by Steve Bisson

How did you get into photography and visual arts? Early memories?

Luca Spano (LS): I would say I have some fuzzy memories. I remember when I was a kid I enjoyed drawing. Around 17-18 years old, I found the old camera reflex of my father. Like a lot of other image makers, I started from there. Making pictures of everything, and slowly getting into a very rudimentary darkroom. Basically a bathroom with an old enlarger and trays. I remember I put a wire suspended on the bathtub to hang the pictures and let them dry there. I was completely self-taught. I liked experimenting and trying to understand things by myself. I guess everything started from there.

What about the places you have grown up... "where are you from"? How much this relate to your project 'One'?

LS: I'm from an Italian island called Sardinia. It is right in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, a place has been a crossroads of cultures for thousands of years. A piece of land colonized by multiple social groups: Punics, Phoenicians, Romans and so on. But also a place with a very ancient history and civilization, the Nuragic people.  Growing up there really shaped me. The island with its borders and history has rooted a particular cultural heritage in my being. Something that I constantly try to understand and re-approach. 

© Luca Spano from the series 'One'

© Luca Spano from the series 'One'

© Luca Spano from the series 'One'

My project 'One' started by chance. I was leafing through my messy photographic archive, trying to see if I could find a pattern in my practice, or pictures that were talking to each other. I felt I was part of a conversation with other speakers: photography and this island. I started finding many images related to the idea of borders. I put them together and I kept shooting for other 3-4 years. After a bit, the fil-rouge started to be very clear.
'One' is a project about a person and a piece of land surrounded by the sea. A one-to-one relation that changed over time, because of the unstoppable process of changing of the two subjects. In someway it is a form of documentation of the landscape of the island, but on an intimate level this body of work deals with the existential matter of human knowledge. The act of leaning on the edge of a piece of land to reach the knowable beyond the horizon.

Could you tell us a bit about your educational background...

LS: Yes, of course. I moved to Rome when I was eighteen to study Communication Sciences at Sapienza University. While there I dedicated the majority of my time studying cultural and visual anthropology, thanks also to professor Massimo Canevacci, a fantastic person I was collaborating with.
I was also working as an editorial photographer and then managing a photographic agency with some other colleagues. But I reached a point when I was really unsatisfied about what I was doing and what I was producing, so I quit and for the first time I decided to study photography at London College of Communication. I took an MA in photography there and thanks to a couple of grants, I could go back to Sardinia for one year and focus only on my personal work. When in the island, I started looking for art programs with a more hybrid approach, and that could offer a sustainable life while studying. I applied to Cornell University and I got into their MFA program. There I was sharing spaces with a handful of young talented artists from different disciplines. Hybridization was refreshing and fundamental, it was what I was looking for.
After graduation I moved to New York, where I'm based right now.

What about your approach to photography and research in general. You mention on your statement socio-anthropological implications of representations. Why this is important to you?

LS: I'm interested in understanding the image, how it functions, how it interacts with our cultural imaginary, how our cultural imaginary interacts with it etc... the loop of codifying your environment and being codified by it. In some way what anthropologist Clifford Geertz said reshaping Max Weber thoughts «man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun». We can call it culture, and I like to dig into the role played by the image in this game.

One of our main senses is the sight. One of the thing that really fascinates me is our relation with what we call reality. We interpret the world through an image on our retina. The world is an image for us, a personally decodified chemical reaction on our biological canvas. Representation itself is the main component of our sight. Seeing is a process of physical and cognitive interpretation. And beyond that, human beings have always had the need to represent their word in other interpretative ways. From the drawings inside a cave, to the most sophisticated image technology. We do it for multiple purposes, but it has always been a fundamental practice for humanity. Think about cartography. From navigating an unknown sea to having a piece of land inside your pocket, it is always conceptually a very colonial action. We know that “the map can't be the territory”, but there is always a desire and need of possessing the territory in someway. And here I have to mention the beautiful super short story “On exactitude in science” by Jorge Luis Borges. If we don't make the drawing of a little piece of land somewhere in the ocean, that piece of land doesn't exist. We need representation to make things “real”. We need to name things in order for them to exist. A beloved photographic topic. But in our society the levels of abstractions has been exponentially multiplied. We make representations of representations. Maps of maps. Pictures of pictures. Some years ago the philosopher Jean Baudrillard theorized the Hypereality, the fact that we live in a world made of images, where the images are our experience, where all is composed of references with no referents. Our life is immersed in this meta-loop. 

© Luca Spano, 'tsunamy_6_fake, Tjaden Gallery, Cornell University, Ithaca, US, 2014

I'm just quickly listing a lot of topics, I'm not exploring them as it should be done, but they are strongly interrelated with the connection between photography, colonialism and the idea of truth, which is always at the core of my thinking. I don't believe in the idea of truth, I only believe in interpretation. I like to say that in the past we had an ethnographer that went to a place, coming back from there with his pockets full of untouchable truths, because nobody could verify them. Now we are surrounded by endless sources of information, we can move around the globe, but the problem is always the same: we can't reach the truth.
The truth doesn't exist.

You hold several ongoing works: what about 'Looking for the North'?

LS: The starting point of 'Looking for the North' was to work on the idea of the image and information as something we use to orient ourselves into our experience of the world. I wanted to intersect the idea of the North, a convention we have created to navigate the space, something that we learn since we were children to be a reassuring direction “if you get lost in the forest, just follow the North...”, with the concept of the image. This latter still has a sort of “evidence feeling” in our society, something we think we can rely on to better understand things.

© Luca Spano, installation view at Bibliowicz gallery, Cornell University, May 2016

© Luca Spano, installation view at Bibliowicz gallery, Cornell University, May 2016

© Luca Spano, installation view at Bibliowicz gallery, Cornell University, May 2016

The project was developed through the narrative aspects related to the North. Explorers ready to embark in a journey and sacrifice everything to maybe add a new little brown mark on a map. But also the process of colonization, the desire of possessing. The fascination for the unknown.
The exhibition itself was made by a map of torn pieces of National Geographic maps of the entire world. A modular island/Pangea that every time you move it to a different location, has to be rearranged and changes its shape. A Spanish inspired colonial ship made of books related to scientific disciplines such as anthropology, astronomy, physics etc...,religion, fiction and popular comics and literature. Some of the books are texts I love and criticize. Authors such as Bronislav Malinowsky, Charles Sanders Pierce and so on. But you can also find the bible, the whole earth catalog, Don Quixote, Mickey Mouse. One of the sails for example is made out of a page from an astronomy book dedicated to the Arecibo Message sent in 1974 to contact other forms of life in the space. Then we have a triptych of photographs about sources, an endless seascape, a big rock/island and an artist book. This last one contains the pictures I was initially thinking about, but then I edited them out from the exhibition itself, to make this sort of log. After the first show, the book started to become something more, and I kept expanding it and working on its content.

© Luca Spano, Handmade book (title “log”, dimension 12x10 inches), installation view at Bibliowicz gallery, Cornell University, May 2016

© Luca Spano, Handmade book (title “log”, dimension 12x10 inches), installation view at Bibliowicz gallery, Cornell University, May 2016

© Luca Spano, Handmade book (title “log”, dimension 12x10 inches), installation view at Bibliowicz gallery, Cornell University, May 2016

Your works do mix materials, data and site specific interventions. What about the relationship between reality and truth?

LS: Photography for me is becoming more and more a way of thinking rather than an outcome. Every idea for me starts from something related in some way to the problematic topics brought up by the image. They are then re-filtered in multiple ways, shaped, combined with other element to reach something different and open some doors I couldn't expect to find. I would say, to keep the research going.

As I stated above, I don't believe in the truth, neither I do in reality. That's also why they are my playground. I can mix everything in this gray space and create a “working instability”, a system, or as I like to call it “a living ecology”. Reality and truth are two of the main components of the image. Reality is both generated and generates representations. Truth is something that we are obsessed with because we live in an image.

© Luca Spano, 'The Passage', site specific installation, Piazza Primo Maggio, San Sperate, Italia, 2017

© Luca Spano, 'The Passage', site specific installation, Piazza Primo Maggio, San Sperate, Italia, 2017

I use multiple materials and outcomes because they help me to materialize my research in multiple ways. It is always a challenge to work with things you don't know how to use. Materials you don't know how they are going to respond. You have to embrace the idea of failing, because in my experience when your making fails is the time when you learn something. Failing is a generative force, because it is connected with the unknown. Making art is a constant exploration towards the unknown, you set sail to reach a place you will never find. It is a constant failing process. That's why you keep going. Stepping back to the materials, I also like certain objects for their symbolic value, and some materials for their familiarity. These aspects allow the audience to have a first entry point to something that can appear inscrutable at first sight. Giving some forms of access to my work is one of my desires.

EKAF', the first contemporary ethnography of the island of Ekaf. Can you introduce us to this project.

LS: 'EKAF' started in 2012. It was conceived in the book form from the beginning. The project came out from the need to re-organize my thoughts about photography and my background. I had to understand where I was walking, at what point of my travel I was, what I had left on my back and what I was approaching. It is like putting a milestone along your path, not a wall or a fence, but a place from where you can move on, but where you can always come back to reinterpret it, to find something new. Just to repeat myself, an island. You leave it, you cross the sea, and when you feel the need you come back to look at it deeper and with different eyes. It is the need to write down something in order to better understand it. You are producing a text which has a particular time relation with your life and consequentially with your thinking. Probably I wanted to create a sort of manifesto of my thinking. But I wanted to do it in my way.

So I made a book about the relationship between representation, images and experienced world. The aim of the work is to create a visual and narrative documentation about an unreal place using visual contents (photographs, maps, illustrations) and texts from, and inspired by, real places/events. Every content (names, images, etc..) is reinterpreted or simply out of place, making everything real and fake at the same time. The final result is something in between an historical report, a touristic guide and an anthropological study, a mix which creates a destabilizing narrative that plays with the gap between the uncertainty of the perceived reality, concreteness of its representation and viceversa. The book bases its narration on the colonial process of the last couple of centuries, tackling the knot between image, colonialism , and the idea of truth. The motto of the book is: take something that exists and create something that doesn’t exist. The final outcome is a publication inspired in its design by old colonial aesthetics (18th century - 19th century). It took me more than three years of work. It was published in 2015.

© Luca Spano, 'EKAF' book, 2015

© Luca Spano, 'EKAF' book, 2015

© Luca Spano, 'EKAF book, 2015

Tell us more about your editorial experience...

LS: Books are interesting objects. They often last for a long time, they seat on a shelf as a constant reminder of their content, they also circulate around the world in unpredictable ways.  Making a book is a challenging experience. You get so deeply into it that you end up being obsessed, frustrated, satisfied and amazed at the same time. My process was pretty long. Gathering information, taking pictures, visiting archives to collect materials, assembling everything. And after that the design phase, where you re-edit everything, you pick the typo etc...It is an endless problem solving process. But a fascinating one.

I did everything by myself. I wanted very peculiar characteristic for the final outcome, such as fake leather cover, gilded pages, sewn binding, head and tail, ribbon marker I started asking for estimates. It was quite expensive to produce it, but I got a pretty substantial fellowship in London to cover the production costs. At the end, I printed it in China. Which is is funny. China is known to be good in producing fake objects, reproduction of popular items. If you read the title of my book in reverse, you will get why it was the perfect place for my book to be printed.

I also wanted to give something unique together with the book, so every copy comes with an original handmade screenprint I have made. It is an old map of the island, when it was still called EKAPHO.

Plans for the future?

LS: Keep working. I really believe that making is the engine to discover new things and keep the research alive. I would also love to move to a warmer place, closer to the sea.

Any interesting book to recommend and why?

LS: Some classic books have really shaped my approach such as 'Culture & Truth', by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, 'The interpretation of Culture' by anthropologist Clifford Geertz and I would say everything of the evergreen Walter Benjamin.
On the photographic side I love the simple, humble poetic of 'Summer Nights', walking by Robert Adams, the deep and ironic approach of Joan Fontcuberta especially in 'Sputnik and Fauna', 'Neo-Prehistory 100 verbs' by Andrea Branzi and Kenya Hara, for being a sum of multiple disciplines and I could go on. I also want to add some fiction, which I find often more formative than everything else, books such as 'Arthur Gordon Pym of Nuntacket' by Edgar Allan Poe, 'Story of the eye' by George Bataille, 'Don Quixote' by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Any show you have seen that you would mention and why?

Walid Raad retrospective at the MOMA, a very good comprehensive show, especially the entire section related to his ongoing project “The Atlas Group”. Gehard Demetz at Jack Shainman Gallery, a very touching, strong and controversial exhibition of the sculputers of this italian artist. The sculptures of Michael Heizer at the DIA Beacon, because it is just astonishing the power emitted by his negative sculptures.


Luca Spano 
urbanautica Italy