“This morning, I watched the destruction of the world as an attentive spectator, then I got back to work.”
Photos as Text*
Andrea Botto has been recording since 2008 non-military explosions around Italy and Europe. These peculiar events, planned in great detail, in order either to demolish dysfunctional architecture or to structurally transform the landscape in order to build new infrastructure are planned with considerable advance, whilst their consumption lasts only a few minutes. Analogically capturing on 4 by 5 inch. film, with a view-camera, the apex of the explosion has become a peculiarity of his research that mixes the eye of the photographer with the pictorial compositional skills of a painter. What is so seductive and ‘beautiful’ in his images is the reproduction of a violent act, devoid of any violence, the capacity to capture the energy of destruction while it is being consumed. His work embodies human fascination with death and photography’s intrinsic nature of capturing what is no longer present. As Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, the temporality peculiar to the photograph can be described as an expression of the tautology of the French grammatical verb-tense future anterior, which loosely translates as ‘that has been’, thus focusing on the link between presence and disappearance.
Yet the choice of the subject itself is worth analyzing as it becomes a self-reflexive materialisation of the idea of photography and its complex relationship to time and memory. In fact Andrea Botto’s images capture the impermanent existence of a phenomenon that disappears in the same moment that its physical presence is recorded thus accelerating the passage of time and photography nature as a trace of the past; whilst this could be said in some way of all photographs, in this case the fictional aspect of the images, which instead are in some way ‘documents’, is highlighted. Thus what becomes evident analyzing the project, as a whole is how images are always a form of action. An explosion is not only an intense phenomenon in the realm of physics which brings considerable transformation to matter through a great dispersion of energy, thus in the case of Andrea Botto’s photographs, to the portrayed landscape, but it is the paramount spectacle in which the emotional fascination with danger is represented, in which the consciousness of the fragility of our bodily existence is heightened by the power of a process which, once in progress, cannot be interrupted. On the other hand these images in their highly pictorial and aesthetic composition, which the artist can only partially foretell through his experience of photographing explosions, are born from a great degree of chance. What then becomes so seductive is how they can be read both as illusions and as true documents. As George Didi-Huberman’s has often underlined, it is clear how creating an image in this case is not a way of illustrating an idea or recording a piece of reality, but a way of acting on reality to construct an idea.
What idea is Andrea Botto constructing with this series of photographs? I believe the answer can be found by analysing KA-BOOM, the editorial project, and soon exhibition, conceived and curated by the artist himself. KA-BOOM is not a photographic book, even if it reproduces photographs, it is not an archival publication even if it reprints a series of images taken from explosive manuals, it is not the documentation of a performance even if Andrea Botto, himself, has restaged, acted and documented crucial moments in the process of explosive construction. KA-BOOM is a fictional explosive manual in which sourced vintage photographs encounter staged do-it-yourself explosive construction images, with the photographs Andrea Botto has shot of real non-military explosions. The result is a sophisticated enquiry of photography’s contemporary status, in which numerous questions are raised and no simple answers are given.
Guy Debord’s treatise on the modern human condition The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967 starts with these words: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of ‘spectacles’. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Photography, more than most mediums, has been challenged by these transformations of society and by how nearly everything we do, and thus document with our ‘smart-phones’ and share on various social medias has become ‘performative’ and ‘spectacular’, pushing the idea of postmodernity and its hyper-reality, theorised by Jean Baudrillard, into a natural everyday phenoma.
Thus Andrea Botto’s project is articulated through a mechanism whereby any notion of the authentic becomes almost impossible allowing the turn-over between fiction, reality and staging to manifest a form of resistance to the idea that the spectacle just ‘is’, suggesting criticality and memory as means of opposition. Recalling the structure of Bertold Brecht’s diaries and their use of photography as a form of multi-disciplinary media, capable both of seducing and estranging the viewer-reader, Andrea Botto attempts to transform images in means capable of activating processes of knowledge. Flipping through the book one is both fascinated and alienated, continuously stimulated to question the idea of what an explosion is and at the same time admiring the manifestation of that specific one. The structure of the book cancels any illusion of continuity and pushes the viewer to take a position, to reflect on the images and their development.
What is fascinating though is how, absorbing the contemporary diffusion of DIY internet manuals, Andrea Botto merges images of historical black and white books with images of himself performing instructions on the construction of explosions, thus claiming a genealogy for his own work. The poetic of interruption that questions the illusion of continuity, obliges the viewer to look at the images with a special attention in order to map his personal narrative. Therefore Andrea Botto’s images do not simply depict the reality of explosions but instead explode our reality capturing its uniqueness. Andrea Botto seems to be telling us that there is the possibility as a collective to share a moment in time, instead of just watching our phone screens ignoring each other, while amplifying the reproduction of reality.
The choice of explosions, and the explosive that originates them, is in no way casual as it pushes reality on the verge of the extraordinary; even if all of Andrea Botto’s photographs are shot on the occasion of planned official civil explosions the nature itself of these events is violent and evokes memories of war and nuclear detonations. Furthermore our contemporary times of uncertainty and menaced fundamentalism and terror turn the idea of a photographic explosive manual into something that should be censored highlighting photography’s power to talk beyond borders and activate revolutionary transformations.
* Ilaria Bonacossa “Photos as Text”, published in KA-BOOM The Explosion of Landscape, Èditions Bessard, Paris 2017
Fine-Art Pigment prints on Canson Infinity Platine fibre rag baryta 100% cotton
mounted on d-bond, wooden frame + museum glass
Various size: 60×80 – 81×99 – 100×120 – 111×136 – 131×164 cm
Edition 7 + II a.p.
I Premio Graziadei, 2012 (first prize)
Premio Terna, 2012 (shortlisted)
Premio Francesco Fabbri, 2012 (special mention)