Armelle Pradalier: Could you tell us about the context for your work in the 1970s?
Gianfranco Baruchello: To explain what led me to create Agricola Cornelia, I should start by saying that the project was a way to metabolize real-life experience. I had known war, fear, memory, and I wanted to forget none of it. I also lived through military operations, Italy’s destruction, and there was no other option than to focus on survival. The context at the end of the 1950s until the 1970s fostered accepting this experience of suffering and the idea of death. In my book Sentito vivere, I suggested that art could be a way of practicing resistance, which I called “individual anti-power exercises”. My personal language slowly evolved and I tried to test out new possibilities for relating images and things. I chose images as a substitution for speech by disconnecting the links that bind the real. I was trying to build a language: I started with the idea of an empty and unpredictable space that I could encounter head-on with my own language. The procedure implied fragmentation, breaking up a constantly changing totality. This dispersion creates a space that can be explored, that allows the possibility of using a personal language to rise to the surface.
AP: How did Agricola Cornelia, an unprecedented agricultural farming project located some thirty kilometers outside of Rome, come to be in 1973?
GB: For me this project was an iteration of the idea of being an artist, to try out a new adventure, related to farming. The term is perhaps a bit reductive but I will try to explain. It was about identifying oneself with a role that is not that of an artist but that of a farmer, while reflecting on my work as an artist at the same time. It all came together when I decided to leave the city and move to the countryside. You have to remember that it was, to use a term by Pierre Klossowski, an “insurmountable” period in history. A time when Italy was marked by struggles between those in power, the government and the factions of the Far Left. Aldo Moro’s kidnapping in 1978 concluded with the unjust repression of all political movements from the Left. It was the end of an era. Followed by a chain of police violence that had obvious repercussions on how the Left continued to develop in Italy. It was a confusing time, and terrorism had come to occupy an unprecedented place. The end of the 1960s led us to a fork in the road: use language to “represent” politics, or use politics as a component of language and artistic action. I tended toward the second hypothesis.
I decided to leave the city to start a new life. I was able to scrap some money together and buy a house in the country. The house was unfinished and the lands around it were divided into untended plots without water or gas and vulnerable to fires. The house included 8000 square meters of garden and that is where the Agricola Cornelia S.p.A. experience began, first as a theoretical fictitious company. In 1968, I already experimented with the idea of founding a company without any legal representation, called Artiflex, a platform that enabled me to carry out complex projects like “Long Distance Happenings”. With Agricola Cornelia, I started to farm the land around the house, experimenting with different kinds of crops. For years I grew wheat, barley, corn and I raised animals: two herds of sheep and up to 42 milk cows. At the same time, I also tried raising small insects: bees and worms.
AP: During one of our discussions, we talked about the notion of use-value as opposed to exchange-value. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
GB: What does it mean, when you are an artist, to suddenly try farming, raising animals, and gardening? What did it mean to me to explore the confines of artistic practice? For an exhibition in 1977, I wrote: “The reader might be surprised that I live in the country, not far from Rome, and that I develop experiences that are complementary and parallel to the production of art objects, through a series of farming initiatives related to the notion of exchange-value. With the idea of proving to myself that creativity (beyond the negative distinctions made today when it comes to aesthetics and psychology) is simply the capacity to survive beyond nature and power. In particular, I ask myself questions that lead me to this conclusion: Farming the unoccupied lands prone to real estate speculation, by planting 5 kilos of sugar beets that will later be harvested as 84 000 kilos, is that more or less artistic (because of its being useful and not useless) than practicing, within the same period of time, a kind of Land Art that might change the landscape’s esthetic?” Agricola Cornelia was an attempt at drawing a parallel between the agricultural product and the artistic one from the standpoints of utility, economy and survival. It was a provocation aimed at a system (of art) that builds a market based on prices resulting from an economic strategy far removed from the artist’s conceptual premises.
AP: It’s another way of entering the world of plants?
GB: For me, an artwork is above all a tool for understanding and unfolding a contradiction. To approach the landscape, you first need to develop a kind of mental activity. In the early 1980s, I tried to transform this mental activity into a reasoning on outdoor space, and therefore the landscape itself. And the activity coming out of Agricola Cornelia was also related to discovering a new place. I wanted to identify more directly with the world of plants. The gardening project was a way to identify my brain with the surface of a grassy knoll in which trees and bushes act as ideas and feelings. This knoll also represented, for me, a space for change. Two Ginkgo Biloba trees were reminders of surviving catastrophe; the root system of this kind of tree is what allowed it to survive Hiroshima. It was a place to keep and maintain: I considered the garden a “concern for self”, a philosophical coefficient. If we calculate the outer and inner surface of a leaf or an ear of corn, we learn something about the reality of plant space: this immense and true dimension is a coefficient for thinking and imagining the possible. It is the secret existence of plant’s matter, its life. The plant world is mysterious. Leaves remember, sleep, communicate, roots dream, prepare and trigger mechanisms. The coefficient is an essential element that allows one to think of time as change. An element that is there to get us talking about anything. I also got interested in the concept of bare life, which is the basic building block for imagination. No grammar, no syntax or religion. Bare life is vegetal, animal. Art is free to answer without morals. And yet the success of the market has transformed the shape of monetary value, it has partially limited and perverted this freedom.
Thinking and imagining are part of nature. A “thinking hand” (like the gardener’s tool) traces a perimeter, a line, a vortex. It is a development, a growth mechanism. In this line we can find the accident of form, an intentional or unintentional stain that translates the complexity of an “artistic” act into images or gestures. This is my way of understanding those events; this was the path I took to construct my language.
AP: Could you tell us about your project Doux comme saveur (“Mild, as in the flavor”)? The project started as a book, then led to a series of video interviews with writers, critics, artists…
GB: I have always worked with moving images using the means of production that were within my reach: first film, then video. One of my first subjects was filming the time of plants. I tried farming all kinds of crops at Agricola Cornelia, including sugar beets, and at the same time I started to keep bees. Based on these elements, I developed some thoughts on the idea of mildness, or the “mild flavor”, which I ultimately used as the title for the project. The subject of mildness referred to the idea of original nourishment (from the mother). I conducted a long series of interviews about it with French intellectuals but also workers in artisanal sectors like baking or artists who had experimented with mild sweeteners as an artistic material. The first interview was with Jean-François Lyotard, a friend of mine at the time. I continued these interviews without posing any time constraints, using humor, notably with Pierre Klossowski, David Cooper, Felix Guattari, Paul Virilio, Alain Jouffroy, Gilbert Lascault, Noëlle Chatelet. Talking about “mild sweetness” usually overflowed into talking about the erotic, into a token-pornographic imagination, and especially into death. The notion of flavor often came up as a physical entity, knowledge as a psychological one. We also touched on notions of ‘sugary’ and ‘sickly-sweet’. David Cooper’s tales of war led us to talk about the sickly sweetness of a cadaver’s fluids dripping into the mouth of a sailor who was sleeping in the bunk beneath it, on a submarine. That terrible event led the sailor to commit suicide in the ocean.
AP: You describe your work as “chamber Guernica”?
GB: From the 19th century, the illusion of the moral value in Great Painting, which I try to capture in the term “Guernica”, got me interested in the ‘anti-monumental’ dimension, which is to say, small-sized images. Alberto Savinio taught us that it is harder to work small but more important than working big. Marcel Duchamp talked to us about the inframince that forces us to consider the space between objects differently. And so, in order to work on a small scale, I suggested a portable “chamber Guernica”. My images create a space in which singular entities are there to offer relationships and links that go beyond the singularity of each entity. Of course, the white backdrop and the presence of “uncertain” space complete the mechanism. When these little images are shared between reality and the unreal, the interstitial space speaks to us of what is possible, or as Marc Bloch says, of the “tendency”.
AP: How do you bring together ‘the place’ and ‘the formula’?
GB: When Arthur Rimbaud came back from Africa, sick, he wrote to his sister: “I’m eager to find the place and the formula”. The formula is the combination of various elements that provides a result to the person imagining them. For several years, these two words, place and formula, represent the territory in which I work. I inversed the order by first working on the formula and then on place, or more precisely, on the plurality of places. A place is conceived as a space in which apparently impossible hypotheses can coexist and are made visible through a variety of media: objects, drawings, projects, videos, films, with a porous apprehension of the border between the physical event and the possible, while keeping in mind that the viewer needs to feel emotionally involved or touched in order to partake in this kind of experience. My piece La formule is a series of boxes containing a plurality of images taken from my visual lexicon. Conversely, Le lieu is a video that shows a plow working the fields at Fondation Baruchello.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Thanks to Gianfranco Baruchello and Carla Subrizi
Produced in July 2013, this interview has already been published in an edition for the Cookbook exhibition (October 18, 2013 – January 9, 2014) at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Paris (National School of Fine Arts in Paris).
Cover: Gianfranco Baruchello, Agricola Cornelia. Cross section with underground systems (detail), 1978. Industrial enamels, chinese ink on aluminium, 40 x 40 cm. Baruchello Foundation, Rome, Italy.