a conversation with Marco F.G. Paltrinieri and Mirko Smerdel about The Looking GameA serial killer and amateur photographer currently imprisoned in the Death Row: Rodney Alcala.
An alias he adopted while on the run from the police: John Berger, as the famous British art critic.
An archive of pictures shot by Alcala resurfacing from a storage locker in Seattle in 2010, later made available online by the Californian Police in hopes the public could help identify the persons pictured.
These are the main players in The Looking Game by Marco Paltrinieri and Mirko Smerdel.
Starting from the coincidence of Rodney Alcala using John Berger’s name, The Looking Game explores the once-secret archive of pictures taken by Alcala and sets up a series of connections with Berger’s words, which are used in the book as a framework to read the pictures from a different perspective. The book provides an unusual take on the photographic medium, creating a work that calls into question the act of taking pictures as well as the reproduced image starting from the question: “What makes these ordinary pictures so unsettling?” but more importantly also “What is the origin and nature of these feeling? Are they genuine and spontaneous or socially mediated?”
If your bullshit radar is beeping it means it’s working properly: so did mine when I first heard about the idea.
We got pictures of a serial killer, quotes from a great art critic, a thin red line between the two. There’s some kind of perverse surrealistic feeling about the mix, much like Breton’s chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine upon a dissecting table.
A wide space for ideas, criticism and unexpected connections suddenly opens up but at the same time the sensitive quality of the material makes it a slippery ground sloping towards the easy exploitation.
In my opinion there’s much more going on under its surface than boring but creepy portraits by a serial killer + quotes from art critic: there’s an internal structure and progression, an exploration of the relationship between photographer and subject, image and reader. Marco and Mirko’s matching between text and image plays alternatively counterpoint and dissonance thus multiplying the possible meanings.
Not only they assembled the book from a pre-existing “archive”: the authors managed to directly intervene on some of the pictures, a delicate operation with such material. In one of my favourite parts of the book, we are “welcomed” into Rodney Alcala’s home with Berger’s quote “Home is where the distance doesn’t count anymore”; a couple of things are happening here: Marco and Mirko reconstructed the ambient through a collage of many different portraits (“the house is peopled by hundreds of figures”), the blurred faces of the people creating a sort of timeless space “Within it, visible, tangible mementoes are arranged: photos, tropheys, souvenirs”. This is a sort of threshold between the beginning of the book where the portraits are taken out in the streets and the end of the book where the photos have a more intimate nature.
This is part of what I’ve seen in the book, I’m not even sure if this kind of reading was in the authors’ intention but frankly it doesn’t matter, when I read a book I don’t read the author, I read the book.
The peculiar characteristics and the shock factor of The Looking Game’s raw material also act as a sort of enlarging lens, a tool to reach certain grey areas of image production and consumption.
It’s up to each reader to make up its own idea about the book, the validity of the framework used and of the genuineness of intentions of its authors.
I hope this interview will give some useful tools.
Alex: For the book The Looking Game you used some very sensitive material: it shows pictures taken by a serial killer posted on the internet by the police with the purpose of finding missing persons.
You made a selection and proceeded matching them with John Berger’s statements, starting from the coincidence Rodney Alcala while on the run from the police used the alias “John Berger”. In the introduction you state the book is a research. Where you draw the line between serious research and academic divertissement? And how The Looking Game is positioned according to this line ?
Paltrinieri & Smerdel: Our idea with The Looking Game is to provide a study on consumption of imagery delivered through a non-orthodox methodology. The work combines documentary and archival research with a deliberate and intentional manipulative approach.
I studied cultural and narrative psychology, Mirko focused part of his studies on exploring characteristics and uses of the archive in the art practice. Our collaboration starts right from the convergence of these quite specific interests, nonetheless we don’t find any problem to experiment in absolute freedom and without any restriction.
The Looking Game is neither a research on Rodney Alcala nor on John Berger. I would put instead the pictures at the centre of the stage. To this regard, we tried as much as possible to work on the pictures as ‘objects’ in themselves and to develop consequently a study on their reading through opposite/conflictual points of views. The story of Alcala, the coincidental appearance of the name John Berger are elements we explored and analysed as in-depth as possible to create a context through which better highlight our interest in the ambiguities of photographic language.
What we see here are pictures taken by a serial killer, but they also are vernacular and absolutely not unsettling pictures in themselves, images that any of us could have taken. The tension between these two points of views, and all the implications that follow.
These images are a point of departure, not a conclusion. This influenced the way we developed the book and its layout as an open dialogue between visual and textual elements.
A: One of the questions you propose in the book introduction is: why are these pictures so unsettling? Do you have an answer?
P & S: This question must be read in the context where it comes from. More specifically, it refers to the many comments we read online on the blogs that posted and re-posted these pics: “terrible, horrifying, creepy” and so on. As I said before, we struggled to find these qualities in the images.
On the other hand, we found this hiatus worth investigating:
So, why these pics are unsettling then? Probably just because the vast majority of them are extremely simple and common. There are no traces of explicit violence or tension. No visible signs that warns us about their origin. The unsettling nature of these pictures is mediated, informed by a prior knowledge and projected onto them, which is something we find quite interesting. To know that these images belong to a serial killer creates a dissonance, a critical quality that makes them intriguing. It is somehow in this ‘in-between’ space between familiarity and strangeness (or nearness and distance) that we tried to locate our research
A: This actually reminds me of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing where he shows Van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Crows without caption, then, on the next page there’s the same picture again, this time captioned as: “This is the last picture Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.” Our knowledge about the circumstances have changed our interpretation of the image.
P & S: Another important aspect at play here is that looking at these pictures we inevitably come across the gaze of the subjects portrayed. There is a peculiar relationship going on between photographer, photographed and observer in these pictures which is somehow unavoidable once we look at them.
A: What about the modus agendi you used to approach this material ?
P & S: When we discovered Alcala’s archive of pictures we spent a fairly long amount of time exploring it. We were genuinely struck and fascinated by the dissonance between their appearance and the story behind them. We spent some time in a state of ‘confusion’ in which all we did was nothing but looking at them over and over. I guess we were just trying to define and understand our own position towards them.
It is in this perspective, in the attempt to get a grip on this material, that the coincidental presence of the name John Berger in the story of Rodney Alcala became important to us. John Berger, his work, became like a sort of a compass. We read all the books in which he dealt with the topic of photography and imagery and this helped us immensely in creating a framework, a way through which handle such material.
The idea to use words taken from Berger’s works followed shortly. They became a device through which approach Alcala’s pictures from a new point of view.
As I said at the beginning of this interview, John Berger is not only a character within the story. His work, his approach, became a model through which to approach the images and the project as a whole.
A: The pictures you used are part of what can be considered an archive. What is your position upon using archival material?
P & S: To look at something is always an unique experience. In the same way, to approach an archive always leads to a process of re-interpretation of its content. This partly answers your question: we approach the archive as something alive, a point of departure for new interpretations of its content, whatever this can be.
I also think that this approach, which is probably not even that original in itself, made us think a lot about the role of the archive as a tool of power, control and order. To this regard, I like to think that TLG can offer a quite lively and layered analysis of the uses and characteristics of the archive: an archive was created by a serial killer (an enemy of the social order). The Huntington Beach Police took over this archive. They dramatically changed (via editing and manipulation) its content and used it for completely different purposes. Finally, we took over the police archive of Alcala’s pictures trying to give it once again new functions and meanings.
A: Nowadays the act of re-organize archival material seems almost overused. Where does your work differ from a mere recontextualization or new arrangement of pre-existing material?
P & S: As we said before, in The Looking Game we approached the documents from a manipulative point of view. This decision was informed by several aspects we came across during our research and functional in respect to others, including a research over the “limits” of the archive in terms of degrees of appropriation/intervention and shifting of knowledge and meaning.
A: What about the intervention you made upon the documents? I’m talking about the blacked-out faces and the blurred images. Are they a gratuitous feature for the sake of aesthetic or there’s a reason behind them?
P & S:Blurred and blacked-out faces are probably the most visible and ‘dramatic’ traces in the process of editing and manipulation of the material in our possession. As we decided to use some images instead of other so we decided to directly intervene on some of these pictures. Both decisions belong to the same course of action. More specifically, the blurring/blackening is mainly functional to our text + image narrative construction. The blurred bodies, for instance, appear in the collages that focus on the reconstruction of Alcala’s home environment. This relationship between physical presences and the home environment is reinforced by the texts that accompany these images. The same sort of principle is at work with the blacked-out faces. They are our personal answer/solution to a narrative climax that can be understood only by reading the book.
The decision adopted in the installation part of the project (the Appendix in the book) to substitute the eyes of the subjects with texts from Berger referring specifically to the act of looking clearly reflects this approach.
A: Is there any message you are trying to convey?
P & S: There are no specific messages we tried to convey. There were lots of questions instead. We tried to translate the questions that emerged from the analysis of Alcala’s story and archive of pictures into a project capable to convey and expand them, creating this way a space of open discussion.
A: With The Looking Game you put yourself on thin ice, the work raises many questions about glorification of violence, desensibilization of the viewer, voyeurism but the same questions you raise are the same things your book can be accused of exploiting. What’s your position?
P & S: I think it is trough the contrasts and the edgy corners of the work that our concerns about the act of looking, the syntax of photographic language etc becomes more evident and sharp.
The things we can be accused of for this project are the same that we often notice and wonder about when looking at the ways images are used everyday around us.
I find it quite interesting, it creates an interesting loop somehow. So, is our work much more exploitative, for instance, than one of those sensationalistic documentaries about serial killers that we can easily watch on TV? Or, what makes a portrait more heavy/controversial/inappropriate than the picture of a dead body or a sexually explicit one? We are interested in exploring the context-use mechanisms that can dramatically transform the value and the meaning of an image as well as its de-codification.
The manipulation of visual language, its deceptive or abusive use, even without necessarily being violent, is pretty much everywhere around us but it seems that most of the time we do not make a great deal about it, we passively accept it. It is nice to believe that the looking game can make people think a bit more about all these aspects.
A: What’s next ?
P & S:The Looking Game is the first ‘chapter’ of a collaboration between us called the SubNarratives. Taking the shape of a series of case studies, the aim of the collaboration is to reflect on the characteristics and nature of photographs as documents and the relationship between represented “facts” and their reading/interpretations. We are currently planning our new project while in early 2014 we will work on a commission from an Italian museum. Alongside the SubNarratives, we run, together with another friend, Discipula Editions, a publishing house/research platform through which to develop our research interests on the photographic language.
At the moment of writing the book is still available for buying on both sites.
I want to make clear my position regarding The Looking Game: I am co-publisher of the work and this alone could profile a conflict of interest.
I’ve been part of the book project and this obviously means I have a special relationship with the result of the process.
I had long talks with the authors about the concept, its content and its ambiguities, I think some of these conversations are worth sharing to give some more tools to understand and contextualize this thorny weird little book.
I don’t think that my position as co-publisher invalidate my set of questions: if anything the opportunity of working closely with the authors allowed me to dig deep into the material and also to go pretty hard on them. As usual, I leave the conclusion, if any, to the reader.
One of the reasons why I embraced the production of The Looking Game is because I thought it would eventually lead to some potentially interesting discussion.