The 59th edition of the Venice Biennale has just opened. Biennales – of which Venice is the oldest and most prestigious – emerged from a world’s fair model, with each nation presenting technological and cultural innovations, and generally competing for supremacy.
In Venice, geopolitics are writ large. While we are clearly past the historical moment when artworks operated as nationalist propaganda, the fact that the curator and artists of the Russian Pavilion recently resigned in solidarity with Ukraine – the Russian Pavilion will stay closed in 2022 – is testament to the biennale’s ongoing soft power.
Enter Marco Fusinato – noise-musician, Anna Schwartz artist, former Store 5 associate – who is representing Australia at Venice this year. His exhibition, DESASTRES, has been curated by Alexie Glass-Kantor, the executive director of Artspace in Sydney, a curator for Art Basel Hong Kong and a long-term collaborator of Fusinato’s. The work is an experimental noise project that evolves over the 200-day duration of the biennale.
Fusinato turns up every day and improvises on guitar, processing its sounds through pedals and effects hooked up to a large bank of amps. The audio output of the guitar functions as a “signal generator”, informing a synchronised display of images selected at random by purpose-built software from an archive of more than 10,000 compiled by Fusinato. These images flash across a stadium concert-sized LED screen, which bifurcates the gallery at a dynamic angle, in response to the frequencies and rhythms of Fusinato’s guitar. The tempo ranges from Andy Warhol’s Empire to Tony Conrad’s stroboscopic The Flicker. “The work will be alive and open,” Fusinato notes, “changing all the time.”
The politics of representation in Fusinato’s work make him an interesting choice for the Australia Pavilion. His work has always been deliberately stripped of signifiers that tie him to a particular place. His references are resolutely non-Australian: Japanese noise music, European avant-garde composers, his longstanding relationship with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Italian radicalism of the 1960s and ’70s. When recently quizzed about the role of national art in the context of Venice, he responded: “Avoid nationalistic militarism and men in groups, especially in uniforms.” Fusinato’s own uniform, by the way, is lace-up black boots, dark jeans and an immaculately pressed button-up shirt, usually in black or grey.
Indeed, Fusinato’s work offers a rebuke to nationalism. The son of Italian postwar migrants, his identity as an artist and musician was forged against the Australian Anglosphere, which he is prone to refer to as “white sliced bread”. As he explains: “Part of the migrant experience is to be forced outside the dominant culture.”
This marginal position drove him into underground and subcultural music scenes such as punk, industrial, crust, grind, metal (of all sorts) and noise in his youth. Unsurprisingly, many of these scenes – in which Fusinato still dwells – have a strong cosmopolitan and transnational sociality. He has said that there are small but vibrant noise scenes in cities all over the world that he can “turn up to and immediately fit in”. This is, in part, because noise is equally legible – or illegible – regardless of linguistic or cultural difference, because its noise–signal ratio is tipped to noise.
Fusinato does, however, identify strongly with his “other passport”. He noticeably sits up straighter when he speaks of his Italian heritage, and he and Glass-Kantor were at pains to ensure that the title, DESASTRES, was first announced in Il Globo so that his “mama could read it”.
His parents are originally from the Belluno province of the Veneto region, north of Venice. His family has lived there and worked the land for more than four centuries. His parents, and the generations before them, were contadini – preindustrial agricultural farmers and peasants. Like everyone in the region, they were greatly affected by World War II, in which Fusinato’s father served. In 1960 they migrated to Australia with Fusinato’s older brother, Luigi – also an artist with a smaller though abiding following. Fusinato was born four years later.
“I grew up in the working-class suburb of Noble Park [south-east of Melbourne], where immigrants lived as factory fodder for the heavy industries of surrounding manufacturing zones like Dandenong, Springvale and Clayton,” Fusinato says. “All the other kids’ parents also worked in factories.”
He likes to recall an anecdote told by the American minimalist composer La Monte Young, who ascribed one of his most profound musical influences as the “sound of the wind that blew through the chinks in the Idaho log cabin he was born in”. On the sounds of his own childhood, Fusinato remembers: “I would wake up in the morning to the sounds of cars and scrap metal being crushed at Sims Metal at the end of the street. There’s a particular reverberation that occurs at 7am on a still morning. Beautiful.” Here, his aesthetic harks back to the Italian Futurists who embraced the sounds of industry and machines, not least Luigi Russolo’s 1913 The Art of Noises.
Overwhelming, body-trembling noise is a defining element of Fusinato’s practice – at odds, perhaps, with how softly spoken the artist usually is himself. His Aetheric Plexus (2009) is a stadium concert-style sound and lighting system installed inside the gallery. At first inert, an audience member can unwittingly trigger the system so that it will suddenly rain down 13,200 watts of bright light and white noise at 105 decibels. Constellations (2015) is a baseball bat chained to a purpose-built 40-metre wall with an open invitation for the viewer to strike the wall with the bat. The wall is rigged with microphones attached to a PA system, which amplifies the thwack to 120 decibels.
Fusinato is also an assiduous collector of images that, like the high-volume sounds he deploys in his work, pack a proverbial punch. His Infinitives are based on blown-up photos of unidentified rioters, their faces often disguised with bandanas and hoodies, throwing rocks in primal gestures of revolt.
His most recent exhibition, EXPERIMENTAL HELL (AMOSPHÆRAM), was a suite of black-and-white prints on aluminium. Each was a multiple of the same diptych: an image of a scowling, fanged bat on the left; and a 1620 Artemisia Gentileschi painting depicting Jael raising her hammer to strike a tent peg through the head of the sleeping Sisera on the right. As curator and academic Caleb Kelly notes, even Fusinato’s images are “noisy” at their huge scale, where the grain or dot matrix of the source image begins to interfere with its “signal”. In EXPERIMENTAL HELL, many of the images were almost obliterated due to the prints being purposefully overinked. “It’s all noise,” Fusinato says. “Everything is noise.”
One of the most interesting formal manoeuvres of his work is the dynamic interplay of centripetal and centrifugal forces. His long-running series Mass Black Implosion sees him recompose avant-garde musical scores by drawing a line from each note to a vanishing point somewhere on the page. In so doing, he takes a legible document that usually demands a reading from left to right and everts its spatial axis, collapsing it into a vortex. This invites the playing of everything all at once: an imagined wall of noise.
In From the Horde to the Bee, commissioned for the 56th Venice Biennale, Fusinato made a book with a print run of 10,000 based on the publications of an anarchist squat in Milan. The books were stacked neatly around the edge of a large square table. Visitors were invited to throw €10 into the middle and take a book. As the book-wall diminished, up to €100,000 piled up in the centre. Minutes before the biennale closed, Fusinato jumped onto the table, stuffed all the cash into garbage bags, then boarded a train to Milan to deliver the horde back to the squat.
This interplay between centre/periphery, inside/outside and implosion/explosion structures much of Fusinato’s work. It’s also reflected in the symmetry of his representation of Australia at Venice. “I’m returning to exactly the place my parents migrated from to represent the country they migrated to,” he says. “There’s a collapse of time.” Glass-Kantor describes this as a “deeply poetic kismet”.
This dualistic quality has a political application in Fusinato’s work too. It allows him to circumvent a set of categories – such as a position “outside” the mainstream, “outside” capitalism, “outside” commodification – that are increasingly impossible to attain under late capitalism and neoliberalism. As Branden W. Joseph has noted, anxieties about commodification run rife within the various music genres in which Fusinato participates – punk, hardcore, noise – which were established as oppositional and rebellious but are now readily commodifiable.
To borrow Alexis Shotwell’s useful formulation for activist politics in compromised times, “against purity”, Fusinato’s work constantly traverses marginal and central positions – thematising rather than suppressing the political contradictions upon which resistance is made possible. Of the commodification of aesthetic experience, in which contemplation becomes a form of entertainment, he says: “I want to amplify that”. “The interesting thing is how one deals with these agitations, with the contradictions,” he elaborates. “It’s that in-between state that I want to occupy. There’s a dynamism … a relationship and constant negotiation with power and control.”
The guitar is central to DESASTRES because, Fusinato says, “the guitar is capitalism’s entertainment tool, it sells all kinds of commodities and ‘attitudes’ ”. DESASTRES also develops his ongoing performance work Spectral Arrows, which converts improvisation on the guitar into a form of labour through the frame of the eight-hour day. The radically extended duration of DESASTRES, however, opens up a site for foot-dragging and absenteeism – important workerist techniques of resistance that Fusinato is likely to implement on occasion.
The audiovisual performance of DESASTRES is accompanied by a suite of musical scores based on found photographs that have been printed greyscale onto otherwise blank staff paper. Fusinato playfully described his selection criteria for these images as “anything fucked”: a run-over swan, a cat vomiting, the cheery face of an Elmo doll poking out from beneath a huge pile of rubbish. The quality of these images is also “fucked”. In many cases photographed directly off his reflective computer screen, “the photos are completely moiréd, out of focus, terrible. They’re perfect.”
The title, Fusinato explains, also gives some indication of “the spirit” of the work. DESASTRES is Spanish for “disasters” – a reference, of course, to Goya’s gruesome The Disasters of War, as well as the Japanese doom metal band Corrupted, whose song lyrics, titles and albums are all inexplicably in Spanish.
But so much of the press on DESASTRES so far has missed the point of this spirit by homing in on a perceived antisociality in the work and by latching on to offhand remarks such as it being a “fuck-off marathon” or impossibly “oblique, marginal, and unpopular”. This framework undersells the cathartic and pleasurable qualities of the work, along with the broad and diverse communities that are deeply committed to the aesthetics and politics of noise.
To more fully appreciate the work’s cathartic potential, and in keeping with the centripetal/centrifugal dynamic that underpins many aspects of Fusinato’s oeuvre, we need only consider the backdrop in which DESASTRES was developed: over 260 days of lockdown in Melbourne, one of the longest in the world. This period of intense restriction will find an outlet in the 200 days of improvised noise at Venice in a work that “your chest experiences … not just your eyes or your ears”.
As it happens, Fusinato’s performance accompanying EXPERIMENTAL HELL was the first live gig I attended after two years of rolling lockdowns. Once the socially awkward Melburnians had finished filing into the gallery, barely knowing how to be together again, Fusinato flooded the dimly lit space with an electrical storm of noise, immersing us in torrents of distortion, feedback and chaos. Beautiful.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Everything is noise".
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