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Giuliana Bruno, writer

Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film, published by Verso, 2002 and Johan & Levi, 2015

Atlas of Emotion is a highly original endeavor to map the cultural terrain of spatio-visual arts. In an evocative blend of words and pictures, Giuliana Bruno emphasizes the connections between “sight” and “site” and “motion” and “emotion.” In so doing, she touches on the art of Gerhard Richter and Louise Bourgeois, the filmmaking of Peter Greenaway and Michelangelo Antonioni, media archaeology and the origins of the museum, and her own journeys to her native Naples. 


On which fields of knowledge are you focused? 

Visual studies, art history, architecture theory, and media studies.


What is the object of your research? 

Art, visual space, media, and material culture.


Could you identify some constants in your work? 

The constant in my work is a process of connective movements: I move through different disciplines and diverse periods of time, and especially across different artistic spaces. I am fond of ambulatory tactics such as derives, displacements, and all forms of “transport,” and so I practice a playful nomadism in my work and in my life. In the English language, there is a connection between the words wonder and wander. The relation between a sense of surprise, pleasure, or wonder and how it—to my mind—is connected to a sense of ambling about and wandering around territories is central to my approach. 


As my work engages the relationship between visual art, architecture, and media, it centers on visual space. I have a fascination for all things spatial but also for all things material, in the sense that space is itself a material condition. I think of visual culture in this way, haptically, in relation to material space and material culture. For me this is a landscape that also involves an expanse of time, which in turn involves cultural memory. 


In this haptic sense, it becomes natural for me to think of architecture, design, and the visual arts as forms of visual space that are materially connected. My research is deeply interdisciplinary. In my books, I consider many artistic practices, ranging from painting to photography, installation to environmental art, architecture to cinema, cartography to design, and fashion to media. I like to push the boundaries of these artistic mediums and the limits of these fields in order to create intersections. 


I am particularly interested in creating associative networks of assemblage, and use this practice of montage in order to encourage a migration of ideas and journeys of visual communication. I adopt a methodology of transduction by connecting diverse matters together to produce the kind of contamination that induces a path for transformation. I believe in mobilizing this process of relational transfer in the hope of affecting the material space of knowledge and its modes of visual circulation.


How did you find out about Aby Warburg’s work? What interests you the most?

I came to think deeply of Aby Warburg in the 1990s as I developed my theory of emotional geography as an interpretive category, while working on my book Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film.  It bore a natural connection with Warburg’s own Atlas, which not only was a significant inspiration in writing that particular book but has continued to inspire me, especially at this time, as I write of atmospheres of projection as relational spaces. 


I feel an “elective affinity” with Warburg’s method: a sympathy for his theory of visual and emotional formulas (pathosformeln), a deep connection to his hybrid use of montage and the imaginative display of objects of visual research.  


I am particularly attracted to Warburg’s unfinished atlas of memory for its visual and material form. Here was an art historian who was making an inventive, eclectic montage of disparate images, ranging in subject from art to science and the everyday, and these assemblages were to be exhibited on panels. It was unprecedented not only to think in this way but to “exhibit” visual culture in this way. In a sense, on display here is art historical knowledge that joins curatorial thinking and imagination.


Furthermore, I am interested in how this kind of curatorial imagination mapped the relationship between states of mind and corporeal expression and made a geographic history of visual expression. In a sense, these were also collections of pictures that were in his mind, inner images being projected outward for exhibition and set in motion for recollection. Before anyone was thinking in this way about visual culture, Warburg was able to put together visual documents and material representations of the movement of life. His assemblages of life in motion would have exhibited on the same panel a great work of art alongside an anonymous photograph or a piece of news so that he could capture the physical movement of a person, the flow of a dress, an image of travel, or the design of a room. 


Moreover, as Warburg surveyed the entire spectrum of vital kinetic manifestations in different forms of representation, he paid particular attention to affects. This aspect of his project was particularly important in mapping my Atlas of Emotion, where I developed a theory of emotional geography. Warburg was inspirational because he searched for “the engrams of affective experience” and pursued a “pathos formula” through which he could map living experience. The sort of communication established across these different forms in the atlas would touch upon the materiality of the visual existence of life and its very fabric, which was living in his idea of an archive. And the trajectory of art historical knowledge inscribed in this heterogeneous assemblage did not shy away from the emotional involvement of empathy. In other words, this archive was a living museum. And that is why it can live on in the work of other writers, myself included.


Warburg’s creative form of association and display of affinities was wide ranging, and this way of traveling across artistic mediums and modern media drives my own subjective art-historical and cultural mapping. It is central to the very form of the writing in my books, especially and explicitly with respect to Atlas of Emotion, where it guides its actual conception. And it has also informed my curatorial activities. When I was asked to curate a section of the Museo di Capodimonte’s Carta Bianca exhibition in 2017, I imagined a journey linked to the baroque “taste” of Naples, my city of origin, and to its everyday objects, including food and pottery. Wanting to bring to light unusual and forgotten works, I explored the storage facilities of the museum as if they were geological deposits, acting as an archaeologist to carefully seek out works worn down by the ages, ruined, or even shattered. In exhibiting paintings of still lifes, I matched them with vessels that appeared to come out of the artworks, even materialize from them. I arranged these works in space in narrative sequence, as if in a movie, and used the screen-like fabrics of scrims to guide visitors through this exhibition of material surfaces. At the end of the journey, there appeared a display of ruined historical paintings of quotidian landscapes, their surfaces assembled together with empty frames on very large metal grids, as if this were an installation of contemporary art. These display grids were modeled on the kind used in museum storage facilities, where they move on tracks. I envisaged this exhibition design because on these movable panels the collection and assemblage of artworks is never philological. A different kind of art-historical archive emerges here: a more inventive atlas of memory— the very kind of museology that Warburg was fond of.

Giuliana Bruno, exhibition introduction

1 Installation view:

Back: Francesco Guarino, Sant’Agata, ca. 1640, oil on canvas.

Front: Giovanni Bernardi, Elementi di candelabri, dieci intagli, rock crystals.

Photo: Luciano Romano.

2 Installation view:

Back: Giovan Battista Recco, Natura morta con testa di caprone, ca. 1640-50.

Front: Nicola Malinconico (attr.), Natura morta con vaso di fiori e cesta di frutta, 1700-1705; and porcelain vases.

Photo: Giuliana Bruno.

3 Installation view of metal grid, modeled on display in museums’ storage rooms, with ruined canvases and art objects:

Unknown artist, Natura morta con frutta e uccelli, 17th century, oil on canvas.

Unknown artist, Paesaggio (Marina con casa e veliero), oil on canvas.

Unknown artist, Scena frammentaria, oil on canvas.

Unknown artist, Scena amorosa, oil on canvas.

Unknown artist, Paesaggio, oil on canvas.

Empty frames, diverse epochs, wood.

In basket: fragments of plaster busts.

Photo: Luciano Romano

4 Installation view:

Left: Giuseppe Recco, Natura morta con pesci, 1665-70, oil on canvas.

Front: Manifattura reale di Berlino, Servito da tavola, ca. 1860-1870, porcelain; and Real Fabbrica della Porcellana di Capodimonte, 1743-1759, fragments.

Right: Camillo Miola, Il fatto di Virginia, 1882, oil on canvas.

Photo: Giuliana Bruno.

5 Installation view:

Left: Gian Domenico Valentino, Il laboratorio dell’alchimista, ca. 1680; and Gian Domenico Valentino, Interno di cucina, ca. 1680.

Front: Manifattura reale di Berlino, Servito da tavola, ca. 1860-1870, porcelain; and Real Fabbrica della Porcellana di Capodimonte, 1743-1759, fragments.

Back: Giovan Battista Recco, Natura morta con testa di caprone, ca. 1640-50.

Photo: Luciano Romano.

6 Exhibition entrance with curtain-screens:

Camillo Miola, Il fatto di Virginia, 1882, oil on canvas.

Photo: Luciano Romano.

How would you define an Atlas?

An atlas is a cultural geography, in the largest sense of this term. It is a form of spatialization of knowledge, and an affirmation of the importance of spatial relations. As an object, throughout history, it has been constructed as a collection of material spaces and imaginary geographies. An atlas is also fundamentally a place of transit. It can provide an invitation to travel, even to dream of mental voyaging. An atlas, that is, can be navigated. In this sense, if it induces a desire to cross borders, it can become a site of encounter.


Atlas as a conceptual, formal and mnemonic device; do you use it in your work?

A cartographic imagination characterizes my work, as I map cultural geographies open to many forms of movement and migration. I am fond of creating atlases of circulation. Being most interested in the space of transit across fields, I like opening up passage, discovering links, tracing connections, and exposing a transitive process of admixture to create alchemic transformation. 


In this sense, cartography has been an important part of my methods, but from a new perspective. Cartography often has been seen as a disciplinary tool for ordering territories, a space of control. I wanted to change that view by looking at different kinds of mapping performances, including Warburg’s own. In Atlas of Emotion, I considered various kinds of atlases, including maps of pleasure and desire, charts of love and affect. In other words, I came to map a different kind of cartographic thinking. This cartographic imagination does not function to regulate space but rather provides guidance, in the same way a traveler would use a map to guide her in wandering through a city, and shares the discoveries. 


This work as a visual culture cartographer is therefore very much about navigation; it is about routes, and process. And that is why the image of the atlas, which has sometimes been terribly demonized, is dear to me: because it offers one’s inner senses an instrument of guidance, which can take both author and reader through diverse terrains, including rugged and ruined paths.


This method of the navigation is important to me, and I prefer the kind of charts that you take with yourself, that unravel as you continue on a journey so that they become a part of the voyage. And this journey is also a narrative itinerary, for I am concerned that a book or an exhibition tell a story. After all, narration is itself historically part of cartography, which, fundamentally, concerns the story of a place. And let us not forget that, throughout history, the atlas has also embraced fictional, imaginative forms of representation.  


In my form of mapping, then, visual objects are engaged in forms of lively, connective display and vital circulation. They are never selected, organized, or categorized according to a logic of enclosure; the material is not forced into fixed schemes of memorization; nor is it driven to exhaustion. In this conceptual and mnemonic sense, my atlas, inspired by Warburg and Benjamin’s unfinished ones, is not a collection striving to exhaust its own subject. This atlas, that is, is not formally an encyclopedia. It gives no definite form to the knowledge it presents but rather prefers to expose a method of collection and to display a form of recollection. 


In terms of mnemonics, my method of mapping strives to mobilize sites of cultural memory, exhibiting the voids and gaps of memory. Since writing Streetwalking on a Ruined Map (Princeton University Press, 1992), I have treated voids as apertures, careful not to fill them but rather to excavate into their spaces. These mnemonic fragments are not only assembled together but jointly layered, at times creating a palimpsest. Such combinations of cultural fragments are furthermore activated in a form of cultural archaeology that recognizes the role of affect. For me, if a memory is to move us and pass through the doors of the memory archive, it must be affectively charged. In this sense, formally, the work of an atlas of emotion is bound and yet boundless. New images are constantly incorporated; and they can change even the form—the territory—of the ever-growing atlas.  


Do you know about the existence of Mnemotechnics?

Yes, as I discussed in Atlas of Emotion.


Which mnemonic system guides the organization of your material?

The history of the art of memory has guided my form of mapping, from its early formulation all the way to Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. This is because, from its very origin, mnemotechnics has provided not only a model of spatial organization of knowledge but an actual architecture for its mapping.

Cicero and Quintilian’s architectural form of mnemonics has inspired me to think of memories as related to space, as mobile architectures—even as motion pictures. I have also been interested in the Memory Theater of Giulio Camillo (1480–1544) because it made mnemotechnics into an actual architecture. Matteo Ricci’s own sixteenth-century Palace of Memory also displayed a theatrical way of constructing cultural memory. This architectonic sense is particularly important for me in building or, rather, “architecting” cultural memory, and in mapping visual representation as an architectonics of flows.


Last but not least, the version of mnemotechnics of Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) has been influential because his architectural memory system exuded an expansive, hybrid, eclectic logic, based on everything from magical geometry to celestial mechanics. The pictures of his memory systems even actually look like fantastically inventive maps. The composite geography of this art of memory turns the imagination into an alchemy of the inner senses and mobilizes the associative, affective power of images.  


Are there visual and emotional formulas (pathosformeln) in your project?

Yes, too many to discuss them all here! 


Let me then choose a fundamental one. Perhaps one constant visual and emotional formula in my books is a fascination with surface. From Atlas of Emotion all the way to Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (University of Chicago Press, 2014), I have traced “superficial” patterns of material connection and transformation. I have exposed the tactility of art objects, maps included, and have highlighted the materiality of surfaces—how they convey and transmit contact, and how they move through different modes of expression. 


Surface matters, in art as in life. It is our primary form of habitation and exists everywhere in artistic expression. So I think about the surface as a place of connection, as a meeting place, beginning with the fact that our primary form of habitation is our skin. The skin is a membrane that breathes, connecting outside and inside, and it defines the contours of our bodies, of our selves. Thus the first surface is our body, and we communicate with others through touch. In this sense, the surface is a zone of encounter between us and the space that surrounds us. A second skin that covers us, clothing, represents another layer of surface in which we present ourselves to the world. A third “superficial” envelope is the surface of the walls that we live within. And how can we fail to recognize that the canvases of paintings, the skins of things, and the textures of sculptures are also essentially surfaces? Last but not least, we have the surface of the screens that today surround us everywhere in space, transforming our forms of contact. 


Given that we live in this world of surfaces, it seemed to me that we needed to think of surface rather than simply of image or merely of representation. I wanted to expose how important this connective membrane, this visual and emotional material is. This is a material that not only creates contact but that can also connect mediums and art forms together. Surface is the precise site that the body, fashion, architecture, painting, and screen media all share. So, by way of surface encounters, I have meant to link together all these fields and disciplines that traditionally have been considered separate. Surfaces, for me, are ways of imagining the visual and the spatial arts not as distinct entities but unified. Most important, it is a way of speaking about how this sharing of surfaces, their transmigration from one medium to the next, from one epoch to another, can even create hybrid forms of material expression. On the surface, recurrence, reappearance, and transformation of mediums and forms can be felt.


In your work, do you identify formal or conceptual recurrences such as repetitions and disruption, distance and proximity, identity and migration, conflict and colonization?

A conceptual recurrence in my work is thus an insistence on proximity, on the sense of contact and on how close encounters can trigger change. This is because I believe that this haptic, connective approach, which is never fixed or invariable but nimble and mobile, carries a transformative potential in its relationality. For example, the surface of an object contains a history that is cumulatively formed by contact and circulation. This narrative travels from hand to hand, from space to space, from culture to culture. I am profoundly interested in this kind of transmigration, and how it produces cultural as well as personal transformation. 


After all, it is on the surface of objects, as well as our skin, that the relation between motion and emotion is itself expressed. And let us not forget, as I wrote in Atlas of Emotion, that the word emotion contains in itself not only motion but retains, in its own roots, the cultural notion of migration. The Latin root of the word emotion speaks clearly about a “moving” force, stemming as it does from emovere, an active verb composed of movere, “to move,” and e, “out.” The meaning of emotion, then, is historically associated with “transport”: a moving out, migration, transference from one place to another. This “moving out” is exactly what one does as one crosses a border, which can be the territory of a nation, or a culture, a language, a discipline, a medium, or even an emotional territory. It is a going out of oneself, in the sense of being able to push one’s own limits and one’s own borders. 


And thus, recurrently, I find myself pushing boundaries, over and over again, in life as in books. Especially recurrent in my work is the fascination with the very ambiance of motion, with the flow of cultural migrations, and particularly with how atmosphere itself creates active intermixing and transformation. This drives the book that I am finishing now, Atmospheres of Projection: Environments of Art and Screen Media (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). Here, I am directly engaging with this “environ-mentality” as I probe the meaning of projection and atmosphere, map their cultural histories, and consider their role in the visual arts of contemporary times. I am particularly interested in the contact that is established in and through atmospheric conditions to which we are exposed and with which we interact. This contact often takes the form of what may be described as a “projection,” that is, a transmission of affects. This projection can occur between subjects but also between subjects and objects, and especially within objects themselves, as the phenomenon is essentially generated out of the energy of the material world. And this energy is transmitted. I thus aim to show that atmosphere and projection are both spaces in which mixing and intersections are made possible, for they are themselves transitory sites, intermediate spaces—moving between internal and external, subjective and objective, private and public. In other words, these are ecologies of interrelationality.


In your work, what is the balance between image and text?

I do not just write about art; I think visually. My books often originate from an image, and I write with images in mind. I find it essential to pursue a connection between the form of writing and the space of visuals, even as one writes, and not just after a book is finished. Images inspire the very form of my writing. I choose the illustrations in my books carefully, and get very involved in the visual design of my books. Illustrations are selected and placed so that they do not simply or literally illustrate. An image speaks for itself. It can project an idea, even a mental image. To shape a universe, in an atlas-like book, images have to be activated not only in assemblage and sequence but in resonance with one another, so that they can produce luminous diffraction.


Thinking about Warburg’s ‘good neighborhood rule’, what are the books that underpin your project?

I am limiting this list to research projects more directly related to Warburg’s: 


Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Sergei M. Eisenstein, Montage and Architecture (c. 1937), Assemblage, no. 10 (1989), 111–31.

Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, trans. Sophie Hawkes (New York: Zone Books, 2004).

Georges Didi-Huberman, Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back?, exh. cat. (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2011).

Georges Didi-Huberman, Atlas, or, The Anxious Gay Science, trans. Shane B. Lillis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

Okwui Enwezor, ed. Archive Fever: Uses of Documents in Contemporary Art, exh. cat. (New York: ICP, 2008).

Artists projects:

Gerhard Richter, Atlas (1962–2013).

Joan Jonas, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, a performance conceived in 2004–05, based on the writings of Aby Warburg. 

Giuliana Bruno, a native of Italy, is Emmet Blakeney Gleason Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Internationally known for her interdisciplinary research on visual arts, architecture, and media, she is the author of several award-winning books, including Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (Verso, 2002), winner of the 2003 Kraszna-Krausz prize for best Moving Image Book; Streetwalking on a Ruined Map (Princeton University Press, 1993), winner of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies book award; Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts (MIT, 2007); and Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (University of Chicago Press, 2014). Her work has been translated into a dozen languages. Her new book is titled Atmospheres of Projection: Environments of Art and Screen Media (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).