What my own

astonished eyes saw,

that is all I know


Audio-video installation (2007)

Video footage: Gabriele Grotto
Performer: Enrico Brugnaro

In the narrow spaces of a few disuses offices in the imposing Fabbrica Alta in Schio (Vicenza) I set my site-specific installation for the festival Azioni Inclementi – arts and crafts of narrating, having as a leitmotif the famous short novel by Melville.
The installation Bartleby is the mise en scène of the inescapable shipwreck of any attempt to thoroughly represent the individual.
What interested me in Melville was the denial of the idea that human beings are consistent categorical formations, and therefore the radical negation of the possibility to investigate human nature through plausible classifications: no being can be reduced to any generalisation whatsoever. What emerge, of each individual, are the appearing forms of a “visible truth”: a state of presence that is always singular, always anomalous. But this state of presence, being revealed to the world of the visible, is all we could ever know or believe we know on the matter.

“What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him”, the lawyer says at the beginning of the story: but this could be assumed as a metaphor of each photography, each gaze trying to penetrate the irreducible unknowability of the Other.

In Melville’s narrative technique I was also interested in the extraordinary compresence, in Bartleby’s figure, of his incorporealness – just a swish in the flow of events, a ruffle in the natural order of things, a faded shadow – and the obtuse power of its presence, inertial, immovable, able, as presence, to radically upset that order. Therefore the installation is composed of video-projections on the walls: nothing else but “moving shadows”, ghostly traces, inkling of reality, and yet powerfully evocative of presence, things among things.
The individual visual and sound parts which compose the installation avoid any temptation to illustrate, they rather offer themselves as the attempt to create an environmental layout – both sound and vision – of the written page, an anti-narrative portrait.
The viewer must metaphorically through the novel, and he is physically immersed in perception.

“Bartleby remained standing at his window in one of his profoundest dead-wall reveries”.


The figure of the scrivener, standing and seen from behind, stands out against a wall with two big windows, motionless in a sort of rapt amazement. The audience can only observe him from the doorstep of the room, without approaching, while now and then you can hear Bartleby’s murmured voice mechanically repeating “I would prefer not to”.
Nothing happens: but a more careful observation will allow to notice, in the scrivener, slight, almost imperceivable changes of position, adjustments in his posture, the movement due to breathing.
Bartleby challenges us in the exhausting waiting for any action of his; but the ones who will leave, defeated, will inevitably be us, the audience.


“I would prefere not to”


A video-portrait of Bartleby. The video-camera makes an attempt to attack Bartleby’s secret, and it does so with a medium close-up and a close-up, the specific kind of framing used for portraits. But the research instruments that are proper to the cinema and to the video – framing, camera movements, lighting, focusing – prove ineffective. Bartleby never turns back, never offers himself to our gaze; his face (mirror of the soul?) stays unreachable, so close so far.
Bartleby is pure presence, impregnable, unknowable, against which all the interpreting attempts clash: the only thing we can do in the face of his bewildering presence is believe in his figure, not understand it.
So, the images are asking us for an act of faith.



At the entrance of the installation there is a little visual trick, an optical calembour. A simple and unsophisticated device, consisting of a transparency and an old mirror, creates a funny optical illusion which makes it immediately hard, for our supposed ability to distinguish between real and fake images, between illusion and certainty, and which hints at the Dickensian humour in the description of life in the office. It is the image of Cicero’s bust that the lawyer has in his office, Bartleby’s ironical double: the prince of rhetoric imprisoned in a gypsum statue, his eloquence stuck and mute just like the scrivener’s. The perturbing effect on language, given by Bartleby’s presence, is one of the leitmotifs of the whole installation.

“The Tombs”


A luminous rectangle, about 30×40 centimetres, stands out from the darkness of the wall; we watch Bartleby as he is trapped like a black insect in the small white rectangle. This time we have an ideal, analytical, almost scientific point of view, almost as if we were entomologists.
Yet, Bartleby’s behaviour remains unintelligible. For several minutes the scrivener is motionless, the image looks fixed, maybe it is a photograph; but now and then Bartleby moves towards a different side of the rectangle, to then get back to the very same position he had at the point of departure. In the end, softly, he gets to lie on his side, maybe he dies.

“Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”


After Bartleby’s death, the lawyer tells us that he heard rumours according to which the scrivener, whose life before his appearing is unknown to us, had worked as a clerk in Washington’s dead letter office.
In the installation, on the wall in front of the portrait, from a black background some of those letters slowly fade in, kept in an album called Blind Reading, currently at the National Postal Museum.
Around us, the continuous sound of a pen frantically writing on the paper: a “blind writing”, an aphasia of language.

Dead-wall revery, view of the installation I would prefere not to: video-still I would prefere not to, view of the installation Cicero, view of the installation The Tombs, view of the installation The Tombs, video-still Blind Reading, video-still
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