Over the course of six very intense months of exchanges, questions, and answers with artist Giacomo Spazio, a historical symbol of punk and underground culture in Italy, we took on many of his creative matrices: performance, poetry, experiments with Rank Xerox, fanzines, publishing adventures, bands, the music market, his artistic production interacting with musical and non-musical media, up to his latest work Segni Lasciati Lungo i Bordi dell’Autostrada Verso il Futuro (Signs Left Along the Edges of the Highway Toward the Future), a very long “New Encyclopedia of Modern Art” where we can find all existing types of writing: the alphabetic, the signic, the iconic and the asemic. The result? Almost 15 pages of an interview and 36 photos– a chapter of a book. What should drive you all the way through? The sheer desire to surf through the infinite waves that make up the explosive vitality of Giacomo Spazio.
Dear Giacomo, I think there is no other way to construct this interview than to start with the basics. What is it like for you to have an “attitude in the underground”?
Attitude is, quite simply, everything! Attitude is a cultural parameter that encompasses unwritten norms (think of the disciplines of hip-hop i.e. djing, mcing, writing, breaking, beatboxing), which determine who you are as a devotee of the subject matter in which or with which, you want to express yourself. Whether you want to act in a territory confined to the ‘subculture’ or in a more conventional, common, or commercially dominant sphere. Underground simply means below the surface, still hidden from most and not conforming to the rules of society. But since we live in a constant flow of information today, ‘underground’ does not mean that no one knows you, but that no one knows exactly what you produce within the society in which you live, and specifically, before I am asked, my relationship with the mainstream has always been the same: “Include me out!”
NOTE “Include me out” does not mean exclude me, but include me out… in Italian, it could be “I’m there but when I want to, but you have to consider me simply because you don’t have the right to exclude me. I am there when it is interesting or there is an equal relationship.”
You just told me about the underground, but often in interviews, you mention the term overground, which, to my surprise, I had never come across. So what is this overground? Does it exist independently of the underground or are the two terms in a close relationship of mutual dependence/complementarity?
Overground is obviously opposed to underground, thus visible. The production of a fanzine is underground by its very nature since it possesses a low print run, but its producer can put it up for sale in a store specializing in independent publishing (i.e., outside the big distribution circuit) where shop-goers can decree its success or failure. When something deliberately leaks out of the Underground to be “shown” to a diverse audience, a shift in meaning takes place. It enters the Overground, becoming, in fact, visible to all and potentially a phenomenon of custom – a person’s usual way of acting, thinking, and behaving – with its probable commercial drift.
We tackled the question of the fanzine, which I have no doubt in stating is of vital importance to you. There follows a series of rapid-fire questions (like a dedicated section within the interview), and the answers will perhaps exhaust my boundless curiosity on the subject:
1.1 What was the very first fanzine you made?
It was entitled Città Nuda (Naked City) and for the first time, I was putting some of my poems on paper. It was in 1976 and I made it with my friend Antonio Meo. Before that, I had only assisted in making small independent political publications like Max Capa’s Puzz, Gatti Selvaggi, and Poesia Metropolitana (of which I was a member). Then I did nothing more until 1980. From then on I went on to produce both zines and books of various formats, though intermittently.
1.2. Which is the last one you have made or which one are you creating right now?
The last one, “NS BN 22,” was made for and with Norberto Spina and went on sale in mid-November 2022. While the next one might be a zine under my name or I might give to the press an art magazine.
1.3. How do you approach the making of a zine?
In every publication I am entrusted with, I always try to tell a story, so the quality of the materials I have to work with is not important to me, but the road to its final realization is always full of doubts and second thoughts.
1.4. Making a zine: do you think it is a collective and sharing process or rather something intimate and personal?
Both modes can be used. I, however, if I work for others, always need an exchange of views before I accept and undertake the practical work. Then the process inevitably becomes “intimate,” but this should never overshadow the ideas expressed by the person who entrusts his or her “art” to me, since my task is to make the quality of his or her work evident and stand out.
1.5. What are the most significant publications done by others that have indelibly marked your imagination?
I am an unabashed admirer of artists’ books. I own several of them and owe it to the imaginary solutions I constantly find “hidden” in their pages to inspire me. Specifically fundamental has been Process; A Tomato Project in its two variants for making me definitely understand how to work with images, with text, and with these two elements together. I am infinitely grateful to Tauba Auerbach because her books possess complexity and fun.
1.6. To create an editorial project, where do you start? Do you have a prior idea or do you let the textual part and the images guide you?
First, I look at the material they have provided and if I like the work, I immediately ask how much financially you have to make the required print run. Then I think about the format and the paper. Then I go directly to the layout work by simply following my instincts looking for a rhythm and, at the same time, I try to find solutions (typo/graphics) to achieve what, slowly, before my eyes, is formed. I also often like to add small difficulties that need manual dexterity to be solved.
1.7 What time dilation can there be from the first germinal idea to the final realization/distribution of a zine?
Generally, in 30 to 45 days it is distributed. It simply depends on its complexity. It once happened that, having finished even the printing, the artist waited more than a year to put it on sale.
Let’s stay with the artist’s book/fanzine theme but from a theoretical point of view. For 6 academic years you taught at Milan Polytechnic and in your 2006 book “Fuc/H/Ksia. Manuale di Controcultura grafica per le nuove generazioni (Handbook of Graphic Counterculture for the New Generation)” with your texts and design by Fs52, on one page you write, “There is no better practice thAn theOry.” Would you tell us more about this statement of yours, which perhaps I would not be wrong to call an aphorism, as well as your experience at the Polytechnic?
Essentially, I believe that in all human activities, we must have the courage to go to the root, to the essence of what we are directly involved in. In this case, we are talking about graphic design, and the sentence clearly indicates that the study of graphic design theory is the best practice for being a graphic designer. This is because it does not matter, at least to me, that the work of a graphic designer is closed (for short) in the binomial “ugly/beautiful,” but that the user gets the message that, as a graphic designer one should communicate and, I will never tire of repeating it, if the work of a graphic designer possesses a social value, it is because it is the membrane of communication between society and the individual, between culture and commerce.
Teaching work, on the other hand, is very beautiful as well as very tiring and poorly paid. To make up for the scarcity of the vile pecuniary, I have always established a relationship of open discussion during lectures, and the feedback returned to me by students has often more than repaid the effort and, of course, the lack of the economic content.
In addition to this I add, “Young people, you who possess energy, ideas, you hold the world in your hands. Rock everything. Exploit every possibility made available to you by technology. Screw any formal rules. Don’t let anyone tell you how to approach a problem. It is the result that counts, and even if what you have accomplished looks horrible in most people’s eyes, still be proud of your work. Look at yourselves in becoming and being seismographs.”
It makes me smile because as I continue with my collaboration with Street Levels Gallery I find more and more connecting lines between the various interviews, and macro-sequences that all come back…for example, how to approach a problem, so-called “problem-solving,” We had talked about it extensively in the interview with Rub Kandy with whom, by the way, you exhibited in September 2022 with the exhibition “Collective Illusion” in Turin. The next question, however, let’s go to Milan. What do you find difficult about the city you live in? What would you change?
I find the narrative of a ‘green city’ false. For instance, the rule that in Milan from 2024, cars must only go 30 per hour, while they don’t have the courage to ban car use tout-court. Moreover, with the monstrous cementing, we have been witnessing for the past couple of years, the areas are being taken away that could be used for small green oases, thus contributing to poisoning the air for all citizens. As if this were not enough by cunningly taking European laws literally, it is allowed to transform every lousy lot (stores, basements, cellars) into housing units, therefore taking away spaces that could be useful for conviviality and sociality. Finally, nothing exists in Milan for the arts except associations that are in fact private clubs.
Culture in Milan is a funny mystery. Of course municipal spaces, if you have a project, they give them to you, but that’s all they do. They give you space and everything else, and I mean everything, you have to supply it. The counselor for culture and his department are not able to accomplish anything. Art in the city is just business. The City Council gets powdered, that’s all. What would I change? Personally nothing, I am so used to making things up (I am not the only one of course) that the relationship with the institutions in the city where I was born and live is only governed by bureaucracy.
Dear Giacomo, I would like to explore with you your beginnings. I think it is always interesting to delve into the beginning because, in a certain way, you find the roots of something that will grow later. What poetic phrases did you write on the walls of Milan in the 1970s? What consisted of the performances you were doing in the 1980s? How have those legacies flowed directly and indirectly into your artistic practice today?
I started writing early even in the beginning stages, even though I published very little of what I had written and am writing today. From the early 1970s, I would honestly say that I don’t remember anything except this sentence, “I am not an ordinary man. Between me and the sun, no difference “. A sentence that later ended up inside a poem (among the first ones that were published published), titled: ‘Voglio i soldi’ (I want the Money).
At that time on the walls of Quarto Oggiaro, I used to spray draw a head on top of a spring that simply said, “Hello!” on a sort of open box. I stopped because of the cost of cans but resumed in the early 1980s to fill the walls between here and Spain with stencils.
Of course, I always hope that someone, by chance, has photographed the walls of Quarto Oggiaro and that what little I did might reappear, as happened to me with the performances. One day, via FB, a person wrote to me who had taken several photos of my performances later handed me an envelope full of B&W photos. This also made me laugh because he wrote, ” I have been looking for you for more than 20 years!”
Between 1977 and 1982, I staged several performances where I recited my prose and sometimes writings by others. Then suddenly I lost interest in performing and then only in 2009/2010, I returned to the street for 3 performative/installation actions, made on three different days and dedicated to the economic crisis that had hit the world. I had been influenced by the sudden layoffs in the Italian middle class that suddenly left hundreds of employees of various levels at home.
Performing on the street taught me how to relate to people within the art circuit, and I have no problem calling another artist to congratulate him on the quality of his work. Finally, writing is present in my paintings– almost always, although it is not always the most prominent part of my work!
I have a boundless passion for Bruno Munari. Books like Supplemento al dizionario italiano (1958), Fantasia (1977), Da cosa nasce cosa (1981) have permeated my imagination in various ways and given a practical impulse to a knowledge otherwise always confined to theory. In one of your interviews, I read that you attended it. Where did you meet each other? What meeting places did you share? What kind of relationship did you have?
I had the chance to meet Bruno Munari by the classic stroke of luck. In the early 1980s, I was experimenting with creating images using the Rank Xerox color photocopier, which at that time had the feature of having a little raised effect, depending on how you combined colors. I was working on the machines live. I would put flat and 2d or 3d objects in the space where people usually placed the paper to be photocopied. One day, while I was working with different materials, a color photocopy with silver tones came out. All the people in the Rank Xerox headquarters went crazy, and the director of the center asked me if I would like to cooperate with their house organ (corporate propaganda newspaper) where they had a page devoted to artistic experiments. In return, I could use the machine for free and with a technician as an assistant. Of course, I agreed instantly, and, to my absolute delight, they wanted to send me to Bruno Munari, whom they revered because Mr. Munari had written a book (“Xerography”) devoted to the creative use of the Rank Xerox copier. So, a few days later, I found myself in Munari’s studio and a beautiful relationship was born. I could visit him whenever I wanted (when he was there) and we talked about art- about my bad ideas and his research. He was a person knowingly lost in “his” world. In his studio, I saw paintings with linseed oil on canvas being created.
In this regard, I remember this episode lucidly.
Me: “Mr. Munari, but why do you use pure oil on the raw canvas that you can’t see anything anyway?”
Munari: “Spazio, we cannot be sure that nothing will show.”
Me: “Do you think so?”
Munari: “Me, I would like to talk about it again with you in a while.”
He was right. In time, dust would flesh out those brushstrokes and make everything visible. When I would go to his studio, we would talk a lot about his work at my insistence. He was so eclectic. The walls are full of work at least to me, bizarre. But there was never a quiet afternoon in his studio. I remember hordes of Japanese people as he was well known and I might add respected in Japan. Over here he was a “little” cult, at least in the very early 1980s. Great Italian success came to him after the 1986 retrospective at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Yet, when he died in 1998, simply because at the age of 18 (if not 17) he was on the National Committee of Futurists, no national mourning was declared. This fact struck me greatly, since I considered him, and still do, one of the most important Italian creatives of the 20th century!
P.S. 20 years later I made a painting dedicated to Munari in which I used one of his silkscreens as a base and painted over it. As soon as I exhibited it, the painting immediately ended up in a private collection.
2.1 I would like to start by asking you about the punk rock band The 2+2=5, whose name is an obvious homage to Orwellian dystopia, which you founded in 1982 with Nino La Loggia. What inspired you for your first two records with the band? What musical trajectories did you follow?
Nino had recently finished his musical adventure with both HCN and Sunset Boulevard. I had just stopped performing and needed to break away from the group Poesia Metropolitana. We met in the places frequented by Milanese punks and a friendship was born that lasts to this day. We had more or less the same musical tastes that slid from Kraftwerk to Killing Joke and around us, many mutual friends played. I asked Nino if he felt like doing something together. Nino was, and is, a very good musician, I much, much less so. In a short time, we were able to layer songs that Nino would build and produce and I would insert my own poetic themes concerning the world to come. It was 1982 and we didn’t want to sound like anybody else. This was also evidenced by our non-commercial choice of name, The 2+2=5, practicality and without glamour. Our instruments consisted of Roland 303 electronic drums, a Revox for backing tracks, bass, and guitar. Nino, who has a better voice than me, did not want to sing so I did. Shortly before we entered the studio to record our first LP entitled “…into the future” (a kind of concept album about the future of humanity), Nino met Rieko Hagiwara, a Japanese girl the same age as us and with musical tastes similar to ours, who became the third member of the band. The sound that came out of the recordings, was a mixture of dance, not dance punk but leaning towards the wave, dark but pushed towards electronic and we loved it but, “… into the future” did not get too much interest: it was hard to get to sell 500 copies and we never got back the money we spent to make it. Then, in the mid-1990s, it became an underground cult and in the last 5 years has also enjoyed a couple of reissues both on Cd via Spittle Rec. and on vinyl via Mannequin Records.
2.2. In 1986 together with Gomma, Kikko, and Valvola you created Italy’s first copyright-free, electronic counter-culture magazine Decoder, while in 1987 you were among the founders with Carlo Albertoli and Luigi Marinoni, of the independent music magazine Vinile…
Let’s go in small steps otherwise, it gets confusing, and there is always too much confusion, for me. So, the idea of making an alternative magazine, and not just a zine, was in 1985. I am sure of this because I have a letter, dated 1985, written to me by Vittore Baroni, an exquisite person, in which he apologized for not being able to write an article we had asked him to write for the 1st issue of Decoder (that’s what it was called) the magazine that we thought at the time was very free in content. The idea was to mix high and low culture, going through music, comics, art, cinema, and literature, with style. For me, and I emphasize for me, it was to be a magazine in its own right, although, in fact, self-produced and made in black and white. The first issue had a long gestation and its paper realization was at the end of 1986, but, not to look old, before sending it to print, we dated it 1987. That’s why on Wikipedia, the official date marking the birth of Decoder magazine says 1987. Also in 1987, the second issue of the magazine was created, which, due to internal disagreements within its staff, I left before it was printed. For this reason, I was purged from the colophon, despite having contributed to its contents. I left Decoder disgruntled because with the change of personnel in the editorial staff I sensed that, in time, it would end up in an almost militant situation, slipping intellectually toward an evolved zine and not a magazine capable of creating style. Fortunately for me, at the same time, Carlo Albertoli asked me to create a professional magazine on music and related culture. Thus, throwing myself headlong into the creation of Vinile, I cured my strong sorrow at leaving Decoder.
Vinile was financed by Stampa Alternativa, through Marcello Baraghini. I had been working for Stampa Alternativa for quite some time, I had created the square format of music books for them for the S/Concerto series. The editor-in-chief and fellow friend was Luigi Marinoni who, like me, was super passionate about music. When Carlo Albertoli proposed the idea of a music magazine, Luigi and I went to Marcello Baranghini and proposed that he produce the magazine, using the same format as the music books and with one or two 45s per issue attached. I honestly expected Marcello to reject our proposal, and instead, he enthusiastically accepted, and a few days later we were at work on issue zero. The editorial staff consisted of Gigi Marinoni, Carlo Albertoli, myself, and Laura Mars who was working professionally in a successful Italian magazine. In addition, we could count on a small network of collaborators. Vinile lasted for five issues and the peak sales were 2000 copies. We closed as we could not cover the cost of implementation.
2.3. From Vinile magazine to the creation of the independent record company Vox Pop Records is a small step, and recently a documentary of the time was made available online in which you, Manuel Agnelli, Edda, Carlo Alberto, and Mauro Joe Giovanardi were interviewed…
As I have recounted several times, Vox Pop Records existed roughly for a couple of years but under the name (Andy) Vox Pop Records. If you look closely at the first vinyl records released, you can see, both in the record doilies and the trademark, a star with Andy Warhol’s face inside. At that time the record company was best run entirely by me since it was mine and it was completely illegal. It was not a registered trademark. It didn’t have a VAT number. It was self-produced. Later, with the help of Carlo Albertoli, Manuel Agnelli, Paolo Mauri, and Mauro Ermanno Giovanardi, the record company was officially formed, which at that point took the legal name Vox Pop Records. Legally it was opened with the financial contribution of Manuel Agnelli and mine, which consisted of the expenses made in producing the first 2 records. Other friends would be an integral part and would repay the corporate figure with physical labor. In the meantime, I, who had had other recording experiences with No-Name Music and then with Eternal (small labels related to me that failed due to lack of money and structure) made a legal agreement with Nicola Calgari, owner of BIPS Studio in Milan, a small professional recording studio, and with him, created Mondopop, the company that controlled the publishing rights of Vox Pop Records‘ record productions.
I created it in the first place because, during my past recording experiences, I had realized that the real money came from controlling the editions and their financial return through the SIAE, then the only body for filing and collecting publishing rights. In addition, the agreement with BIPS guaranteed us the possibility of a set amount of hours per disc for recordings. Once this agreement was made, I struggled to distribute shares in this company to the other Vox Pop members, all of whom were convinced that money was made from physical record sales. 1986 was still partly true, but it depended only on how many records you could print and sell, while the money from ‘editions,’ depended on television airplay, radio, soundtrack placements, and finally, from dances and concert gigs (the music to basic consumption) and the payoff never runs out, ever!
2.4. In the above documentary there is a passage where you talk about the delicate balance that an independent record label has to be able to sustain from an entrepreneurial and market perspective. You said, “I can’t afford to fail two records consecutively because otherwise, I would disappear from the market, I also can’t afford to find a record that sells me so much because it would send me so far into orbit and I wouldn’t even have the capital to support it. So I have to settle for settling on a medium range of the issue.” How difficult do you think it was to maintain this balance between entrepreneurship and independent culture in the early days of so-called “indie” music?
Independent labels are a phenomenon predating punk and ‘its’ DIY revolution throughout the Western world. To understand this and to stay in Italian territory, it is enough to mention the cooperative l’Orchestra whose first wanderings were in 1974, and Materiali Sonori (Ma.So.), active since 1977, both specialized in sounds of popular / folk matrix, political songwriting, and that in addition to being producers also had the function of distributing the sound product. What was total to be invented was the market. The bands, small record labels, and the first newspapers (Rockerilla and Musica’80) at the end of 1978 existed, but the market, the one made not only by a thousand fans but by a real audience capable of absorbing the products, came later. The book ‘Buy or Die’ written by Luciano Fricchetti Trevisan in 1983 testifies to a living cultural ferment that would, however, become consistent and visible from the three years 1988/1989/1990. From then on, the majors felt threatened and began waging war on the so-called ‘independent’ market in a subdued and constant manner until its downfall at the dawn of the 2000s. Staying afloat in that famous decade was difficult. As the number of people interested in supporting the new sound increased, so did the expenses of both supporting the demands and also expanding the musical offerings. Running a small spurious record label like VoxPop, always hovering between cultural proposal and experimentation, was difficult, and step by step, not only us, but all the other small realities burst economically. We, Century Vox, Contempo, Phonographic Supports, and Flying Rec. (these are just a few) ceased to exist, falling under the economic pressure of the market. The majors not only snatched top artists from the small labels that had discovered them by offering them million-dollar contracts but created ad hoc fake record labels, controlled by them, creating confusion in the market with fake artists that had nothing indie about them. Value only as an example the fake indie label, Black Out managed by Mercury/ Polygram Italia srl. visible online by typing
2.5. In my generational perception, in Italy the so-called indie music started with Afterhours, I Verdena, and then exploded in the second part of the 2000s with Baustelle, Dente, Le Luci della Centrale Elettrica (to name a few) narrative supported by newspapers such as Repubblica XL, and then veered towards it pop with the I Cani and with the whole next generation headed by record labels such as Bombadischi, 42records, Garrincha Dischi, Carosello Records. How has the recording scene changed in terms of the market from the early days of independent music to today?
To answer this question of yours exhaustively would take several pages. So I will tell you that in an old interview several years ago, I foreshadowed the return of Sanremo, as a central point for the ‘intellectual’ but negative expansion of the Italian independent music market to the mainstream market. But being an ‘alternative’ to the system is possible but remains a simple and healthy matter of attitude.
2.6. In your artistic practice, you have frequently interacted with records or musical media. This is the case with the series of acrylics made on the cover of the record Still – Clothbound edition – by Joy Division, which began in 2005, or the case of the acrylic and record on canvas-stitched book cover Hard Pop Life from 2012. What are other perhaps lesser-known works in which your artistic examination has interacted with your musical research? Is there a consistency or sentimental attachment in the choice of media (records, vinyl by recurring artists, and/or certain genres of music) on which you go to intervene? Is there a uniformity in the techniques (sewing, acrylic) with which you interact with the supports or is it very varied and depends from case to case?
I have always had a strong connection with music and the imagery that comes with it. I have possessed it since childhood, just as I have always possessed a strong connection with the book object. I learned bookbinding at the age of 12. As I grew up these passions were juxtaposed and I created several artworks that mix both these two elements and individually. Of course, there is love on my part in the objects I use, and when I use books, out of respect, I always try to use “first editions.” It is equally true that my work in general is little known. The main reason is that I have had few solo exhibitions, even though I am now 66 years old, but since my first exhibition, I have always been fortunate to be followed by enthusiasts (collectors and friends), consistently. This has fostered in me my predisposition not to want to expose myself too much and simultaneously has given me the opportunity to experiment with materials and new media. I have thus been able to work constantly at a low pace on an intersecting body of work, since the basic elements of my ‘making’ art, are always the same: books and records, with all the world that lies within them. Words, sound, and graphics are the most present and at the same time most invisible urban elements of our daily living. These are also the elements that I presume to question the system in which I live. Of little-known works I have made there are several, but here I want to mention the ones that no one has ever seen. Rosso (2005), dedicated to P.P.Pasolini and made only with first editions of all his books, and Only Those Who Don’t Work Live (I think 1995) which is a large canvas in which I celebrate both the two thinkers dearest to me, Paul Lafargue and Guy Debord and, goliardically, myself that I was born on May 1, Labor Day.
You told me a few answers ago that writing and therefore words are present in almost all of your paintings, even if it is not always the most prominent part of your work. You have recently made a potentially infinite work, destined for posterity, entitled “Segni Lasciati Lungo i Bordi dell’Autostrada Verso Il Futuro” (Signs Left Along the Edges of the Highway Toward the Future), consisting of 50 60×60 cm canvases making 15 meters long by 1.20 m high, in which language takes center stage. Why do you think of it as an Encyclopedia of Modern Art? What multiple cultural references is it possible to discern among the dense sign mesh?
Segni Lasciati Lungo i Bordi dell’Autostrada Verso Il Futuro” (Signs Left Along the Edges of the Highway Toward the Future) is a giant ‘fresco’ filled with references to the culture that has shaped and molded more than one generation. Elements that I have translated and positioned with my signature style on the canvas. I would also like to emphasize that this was a great work of ‘copying from life’ since everything that is a portrait on the canvas had suddenly appeared before my eyes and I am sure that it had been left concealed, but not too much, by hundreds of rebels without a cause to leave a trace of their work. Work done against the dominant System. The difficulty of the work was to structure the reading planes in a simple, popular way. POP! I consider it as a new Encyclopedia of Modern Art, simply because I worked only elements recovered from the mid-1970s to the present, taking them from the street, cinema, music, and video games, passing with impunity from Lettrism, punk, post-situationism to Hip-Hop. In the 15 meters of the painting, we find all forms of writing. The alphabetic, the signic, the iconic, and the asemic. I conclude by telling you that it all stemmed from a 1995 Massimo Volume record that I quote in the title of the painting, but I leave it to you and the readers to discover the connection. Finally, I greet everyone who has read this digression you have conducted. Ciao!