Digital art videos used to be called amateur films, those researching visual endeavours by Stan Brackhage, Maya Deren… Then some mainstream blockbuster movies would incorporate the catchiest ideas into commercial stories, as Kubrick in 2001: a Space Odyssey 2001 using Brackhage visual timing …or Tarkovsky, who implemented original aesthetic time and space movie narrative, considering all the film art that had invented its own language …
Francesca Fini is a baroque artist. PLANET PINK / PANOPTICON1 needs you to focus as if studying a Bosch painting: it is endlessly offering us new details and interpretations. Why pink and not red code, for women’s art? Because colors tell the difference of alertness, but alert it is. With the same pace, like the rhythm of a cradle, from left to right, her figures, animated images and symbols, rock and roll…or they waltz, one step ahead two behind. They surprise, they make us laugh, or bewilder us. Sometimes they frighten us too. It’s the standard chosen set of favorite Fini symbols, the writhing octopus, the Mona Lisa, monkeys, baroque-era art classics and America with her fake sweet smile… but they interact and talk in a different way in different moments. Like having a choir that sings songs of hybrid genres.
This is a collage movie, I recognize it as Francesca Fini collector. It is a baroque dictionary/circus, moving pieces of an elaborate artistic machine. And very romantic and emotional, with a lot of water and fluids. Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as a voice-over tells us a timeless story which becomes a poetic commentary on Fini art. So many classics are shaken, broken and reinterpreted in her obsessive girotondo of cultural visual heritage: among the heavy centuries, the typical moments of feminine art, which exploded freely mostly as doubts, questions and reinterpretations. The Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais honored Ophelia for her moral beauty in death, but what Ophelia didn’t go crazy and drown in her ladylike way, but instead gave an activist speech? What if Ana Karenina didn’t commit suicide but became a lesbian in Venice (Tolstoy saved her ladylike honor by killing her with a train)… What if…so many questions, parallel uchronias… so much work for us women to do…so let’s do it with intelligence and elegance in pink or red! And all the colors! Art is a rainbow code!
My favorite home castle was in Cairo, where I grew up as a little girl. I imagined myself as an Ottoman princess from centuries ago, in veils, dancing with dervishes, riding horses in the sands, listening to the singing of hodzas. Childhood lasted for years, and my castle life was not a dream. Years later I read about a virtual castle, in the novel Holy Fire, which happened to be written by Bruce Sterling, my husband. Decades ago, he speculated about future virtual life in a “memory palace,” owned by an old woman, Maya, who extends her lifespan and then takes on a new existence as a young European woman. After we were living as a couple, my husband and I happened to spend some time in the castle-like garden villa of the Savoy Duchess, Madama Cristina. She called this massive retreat her “Royal Vineyard.” This towering brick and marble edifice was long abandoned by royalty, but the thick walls oozed history, with old paintings, frescos, wooden statuary, and a surrounding park with giant trees, a pond, and dry fountains.
When pandemic hit the world, every home became a castle under siege from the new virus, or else it became a prison of sorts, or maybe a virtual palace, if you had enough connectivity. Historic events had favored the virtual empires. The analog real castles of the past seemed more archaic than ever, empty tombs when human life, our culture and our business and our government, were all immaterial data flows.
Real castles are decaying anyway, every UNESCO World Heritage monument all over the world. Nobody can afford them, maintain them, they lack daily function and purpose. The old owners are impoverished or dead, while our new aristocrats build modern extravaganzas like the Apple Headquarters or supertall skyscrapers. The new castle lovers build online metaverses, with electronic artsy means of robot blocks and voxels… Thus they fulfill the architectural dreams of the ages, and a screen and a wall is somehow enough to inhabit, and to furnish your dwelling place, to pass from technological daydreams into a profound sleep where consciousness reigns no more, and the fantasy layers of the hindbrain take command of slumberland. That’s how we survived the other plagues and the other unthinkable disasters. With technical means, with poetry, with art, with dreams, with tech art. For a few years, my husband and I had a dream home, “Casa Jasmina,” our self-declared “house of the future,” where speculations could be realized, in an abandoned building. Casa Jasmina was in an empty car factory instead of an empty baroque palace, but Torino has plenty of both of those. We had only battered concrete walls, flocks of pigeons and some internet, but once we inhabited that space, but we managed to make soirees and parties, so as to confront what was to come. Our theme was open-source connectivity, and in a couple of years, with the enthusiasms of local and international geeks artists and friends, we had a a testbed of a different way of life. The Casa Jasmina project ended, but after our experiences with connected objects and their affordances, we found it easier to endure the involuntary experiment of a pandemic quarantine. We had the privilege to be among the first to live in a housed network instead of a “networked house.” We also had some well-founded notions about life in epidemics, since our castle sponsor, Madama Cristina, had survived the Black Death. To read about plague is not to live it, and this Covid epidemic was ours to survive, or else not. No two mass disasters are ever the same, and the activists, artists, writers, creators with no place to create but the living room couch, we made the most of what we had left to us. We learned a lot through having less, the petty fears of daily living are eroded by the body-counts… We made new alliances and friends, by cutting the bullshit and finding new priorities. Every day was bucket list of new ideas. Every morning we woke up in a different skin. “Every day was a gift, every night was an orgy.” We imagined and lived our virtual splendid castle of epidemic isolation. We have learned that material objects, our furniture and gadgets, our tools and toys, must have emotional value for us. They have to efficiently perform their function and they have to be beautiful: using that criteria, we rid ourselves of our house in Belgrade. Our Zemum apartment was a castle of sorts, too; it was four stories up in the air, lined with classic writerly books and had a swell view, but we got rid of almost everything in it except what we loved most: my piano and his lamp. “The elephant, the heel, and the key,” as we say in Serbia. The necessities of the body one can find anywhere, but the luxuries of the soul are precious rarities. A global traveller, as I have been since childhood, has some practical commonality with the homeless on the streets of the world. I never yet joined them, but for years I felt that the homeless ought to be virtually mapped, like urban monuments, and that I ought to mingle with them and do that. That was the art therapy of beatnik hobos, a statement of freedom from the material world and its politics and policies, which put the homeless there in the first place. Our material world is never entirely material, for, as the art world knows, context, history and provenance give things great value. The myths, the dynamic, the aura of a thing. Capital flows, which are immaterial, drift from the real to the virtual and back again at the speed of light, and every manmade good, from the Mona Lisa to a bottle opener, was a concept first. Concepts become material through acts of implementation, through design actualized by the forge, the lathe, the injection mold, the laser cutter and the 3DPrinter. The material values derive from a market’s opinion of their worth. It’s the modern reversal of what we used to believe in the past, that castles of iron and stone were true strongholds, while our castles in air were merely our clouds and bubbles. Fantasia al potere; beneath the pavement, the beach; all power to the imagination.
While I’m living in pandemic quarantine, my outlook has become virtualized and elementary… a life observed from my screen or my balcony.
Less is more. Details are the big picture. Art is life. As the pandemic rules over humankind, confining us in a high-tech worldwide prison, my time as an online early-adopter has ironically become the norm. Beware what you wish for, you may get it.
Adversity is revealing of character. Obstacles stimulate creativity…or maybe misery makes you crueler, so that obstacles seem weaker. What did I see from my Turinese balcony? The backdrop of the beautiful Alps in purple-tinted twilight snow, while ambulance sirens moaned in my street.
Picture one: my little window toys, solar-powered rainbow makers, cast vivid colors through my window as a grim red-and-white ambulance stops across the street. Three unearthly creatures, medical techs fully-shrouded in plague-resistant transparent plastic, debark in haste from their medical conveyance, with oxygen bottles, chromed drip-feeds, snarled tubing.
They don’t enter my own building, but the one across the street. The solemn double doors yawn open, and a stretcher-bed is quickly ushered inside…
From my private balcony, where I can stand without a mask, I can see that my neighbours are watching also breathlessly, in a state of total silence in the crowded quarter of a big city.
A few minutes pass. Then the wheeled medical pallet emerges, dragged toward the ambulance with a much-practiced ballet of those faceless emergency creatures in their airtight red and white shrouds.
Beeps and squeaks, the sounds of the new normal; and my thought is, today it is not me, bumpily hauled downstairs from my balcony, but who knows tomorrow?
Denying the virus, pledging one’s faith in God’s will, these mental efforts are not helpful, for the coronavirus plays no favorites, it strikes everyone alike and kills those who succumb. Class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, the virus transcends these lame distinctions, and the biggest difference is between those who have it and those who don’t have it yet. The biggest difference aalways among people is between healthy and sick.
Downstairs in the street, the three creatures in their red plastic gear, as sudden as flapping swans, open, unveil, remove layers, with care, with gloves and tongs, disposing of tainted material into red bags and packing the red bags into larger red containers.
Out of those sterilized cosmonaut suits three young Turinese women emerge, neatly-dressed nurses with long, beautiful tresses like mermaids or sirens.
These young veterans of calamity exchange a few words among one another, with no time to fritter away… They don’t seem to touch their ambulance of doom, or even the asphalt of the street; they almost levitate. They smile, undaunted by the latest casualty — they even laugh!
While the Alpine light strikes and blurs their shining suits for a moment, they turn into street-angels, as seen from my balcony point of view.
Who is saving the world? Of course it’s women. Faceless, shrouded, underpaid women, risking their lives in grave dangerous so as to nurse and nurture. Like post-war “rubble women,” collecting the garbage of a stricken humanity, restoring order to a cosmos of chaos.
I know some nurses personally, young women with young children, some are single mothers, and not even in good health themselves… They labor, day after day, through 15-hour shifts in coronavirus hospitals.
One Italian nurse in particular, has achieved a kind of meme status, due to an iconic photograph of her falling asleep at her desk while working in full decontamination gear. Her heavy mask marked her tender face as if it were tattooed.
These women are encased in plastic because of the contagion, so they wear diapers. They don’t get tearful bathroom breaks in the ladies’ room, for even those private moments would risk their lives.
Women often wear diaper-like garments because of their reproductive cycles, because a woman’s body gives new life, but now they wear diapers to preserve the living… And though many die, they save many more, and they smile or even laugh.
Picture number two: a few days later, from my same balcony, and at sunset again. Red twilight falls from the beautiful white and red Alps , and a long shiny black hearse arrives at the same building.
Three men in black suits, with masked faces, open the doors that had once admitted the medical stretcher. This time, they roll in a big, dark, ornamented, wooden coffin.
The men wear cravats and black pointed shoes. Soon they emerge out with their same coffin, complete with occupant, with a host of funereal flowers on top.
They replace the festooned casket into the fancy hearse. They take a break to smoke a cigarette and chat among themselves, for their client is no longer an emergency; no diapers required to convey these last honors.
Having retrieved the inert corpse of my respected neighbor, these functionaries slowly drove away to the last resort. My living neighbors observed this last farewell rituals from their respective balconies. Not me today but tomorrow who knows!