be synthesised into what is conventionally considered as cinema proper. It was constructed as a space for experimentation where the production and presentation of narrative and non-narrative content could be constructed in unexpected ways; a studio, in other words.


    Studio for Propositional Cinema, SCENOGRAPHY: Redundant as eyelids in absence of light., Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, installation view
    Courtesy: Studio for Propositional Cinema and Tanya Leighton, Berlin



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