“What interested me from the beginning was the theatrical dimension of all these events, the spectacle of destruction, the context where it took place, and the possibility of considering the explosion as an alienating element within the landscape.”
BF: I am just about through the essays of your book and have been really taken aback by the quality of the texts as well as the images themselves. Lars Willumeit’s piece was an exceptional joy to read and ponder over hitting many historical references that were nice to read over the context of his analogy between the context of photography, destruction and explosion. This of course is only to cite the theoretical material’s excellence. The images within your book are also incredible. I have been watching you unfold these images for a few years now patiently waiting to see the book come to form, which I might point out, is one of the nicest book objects that I have seen from Editions Bessard, who is seemingly having a good year. I am pretty sure you had been thinking in book form for most of the time you have been exploring the project. In some ways, with the diagrams, the essays, but also particularly the images of you “at work” with the implements of detonation, it feels a bit like a manual for the “creative destruction” mentioned. Most of the work seems to have been made in Italy. Were you conscious in starting the project that it would lead to this format and are you still making similar images even now after publication-are you the explosions guy now?
AB: I’m glad you caught the theoretical dimension of the project, which is a fundamental root of my job. In this new work, deepening some intuitions already present in my previous book 19.06_26.08.1945, I have deliberately worked a lot on the relationship between text and images, also using texts in a visual way (1). And it is exactly the book device that allowed me to do it. To be honest, when, almost ten years ago, I started to take pictures of explosions, I couldn’t imagine how the project would have come out. I think this long process allowed the project, but as well my approach, to grow and to change, to reach a not expected result. What interested me from the beginning was the theatrical dimension of all these events, the spectacle of destruction, the context where it took place, and the possibility of considering the explosion as an alienating element within the landscape. This also questioned in some way that ‘post-new-topograghic’ attitude of landscape photography from 80s and 90s, which I followed in my early photography education, literally undermining its very foundations. So, I began looking for civil explosions to be photographed, starting from Italy because I live there and I have professional contacts, then moving to other European countries. It is always really hard to know about these events in advance, in order to organize the trip in time, but above all it’s difficult to discern those places that could work for me as stage. From the beginning, I have always thought the book as a natural outcome of the work. Additionally, in recent years the book seems to be one of the last spaces of freedom and experimentation for authors, that have really very few opportunities to show and challenge their work through solo exhibitions in museums or other institutions. I think if I had published a book with this work five or six years ago, it would probably have been the classic photographic book, with large photos on the right and blank pages on the left. Only my deepening of the theme with explosives experts and the fortuitous meeting with some technical manuals pushed me to investigate everything that precedes the moment of the explosion, which becomes even more the vertex of tension, the moment in which the anxiety of waiting is sublimated. I started collecting old pictures on Ebay, I visited several historical archives and I made a lot of research in a museum dedicated to explosives, with a great book collection. There, I realized that I could use the graphic design of a manual to combine all the different stuff I had collected until then, using images and texts as keys to access a collective imaginary. Even the pictures in which I appear as a reenactor are used to make fiction plausible. I do not know if this makes me an ‘explosions guy’, as you say. Maybe I was already beforehand, having handled gunpowder since childhood (my father is a pyro fan) and because of my surname (Botto in Italian means ‘Boom’). Of course, I would really like to be directly involved in the explosions design, using them to create performances or ephemeral art works. In the appendices of the book there is the description of the first experiment of this kind I did and I will do again in the coming months. I guess the explosions will still accompany me for long time.
BF: Throughout, I keep thinking of the term “Profound Subtraction”. It sums up a bit of the philosophical mechanism at work within the book-the sense of unease, anxiety, and perhaps the way in which something static and familiar is made spectacle to loss and in its distress is rendered unfamiliar and perhaps analogous to horror or void. Apart from the obvious intent towards the momentary spectacle and the ephemeral metaphors of dust, debris and rubble, could you elaborate if the process contains this mix of anxiety for you personally? The near historic parallel in political terms, as an American that I cannot escape is 9/11…or the Oklahoma City Timothy McVeigh bombing…
AB: The sense of loss is certainly a fundamental theme of this work. I would also add the topic of cancellation, which has to do with memory and therefore inevitably with photography. As usual for me, the theme is an excuse to tackle more general, and even more topical, issues in some way, like that of destruction of contemporary world. However, I cannot say that I feel any particularly anxiety during this process. Perhaps I am a spectator too, among others, of this spectacle. And I wonder rather if criticism and memory can be forms of resistance in some way. A little selfishly, as a visual artist, I am much more interested in the implications and the hidden meanings, sometimes even unexpected, of my images. And this also in relation to international news. I am very impressed by the fact that many people ask if my photographs of explosions are staged, although obviously they are not. It makes me think to the beliefs and expectations that we place in the images. We have become so used to think that reality is fiction, to really believe in fake as truth. Someone told me that the reenacted photographs are the most disturbing part in KA-BOOM and I wondered why; most of the objects I have in my hands are just replicas I’ve made using paper and plastic. The answer is that photographs, more than other media, depend on the context in which they are viewed. The anxiety we feel is not therefore inside images, but only in our eyes and in our mind. That’s why I speak about images as links to collective imaginary and “means capable of activating processes of knowledge” (2).
“Only my deepening of the theme with explosives experts and the fortuitous meeting with some technical manuals pushed me to investigate everything that precedes the moment of the explosion, which becomes even more the vertex of tension, the moment in which the anxiety of waiting is sublimated.”
BF: How many demolitions have you been witness to? I want to speak on the nature of the spectacle and to ask whether or not, as a follow up question and in earnest as to how you perceive the actual events? It has to be such an awkward mixture of enthusiasm, trepidation, performance anxiety (to get the shots) and perhaps humor? How does it function for you at this stage? And if I might, can you elaborate if you had any specific familiarity to any one particular building before it was demolished? Perhaps a piece of architecture that you had known or had visited in the past before it was demolished? I am trying to understand the procedure in which mnemic discourse would be serrated or torn on a personal basis when photographing the collapse….
AB: I have been photographing demolitions (not only those controlled ones) since 2004, witnessing lot of them and following the work in progress even for months, but I have never had previous personal relationships to those buildings. However, especially in the case of industrial sites, I often met people who had worked there and were present at the time of the blow down. Just their reactions, halfway between the sadness of seeing erased forever the place to which they had devoted most of their lives and the hope to see maybe the re-birth of a more sustainable productive activity there, made me realize that the demolition is just a transition, the traumatic apex of a story in which there is always a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. In my previous projects, I had always worked on the event’s aftermath, with a quite usual approach in landscape photography, but with KA-BOOM I wanted to move back on the time line, looking at what happened before, to leave all future possibilities open. In this way, my work is basically about timing. And I have to say that, in the case of explosions, the most interesting part of the job is the ‘wait’. All my images are the result of a long preparation, not only in the days before through event planning and the choice of the point of view, but also in the last few hours when, once I placed the camera, there is nothing but wait for the blast. The tension grows, the concentration is at its maximum and all the energies are projected on a single moment that can’t be missed. Everything can be very close to a performative action. Obviously, in my research, the challenge of grasping something instantaneous and unrepeatable is the first thing that stands out. But the mythology of ‘the decisive moment’ is totally desecrated and overturned through the use of a view camera with a single 4×5-inch film. It seems paradoxical, but to see an explosion you must necessarily wait until it has already happened. You must therefore have the strength and the courage to wait, to resist the natural reaction that makes you tremble at the time of the blast. If you shoot too early you will not see anything, but if you stall you may be too late. There is therefore a minimum degree of unpredictability and chance, a calculated risk that is part of the job, just like managing explosives. “Semel errare licet” says the Latin motto of the bomb squad of Italian police, “you can be mistaken only once”, and this is true even for photography.
BF: The book is not simply about the capacity to demolish. There are also images about working the earth, either for stone or mineral. I am drawn to the idea of the grandiosity of these gestures as much as Werner Herzog was likely drawn to the insurmountable action of raising a boat from the water over a mountain pass by similar method of destruction in “Fitzcaraldo”. There is some pre-text to these decisions that are functional, practical and are devoid of larger conversations about the inherent need for man to supersede, control and forcefully and violently destroy his environment. One gets the sense that it almost in our genetic material once empowered with the tools to do so to step back and say “fuck you nature, remember those millions of years of fucking us with malaria, volcanoes and giant snakes…well here is some ammonia nitrate to chew on”. At its base it sounds incredulous, but I cannot help but think some of the enjoyment of blowing up landscapes comes not only from need, but also by a urge to overpower the oppressive forces of the natural world-like climbing mount Everest with dynamite with the intent to destroy the Hillary steps….
AB: I don’t believe that this desire to overwhelm the forces of Nature is the thrust that animates the experts of explosives. At least not the ones I met. In some cases, the explosive is used to secure houses, demolishing boulders as a result of a landslide. In these places, the destruction has already happened and it is a common natural phenomenon. If anything, the original problem is: who has built in a wrong place? Rather than desire for destruction, certainly present in the human soul to the extreme of self-destruction, I would rather speak of the will to transform and control the surrounding environment. It has always been this way since Prehistory; only the means, the possibilities and even the scale change, as demonstrated by the theories on the Anthropocene. You know, the terrible beauty and the spectacle of destruction have always attracted men, with a mix of morbidity and fear. Remember the aesthetics of sublime or, more simply, the instinct of destruction that children possess. The concept of ‘creative destruction’ deals more with economics and comes from the idea that the creative-destructive forces unleashed by capitalism would eventually lead to its demise as a system. In philosophy we can recall Nietzsche, so that every creative action has its destructive consequence. He represents the creative destruction of modernity with the mythological figure of Dionysus. And in Hinduism the god Shiva is simultaneously destructive and creator. Albert Einstein called innovation “an act of creative destruction”. We can quote also Walter Benjamin’s ‘destructive character’, which seems to be very appropriate to this day. Furthermore, it is true that “nothing is created and nothing is destroyed, but everything is transformed”(3). In Nature, destruction is linked to absolutely inevitable entropy. If compared to the Big Bang and its generative force whose action we are still part of, the history of man and his actions are very tiny. We like to think, with the pride of the anthropocentric vision, that our actions can destroy the planet and it’s true in some way, but at risk there is only our survival.
BF: Well said! Back to the idea of building or rather demolishing structure and photography. There is a clever use of the corollary imagination of the synthesis between photography and demolition in several of the essays as if to extract the principal tropes of invention, science, but also capital in the use of these technologies. The material value of each and the way in which architecture stands in for place and body as a form of material currency and yet we are subscribed to navigate bodies through or around its edifice to the contextual arguments about photography, memory, and the presentation of bodies within space, but also reflecting upon it and its value have several implications noted in particular with the Marta Dahó and Lars Willumeit’s essays. One thing I found kind of interesting is that even though the chemical properties of both are spoken about, I did not read much if anything about flash, magnesium or the use of the shutter as a detonation device itself. Besides the varying forms such as nitrate, grain, light and film’s use in both epistemological and conjectural within the essays, the resources of flash, darkness and subterranean are subdued. Perhaps that is better left to mining? Have you any thoughts about those particulars or is the mining possibility for the follow up “Ka-Bam”?
AB: You are right. There is no explicit reference to flashes or shutters in the essays, but they are present in some of the pictures in the book. About mining and tunneling, you have to know that the underground is one of my favorite places, since I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth when I was child. For this reason, I had planned a specific chapter of the book, but, to be honest, the pictures I took for it were a real failure. I want to tell you something I’ve never said before. Some years ago, I had the great privilege to be invited in the construction site of the new Brenner Base Tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the world, mainly excavated with the traditional method with explosives. It was an amazing and terrific experience. Imagine to be over 2 km inside, under the Alps. You are only a few hundred meters from a blast that shatters dozen cubic meters of rock. You hear the explosion, the rocks get broken, and you can feel, more than anything else, the shock wave like the breath of the Earth. The problem is that it’s quite the same of being inside a great gun barrel, so it’s really impossible and obviously very unsafe to stay close to the blast in order to see it or even to leave there a camera with a remote shutter, because it would be hit by debris. And, remember we are underground, that’s the same for lights or flashes. There is only one possibility to stay so close to see the explosion and survive at the same time. Since the tunnel excavation is normally divided into three sections, once the upper sections have been advanced enough, you can stay on the opposite site of the explosive charges at the bottom of the tunnel, where the master blaster is. Although it is like being in a dead end, I was there with him. I have to say that it was totally amazing and well more powerful than on the opposite site, because this time I was at less than fifty meters from the blast. We put some spotlights on the floor and I took a video and a 4×5 film. The video is good but unfortunately the light was insufficient and the picture came out blurry. Maybe it would have been better using more powerful flashes, but eventually I think you would have seen only a great wall of dust. Honestly, I’ve had no more the opportunity to put into practice this solution. It was too complicated to organize such a complex set in a very particular work environment with very intensive rhythms that do not include the presence of an artist who likes to experiment… So, in the end I gave up, but I am comforted by the fact that I have not yet seen a good picture of a blast inside a tunnel. Maybe I could still have some chance in the future. And you are welcome, if you like to come with me!
BF: The undercurrent of politics of ammonia nitrate looms within the text of Marco Navarra, where he upends the possibility for demolition to be easily grafted into political dialogue in which the makeup of the detonation is quickly re-directed and engaged in political acts of violence. He sites an illustrated piece of writing from the Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin (where I grew up of all places) in which pothole blasting in wildlife was quickly co-opted for the use of car bombs by the IRA, again I make reference to the Oklahoma bombing and Timothy McVeigh, not to mention the odd correlation with the Uni-bomber. How much of the broader history of detonation and explosion have factored into your work or archive? It’s interesting because in a way, the use of this particular essay really ratchets up, along with Daho’s essay on modernity and the neoliberal paradox of late capitalism, a space in which your seemingly naïve studies of explosions drifts into terror. Was this something you always had an interest to explore…obviously I mean in theoretical discourse, not in practical?
AB: This is an interesting matter, because even if my work concerns non-military uses of explosives, war or terrorism are inevitably present, albeit only in a latent way. In some of my images (for example Rapallo, 2009), there is a sort of ambiguity in understanding if what we are looking at is a traditional celebration, an accident, or even worse a terrorist attack. I must add that the international situation, especially in Europe, has changed a lot in these ten years in which I realized my project and maybe these facts have changed its meaning and also my perception, bringing out issues which were initially deliberately kept in background. Of course, during my research I read up about the distorted use of explosives, Uni-bomber, Oklahoma City, car-bombs, IRA and obviously the Italian terrorism bombs. But only when I was involuntary witness like many others of the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, I felt the news closer. In that moment I asked myself very sincerely what was the meaning, even ethically, of publishing a work that talks about explosions, even ironically sometimes. The answer I gave me was that art must not be reassuring, but it must raise doubts, make certainties waver. So, I thought of the book as a fictional blasting manual and that the inclusion of those reenacted images could have reinforced the initial project, taking even more ambiguity into play. My first interest is always to highlight the contradictions of contemporary world as well to question the photographic language. I only chose the best solution, in my opinion, to do it and I hope I succeeded.
“The sense of loss is certainly a fundamental theme of this work. I would also add the topic of cancellation, which has to do with memory and therefore inevitably with photography.”
BF: There is some reference to contextualizing these explosions into practice or performance-based art initiatives and reception. If we speak about these non-military explosions in this manner, how do we consider the military explosion? As noted, the term creative destruction for events such as this or atomic warfare offer, in their spectacle, a manner in which the audience reception to their beauty transgresses moral, ethical and philosophical engagement and both methods are traumatic to a degree, so how do we distinguish the reversal of role to the potential to be regarded as an art form in and of itself? I am reminded of what Stockhausen said about 9/11….
“What happened there is, is of course — now you all have to adjust your brains — the greatest work of art that has ever existed. That spirits achieve in one act something we could never dream of in music, that people practice like mad for ten years, totally fanatically, for one concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. These are people who are so concentrated on this single performance—and then five thousand people are driven into resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers that is.” Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Hamburg. September, 2011
AB: I have said several times that one of the most powerful suggestion for KA-BOOM is of course 9/11 and a phenomenon called ‘diplopia’, so clearly described by Clement Cheroux (4). Even the famous and controversial photograph by Thomas Hoepker, taken that day of a group of New Yorkers sitting and chatting while behind them a big cloud of dust and smoke rises up from Manhattan, was so seminal to me, not only from a visual point of view (5). If the Pruitt-Igoe blowdown on July 15th 1972 in St. Louis, Missouri was called “the day Modern architecture died”, 9/11 could be in some way the beginning of the end of Postmodernism, or “the climactic conclusion of twentieth-century art’s passion for the Real”(6) (7). An event that has made us speechless and left Art imageless. It is the ‘real’ that awakens us from the ‘reality’ and that may only be experienced, recalling Lacan, as traumatic gaps in the symbolic order. Anyway, I think that talking about an atomic explosion or 9/11 as art works is just a paradox. But sometimes we need paradox to better understand something, to shake our consciences or even to remind us of our finiteness or our impotence towards larger phenomena. In doing this, traumatic events may be compared to act of creative destruction. Traumas exceed our imagination, because they are unexpected and they need time to be processed. They show there is a strong reality that resists illusion. Probably our brain must implement forms of self-defense or compensation. One of these is certainly the imagination, the creation of images to remove things from themselves and be able to face, to accept and to overcome them. As an artist and then as an image maker, I feel both the privilege and the great responsibility. The seductive and aesthetic power of photography leads us sometimes to accept terrible things like normality. “Photography doesn’t smell”, as the Italian theorist Ando Gilardi once said. At the end, I have no definitive answer to your question, but I could say it is always a problem of ‘distance’. In 2011, writer Terry Castle admitted that “Stockhausen gave us a terrible gift: an idea that won’t go away, a truly shocking string of words. If you care about art and its meanings, his proclamation retains its exorbitant power to wound”(8). The distance from an event makes us change the perception that we have of it, just like contemplating sublime objects from a position of safety could be thrilling and pleasurable, even with a ‘compulsion to repeat’. I can recall what Francesco Zanot wrote years ago about KA-BOOM: “There is a constant feature found in every photograph in this series and that is the distance from which they are taken. It is generally quite long and sufficient to allow us to feel safe from any danger. Our position, or rather the photographer’s position, can therefore be read in two different ways. It is both that of a curious bystander faced with an unusual spectacle and that of a bomber delighting in the destruction he has wreaked. Leaving aside our innocence or complicity, these photographs remind us that looking is never a neutral act”.
1. Andrea Botto, 19.06_26.08.1945, Danilo Montanari Editore, 2014
2. Ilaria Bonacossa, “Photos as text” in KA-BOOM The Explosion of Landscape, Èditions Bessard, 2017
4. Clement Cheroux, Diplopie. L’image photographique à l’ère des médias globalisés: essai sur le 11 septembre 2001, Le Point du Jour, 2009
7. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Verso 2002
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Andrea Botto.)