Paolo Gioli is one of the reference Auteurs of Underground Italian Cinema. He has experimented in his research on images and vision, painting, photography and cinema, deconstructing and often inventing techniques, reproduction and shooting methods ex-novo. The 45th “Mostra del Nuovo Cinema” (New Cinema Exhibition) in Pesaro, which is held between the 21 st and 29 th of June 2009, with a great homage dedicated to the Auteur with a film exhibition and a photographic exhibition, held in Palazzo Gradari in Pesaro, and the publication of a volume, curated by the Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (Centre for Experimental Cinema Foundation), are among the most recent celebrations of his work.
Paolo Gioli lands in film at the beginning of the 70’s, passing through painting initially and later through photography. In cinema he finds instruments and linguistic characteristics with which he can build his own personal visual laboratory. A workshop made up of played and researched procedures, on the brink between the determination prior to the project, and error, the flippant provocation of chance. Gioli is an auteur not only in the sense of creator and developer of his own cinematography work but also as an experimenter and inventor of techniques and procedures. His relationship with technique is never technical, and never celebrates the medium as a medium per se. Technique according to Gioli is a standard procedure, an action of knowledge that in turn produces new and often unexpected knowledge.
Techniques like the pinhole camera, photo finish and stop motion animation are methods of research, channels through which he can explore the nature and functioning of light, vision and movement. Paolo Gioli dismantles the cinematographic language structures; moved by lively curiosity, he looks into mechanisms of cinema and tries to understand, steal and contaminate the functioning of that “black viewing box” that is the film camera. A research that the auteur learns through the history of cinema, a history he has made his own, through a practice and dexterity rich with knowledge, thanks to which Gioli has retraced, reproduced and reinvented the experiences of the fathers of cinema, which he learned from books.
Gioli himself reinforces this statement and connects his work to history, to pre-cinema, but at the same time, in a much less aware fashion and refusing every comparison with digital technology, Gioli anticipates contemporary hacking intended not only as a deconstruction of the instrument but also and mostly as a construction practice of a new meanings and knowledge through technology.
Claudia D’Alonzo: When did you begin to understand that the modalities of production and perception of cinema imposed by standardized production where too strict for you?
Paolo Gioli: I realised this through something that may seem banal but which was decisive: when I realised that I could not immediately control what I had just shot. If someone does research on images he must be able to immediately see the shots. Reading the history of cinema, I read the things that everyone had read but that evidently no other auteur had ever taken into consideration. I asked myself: how did the first people who made films develop them? At the time there was no laboratory: Meliés, Lumière, Edison did not go to a laboratory, they were their own laboratory. Cinema was created through them and they had found a way to develop their own things by themselves. And reading French texts on the history of cinema I found what I imagined to find. At the beginning there were bits that they threw into some development liquid and developed them like that, like a bowl of spaghetti, just to verify whether the material developed or not. Then they thought of building a can in which they rolled the film, they left it there soaking in a bucket, they waited 6 or 7 minutes, just as if they were developing film. Then they put it in water to wash it, they unravelled it and hung it out to dry. After having read these things I began to do the same.
Claudia D’Alonzo: So what interested you was controlling the development phase and print phase?
Paolo Gioli: Development is one thing. In development you see what you have done. When you have a negative you’re alright, you edit the negative and as you go you accumulate 6 or 7 metres , you realise that everything changes. Everyone said to me: but cinema film is different, it’s not like photographic film, it’s different. I didn’t believe them, so I bought some film, and I developed it as if it were any old photo film and I saw it was the same thing. Everyone was so obsessed with technicality… they all felt these technical barriers, complicated stuff full of secrets: it’s so stupid. Film is film. In other words I had to do it myself and not listen to what other people said.
Then I realised that I could make a film from morning to evening! I would shoot a piece, if I liked it I would edit it, piece by piece, and so forth. Once I had finished I would print everything in a laboratory. I printed some pieces myself, I would make the positive with an old camera, I used it like Lumière did, he used the camera to shoot and print: you put the new film in contact with the developed negative, you shoot a white light, for example from a wall, and you impress the positive film. Which is what happens in the laboratory, the printer does exactly that. From then on I began working autonomously, even on duration. This notion that a film must last an hour and a half, derives from focus group tests on audiences, they noticed that spectators have had enough after two hours. This notion of an hour and a half created itself, it’s an old story. But this is true for commercials too: if they are bad those two minutes are unbearable, if they’re good you never want them to end.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Yes, but even in cinema there are functional parameters and standards in order to make an industrial product of mass consumption.
Paolo Gioli: For cinema this is really annoying. If you present a 2-minute film they define it as a little film. There are no little films, it’s a film! It doesn’t matter how long it is. These things irritate me.
Claudia D’Alonzo: What did you watch, what kind of movies interested you?
Paolo Gioli: I was not interested in cinema, I watched and have watched a lot of movies but I just didn’t consider it. I liked Soviet cinema, all of the historic avant-garde. I remember presentations of films by Richter, in the Cavallino gallery in Venice . I saw those rectangles that moved on the screen, that painting… he was a painter. I said to myself: so I can do that too. I can transfer form onto film, it’s not a betrayal, everything can be contaminated. So you can paint, make movies, and perhaps put the two together. This gave me courage. Thanks to avant-garde I understood that I could be free to do anything. Most of the New American Cinema was based on that, they were all Cocteau film enthusiasts, and perhaps they took the worst parts of his work. Americans have always been able to “watch” well. Just like they did with Pop Art, they saw Dadaism in Europe and transferred it to their reality – bravo. They knew how to do what had not been successful in France with Nouveau Realism. Americans are very good in taking and selecting the right culture and making it their own. But for cinema their references came from Europe , obviously, they couldn’t come from anywhere but here.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Let’s stay on the theme of film history and the influences on your work, what other films do you remember as being fundamental in your training, your knowledge of cinematographic language, amongst contemporary auteurs?
Paolo Gioli: Michael Snow for sure, with his film “Wavelength”. I think it’s the most important film in the whole history of experimental cinema. I remember when I saw it for the first time in London , at the National Film Theatre; I was astonished, I immediately thought that I wished I had done that movie. Other films that I wished I could have done were the first Cassavetes films. But when I watched these films, instead of losing heart by comparing myself to them, they gave me strength. It was my own personal challenge against myself in order to be at the same level as those works of art. I thought that these auteurs had really expensive equipment, whereas I would just get a piece of wood, make a hole in it and make a camera.
Claudia D’Alonzo: How did you begin making your movies, working with film?
Paolo Gioli: It was in Rome , mostly thanks to my encounter with Alfredo Leonardi. At the time my experience with the Cooperativa del Cinema Indipendente (Independent Cinema Cooperative) was over, but I met him in Rome, along with Massimo Bacigalupo, Gianfranco Barruchello, Alberto Grifi. Alfredo helped me a lot, he gave me a lot of material, mostly American, because he had been to the States for a book for Feltrinelli. We were close friends, he slept in my study, there were a series of intricate private issues. He helped me a lot but in the Roman context things were running out. It was the time of the Brigatisti (brigades) and all the off-theatres, all those experiences that in Rome were outside official contexts were prosecuted as places of crime and for druggies. Many places were closed down, made to disappear and reshape a whole circuit because of the laws on terrorism and because of those bloody terrorists. A whole generation and period were absorbed by this, politicised and dispersed, or eliminated, a lot of centres disappeared, there was nothing more. Many others were integrated, they needed State funds. The institutions gave funding and in this way they neutralised some of those circuits that seemed dangerous because they were outside of the State. In this way a certain environment became dormant and lost. This happened in film too. There was a new wave of New American Cinema, and so Jonas Mekas was smart and, wanting the represent the whole world, he had work sent to him from Italy . Alfredo and the others got in touch with him and sent their films, which Mekas did not like at all, but he took them as a representation of Italian Underground Cinema, as he has often recollected.
Claudia D’Alonzo: You lived in two important contexts for the whole experimental cinema scene, New York at the end of the Sixties and Rome during the second have of the following decade…
Paolo Gioli: I wasn’t making movies when I was in New York . At that time I was mostly drawing. I followed the circuit of little cinemas that showed these “forbidden” films, underground films. But from there I understood a lot of things. For example, wandering around the bay of New York at night, in quite dangerous places, by chance I saw a little cinema with a line of people outside. A lot of the people waiting in line were holding these little boxes in their hands, I just thought they were strange spectators. I sneaked inside too. I found out that those spectators were really auteurs and that the boxes where boxes of Super8 film. You didn’t know what was going to come out of it, the people in line gave their films to the projectionist. At a certain point the police ruptured into the cinema, everyone out, turn everything off, identify everyone present. I had a tourist visa and was terrified.
Claudia D’Alonzo: So even in America there was not all this freedom that people imagine. When you read about that era it seems as though things were so simple, very free and shared, even in the management of spaces created in the most unthinkable places…
Paolo Gioli: No, all of Mekas’s exhibitions were very organised, official. But then there were as many autonomous places, pontoons and barges where you could sleep too. There were film slide projections, mostly in Super8. Most of these were psychedelic films that implied the use of various substances during the course of the evening. I never used anything like that but all the possible substances available at the time were shared right in front of me.
Claudia D’Alonzo: In your work the presence of the body is very important, and is often accompanied by a reaffirmation of its decline, of death. Do you recognise this classic dualism of Eros-Thanatos in your way of perceiving the body and eroticism? I’m thinking of an example of a film of yours that is a homage to Marilyn…
Paolo Gioli: With regards the Marilyn the reaffirmation is quite direct, as she died tragically. In some images a scar can be seen on her body, a scar from an operation she had recently had. She had put a sign on those pictures, she didn’t want them to be published. They were published soon after her death. So death was in the middle of that film, but it anticipated me. The subject of choice is merely by chance, taken from books, as for other works I have done. I often say that I animate ink, because the point is just this: if there’s a sequence in a book you already have a movie. I like to look at a sequence of photos on a book and imagine it in movement, it’s already in movement. You can give back the book, close it, you have a movie, something that moves. Sometimes I imagine that “Filmarilyn” can be a film that was never shot about her, about her death, that could have been found. What’s in the book is a pre-animation, the sequence of pictures, which is distributed between the pages. I had to take various pieces to give a reasonable movement, the most linear movement possible. I tried to connect the frames to give movement, a natural arc. The film is not just pure movement, from frame to frame, it’s a completely new construction.
More generally speaking my way of working on the body comes from photography. I have never perceived it in an erotic or aesthetic way, if in some works the body appears to be erotic it is because it already was to begin with. On the other hand, every one of us stood against a wall with a diffused light, relaxed, looks awful. And three-quarters of my images are shot without lenses, just with a pinhole camera. It’s not simple: all the effort made in photographic technique in order to put in a viewfinder in order to see, control the shot, focus, is denied through this choice.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Can you explain this choice of reducing shooting techniques to a pinhole camera?
Paolo Gioli: It’s not easy, but in this way you can augment your capacity for observation, you’re capable of measuring without systems, you develop certain cerebral apparatus and make them work better. You know how to observe and you know how to get by. It’s great to start from nothing. Even if the result isn’t how you planned it and you throw it away, you haven’t bought a camera, you haven’t bought anything, you haven’t done anything. It’s always a surprise: at the end you worked with nothing, there isn’t even any film, just photographic paper. You’ve erased everything. If you look at photography studios they are full of objects, collections of equipment, a fetishism of technique! If I buy some instrument and I realise that I made a mistake, that I don’t need it, I give it away, I rid myself of all that which is not necessary. Even if they were to take film away from me, I would still find a way to make images; you can really work with nothing.
When I began to use the pinhole camera I thought that everyone did so systematically, but when I talked about it I realised that a lot of people didn’t even know what it was. Photographers should use it, even if just for personal curiosity. I would advise it as a cure, as a kind of therapy for six or seven days. I assure you that after having tried it it’s difficult to leave this technique aside when you realise what you can do with a piece of photographic paper.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Another interesting aspect of your way of doing film is that the imperfections deriving from the technique become characteristics of your images, a stylistic characteristic of your films.
Paolo Gioli: Yes. For example, the shaking is a characteristic of a shot taken in this way, you cannot recreate it artificially. You can only do it with this camera, because it is a camera, there’s animation, a movement from top to bottom. A movement of a camera, from top to bottom, that in reality has never existed, because the shot is fixed on a static subject: even the film doesn’t move. This is interesting, the camera itself becomes movement, an ultra-movement. This is proto-cinema, something that precedes cinema.
Claudia D’Alonzo: This method of working in my opinion creates a connection between your experimentation on cinematographic and photographic technique and the approach of many artists who work with electronic and digital techniques toward technology. It seems to me that you have in common the desire to not be content with the available techniques and like creating your own instruments, reinventing procedures. What do you think?
Paolo Gioli: I think that you should never lose the dexterity of artistic work. And I think that often the technological innovations become a limitation for many artists: I know a lot of them who get blocked on their work because they cannot buy the latest digital instrument on sale. In general I tell them “come to my studio and we’ll solve the problem, we’ll find a way”. I think an auteur must always have something in his mind to do or to say and then decide what he needs, and if this thing doesn’t exist or costs too much, then he must do it himself. The capacity of building an instrument cannot but add to and glorify the work you do. I’m not interested in comparing myself with digital technology. Many artists work with engineers and technicians, in laboratories like Sony, but you must already be famous in order to work that way.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Not only though. There are auteurs who write their own software or design and assemble hardware for their installations or instruments with which they create images or sounds. Others take pre-existing machines apart and modify them to obtain what they want from the instrument; I don’t think this approach is very different to your own, the methods and instruments are different but not the attitude, the way of relating to the medium. I think this is true for the more experimental auteurs of the electronic scene.
Paolo Gioli: I don’t like the word “experimental”. It gives a sense of precariousness and indefiniteness. The works that are more often classified as being experimental are finished works: the experiment and the research are in the reconstruction of the case history of the work, from how it was made. This is interesting and is experimentation, but not the work per se which is the end of a path and is finished. Even painters test things, use different techniques. I did some photographs for example by putting photographic paper in my hand and impressing it from the hole that is created by making a fist. This procedure is experimental, it doesn’t even exist in photographic history. Just think, it’s a method that I, a dickhead from Rovigo , invented! It’s fundamental to do tests, that’s why I think that dexterity must not be lost as it takes you to the discovery of things you never even imagined, many times thanks to accidents, to errors, that you make your own. One thing that frightens me in electronic technology is the obsolescence of instruments. It’s dangerous: it seems to me that the continuous new instruments are a limit and not a stimulus, they do not give creativity time to be just that, creative. The risk is that electronic engineers are more creative than the artists themselves and another risk it that the artists are sucked into the big multinationals of electronics. All this in my opinion is very dangerous; it’s more beautiful to surprise people with nothing.