A Failed Entertainment (2012 – 2016)

This project is the result of a three-year research on the territory of the city where I live, Milan. Here, I photographed a variety of realities that, on one hand, identify the city itself and, on the other, they define my experience of the place: from the outskirts to downtown, from the streets to the institutional venues, from the abandoned buildings to the construction sites of the new ones, up to the people I care of.

As a color-film photographer I have always held with the concept of authorship, approaching reality in a straight way. Intrigued by the potential of the Reverse Image Search (https://youtu.be/t99BfDnBZcI) powered by Google, I got interested in whether and how the digital visual patrimony, boundless and democratic, could fit within a similar attitude. I uploaded my photographs to the website: each of them would generate dozens of images to be considered as visually similar, at least according to the standards of similarity of the algorithm located in the application. Once collected – according to a random selection in terms of quantity and type – all sorts of images I received from the web, I put aside the original photographs, hiding them within the new body of work, and started to print each of the anonymous files on acetate sheets, always keeping their original download size.

The overlapping of multiple layers, backlit as some kind of multifaceted light box, separated the visually similar images from the original ones, increasingly. All in all, I scanned each group of acetates into one digital image, flattening them and seeing them merge into a new single vision: it was so close to my work, from which it was generated, and still completely unfamiliar. The metamorphosis of my work was finally accomplished.

From the point of view of images
By Taco Hidde Bakker
At the basis of Alessandro Calabrese’s series A Failed Entertainment lie analogue photographs he took over the past three years on strolls through Milan, the city he’s based in and where he teaches photography; focussing on a variety of topics, including the city’s outskirts, construction sites, abandoned buildings, street scenes and people whom he cares about; images that to a large extent were inspired by classical Italian photographic realism.
Despite a fascination for illustrious Italian sources of inspiration, Calabrese developed an ambiguous relationship with the notion of the singular, authored photograph. His interest in the internet, algorithms and Google, made him discover the artistic potential of a powerful tool by Google, called Reverse Image Search, to which he uploaded his Milanese photographs, which then would generate images, sometimes up to several dozens, that the application thinks are “visually similar”, as defined by its pre-programmed algorithms. In a promotion film for the application a statement is made that perfectly describes what Calabrese had in mind for what his new project could lead to: “Now, every image is a jumping off point to explore, examine, and discover.”
From the results for each of the photographs Calabrese processed through the Reverse Image Search, he randomly selected a handful which he then printed in their original sizes on separate acetate sheets. By overlapping the sheets and including his own made source image in the centre, Calabrese arrived at colourful collages for which his photographs were but the starting point; merged into a new vision, as he calls it, calculated by the algorithm, at once close to his photographs yet completely different.
Calabrese sees his process for A Failed Entertainment as a form of selfcriticism with regards to authorship in photography: why do you take a picture, when and where? What are a photographers’ options when there is so much to choose from? Google’s image-matching algorithm was supposed to cancel out authorship, but it slipped back in when Calabrese had to make choices regarding his selection, the style of overlapping and deciding at what point to stop: “What we see is the end of a process, a performative action so to say, in which all the images are merged together.
It proved impossible not to stop, so in the end I was forced to make a choice.” What fascinates Calabrese are photography’s basics, in this case his own straightforward registrations of things and situations that strike him, but combined with the concept of infinite reproduction, represented through the theory of the fractal: an object that is build up from an infinite number of constituents similar to it in shape. David Foster Wallace’s complex, dystopian novel Infinite Jest (1996) of interwoven plots starts from the fractal theory and was originally to be called A Failed Entertainment. It is with this project that Calabrese pays homage to a writer that inspired his thinking on and dealing with photography in the networked age. Within each of the images of A Failed Entertainment the source image is supposed to hide inside the black hole occupying the centre. “It might just be an idea, though I’m not very fond of ideas in photography, as my images could as well be absent altogether, but they are there, hidden inside the gravitational black centre.” The whole project alludes to the overwhelming amount of images available to us nowadays, and for Calabrese the black hole is a representation of the frustration of being confronted with the unsettling idea of not being able to follow the ongoing stream of pictures and words anymore. At the same time, the black hole seems to stand for a kind of catharsis too, a blind spot and a garbage can for our image-overload, into which now ironically Calabrese’s own, carefully crafted photographs have disappeared from sight. “My ambition was to show something more objective. With an apparently simple tool I called up pictures starting from my pictures. I want to show something about the world using other people’s photographs, not so much from a point of view of singular authorship, but from the point of view of images.” And Calabrese added that his is also a reflection on the archive, his own archive filled with real photographs, as well as the boundless archive of images circulating the world wide web: “Perhaps they’re gone already, deleted from the web, when I wish to revisit them. So in a way I freeze the moment wherein my images generated these supposedly similar images.” Every new input may yield completely different results, which Calabrese thinks to be an equally frightening as satisfying thought, as it has led to some sort of new decisive moment, in its technological sense, but it worries him too, because it might go on infinitely: “I do need to know the line that I cannot cross. When should I stop?”