In an essay first published in 1992 (Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times), the Italian semiologist Omar Calabrese analyses contemporary culture in an attempt to compare its manifold manifestations with the formal features of the Baroque. Baroque here is quite a contentious term, as Calabrese points out throughout the text, and means more than the historical period usually associated with this label. However, this is not the focus of today’s post. Rather, I would like to consider one practice singled out by Calabrese to describe the way cultural products are experienced in the contemporary age: productive consumption. In particular, I will apply this concept to the visual arts, using examples from the oeuvre of Mario Schifano (1934-1998), an influential Italian pop artist, and Konrad Wyrebek, a promising young artist active since the early 2000s (you can visit his website here).
Television Landscape – Mario Schifano – enamel on canvas
First, what is productive consumption? According to Calabrese, when faced with a considerable amount of information at fast-paced rhythms, our mind actively re-assembles the visual and intellectual elements into new products. He exemplifies this idea through zapping. As the spectator moves through a variety of different programmes, the mind does not passively receive the content of each individual component. Rather, it generates a completely new narrative, mixing together heterogeneous elements into a new coherent form. For the sake of Calabrese’s argument, the idea of productive consumption serves to demonstrate the active role of the contemporary spectator and the dynamism of experience. Even if the vastity of information acquired through contemporary media is far from manageable, the individual does not remain passive but rather finds a way to generate meaning amidst this chaos.
Calabrese’s commentary stems from the awareness that modern digital media have increased the range of available information to the point where it is likely to become redundant. In a way, the value of images appears to be somehow decreased by their overwhelming availability (one might think of Walter Benjamin and his theories in the field of art). Mario Schifano inspects this key issue through his oeuvre, and particularly in his Television Landscapes, a series of enamel-on-canvas paintings that he made from 1969 and throughout the 1970s. To produce these works, Schifano took pictures of TV frames which he then turned into paintings, using the photographs as models. The semi-transparent quality of enamel allows him to render the fluctuating and ephemeral look of the images on the screen, adding a dreamy quality to the picture.
FoRRESTMA – Konrad Wyrebek – oil, acrylic, UV ink, spray paint, varnish on canvas
The Television Landscapes analyse the way our mind registers the endless flow of images on a screen. It is an active re-enactment of materials that are usually acquired in a mindless and passive way and, as such, it provides an example of what productive consumption may imply in the field of the visual arts. However, in Schifano’s works, the chosen techniques maintain a strong connection with traditional image-making methods, since he is translating photographs into paintings. Moreover, his media choice is limited to the television, as a consequence of him creating these works of art in the 1970s. Unlike Schifano, who died in 1998, Konrad Wyrebek is a young artist who could witness the advent of the digital era in its entirety and his art displays a more elaborate take on the potential forms of productive consumption. In particular, I am referring to his Data Error series, a group of abstract paintings which analyse the effect of data corruption on the experience of digital contents.
CaMMo – Konrad Wyrebek – oil, acrylic, UV ink, spray paint, varnish on canvas
As in Schifano’s works, Wyrebek’s Data Errors employ heterogeneous materials, such as videos and other digital formats, drawing upon them as the raw base of each work of art, usually based on big canvasses. He focuses on the errors of transmission between the digital files and the devices used to display them, reproducing the result onto the pictorial support through a method that employs both mechanical and manual transfer methods. This creates a dialectic between the automatism of the machines he uses and the errors which are created in the manual process of painting. In this process, productive consumption becomes the medium through which new aesthetic objects are created: the aleatory error is turned deliberately into a subject of study, although Wyrebek himself has little control over the exact nature of the final image, as he is still bound to the limits imposed by the digital components of his system. This shows the curious interplay that implicitly inhabits Calabrese’s analysis, as the maker/viewer maintains an active role while engaged in a phenomenological dialectic forcing him to acknowledge the creative power of other parties: the video, the casual transmission errors, the forms transposed mechanically onto the canvas, and the human errors which may occur throughout the procedure too.
Abstt – Konrad Wyrebek – C-type on metallic luminescent paper with resin coat
The concept of productive consumption stems from the relation that is created between pervasive contemporary media and the viewer, rejecting the notion of the latter being necessarily relegated to a passive state. According to Calabrese, the consumer of cultural products maintains some degree of agency, starting with the moment of experience. The idea, which I have proposed here through the examples of Schifano and Wyrebek’s works, is that no form of consumption can be completely passive and the result develops from the interrelation between viewer and object. Furthermore, the chosen cases offer an interesting insight into the ways artists have been approaching new forms of communication and the way they may impact our perception and understanding of visual culture, imaging and re-imaging it through their creations.