To help cheer our embattled quarantined spirits, the Fondazione Prada is launching a digital project masterminded by the artist Francesco Vezzoli. Called Love Stories and curated by Eva Fabbris, it will run from May 4 as a sort of takeover of Prada’s Instagram account, using its polling functions as a way of addressing topics including love, sexuality, gender, the body, solitude, belonging, diversity, and the future. Instagrammers will be asked to answer, through two pop-up questions, what a couple’s image suggests.
It’s a community-driven digital project that sounds deceptively easy, an apparently lightweight survey that will surely provide a fair share of conceptual twists and turns—exactly as Vezzoli likes it. It seems perfectly tailored to the moment we’re living in and well-suited to Instagram’s multifaceted and powerful nature—while at the same time demystifying it. I asked Vezzoli to talk about the meaning of the digital project, a first for Fondazione Prada and for himself: why love is at its core; why he’s so unafraid of asking unsettling questions; and why fashion has to embrace the digital-age challenge fearlessly.
How did this digital project with Fondazione Prada come about?
The idea was already there before the pandemic’s catastrophic outbreak. I don’t exist on any social media platform, really. I am more of a semi-spy on Instagram, sometimes peeking at other people’s accounts, but I have never had the nerve to participate. Let’s say that this kind of literature doesn’t feel suitable to me. I have always thought of Instagram as a medium of maximum simplification, where images rule supreme and words are almost completely absent. I don’t do selfies, but I have nothing against anyone who does—I just look at this mechanism as a great, rather fun anthropological game.
I’m passionate about movies like Pasolini’s Comizi d’Amore, shot in 1965, and Comencini’s L’Amore in Italia, a 1978 movie. So even before working on this project with Fondazione Prada, I thought of Instagram as being a medium that tells a lot about how people experience and express feelings and sentiments. Pasolini and Comencini used a sort of cinema verité to ask people unsettling questions about themselves and about their identity. A few years ago I did a sort of reality show at Fondazione Prada, where certain personal and psychological questions were being asked [Comizi di Non-Amore in 2004, a reinvention of Pasolini’s language rendered through the lens of a reality show]. So it was a familiar territory for me. Instagram today has the same function: It conveys and articulates feelings, moods, emotions, and conflicting attitudes of love and competition.
So you believe that Instagram and social media today are basically the vectors of choice for emotional and sentimental connections?
Well, I’d actually compare them to a dinner or to a ball at Downton Abbey. In this particular moment, though, social media has been used by some in an intelligent, wise way for humanitarian projects and for fundraising, as Chiara Ferragni and her husband, Fedez, have done, for example. But let’s say that before the pandemic, Instagram was really the place for seduction—I’ve got more likes than you, my thighs are slimmer than yours, my biceps are bulkier than yours, this dress looks better on me than on you, I’ve got 10 more It bags than you’ve got. Let’s assume that, and I’m quoting here philosopher Marshall McLuhan, if the medium is the message, on Instagram there isn’t much room for anything else than that—it’s ultimately its very nature. Instagram is a sort of social ritual, like a never-ending party. And actually, when the pandemic broke out, I felt very uncomfortable browsing through it—it’s a place that people aren’t keen using to communicate suffering or pain. Or perhaps it isn’t even the right place to do it—I don’t know.
I understand—Instagram is a very self-indulgent medium. I’ve also been rather annoyed in this moment by the constant skating on the thin ice of self-celebrating one’s identity.
If you actually do a cross between self-celebration and identity, it approximately becomes self-celebrity—which means that you ratify by yourself your own celebrity. Rather astonishing, is it not? Well, I’m aware that it’s also rather bizarre that I’m talking about my first project on Instagram while for the first time I’ve shut it down! But we have to tell the truth, right? I have to be authentic in my artistic work, so be it. Actually, the fact that I’ve stopped peeking through Instagram’s keyhole has led me to look at the Fondazione’s project in a different way and to confront the problem of the digitization of some languages and behaviors—a problem that was already well in focus before the pandemic.
To give you an example, as far as contemporary art culture is concerned, I find truly annoying some commercial digital forays proposing, say, the viewer a sort of gallery tour just to sell you a painting or else offering a museum virtual tour of a Donald Judd exhibition, for instance. That really doesn’t add up to your understanding and knowledge of his oeuvre. I obviously assume that today the impossibility of physical contact is a dramatic outcome of the pandemic, and we have to take that into account—and art above all else has to come to terms with this. But what I’m saying is that we have to try to come up with art projects that are truly digital, with a true conceptual approach and meaning behind them. This is what the Love Stories project is all about.
What’s the project’s structure?
They’re basically love stories—man/woman, man/man, woman/woman, nonbinary/binary, mother/son. It’s a sort of phenomenology of the couple throughout the centuries. I have selected images from art history—Caravaggio, Giulio Romano, but also Kim and Kanye. On every image, as in Instagram’s polls, you have an option to click, say, West or Far West. Everyone can make his choice and can read the images as he wishes; it can be a sort of easy game or else a more semantic interpretation. What we hope for is to shape a sort of micro-narrative, a hyperconcentrated, almost contracted narration—but a story nevertheless.
Every day an image and a question will pop up online, and they’ll be up for 24 hours, so every time zone will be able to answer. So every weekday a question—and on Sundays a cultural personality will comment on the answers. To give you an example—there’s an image where Ronald Reagan and Imelda Marcos, both dressed in white, are dancing at a party like loving fiancés. The options underneath the image are White Party or White Collar. The image lends itself to a host of layered interpretations—for example, will millennials be able to identify Reagan or Imelda? It also bears a political meaning: Why is it that a president of a democratic country is having such a good time with a dictator’s wife? And why are they both dressed in white? Where were they, and why did they let photographers take such a potentially controversial picture? You could write tomes about that image. Probably people will respond to it instinctively or emotionally or unconsciously—we don’t know. But also Pasolini and Comencini approached casually common people. The fact that those movies are not only relevant but still unsettling today is because they’re revealing deep prejudices. They unveiled ignorance and false beliefs or hypocrisy. Pasolini knew that sometimes the price of intelligence is sheer unpleasantness.
This close-up look at sentiments and feelings is like gazing inward, almost spying on people’s intimacy and inner lives.
Especially in this moment, whether we like it or not, sentiments are taking center stage. We have lived a phase of huge hedonistic seduction—and now the pandemic forces us to be monogamous, not only erotically and sentimentally but also in our sense of friendship. We have to revert to a tight cluster of friends that we really trust.
This moment obviously has shifted our focus on domesticity. There’s this weird dichotomy between intimacy and technology. We are secluded in our homes with our vacuum cleaners, frying pans, and baking tools, reverting to an almost elemental state of survival, and then we’re hyper-connected virtually with the rest of the world, living an immaterial dimension so strikingly different. It makes me think of your embroidery work—so intimate and personal but then contrasting with the extremely sophisticated video language you often use as a medium. It feels to me like a conceptual double backflip, this stretch between intimacy and technology in your work. How have you experienced it in your quarantined time?
For me, if it’s not a double backflip, it isn’t fun enough. I’ve spent this time in confinement to watch movies or series I’ve always wanted to watch or to watch again—like Downton Abbey, for example, which for me is a sort of modern Proustian version of À la recherche du temps perdu, with an excellent script. It’s epic—and beyond its magnificent visual appeal, it’s also deeply political in depicting conflicting social dynamics. I know—my choices aren’t particularly cool! I have no idea which is the latest Netflix series everyone is bragging about. I’d rather prefer analyzing mainstream choices to better understand what millions of people are actually watching. I’m kind of like an ordinary ’80s mum, who, when it comes to her son’s birthday, goes to a record shop and asks the clerk: “Please give me whatever record is at the top of the charts!” I look at everything with a sociological mindset: I want to watch what everyone else is watching. I’m interested in understanding what it is that hits the collective imagination.
Speaking about sociological surveys—our future as of now is rather difficult to predict. Everyone has a favorite version of the topic. Someone says: It’ll all go back to normal as before. Another says: It’ll all be so different and so much better. Who knows? We’re all confused—which doesn’t make for any sociologically accurate survey really. What do you think?
What a question! You want to drag me into this poll. It isn’t fair! But how can I honestly reply? What I can say is that greed, sexual desire, love—the answer is in Roman literature or Greek literature for that matter. You can read Suetonius or the Greek poets’ elegiac fragments, or Catullus, or Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura—the answers are all there. You just need to read the history of Roman emperors—you’ll find extreme love, passions, true feelings as well as true cruelty. Nothing has ever changed.
There’s no pandemic, no digitization, no war or tragedy that can change the true nature of things and humans, I’m afraid. And this is something that pertains to art as well, if art would be willing to honestly confront feelings and sentiments as we’re doing in Love Stories. The history of our feelings has been already written—it just repeats itself. And so saying that the world will change is just a rather stupid assumption. Being jealous of the likes on someone else’s Instagram appeals to the same basic psychological dynamics of envy and greed that ever existed from the beginning of time. It’s our human nature; it’ll never change. What will change is only the medium we’ll use to express instincts and feelings and attitudes. Love Stories is about that; it’s a phenomenology of couples’ dynamics dissected through a very contemporary medium. Whoever wants to read the new world intelligently will see that nothing has changed—only systems and media through which feelings are actually activated will change. To sum it up, if today I watch a talk show with no physical audience, with only the host filmed in an empty set, has something changed? Feelings of aggression and misinterpretation or the acting out of banal conflicts around ideological beliefs—have they changed? I don’t believe so. Insecurity, vanity—they’re still exactly the same.
It’s Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return, isn’t it? But let’s go back to the quest for a conceptually dense way of approaching digital media. You were referencing how art or museum exhibitions aren’t yet up to the mark in their digital renditions. Fashion is in a similar state of creative digital quest at the moment, since physical fashion shows will be banned for the foreseeable future.
I enjoy going to fashion shows, but beyond that I truly believe that fashion is an artistic expression of equal standing with other art forms. I have the same curiosity for a fashion show as for an art exhibition or for the latest Almodóvar or Xavier Dolan movie. And so if this awful tragedy happening to the world will force us to keep physical distance for the foreseeable future, I’m sure it’ll pave the way for a wonderful competition, where fashion houses will call for the best movie directors, music conductors, screenwriters, and architects to imagine the most incredible movies and phantasmagorical mise-en-scène to showcase their collections. To close the circle from where we started, once again it’s the medium that will change—but if there’s substance, the outcome will be remarkable. If fashion houses have a strong identity, it will reverberate into new expressive ways, new visual options, new interactive solutions to exhibit and showcase. I’m sure we will be all there, at 9 p.m. CEST sharp, glued to our computers, eager for a fabulous digital fashion show to start. I believe there’ll be many emotional new experiments, even more spectacular perhaps, accessible to everyone and hugely enjoyable, like a sort of Sanremo Festival. Or like that famous late-’80s Italian TV fashion show called Donna Sotto le Stelle [Woman Under the Stars], shot in open air at night at Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, with supermodels teetering precariously while navigating those steep Spanish steps. How fabulous.
Originally Appeared on Vogue