One of the side effects of exhaustion is hypersensitivity to noise and light. Working mainly in video and film, Diego Marcon is familiar with the consequences of eye strain but, as he told me during a visit to his studio in December, the overwhelming quantity of visual information he found himself confronted with over the last year left him particularly drained. On the one hand, there were the viral online videos of terrorist atrocities, the Paris attacks and the refugee crisis, compounded by viewers’ emotional responses to these events on social media. On the other hand, he was invited to spend six months browsing the video-art archive of Careof in Milan, one of the largest collections of its kind in Italy, as part of its residency programme, ‘Performing Archive’. For Marcon, the combination resulted in the sensation of being overwhelmed by feeling, as Hito Steyerl once described it, ‘too much world’.
In order to disconnect from the constant stream of images, and to find a non-documentary way to picture visual stress, Marcon turned to animation. Instead of CGI, however, he adopted the laborious, old-school technique of ‘direct cinema’, painting images frame by frame directly onto 16mm clear leader (the ‘empty’, transparent pieces of film attached to the beginning and end of a reel). Marcon’s aim was to be quite literally in touch with each image. Using liquid fabric inks and black markers to form a ground, he then scratched the coloured surface with a needle to let the light pierce through. For three months, he painted every day, creating almost 2,000 miniatures – an activity he describes as ‘repetitive, meditative, soothing’.
For these works, Marcon’s subject was always the same: the close-up of a head, caught on the threshold between sleep and wakefulness, or between wakefulness and sleep. The resulting films – Untitled (Head Falling 01, 02, 03, 04 and 05, 2015) – are all projected in the form of ten-second loops. In autumn 2015, Marcon presented them at Careof, as part of his solo show ‘Franti, fuori!’ (Franti, Out!), curated by Martina Angelotti. The title refers to a character from Cuore (Heart, 1886), by Edmondo de Amicis, an extremely popular, sentimental and moralistic children’s novel about the life of a school class after the unification of Italy in 1871. Franti went down in history as the quintessential bully until Umberto Eco, in his 1962 essay ‘In Praise of Franti’, reframed the boy’s perennial sneer as an emblem of revolt against the dominant social (and narrative) order. Marcon obviously sides with Eco’s interpretation. His version of revolt is not to sneer but – against the fast pace of our contemporary information society – to slow down radically the process of image production and to use sleep disorders as a metaphor for the difficulty of pausing and reflecting, of thinking beyond the limits of the ‘classroom’.
For Marcon’s show, Careof’s space was plunged into darkness. On the walls, at eye level, the closing and opening eyes of the Untitled (Head Falling) films squirmed and danced, as if unable to focus. On a small screen placed on the floor, Marcon projected another 16mm film, Untitled (All Pigs Must Die) (2015). In it, a sequence from Disney’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) is edited together with sections of plain leader in different shades of red. In the fragment of Disney narrative, Owl is sleeping peacefully until Piglet crashes into a window above him and wakes him up. Marcon loops the scene, so that Owl is continuously woken up by the crash – narcolepsy (a lethargy induced by chronic disruption of sleep) is closely followed by cataplexy (a sudden physical collapse associated with strong emotions). Sound is an important element here: Marcon painted on the optical soundtrack, which runs along the frame’s right side, and his marks generate a background noise of thuds and glitches, amplified by two loudspeakers. (It should come as no surprise that Marcon is a long-time fan of hardcore techno music.) The impact of Piglet’s soft body on the hard glass surface creates such an unexpected blast that, when I saw the piece, I instinctively jumped to my feet, reacting half consciously and half not – like Owl.
Marcon's version of revolt is to slow down radically the process of image production and to use sleep disorders as a metaphor for the difficulty of pausing and reflecting.
Marcon’s work is often described as an enquiry into our capacity for consciously seeing reality. His video Litania (Litany, 2011) followed the progress of a group of pilgrims up a mountain until dusk, with the image gradually fading to black. ‘A film that turns itself off’, as the artist has described it. Pour vos beaux yeux (For Your Beautiful Eyes, 2013), a hand-processed Super 8 transferred to digital, tested the physical limits of vision by recording images of milky clouds dissolving into air. Clouds brought Marcon, by association, to speech bubbles in cartoons and their boundless visual liquidity.
Marcon’s recent series, ‘Dick the Stick’s Saga’ (2014–ongoing), evolved from a cartoon of a boot-polishing army recruit. Dick is an ideal shape-shifter: born as an animation on paper and later recorded on video titled Interlude (Introducing Dick the Stick) (2014), he has also turned up in a book (A Script for Dick, Cura, 2014): a collection of 38 stories featuring Dick, written by artists, critics and friends who Marcon asked to ‘animate’ the character as they wished. More recently, Dick featured in a series of black vinyl wall stickers, such as The Head Shot / The Trench (2015), presented at Museo Villa Croce in Genoa, and also became a 3D sculpture in animated neon lights (The Flintlock, 2016) at the Matadero art centre in Madrid, as part of the survey show ‘ART Situacions II’ (curated by María de Corral, Ilaria Gianni, Lorena Martínez de Corral and Vicente Todolí). Confronted by Dick’s submissive pliancy, I found myself thinking that his most obvious nemesis would be a drill instructor such as Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), trained to indoctrinate people and break their will.
While a daily dose of media images encourages us to suspend our judgement and keep marching on, Marcon’s works request, with deceptive subtlety, that as we do so, we keep our eyes wide open.
First published in Issue 178