“Identity and Illusion”: Empty Factories, Alienated Employees, and Robots at the 3rd Biennial of Photography on Industry and Work

François Hébel and Urs Stahel in conversation with Ilaria Bombelli


To reach the complex in Bologna known as MAST (Manifattura Arti, Sperimentazione e Tecnologia, or Arts, Experimentation, and Technology), you have to cross the whole of the city—its narrow medieval streets, its porticos (almost forty kilometers of them in the historical center alone), its arches and domes. Among the red reflections of its walls and towers, you will smell the soup stock emanating from the restaurants and see some of the most beautiful examples of the Gothic style in Italy. In the Piazza Maggiore, the Basilica of San Petronio surprises with its unfinished, bare facade, with the bas-reliefs of Jacopo della Quercia framing the main doorway. The two sloping towers of Bologna—Asinelli and Garisenda—soar to different heights and lean in opposite directions, like a married couple sulking. In this city, once the stage of intense political and religious conflict, hospitality is a cult, and class solidarity is stronger than elsewhere.

MAST, which has twenty-five thousand square meters of exhibition space, is a nonprofit foundation, the precious brainchild of businesswoman and philanthropist Isabella Seràgnoli (Gruppo Coesia), inaugurated in 2013 in the presence of the Italian prime minister. The building stands just outside the grand monuments and bustle of the center, on a street with a particularly fortunate name: via Speranza (“hope” in English). And yet it never takes its eyes off the city, observing it like a soldier standing high on the mast of a ship, whose eyes, looking down, embrace the whole of the vessel.

This is particularly true when, every two years, MAST organizes a big event entirely dedicated to industrial photography, the Biennial of Photography on Industry and Work (Foto/Industria), which involves museums, a former orphanage, and some of the most beautiful and lesser-known locations across Bologna. To captain the ship, Seràgnoli has chosen François Hebel, from France, formerly director of Rencontres d’Arles photography festival (1986, 1987, and 2001–14), who likes to define himself an “artistic director on the side of the photographers for thirty-five years.” Urs Stahel from Switzerland (cofounder and formerly director of the Fotomuseum Winterthur and Kunsthalle Zurich) is head of the Photo Gallery MAST collection, which expands like bread dough with new acquisitions every day.

This third edition of the biennial offers plenty to feed the visually hungry spectator. Fourteen international artists are featured in as many small exhibitions, running for thirty-nine days (until November 19) at MAST and several other venues across the city (including Pinacoteca Nazionale, Museo Archeologico, and MAMbo). The artists are Thomas Ruff, Alexander Rodchenko, Lee Friedlander, Mimmo Jodice, Yukichi Watabe, Joan Fontcuberta, Mitch Epstein, Josef Koudelka, Michele Borzoni, John Myers, Vincent Fournier, Mathieu-Bernard Reymond, Mårten Lange, and Carlo Valsecchi. Photographs belonging to different times and currents nod to one another here and find common ground. They speak of labor and industry, but also of abandoned workers, empty factories, alienated employees, robots. François Hébel and Urs Stahel tell us more.


Ilaria Bombelli: The first-ever motion picture, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, shows workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. It appears that in the spring of 1895, the Lumière brothers asked all of their employees to reenact what they usually did on a working day upon hearing the sound of the siren. Their smart clothes, justified by it being a holiday that particular day, give the scene a surreal tone. This mise-en-scène prevents the possibility of a clear-cut line between documentary and fiction.

François, the theme of this year’s Photography Biennial, “Identity and Illusion” (the theme of the first edition was “Business/Work,” and the second, “Production”) seems to suggest a dichotomy between uniqueness and unmistakability on one hand, and projection and distortion on the other. Why this choice? Is this a more rounded reading of the world of work as we see it today? Is identity increasingly something of the past, while illusion informs work today and tomorrow?

François Hébel: This title reflects a selection I made with no preconceived idea but the intent to show a large range of approaches to the genre. It became obvious to me that, as opposed to what one may think about famous photographers accepting commissions for money, they do not lose their soul, or at least their eye, when coming on the production site. The selection also gives evidence that photography is strongly a point of view and nothing like proof. I tend to prefer points of view to proofs, actually.

IB: The political and social pictures that Mimmo Jodice (b. 1934, Italy) shot in Naples in the 1970s are strongly anchored in the theme of identity—men in work clothes, crowds brought together by a shared party ideology, children standing as the image of the social condition they belong to (The Militant Years, at Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita). That said, the artist denied that they were born from hope—the gaining of certain rights and the improvement of the life conditions of the poorest classes—turned to disenchantment, illusion. The beautiful photographs of Yukichi Watabe (1924–1993, Japan), on the other hand, have the unreal aesthetics of film noir. They are in fact records of a police inquest conducted—which seems very curious in a similar context—on a body corroded by acid, of which only parts were found. The shattered identity seeks to recompose itself as a puzzle (Stakeout Diary, at Museo di Palazzo Poggi). In these two works, above all others, the tension between identity and illusion appears to be resolved in a convergence that does not define them as either one or the other. Nor does it further polarize them, as Vincent Fournier (b. 1970, France) does with his photos of robots and space stations (Past Forward, MAMbo), for example, or as Joan Fontcuberta (b. 1955, Spain) does with his spectacular constructed images of Sputnik, fictitiously presented as declassified records. How were the exhibitions of Jodice and Watabe conceived? In the first case, how did you choose the photos for the show from Jodice’s extremely vast archive? And in the second case, with the artist being dead, who was the interlocutor?

FH: I learned of Watabe’s work thanks to the excellent book published by Xavier Barral and decided to meet the gallerist who works with the estate, Luigi Clavaro (Paris). The meeting confirmed my interest in having this “work” of a detective in the program. I have known Mimmo Jodice and his wife Angela for the past thirty years. Meeting them at Paris Photo, Angela said that Mimmo had a lot of pictures in production and that I should come to Naples to see them. So I did. Mimmo mentioned that day that he hated the idea of working for corporations and so never did. During the conversation they showed me in disorder some pictures of that period, saying the kids working in the streets of Naples were the closest he got to photographing work. That was the starting point of creating the show together.

IB: Except for Thomas Ruff (shown at MAST), the other exhibitions are staged in thirteen locations across the city of Bologna—buildings with different functions, some of which are usually closed to the public. Fondazione MAST really insisted on this opening up of the city to the public (and on the overcoming of borders as a model of corporate welfare). What was the logic behind assigning each artist to a specific location?

FH: Many things were taken into account, including the format of the show, vintage versus non-vintage pictures, the required temperature and humidity controls in the space, and a need to have the space dialogue with the content of the photographs. We took a distinct pleasure in designing the spaces to make sure that visitors would also go and visit the museums that we love.

IB: Urs, in this biennial you curated the exhibitions of Thomas Ruff (b. 1958, Germany) and Carlo Valsecchi (b. 1965, Italy). The former, at MAST, is based on the series Machines (2003), digital manipulations of glass negatives from the 1930s picturing machines in a Düsseldorf production plant. The latter (Developing the Future, at Ex Ospedale dei Bastardini) is made up of large-format images of the Philip Morris factory in Crespellano (Bologna). Of all of the pictures in the biennial, Ruff’s and Valsecchi’s seem the most abstract (we cannot determine the time of day or the real size of things), at times unreal, post-human. This seems to give them an aura of mystery that is less present, if not entirely absent, in the other photos in the biennial. For example, those of Mathieu Bernard Reymond (b. 1976, France; Transform: Power, 2015, at Spazio Carbonesi) and Mårten Lange (b. 1984, Sweden, Machina & Mechanism, 2017/2017, at Teatro San Leonardo), which are perhaps the closest to these in terms of aesthetics, picture worlds that are indeed highly decontextualized, but still inhabitable. Could this sense of mystery be a trait connecting the work of artists so different from one another as Ruff and Valsecchi? Or are there others?

Urs Stahel: I think there are other themes that connect the two exhibitions. Ruff’s pictures of machines are mostly understandable. They show machines, tools, and products that can be manufactured—machined, ground, polished. We immediately recognize that Ruff is using archival photos from the 1920s or 1930s. We also see the machines as classic examples of the old industry, even though we may not be able to say immediately what they were used for. That’s what we do with the other images in the exhibition, too, the “night” photographs, the “other portraits,” the “JPGs,” the “press,” images, or the so-called “photograms.” In front of these last we are perhaps most likely to stand with our eyes and our mouths wide open, not realizing right away that Ruff digitally produced them. But we realize after a while that Ruff is playing with a double representation. His pictures represent what is depicted in them, and at the same time they represent how they have been made, with which kind of camera, with which kind of machine. As in pointillism, we see from far away a rocket that has just launched, and from close we only see pixels and compressions, the carrier of the image. Ruff thus thematizes photography as a machine, a machinery, that has been developing over the last 150 years. After all, photography itself is a child of industrialization.

Valsecchi, on the other hand, realizes his photographs in a newly created factory—a factory in which describable, understandable industrial processes no longer take place, but rather highly technological processes. Valsecchi takes photographs in an abstract space, in the field of visual invisibility, and reacts to them with abstract-looking photographs, works that reflect the structures of architecture and the processes that mirror the emptiness of the factory, the trans-humanity of the machines, even though a new form of tobacco is finally developed and produced here for the smoking humans. Ruff’s digital photograms and the digitally controlled processes in Valsecchi’s photographs work hand in hand, as Valsecchi’s factory forms the continuation of Ruff’s machines.

IB: MAST’s collection, launched five years ago, contains overall thousands of photographs on the themes of industry and labor, produced since 1860. What is the oldest photograph and what is the most recent? What was the first photograph to become part of the collection and what is the latest?

US: The oldest photograph in the collection is by Charles Thurston Thompson, an albumen print called Clearing the Nave. It shows the end of an industrial exhibition in Paris in 1855. The most recent one is Psychomotor by the Swiss artist Rémy Markowitsch, a grid of twenty-five photographic works shot and printed in 2016. The collection bought some images this year, some of them printed in 2017, but they were shot earlier. The first official purchase for the collection was three photographs by the German artist Werner Mantz, taken in 1937. The most recent purchases were anonymous photographs that we bought at auction this fall. We purchase directly through photographers, through galleries, and sometimes also through auction houses.

IB: Is there a photo or a series of photos you are particularly fond of—for personal reasons, or perhaps because it was a laborious or much-wanted acquisition?

US: Actually, there are many of them. But I like to mention Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel from the 1970s, one of the first appropriated series. Sultan and Mandel went into government and science archives in the United States and selected photographs—banal photographs, or found footage as we would call it in film.

IB: François, this biennial also features a collaboration with the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum through its director, Olga Sviblova, who curated the exhibition Alexander Rodchenko: The Industrial World (at Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Bologna – Casa Saraceni). Rodchenko was the first artist to make powerful and beautiful images from purely functional tools with no aesthetic ambition. Sviblova has stated: “Rodchenko the constructivist, who dreamed of free and creative work and a glorious future for the proletariat, in 1933 was asked to make a photographic reportage on the prisoners working on the construction of the White Sea–Baltic Sea canal (one of the biggest detention camps of the Stalinist Gulag system).” In this exhibition, does Rodchenko too stand as a figure of “disillusion”?

FH: You are probably right about his mood, though I am not sure the pictures directly reflect it.

IB: We should also note the presence of a fifteenth photographer, an anonymous one, who in the early twentieth century documented the transformation of a coal-rich valley in Kentucky—the then-idyllic area of Lynch—into an industrial site (The Making of Lynch, 1917–20). The images, collected in their original photo album but also projected onto the walls and reproduced on a bigger scale, are showing at Pinacoteca Nazionale along with those of Mitch Epstein (b. 1952, USA), which portray a similar phenomenon: the destruction of the town of Cheshire, Ohio, at the time of its acquisition by the American Electric Power Company (American Power, 2004). How did you find out about the Lynch photography album, and what prompted the pairing with Epstein’s work?

FH: This is the result of the work of Artur Walter, a dedicated collector and good friend, from whom I borrowed the Epstein’s prints and suggested to add the album. I suggested the enlargements and slide show, Vincent Lepage, the sound designer, created sounds for the Lynch and Borzoni projections, and we worked with Artur on the production details with Claudia Huidobro, the set designer of Foto/Industria.

IB: How do you both think the image of labor has changed in photography over, let’s say, the last fifty years? Perhaps the greatest evidence is the disappearance of those enormous masses of workers that the Lumière immortalized. The powerful Industrial Landscapes of Josef Koudelka (b. 1938, Czechoslovakia/France), on show at the Museo Civico Archeologico, appear solitary and deserted; one of the scenes, a coal mine in the Czech Republic, calls to mind a concentration camp. Similarly, in the images produced by the photographers of the latest generations, we note an “angle of absence”—empty board of directors’ tables, emptied factories—an occupational void. One example of this is the series Workforce by Michele Borzoni (b. 1979, Italy), shown at Palazzo Pepoli Campogrande. One caption reads: “Amazon, Castel San Giovanni, Piacenza. In 86,000 SQ M 830 people work, average age 31 years, the place is as big as 12 football fields, goods are displayed on millions of kilometers of shelves, and deliveries are made to customers at the rate of one every four seconds.” Another reads: “Open competitive examination for recruitment of 40 art historians at the ministry of cultural heritage and activities. 1550 people applied for the exam which took place in the new Fiera di Roma.” These are no longer the employees with hallucinated faces, canonized by their professional tools (the computer, the loom, the oven), that Lee Friedlander (b. 1934, United States) portrayed in the 1980s with the title At Work (at Fondazione del Monte–Palazzo Paltroni). Nor are these the workers of John Myers (b. 1944, United Kingdom), kicked out of the factories and certainly disoriented but still proudly attached to what had been their task up to that very point (The End of Manufacturing, 1981–88, at Museo Internazionale/Biblioteca della musica). Labor (increasingly atypical, flexible, temporary, precarious—Italy’s current experience in this regard is dramatic) today seems no longer to be the mechanism for constructing people’s identity as it was for centuries. Or do you think it still is? And if so, in what ways does this manifest itself today?

FH: First of all, I do not think all countries are comparable, nor all types of work. Dirty mining still exists in some countries, even if it has disappeared from Europe, the making of cell phones still requires hard assembly-line work, cars are now produced by robots, and so on. I think with the successive crises, human beings have lost their status in the working environment. Unions have much less power since the simple fact of having a job seems to justify not being able to express oneself. This has been a gradual development, but photography does not always show all of this, and this is why, for instance, the work of Michele Borzoni is rare and remarkable.

US: That is a big question, and yes, it is obvious that we are at a point where work might no longer be available for all of us, maybe not even for half of us. We might be forced to find quite different fields to create our own identities. Some will still have their work to do, but some will fight boredom and loneliness. The books of Luciano Floridi, Christoph Kucklick, or Yuval Noah Harari talk about this. This is a process that started a while ago, and certainly by the 1980s it had already changed our visual history. With the streamlining of companies, changes of ownership, and stricter cost controls, the visual histories of many companies have been discarded over the last decades, and jobs have been given to amateur in-house photography clubs and external small-format photographers. The result is a visible deterioration, a dilution, of industrial photography. The pride of industrial photography, the very prominent representation of machinery, architecture, production processes, and products, disappeared for a while.

But industries continued to produce; they evolved, relocated, accelerated. Today they work with new materials, new electronic control systems, and new production processes, even using 3D printers, and thinking of 4D processes. Parallel to the “cultural revolution” in the society of the 1960s and 1970s, a second revolution, the “high-tech revolution,” caught up with Western industrial society. This revolution brought striking changes to living and working life, and shifted societies from industrial to the service of “post-industry.” “High-tech” refers to technologies that are developing new solutions using radical innovations, involving closer collaborations between science and industry. A specialist said some time ago: “It is not the factors of production of ‘labor’ and ‘capital,’ nor is it the productivity of material and energy resources or the resource of information that is the key to social and economic restructuring; it is the factors of production of ‘science’ and ‘technology.’” The information technology revolution has reconnected time and space in a new way, radically changing the spatial and temporal relationship of postindustrial society. Krishan Kumar says, “The computer, the symbol of the information age, thinks in nanoseconds, in thousandths of microseconds. Its conjunction with the new communications technology thus brings in a radically new space-time framework for modern society.”

While the dirty, oily factory of old finally disappeared from Western Europe in the 1980s, a new type of factory has surfaced: the showroom. Showrooms present manufacturing processes as theater and serve as companies’ exhibition and marketing spaces. In the West, industrial production is deliberately inserted into life. One example is Volkswagen’s Gläserne Manufaktur in Dresden, a transparent factory built of steel and glass to produce the Phaeton. Here the factory becomes a cultural, ritual, and productive site: it can be rented for events and even weddings. Julia Franke says: “This is simply where a car—the luxury VW Phaeton Sedan—is put together using supplied parts. But above all the Gläserne Manufaktur serves as a means for the company to illustrate the brand’s aura to customers and visitors… Work on the Phaeton product is presented to factory visitors as on a theater stage. The production process itself becomes part of the company’s marketing.”

If we take a look at the entire world, we recognize the simultaneity of preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial societies and industries, depending on region, culture, and state of development. While in Europe, in the ever-growing service society, industries only appear to develop control and organize, elsewhere extensive and extremely polluting production continues. And influence of production on society has not lessened in significance. The fact that we can still look at informative, thoughtful images of industrial production today is not thanks to in-house photographers, because there are so few of them left; it is thanks to artists, in particular attentive, often conceptually minded, photographers. It is thanks to their concern with industrial and technological processes (and some of them we see here at MAST and at Foto/Industria), the relationship between industry and society, the balance of power, and the effect on humans and nature that we have such enlightening images from a formidably large realm of production.

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