by Vatsala SethiJan 11, 2023
Fondazione MAST is a philanthropic and cultural institution located in Bologna, Italy which was founded in 2013 by Coesla, a global leader in industrial and packaging solutions, along with the Isabella Seragnoli Foundation. MAST promotes community-centric projects and was conceived as a space open to company collaborators as well as the general public. The organization holds a keen interest in stimulating growth and motivation within several broad areas such as engineering, art and technology. To this end, they started Foto/Industria in 2013, in order to expand interest within photography among the citizens of Bologna. Foto/Industria is the first-ever Biennial dedicated to photography on Industry and Work, and from October 14 to November 28, 2021, went into its fifth cycle, spearheaded by the artistic direction of curator Francesco Zanot. This edition of the Biennial was titled FOOD, which it examines through various lenses, from fundamental resource to historical artefact, and even as a key entity in the ebb and flow of politics. To quote the Biennial’s curatorial note, “Photography and gastronomy merge from theory to practice, triggering a series of reflections on the complexity of the ‘food theme’.”
Speaking with Zanot, it is apparent that he prefers to view art as a multifaceted entity using digital photography as a sort of lens, rather than to focus solely on the medium of photography itself and risk losing sight of how it may fuse with other creative practices. He tells STIR, “I also work on projects which combine photography and other media/disciplines, such as video, architecture, theatre, performance, painting, sculpture, writing, music… I don’t like to isolate photography in its own world, as an individual and separate language, I prefer to look at it in a broader context. Photography is everywhere indeed!” Zanot is a curator based in Milan, Italy, who also teaches the history of photography as well as curatorial studies. He works with a wide variety of artists from all over the world on exhibitions and books, and as he explains, he is “particularly focused on contemporary photography, i.e., everything that has been produced in the last 50 years, with a special interest in the new generations and the most experimental works by young artists.”
While it does deal closely with the food industry, Foto/Industria, or ‘FI’ as Zanot shortens it, is first and foremost grounded within the realm of art. He explains, saying “F/I is a photography biennial, so, when deciding on the photographers to be featured, the first criteria we considered was related to the artistic quality of the works.” Zanot regards the selection process as the longest and most compelling part of organizing the Biennial. He continues, “Many photographers focused on this topic during their career, and we came up with a list of more than 150 names. We wanted to make sure F/I combined solo shows of some protagonists from the history of photography with very well-known contemporary artists, as well as younger photographers whose experimentations are among the most interesting ones in the international scene.” However, the team at MAST also wanted to cover around one century time-span wise, both in regards to the history of photography, as well as the history of food production: the oldest pictures on display were taken in 1928, while the most recent ones were realised specifically for F/I a few months before its opening. The team also wanted to expand their vision as much as possible, and selected artists from different countries around the world whose work referenced the distant geographies and cultures they hail from. Zanot adds, “food, as is the case with photography, is a global topic. So, a multicultural and inclusive approach was a must.” Eventually, Zanot and co. would compose the Biennial of 11 art exhibitions, which they treated as case studies. The curator mentions that it would have been impossible to be complete and exhaustive while investigating a topic quite as broad as food, and therefore each of the exhibitions was set up to function much like a deep investigation of a specific portion, within the greater ambit.
Discussing the relationship between photography and food, Zanot tells STIR that he views both food and photography as languages. He says, “We use them to communicate. And this is one of the many possible interpretive lenses to read the F/I exhibitions through. In a lot of cases at F/I, the selected artists not only reflected on the various subjects of their works, but also on the language they used to represent them. Their works are metalinguistic, meaning they investigate photography itself; its structure, and its language.” He continues, reiterating that food too is a language and that by choosing our food, and by creating more complex meals from it, we as a species share elaborate meanings, both within and outside our communities. These grow and evolve over time, which brings us to meal rituals such as Thanksgiving Turkey or what we eat on Christmas.
When exploring the works exhibited at F/I, one feels as though many of them feel rather understated, while also carrying heavy implications at the same time. The curator acknowledges this and says “yes, I definitely agree, and I would add that this essence is not a prerogative of photojournalism alone, as one may think it to be at first. Foto/Industria is not about reportage. The thing is that when you take a picture, you have to take a position. I mean that most often you’re concretely compelled to choose the perspective from which the world or subject is seen and represented. This is not only a spatial choice but also a political one.” With this in mind, one should explore the works from Foto/Industria with a great deal of thought spent on trying to understand the socio-political implications of what has been captured and what is on display. The Biennial is sure to spark rich, stimulating discussion, first and foremost for the fantastic work displayed, but also for what these images and photo installations might reveal with regards to why we shape our food habits and practices the way we do.