Piergiorgio Casotti/Emanuele Brutti, Index G

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Skinnerboox (here). Softcover paperback with metal fasteners, 144 pages, with 26 color photographs (each split across two pages) and 50 black and white photographs. With a screenplay by Piergiorgio Casotti. In an edition of 650 copies. (Cover and spread shots below, a few quite glared due to glossy paper.)

Comments/Context: At first glance, Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti’s Index G is quietly unsettling. Bland color photographs, seemingly shot from a car, document the drab emptiness of nameless American streets. These images then bookend a parade of shadowy black and white interiors of vacant houses and apartments and a selection of portraits of African-American subjects where the faces are largely shrouded in darkness. Page fragments of a typewritten draft screenplay are scattered among the photographs, and then the full treatment can be found bound into the back cover with metal fasteners. Put together, we assume they are fragments of something larger. Perhaps these atmospheric images are visuals to accompany the screenplay, like idea clippings or a first cut storyboard.

And while we might draw some initial conclusions about what we have been shown, maybe even connecting the disparate pieces into an oblique meditation on the many dispiriting in-between zones found in contemporary America, and the related struggles of the people who inhabit them, without any obvious guideposts to steer or arrange our interpretation of these materials, we have no choice but to look closer at the pictures and dig into the text in search of potential answers.

The screenplay weaves together snippets of incidents in the lives of a handful of characters: middle-aged Ann in her fair trade cotton yoga pants, driving through shopping mall parking lots, happily enveloped by the plenty, and visiting the drive-through bank, where she is momentarily shocked out of her self-centered reverie by the human teller behind the glass; Arthur, a few decades older, recently released from prison, having a cup of diner coffee and sitting on the train on the way to visit his sister, gazing out the window at a woman being chased by three men; Jenny, Michael, and Tom killing time before a business meeting, casually talking about basketball, racial supremacy, and eugenics; early-50s Trevor, sitting in his motorhome in the Nevada desert, soothing his anxieties with pills and incendiary hate-filled radio; and late-40s John, an estranged call center employee talking with 11-year old Zajon in St. Louis, who needs a replacement set of “Power View” goggles so she can better see the sad boy trapped in a fancy house (what she calls a “castle”) from her bus seat. The linked episodes paint a disheartening but telling picture of today’s America, where the nuances of racial, societal, and cultural friction simmer right at the surface.

One of the screenplay fragments offers a significant definition, at least in terms of framing our understanding of this photobook. It tells us that the GINI index is “a measure of statistical dispersion” that is used to quantify the distribution of ethnic groups within neighborhoods or metropolitan areas. More succinctly put, it measures the degree of residential segregation (using an imposing looking mathematical function), and the text briefly alludes to the example of St. Louis, where adjoining neighborhoods (or ZIP codes) can be markedly different in terms of racial makeup (and life expectancy), even if they both are adjacent to (i.e. north and south of) the same city thoroughfare. It seems to put a statistical/scientific point on the realities of living on “the wrong side of the tracks,” even if those tracks are invisible.

This idea is then left to percolate in our heads, without any overt explanation or further elaboration. But with this entry point, and the supporting narrative of the screenplay, the pictures get fuller. The forgettable street scenes are punctuated by resonant details: American flags, imposing fencing, brick walls, used car lots, bus stops, hip hop dance studios, check cashing outlets, nail salons, bridal fashion stores, and later, piles of dusty rock, construction zones, and entries to the freeway. The road itself becomes a boundary, an edge, with subtle differences in geography and opportunity on each side, especially after we make an almost imperceptible turn at a stoplight. The reds and greens of stop and go tightly manage our progress.

The interior images settle into a gloomier, hemmed in mood. Empty rooms are left to be defined by their remaining fixtures – the windows (almost all blocked by shades or curtains), the flooring or carpets, the stained walls, the chandeliers, the heating vents. Shot in tactile black and white, with attention to the mid-range tones, the scenes are both geometric studies of the angles of walls and corners as well as evidence of previous habitation. The residues left behind tell us open-ended stories about families who made lives in these rooms, an open door, a cable TV wire coming from a wall, a wood paneled basement, or mirrored tiles alluding to something that is no longer. The only time we see someone in these exhausted spaces, a single woman warily peers out from behind the blinds of kitchen, as if the outside world is altogether threatening. Otherwise, we are trapped in the emptiness.

Intermingled among the echoing rooms lie a small selection of portraits, their placement leading us to the conclusion that these people were (or are) the residents of these vacant places. They are seen with a similar dark melancholy, their faces often left in shadow, just like the forgotten housing. Young and old alike, the sitters form a quick cross section of everyday people, some in suits and work clothes, others in more casual outfits. But the looks downward (and one literal face into a corner) match the heaviness of the nearby rooms, each person seeming to carry an extra load.

The design and construction of Index G match well the elusive content of the photographs. The color images deliberately wrap around the edges of the pages, each one split into two parts, creating flips that both reconnect and break down. The black and white images are printed on thinner, glossy (almost slippery) paper, making the transition from one section of the book  to another (outside to inside) more obvious. And the full screenplay is attached at the back underneath a flap, making the whole photobook object feel like a folder, portfolio, or academic study.

When we circle back and try to assemble all of these pieces into some kind of easy contiguous narrative, the fragments stubbornly refuse to fit together neatly, leaving plenty of in-between space for the story to expand and transform. Casotti and Brutti have taken on a complicated subject, and given us an equally complicated and innovative artistic response – the contemporary realities of American residential segregation have layers of subtle consequences and emotional impacts, and this project forces us to confront and consider many of them, without offering pat answers or trite visual conclusions. Perhaps it takes a pair of outsiders to show us something we have convinced ourselves not to see, and even though Index G chooses to deliver its blow indirectly, its impact is still memorably forceful.

Collector’s POV: Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti do not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artists via their websites (linked in the sidebar).

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