The Body of Energy (of the Mind) is the project that Stefano Cagol – an artist from Trento who has been working worldwide from several years – has been leading for more than a year around Europe.
It concerns with an itinerant project that starting from Bergen in Norway on October 3rd 2014, it has reached the opposite poles of the Arctic and the Mediterranean, and after reaching the extreme pole of Gibraltar, it arrived at the Venice Biennale of 2015. Carried out thanks to the support of the German foundation RWE Stiftung für Energie und Gesellschaft gGmbH, TBOE consists of an articulated research work on energy, intended in its various forms such as natural, industrial, political, human, cultural and social, of which the artist visualizes the witnessing traces thanks to an infrared videocamera, capable of recording the visual tracks of energetic phenomena. Conceived as a journey of energy and movement that led Cagol not only to reach natural sites (the Rhine river, the Alps, the Dolomites, the peak of Gibraltar) and industrial ones (the Ørslev Kloster wind farms, the U Tower in Dortmund, the Koepchenwerk power plant), but also and above all many museums of European prestige (from the Folkwang of Essen to the MADRE of Naples), the project is constructed as a provocative action path and flow of human, artistic and cultural energies. Not for nothing the subtitle “of the Mind” was chosen to highlight the predominance of the intellectual element, as it consists of a factor in the creation of performances, which are perceived as social and cultural meta-phenomena. By placing himself in the tradition that began with Beuys and led to the Arte Povera, Cagol chooses to be a provocateur of human and conceptual relations between elements: nature and man, landscape and industry; but in particular between museum and audience. The infrared videocamera is the thermometer that registers the temperature of the single actions, for visualizing the narration of the invisible process of ‘getting in communication’, which is nothing more than the result of poetic, human, physical and conceptual interactions.
Video: Stefano Cagol, The Body of Energy (of the mind): ONE, 2015, video. Ghent, Belgium, February 3rd 2015 © Stefano Cagol
Glenda Cinquegrana: Inside TBOE there is an interesting incorporation of different types of energy phenomena, which include the energy contained in a power plant, the movement of a racing horse, the pressure of one man’s hands strength on a tree, the physical presence of people inside a room or the public inside an exposition space. The energy is a resource placed along the spontaneity of the animal movement, the energy of nature along the social energy in an encounter of people, the one of culture in a happening or a class of students at work, where the view of the artist develops an all-embracing and transversal perspective. In what type of perspective did you approach the analysis of phenomena that are so war away from each other?
Stefano Cagol: Everything began thanks to interaction. The interaction with the expression instruments that I was using for the first time (the infrared videocamera); the interaction with the audience, who was encouraged to participate in the artwork without imposing pre-arranged scripts; the interaction with whatever I gradually encountered along the way. “The Body of Energy (of the mind)” is actually a long, metaphoric journey inside the energy, in all its forms, triggering different ways of visualizing and representing energy. It constituted of a journey that lasted eight months in total, 20,000 kilometers, and that crossed around ten countries and just as many European museums.
Can you tell me something about the interaction with the visitors?
I believe that art is communication. In this sense TBOE was really successful. I didn’t have to work too hard: the public put the open dynamics of the project to use in a avery natural way, which progressively unleashed the thoughts. An interesting aspect is that the interaction took place through physicality and contact, the metaphorical exchange of one’s own energy with the museum. To come close and exchange are two extremely important concepts.
Inside an itinerant work such as TBOE, what part was given to planning?
Within an international selection TBOE won a prize dedicated to the production of projects regarding the idea of energy and its social implications, which was proclaimed by a German foundation. Thus the idea immediately acquired a concerete value. My first itinerant project dates back to 2006: “Bird Fly/Vogelgrippe” started from Trento and arrived at the 4° Berlin Biennale. A few months later a second itinerant work followed at the first Singapore Biennale, an authentic and proper spin-off. But compared with my previous works, TBOE was a unique project: epic for its extent, extension, intensity and acknowledgment. The journey gained an ‘in progress’ form.
Elasticity and flexibility are characteristics at the root of TBOE. Wherever the interaction with the environment and the public becomes fundamental, casualty represents an indispensable element to consider. Can you tell us about any episode that could clarify the relationship between these two elements (planning and casualty)?
The action of moving – in particular physically transferring from one place to another by driving – implies the encounter and the unexpected. In my activity I also prefer to trigger some reflection rather than imposing just one point of view. In the museums the public participated spontaneously… and the positions that people decided to assume in order to leave heat traces on the wall were unexpectedly fantastic every time, just like the energy traces themselves. At the MA*GA in Gallerate I was asked to hold a workshop that lasted a week in which I was in close contact with some high-school kids. I experimented with them: we went outside the museum and we performed some energy exchanges with nature and the city, using ice or boiling water, or simply with our own warm breath. Together we tried to do some different things. When I began the workshop I was aware of the key points, and of the starting point, but I didn’t know which would’ve been the arrival point.
It seems to me that in this work the museum had an important part, being the space of encounter and interaction. You talk about improvisation, flexibility: do you think TBOE was a project capable of imposing some new logics to the museums’ directors?
The project moved within places where there was a production of energy (intended in its traditional meaning) and places of cultural energy production. These are two extremely powerful forces existing in society, but at the same time they are invisible. Artists and museums are factories of mental energies. The director of the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Tobia Bezzola, reminded me the words of Joseph Beuys, who was the first to refer to art as an exchange of energy and heat. Tobia then coined the term of “thermo-poetic” practices. The work puts at question the museum system itself, and the granite structure of the institutions, as I asked each director for flexibility, velocity, and freshness.
Why did you choose this type of approach with the public?
Symbols, metaphors, present arguments, immediateness, stimulating, communicating, openness, multiple points of view. These are the key words to my relationship with the public. It couldn’t be any other way. The artwork is an opportunity to better understand our own time and future, that the artist offers to the public. It’s a sort of mission. In my account art is never closed in itself.
Which modality of work did you choose to create the interaction with the public? Did you create a performative context or did you limit yourself to recording the spontaneous phenomena?
I used a strong concept, a simple and immediate code that could go into depth thanks to a recognizable symbol, a truck with massive letters outside the institution. Finally I had a designated post with computer and infrared: these were my weapons. The public came close because people were aware of the event and they were attracted by my presence. Curiosity is a very important driving force. In the square of the MAXXI some neighborhood families stopped by and asked to be taped by the infrared videocamera, to look at themselves with such a different eye. All this triggered a dialogue: renewable energies, the museums’ role, art, the magic of technology… The actions were never written previously, but they were always experienced as natural interactions. In this sense I could say that it dealt with a mix of the attitudes you talked about: a recording of spontaneous performances.
The infrared camera plays the metaphoric part of collector of thermo-visual energy. Where did you get the idea of using this instrument as a witness of phenomena?
In my path each work is connected with the previous one and the next one. In 2013 I was invited to create a public artwork for the Barents Art Triennale, so I set up an itinerary project with a powerful ray of light. In TBOE instead of causing a hyper-visible energy, I wanted to collect the invisible one. Thus I chose the infrared camera as a symbolic way of collecting energy portraits, so to make visible what cannot be seen. The videocamera is able to capture that part of the light that is dark to our eyes, but that we perceive as heat. The camera imposes a different way of seeing. It was only by doing it ‘in progress’ that I was able to understand how to use this new tool of expression at its best.
In your work we can find a continuous political and social debate on the present reality, in which your artistic practice is able to advance some thoughts on our consolidated behaviors in relation with the media system and the mechanisms of power.
I never impose a univocal point of view. For instance, when I worked on the idea of boundary, I underlined its double nature as an instrument of closure and an exchange gateway. In the project “Bird Flu/Vogelgrippe” I decided to reflect ironically upon the idea of physical and mental influence, power and prevarication of the media. In TBOE what interested me the most was to seize the socio-philosophical aspect of the theme of energy rather than the political-ecological one. I freely gathered the shapes and traces of the energy, and the portrait that emerges is one of beauty. Certainly there is no lack in references to the future of energy, the one of man and the planet, and our controversial relationship with nature.
All images: courtesy the artist