The Topography of Fear
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena for CALAMITA/À
Born in Naples in 1967, Francesco Jodice lives and works in Milan. His researches encompass changes in modern social landscape underlining new relevant phenomena in urban anthropology. His work explores the urgency for a common ground between art and geopolitics. He was a founding member of the Italian Multiplicity group, an international network and experimental forum of architects and artists. Francesco Jodice is professor of Urban Visual Anthropology at the Master in Art and Curatorial studies at NABA, and professor of Photography at Forma. His projects have been exhibited at Documenta in Kassel, the Venice Biennale, the ICP Triennial of Photography and Video in New York, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the São Paulo Art Biennial, the Tate Modern London and the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Among his main research projects: What We Want, a photography world wide atlas; Secret Traces, an archive of human shadowing; and Citytellers, a film trilogy about new forms of social and urban landscapes.
Francesco Jodice will open in May his personal exhibition at Camera – Italian Centre for Photography in Turin. The exhibition will be open till August 14th.
CALAMITA/À: My God, it’s beautiful. No, it’s terrible.
(Two responses prompted by the world’s first nuclear explosion). 
Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity (New York: Atheneum,1985), p. 242.
Since 1946, selections from archival footage of Operation Crossroads –especially footage of the Baker test – have become a familiar source of nuclear explosions in many notable documentaries and feature films. Probably their best-known appearances have been in the apocalyptic conclusion to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove but Baker test footage appears also in Bruce Conner’s thirty-six minute, black and white film Crossroads (1976).
For Edmund Burke “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.” 
Burke describes a sublime affect as “that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on the object which employs it.” 
01 Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity (New York: Atheneum,1985), p. 242.
02 Edmund Burke, in The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory, eds. Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bola (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 133.
03 Ibid, p. 132.
The violence of an explosion, accidents, impressiveness and excessiveness: what attracts us in the representation of catastrophic events?
Francesco Jodice: A few years ago, among interviews from the film Hikikomori (22′, 2004) a Japanese boy told me that he thought that within each of us, exists a latent desire to die. In my opinion the violence of an explosion, the greatness and excessiveness, and in general something catastrophic, is a dimension which provokes in us a sense of horror, but also a sort of epiphanic desire for an encounter; this somehow converges with the thought of some European sociologists and philosophers, such as Saskia Sassen and Zygmunt Bauman. This desire to live forever, to erase death from our lives, to make the inevitable if not avoidable, at least postponable, is somehow, paradoxically, the center of our existence. Concerning issues on explosions and catastrophes, I am rather certain that everything we have experienced during these recent months, from the founding of ISIS, to the great diasporas and large-scale migrations towards Europe, the new terroristic culture and this strange form of Third World War, in the dimension of a slow and continuous stream, is unbearable for us, not only because we are confronted with a cultural form that is unknown, but rather because these events force us towards a confrontation with a part of humanity which is still transient and literally and physically open to explosions, incidents, greatness, excessiveness and an epic dimension of life, which are no longer possible for us since we are intent on escaping death and living forever.
A/À: In your latest book “American Recordings”, you combine and explore current and historical events, social phenomena, films and pop icons. How is this done? What was the biggest challenge that the past century has left us?
FJ: American Recordings, both in its exhibition dimension, as a video installation synchronized on five screens presented at Castello Rivoli, and as a small volume published by Humboldt Books, is a tribute to the short century: the seventy years from the end of World War II with the ratification of the first transoceanic agreements, to the possible points of decline of the American model, that we can indifferently identify with September 11th 2001 or as I prefer with September 15th 2008, the financial debacle identified with the drop fall of the Lehman Brothers. This project is a tribute to the short century and a sort of description of what were the peaks and the abysses of the history. The American century was one of the shortest and most intense empires in history, with unique characteristics, like being a de-territorialized empire, which in most cases was able to occupy the whole planet not exclusively or only with weapons but with the use and abuse of the spectacle as a weapon; in particular, using the photographic, cinematographic and television image of information, journalism and communication. American Recordings is a sort of report or compendium of these incredible facts, but also the story of a boomerang effect and how the use of images has allowed a cultural pervasiveness and lateralized dominance of global culture, leaving behind many traces, which end up describing the reasons and responsibilities of history. I don’t know what the past century has left behind or even the so-called short century, but I know what the images and the cultural weight they have produced, have left behind. American Recordings, as its parental project the film Atlas, presented during the Biennale of Venice and the exhibition PROPORTIO at Palazzo Fortuny, try to emphasize the responsibilities that this production of images has left. Both Atlas and the video installation American Recordings are almost exclusively composed of archive images produced by the American cultural system between 1945 and 2016.
A/À: “An autumnal cold front coming from the enraged prairie. Something terrible was going to happen, he could feel it in the air. The sun was low in the sky, a minor star, a dying star. Gust after gust of entropy. Restless trees, falling temperatures, the whole northern religion of things has come to an end.”
The beginning of “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen, magnificent and disturbing, anticipates and appears to be the prelude of a mutation in action. The literature of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, James Graham Ballard, Cormac McCarthy or several cinematic visions emanate that sort of tension. In your imagination and your memory what are the most powerful and disruptive images that you associate with ‘catastrophic’ and ‘apocalyptic’?
FJ: I find the structure of this question very interesting, starting from the beautiful opening passage of Franzen’s novel and especially in this dark expression of the minor star of a dying star to get to the other catastrophe authors. But the 4 books that, for a number of reasons, I love to mention as my references are American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Underworld by Don DeLillo, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. They are important because, instead of showing a clear sense of wonder towards a disaster scene, they are very affected by semiotics and fragmentary, subtle and minimalist signage which, rebuilt in its whole, introduces the catastrophe itself. I am very interested in all those signs and signals that can help us anticipate the reconstruction of a mosaic that allows us to understand what is going to happen. A few years ago, for its launch, a videogame entitled ‘Deus EX: Human Revolution’ used the expression “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here”, which has sort of become the paradigm of my work. A bit like being on a viewpoint before this apocalyptic, catastrophic and devastating image appears and manifests itself completely. Almost like collecting all the clues that allow us to be a step ahead on a future crime scene.
A/À: “Here Time doesn’t escape History; History has killed it”.
Marc Augé in “Ruins and rubble. The sense of time” on Chernobyl. A catastrophe suddenly marks an irreversible change of the landscape. Do the scars of history leave an indelible mark on our landscape? What is the meaning of this occurrence for our rules and social values? How can art help to build a shared collective memory?
FJ: This beautiful phrase from Marc Augé refers to a story irreversible enough to kill time, the story itself like in the case of Chernobyl or Vajont reminds me of the pages of the comic mini-series “Watchmen” (1986) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, in which a nuclear physicist gets locked in the experiment room with his father’s pocket watch during the catastrophic event of a scission in action: first it completely disintegrates his physical presence and the watch, then over time it makes them reappear merged together into a single element, time and a human figure, but in a dimension beyond time, in which a person lives every moment and every place simultaneously, as if we were in a kind of string theory. Events like Chernobyl or with its differences Vajont are dramatic especially because they identify in historic moments a precise period of time. Before, I mentioned that we are living a very particular moment and in fact the Third World War has already begun, but we will have the courage to admit it to ourselves only in a few years. There won’t be a declaration of war between states and nations. As one of the main characters of the film Network, by Sydney Lumet (1976) once said, there are no more populations, there are no more nations. This is what the Third World War is, a slow and daily trickle. I think this is the only true image of a catastrophe, which doesn’t have a blinding luminescence, suddenness and doesn’t have any fall out, which are perimetrical, no matter how long and broad. This is a war that didn’t have a beginning and probably won’t have an end, because it isn’t a war on religion, between nations or about politics, but an ultimate diffraction between social classes. The increasingly briefer one of the rich and the more dense and consistent one of the poor. In my opinion this is a true catastrophic image, an image so severe, to answer the second part of your question, that art cannot collaborate. At a certain point, I think that art cannot but take sides or perhaps declare its incapability to act. Probably in this situation there is little that can be done. The only real solution would be to reverse the progressive de-intellectualizing of Western middle classes, although this remains a fantasy and a utopia, and I don’t think it is a viable path. In the slow process of a new western medieval, where returning to religion, Christianity, popes and other religions are tangible signs of a de-culturing of people. These signals masked with politically correct operations focused on building a bipolar system, which no longer has that historical filter, that starting from the French revolution was the middle class.
A/À: Disasters, climate changes, environmental pollution, migrations, fears related to terrorism follow one another to create a sort of universal globalization of risks. The anthropology of catastrophes has changed over time and in history. The planet seems to be exposed to a threat and always on the verge of a catastrophe. In what way does fear affect our collective imagination? How is it possible to photograph catastrophes?
FJ: Controlling the masses by constructing a strategy of fear is evidently one of the most obvious and common plots of which we are most aware. Despite this, even countries considered evolved and educated such as Sweden, Holland and Denmark easily fall into this trap. Some of Noam Chomsky’s writings, relating to constructing strategies of parallelism and control of social masses, are highly prognostic (the famous definition of weapons of mass destruction). Another important text on this theme is “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster”, 1998 by Mike Davis, a very interesting author, who has been a reference point for me also during the construction of an investigation model. Building a strategy of terror, which makes us feel constantly in the vicinity of a disaster, is one of the models of which we are the most aware and at the same time most willing to accept as an imaginary remedy. Today a large amount of people coming from a certain cultural level are well aware that the reasons behind the 9/11 attacks are far more complex than they appear, and that the responsibilities are not unilateral, but regardless they are unwilling to accept that what we are experiencing today is the direct result of wrong and unjustified decisions towards Arab populations 15 years ago. There is therefore a form of invisibility around the structure of these ongoing issues.
How to photograph catastrophes is a very important and complex question. I think it is literally impossible if we think of photography as a device like a camera obscura, film and sensor. It is easier to photograph a disaster if we think of photography as a cultural system in its entirety. Until a few years ago when ISTAT (Central Institute of Statistics) published its data, national television shared the news with the expression “Istat photographed Italy” which is a use of the photographic expression linked to photographic apparatus and not to the technical device. This type of photography is still possible; photography intended as a test of fragments but also as a glue. A device that today has different degrees of credibility, some still very deep almost like documents, others of an extreme vagueness (technological, industrial, military, vernacular, self-produced…). This countless amount of material is catastrophe photography. In more practical terms the person was behind the murder of John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas, thought that public television would be restricted by the crowd and unable therefore to intercept and record events and so it was. The conspirators didn’t consider the human factor, Adam Zapruder, suspended above, filmed the entire scene in a non-controlled manner. The choice of the Twin Towers as the site of an attack is due also to the fact that those who planned the attack were perfectly aware that it was a photographically sensitive target, continuously monitored by humans. The true global impact would not have been so much the 3000 victims, but this endless stream of images that become simultaneously document and horror fantasy. That’s why I say that this is perhaps not so much the device but the cultural apparatus that follows, the only true and possible photography of catastrophe. To say it as Franco Vaccari would, this type of photography “the more powerful it is, the more unconscious it is”.
A/À: Retrieving a definition that Jean Baudrillard gave of himself: I have a paroxysmic attitude, that is of someone who stops for a moment before the end and from this point observes these extreme events. Like he who analyzes an imaginary cartography, diagnoses the present and plays with the end, in this way the artist registers and interprets the state of things. To what extent in artistic research is it important to analyze the changes that take place through contemporary geopolitical signals?
FJ: When the collective Multiplicity, which I was part of, discussed the project “Solid Sea” (Solid Sea is a multi-disciplinary survey conducted on the current geopolitics of the Mediterranean Sea which identifies the flows and paths that cross this region and outlines the “identity of the individuals that live there”) during Documenta 11 in Kassel (2002) there were different opinions between the members of the collective. Denounce this horrible fact of crime? Or as I thought, be interested solely in the facts prior to the tragedy and so for example routes and trails. The issue is substantial, the same difference between journalistic action and contemporary artistic analysis. I find myself not only disinterested in the events that are taking place, but I consider them harmful compared to the information that should be given, hence my adversity towards reportage as it is historically considered by Capa, Breton, McCurry or Salgado. The main issue is this, I believe that an artistic approach must constitute only of a mechanical construction of an experience and the ability to transfer it to other observers, art is literally a device, a visual apparatus that we build and in doing so we force the viewer to become at least partially aware. What is the true subject of this visual apparatus, I find rather irrelevant. That’s why I’m interested in the semiotic proxemics of geopolitical events and not the fact that these events actually take place. During a one-year course of study dedicated to September 11th, all of the students dedicated their studies to a book of political fiction, “Debt of honor” (Rizzoli, Milano, 1994) written by Tom Clancy, who anticipates and meticulously describes the events that have occurred subsequently. This interests me: once the towers have collapsed, there is nothing more that can be done. As in photojournalism, the emotion and the sense of unconscious unwillingness to confront tragedy, erase any possibility to track down the true reasons of history. This is why it is so important to analyze the semiotics of a near geopolitical future.
A/À: October 9th 1963, the Vajont catastrophe. After more than 50 years, in different latitudes and environments, the violence against indigenous populations, the eternal conflicts of interest, corruption of the control mechanisms, the complicity and coexistence between political and industrial power, the predatory privatization profits and the generous socialization of losses repeat themselves. The analogies with the present are not mere details. What makes the tragedy of Vajont unique and what makes it something different from all the other stories? Can we think of Vajont as a metonym of contemporary Italy?
FJ: In my opinion there are two important and unresolved issues within this sequence of events. The first concerns the incident itself and the relevance of a catastrophic event that in its horror has an epic, mythical and almost mystical dimension, and for this reason I tend to dissociate it from reality and consider it a sort of exception to the rule and through time this helped to build a process of diminution of responsibilities, almost as if the event was supernatural compared to the political responsibilities, and I don’t mean inevitable. The second aspect, that of the metonym, is very true but I wish to implement a variable. Let’s take into consideration the quote of the German philosopher Hans G. Gadder, who says that “ the acceleration of history makes the rite of passage a continuous phenomenon”. With this I mean to say that today we live in a permanent situation similar to Vajont. This means that, both on a National and European standard, Western, or based on the relationship between the West and other parts of the geopolitical world, tragedies and absolute disasters are a daily fact. This automatically produces an antibody. We must daily exorcise not only the sense of pain in front of the event, that acts in a cataclysmic way, but also the sense of our responsibility and that of others. How many of the people, who have died in the valley after the Vajont catastrophe, were in a minimal way responsible because somehow aware of the possible tragedy? This is what happens today… to whom does the responsibility of what happens every day belong? How much of the responsibility is due to political incapability and how much is our progressive and collective willingness to ask political authorities decisions that are no longer postponable nor demandable. I think we live in a continuous situation like Vajont. The opening colophon of our newscasts or of our newspapers exceed any catastrophic page or sci-fi themed movie from the ‘50s. No foreseen nuclear holocaust can correspond to a dimension of progressive decomposition of the social, cultural, civil political, economic, financial and religious structure that we continuously face at a local, national, European, Western and global level. So not only do I agree in thinking of Vajont as a metonym of contemporary Italy, but also in believing that this catastrophe is no longer extraordinary but rather, literally the norm. Thinking of a much less resounding, loud, instant and visible image, such as that of Vajont, but that has an absolutely more powerful relapse because much more isolated and hidden, is that in the past 25 years heavy industries, both chemical and pharmaceutical have buried hazardous and non-disposable waste. This has been a sort of continuous Vajont of which everyone was aware. Of all this, the instigator, the client, the intermediary and all the users were all aware of the same ordeal. Returning to the previous question, this is a true paroxysmal image. What part of consciousness exists in every portion of this daily Vajont?
A/À: “In the days after Vajont people were convinced that the tragedy should have been a starting point for a collective reflection from which to start changing, to discuss reports and methods. 2000 people were killed, for which everyone was directly or indirectly responsible. The Constitution had been overrun and revealed itself incapable to guarantee the life of its citizens. Many have proclaimed and promised a change of course. However, since then, the compromises between political power and economic development have been endless and outrageous. In the degeneration of all rights, they have been refined, so that democracy has no more meaning nor real consistency in our country governed by manifest and occult groups of power, where political and economical men go arm in arm with Mafia, terrorism, P2 to support each other…” So writes Tina Merlin, in an article published in “Patria”. To what extent can journalism, poetry and art become uncomfortable, inconvenient and transversal compared to the arrogance of higher powers?
FJ: This text is perfectly datable because the terms of politicians have changed. Today the actual political situation is literally that of Mafia and P2, I say this in absolutely bipartisan terms. P2 and mafia have engulfed the healthy parts of the country without too much acrimony and internal disagreements. Journalism no longer exists and where it does it cannot go on stage. Fake journalism has banished true journalism relegating it to indecent places and hours. Journalism has become the plastic surgery of fabulous Mediaset anchorwomen. In the next few decades we will understand whether the network will be able to produce a form of independent journalism. Poetry can do so much, but can do absolutely nothing that can be decisive in reality, because it is impoverished by the lack of participation and desire. Poetry cannot do anything because it is annihilated. Art puts itself in the way, it doesn’t produce information or explain things. When art is good it worsens the situation and is an extremely healthy political experience. Years ago Santiago Serra paid using money from the community of immigrants so they could rent trucks, and put them sideways on the highway, blocking them and ran away, creating congestion, danger, fear and potentially even death. This operation aims to make things worse until the system puts itself in more danger in this steep condition. Art does what you have said, it gets in the way. We can only hope that there are still the conditions to do so, if all this still makes sense. We can consider the actions of the Italian government an extraordinary artistic performance. Like all artistic performances, often they aren’t immediately comprehensible, but only later on.
Gianpaolo Arena is an architect and a photographer, he develops research projects on social and documentary themes and environmental issues. The interest in architectural representation has oriented his attention towards architectural photography, urban landscape, the use of photography as a survey of the anthropized territory and towards relations of multiple identities that belongs and characterizes places and people. Editor of CALAMITA/À and Landscape Stories magazine with which he coordinates photographic campaigns in the territory, workshops, editorial and exhibition projects.