After studying in London, working for the Victoria and Albert Museum and spending time at the Cité des Arts residency in Paris, independent curator Federica Chiocchetti created her own editorial and curatorial platform The Photocaptionist, where she explores photography, fictions and words. Singulart was lucky enough to interview her about her career and future projects, discover here an inspiring curator.
Can you tell us about your artistic career and what made you become a curator?
Although if I think about it now it feels the only logical job given my personality and background, as I love to take care and preserve what I believe to be beautiful objects, I actually became a curator by accident. I have always been fond of literature and that’s what I started with in the first place. I was studying comparative literature at UCL in London and through various research and work experiences, I discovered the world of art theory, and more specifically the theory of photography. Of course growing up in Tuscany, the cradle of Renaissance, helped develop a demanding visual literacy and art exhibitions have always had a mesmerizing effect on my evolving retinas, but, no matter how paradoxical it sounds, my deepest encounter with art was through words rather than images.
Then, I started to collaborate with the largest UK international photography festival called FORMAT and I loved it, especially the combination of working with both established and emerging artists. Festivals also give you the great opportunity of pushing the limits of traditional exhibitions in museums. For example, in 2013, with the artistic director Louise Clements, we were able to organize an exhibition in an abandoned chocolate factory, which still had stained chocolate on the walls. It was such a fascinating experience to reconvert that space for a photography festival whose theme was precisely “factory and mass production”.
I always studied and worked at the same time, and it was great to observe how the two nurtured each other and created synergies. Through my research, I focused primarily on photography and words, to dissect how they work and interact together, and this theme, little by little, also became the focus of my curatorial and writing practice.
A fantastic curatorial fellowship sponsored by the Art Fund in the UK allowed me to work in the department of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Nottingham Castle and to curate an exhibition and symposium on the photographer and writer Peter Henry Emerson, trying to reveal lesser known aspects of this master and pioneer of photography. Thanks to this exhibition I understood the notion of the fragility of artworks as something that deserves to be taken care of, and the desire to devote my time and energies to their preservation and circulation. Then, I became interested in curating as a discipline and somehow art in its own right and I started reading a lot about it. I am always fascinated by how certain curators such as Harald Szeeman have ‘written’ new chapters of the history of art.
Can you tell us about your book Love and Lead as well as your Photocaptionist platform?
Combining a full time job and a PhD is quite difficult so, after the V&A, I started to work as a freelance curator and writer. A lecturer of mine of history of photography, Roger Hargreaves, asked me to join him to work on a press and paparazzi photography project at a very eccentric and mysterious place in London that has become legendary for its irreverent and original approach to the history of photography, exhibitions and book making: The Archive of Modern Conflict.
A true cabinet of curiosities, where vernacular and authorial vintage prints, rescued from all sorts of hidden and about-to-disappear international archives, or flea markets, the Archive of Modern Conflict re-contextualises visual history in daring and unconventional ways. Amore e Piombo, in English Love and Lead, aimed at revealing the full story of paparazzi photographers in 1970s in Italy, an extremely difficult period of Italian history during which, between bombings, kidnappings, red brigades, neofascists and the strategy of tension, the country was nearly under a civil war.
While dissecting a press photography archive of a now-defunct agency that operated in Rome, with Hargreaves, we realised that the same Paparrazi (a term that became popular thanks to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita), known for shooting celebrities in Via Veneto, were the same people who documented the political turmoil of those delicate years in Italy. So, Paparazzis were operating vigorously between glamour and conflict. With the book, which also existed as an exhibition at Brighton Photo Biennial in 2014, we wanted to share this double and contrasting nature and atmosphere of 1970s paparazzi photography.
As I needed a more playful way to deal with my PhD on the history and theory of photo-texts (those bi-medial artworks where photographs and words have equal importance), I decided to create my own editorial and curatorial platform called the Photocaptionist, through which I operate independently, yet collaborating with public and private international institutions. It’s both online and offline and it’s dedicated to exploring the relation between photographs and words through articles, interviews, itinerant columns within the pages of other magazines, exhibitions, books, events, lectures and mentoring.
How would you describe your curatorial process of creation?
I start with a linguistic approach, usually through a brainstorming from the etymology of the concept that I want or have been commissioned to explore. This leads to a preliminary bibliography of books and catalogues already published on the topic. Simultaneously I try to speculate about the audience of the project and this leads me to also look at the history and meaning of the place and people in which the project is taking place.
I first compile a list of artists to include that come to mind and to expand it and go beyond what I already know, I spend hours in the Kandinsky Library in Paris and on the internet looking for new names. I also exchange with colleagues that I really admire or ask artists to introduce me to the work of other artists whose research is in line with the topic I am working on. Curating is not a solitary job and the networks of contacts are very important tools to exit your comfort zone and expand your horizon. As a matter of fact I enjoyed more being a co-curator than a curator, after all two brains are better than one.
How are literature and photography connected?
In so many and multiple ways that not even my 369 pages PhD thesis written part-time over 8 years could possibly exhaust them. To really simplify things I would say that the relationship between photography and literature has been studied from different angles:
1. The impact that the invention of photography had on fiction writing (Andre Breton for example included photographs in his 1928 novel Nadja to eliminate all descriptions)
2. The photographic interpretation of literary subjects (Julia Margaret Cameron’s images inspired by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in 1874) or literary authors (simply portraits of writers – Balzac and the soul-stealing camera comes to mind) and, which for me is the most intriguing and less-explored way
3. The cases in which both disciplines co-exist within the same project, such as novels or short stories embedded with photographs or, vice versa, photographs with literary words embedded in or around them. What changes often is the degree of hierarchy in the relation between photographs and words. And this would open another Pandora’s box, which I hope to share soon by publishing my PhD research.
I like to think about literature and photography as two planets that collide and expand each other’s ambiguity by enhancing their reciprocal narrative.
How do you work with artists?
It depends on the project. If we are showing their existing work I always try to collaborate with them to see whether they are interested in identifying possible new ways of exhibiting their work, especially if it has been shown before. It is not always possible of course, but I tend to see every exhibition of a body of work as a sort of unique happening.
If it’s a new commission and they ask for my support or opinion, I try to collaborate with them since the very beginning of the creative process, but I also really enjoy commissioning new work on a theme and then leave them to craft it to then discover their artwork as a surprise.
You have been a curator in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2019, what can you tell us about this experience?
It was a fantastic experience. Living in a big building with more than 300 artists studios in the heart of Paris, in front of the river. Every day there is a conference, a concert or a performance. You mingle quickly and exchange opinions, ideas, feedbacks, without hierarchy or pressure. I felt I was witnessing a vibrant artistic community in fieri.
La Cité des Arts is an inclusive and healthy institution, I wish every country in the world could copy their model because such places are crucial artistic lungs for a city and such moments of encounter and exchange are vital for artists. La Cité des Arts also marked my curatorial practice as it made me rediscover the importance of the artist’s studio and the importance for a curator to visit as many as possible. It gives you access to the artist’s mind and modus operandi. The artist studio is an artwork in its own right.
Do you consider yourself a feminist curator, how is the feminist cause influencing your work today?
Feminism is such a complex and multifarious concept; there are so many waves of feminism that it should be a plural word. Of course I am a feminist, but in the most natural and peaceful way. Luckily in my job, I don’t even have to think about quotas because every time I work on a project I always end up including as many female artists as male ones almost unconsciously. I hope that we will reach a time when quotas and dedicated projects in which the theme is the gender of the artists won’t be necessary anymore.
Which artists, writers, curators inspired you in your work?
The list is quite long. In terms of artists definitely Victor Burgin and Barbara Kruger for their scripto-visual works. My curatorial idol is Harald Szeemann for his groundbreaking irreverence and independence. His exhibitions are artworks in their own rights.
What are your next projects?
I have transformed my PhD on photo-texts into a touring exhibition and I cannot wait to see it taking shape whenever this pandemic is over.