Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni, Fastidiosa

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Overlapse (here). Softcover (16.2 × 21.6 cm), 228 pages, with 234 images and illustrations. Includes mixed fine art papers with double fold, sewn section, exposed binding and silver printed dust jacket. With two additional 28-page booklets containing interviews with farmers, one in English and one in Italian. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Stop me if you heard this one. A virulent pathogen attacks organisms at the cellular level, disrupting important metabolisms, leading to systemic disease and death. Unleashed in tight populations with no natural defense mechanism, the disease leaves a wake of widespread devastation in a short time. The negative impacts are felt at the biological, economic and cultural level.

This is the current situation facing the olive groves of the Salentine peninsula of Puglia in southern Italy. About ten years ago, they were infected with a strain of Xylella fastidiosaa bacterium spread by plant-sucking insects. Fastidiosa restricts the vascular flow of water and nutrients into the plant’s xylem, causing a terrible dieback disease known as Olive Rapid Decline Syndrome (OQDS). With no known remedy, EU authorities resorted to extreme countermeasures. The current prescription is that any olive tree within 100 meters of an infected olive tree must be destroyed. Thanks to the combined effects of disease and human eradication, 4 million trees have been felled to date and another 30 million are at risk, or about 95% of the olive oil production base in Europe. This is a green car accident occurring in slow motion with no clear landing area.

OQDS is an ugly but enticing show for Italian duo Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni. They spent six years photographing all aspects of the Xylella fastidiosa crisis, and as with past projects (for example, their monograph Rome, reviewed here), they dove on all fours, living in an olive oil mill in Puglia, where they shot nearby farms and developed the monochrome film for the project. Their photographs are collected together with archival images in the recent monograph Fastidiosa. Like many titles in the Overlapse catalog, the book integrates a range of sources into a narrative closer to multimedia history than the traditional monograph. It is a dense and radical study, rooted like olive culture in artisanal textures and organic palpability.

The book starts at the heart of the matter, with basic biological function. The hand printed dust jacket shows a high contrast image of plant guts. Maybe they are infected with tedious? It’s hard to discern without a scientific background. Either way, the cellular mechanics of the photo are subsumed beneath the beauty of abstract nature, the effect enhanced with silver ink contrasting against the rich green paper. The jacket is soft to the touch, like rice paper or maybe an olive leaf. Its tactile quality signals that the materials will be treated with care in this book, a promise delivered immediately with the cover itself, an insect silhouette printed on plain cardboard on an open bound spine. Here we can peer into the guts of the book at the vascular level. Flipping forward, the end pages abruptly change to thin, uncoated material with mosaic patterns – perhaps electronic photography? – like the wallpaper of an Italian villa.

From there, a short sequence of photos traces a course for the themes to follow – a glimpse of the Italian coast, tree branches, silhouettes of shadow, a Madonna and child holding an olive branch (this disease cruel attacked the very symbol of peace), burning orchards, and a gnarled outstretched hand through agricultural work. All are the prologue to the main text of the book, a two-page capsule summarizing the crisis that unfolds over twenty pages. It outlines the basic facts to form a rough framework in the mind of the reader. But the meat of the story is told in pictures. They start again after the text with several sequences of destroyed olive trees, but this time in color. We see stumps and charred earth. Perhaps to diffuse the dark present, Caimi and Piccinni choose this point to begin weaving found and archival footage into the mix. An old autochrome shows an old farmer, followed by illustrations of olive seeds, a girl in a field, an old portrait of a group of olive pickers, then quickly returns to the present day with a photo of a contemporary worker, looking as tough and determined as any tree trunk.

Stock footage provides context throughout. However, the majority of the photos are by Caimi and Piccinni. For the main body, they employ an austere impressionistic lens, employing motion blur, fuzzy focus, angular cropping, and dramatic lighting to mimic cinematic language. Stripped of a monochromatic essence, Bacteria looks austere when juxtaposed against a crevice-scarred wall or an old tattoo. Elsewhere it looks more like wood grain. There are Japanese Provoke-style varieties, or perhaps Matt Black or JH Engstrom, with a similar ominous mood. But the visual tone here is more complimentary and elevated. These Italian skies can be parched but also expansive. We feel the essence of human dignity, the value of hard work and simple duties. Perhaps the burden of being human is not so different from an orchard loaded with fruit? Or an irrepressible bacterium penetrating a cell wall?

Going forward, the book follows more detours, with clinical specimens, color gels, and contact sheets, before sharper detours. In a section titled Questa Terra and Mia Terra, scrapbook clippings combine with brown-toned landscapes, annotated with alarming quotes from olive growers. The texts vary but can be roughly summarized by the final quote from Vito, 56, farmer, spilling out in large print over two pages: “I see dark times for the future of the campaign… There will be nothing left.” For this section, the book abruptly shifts to thin stock. It’s a strong and subtle design element, with echoes of alternating thick and thin tree rings. The hand notices the pages even before the eye. If the reader’s mind has wandered for a moment to contemplate doomsday scenarios, the material choices will keep them firmly rooted.

Just as it seems all design tricks have been exhausted, Fastidiosa out comes another, with a centerpiece opening to a four-page grid of farmer portraits. They seem to be photos of Holga, maybe in double exposure? Details of the process are not specified, but the images look quite human. Many faces are smiling or at least seem peaceful. It’s a nice respite from what has usually been a dark torrent of eco-disaster. No matter how harsh the circumstances this section seems to imply, the human spirit is indomitable. Or at least a reader can cling to this notion from an armchair.

After another revival in thin pages of Questa Terra and Mia Terra, the photos take a turn towards laboratory work, with agricultural tools and dead branches molded like still lifes against blank backgrounds. All the evidence has been gathered, and now it’s time to assess. From this point, approaches spill over into genres, as the book alludes to various treatments and theories. Close-ups, inversions, portraits, old snapshots, interiors and candids eventually lead to a long sequence of perfectly trimmed trees wrapped in plastic, their future snuffed out.

That’s enough to put someone in a depressing mood. The attached booklet This land is my land there is no salvation. It’s relentlessly dark. There are two versions of this addendum, one in English (slightly beige to distinguish it) and one in Italian. Make your choice, the outlook will not change. Farmers interviewed by Caimi and Piccinni share their thoughts and memories of olive trees, history, heritage and current tragedy. Some families can trace their groves back centuries. Livelihoods, homes and the past are erased in a few short seasons. A sad, bitter and angry tone prevails, it is understandable. But what can we do? There is no known cure and farmers need to make the best of a bad situation. It is a small consolation to know that their oral histories have been documented for posterity. But that doesn’t make them fun to read.

When Caimi and Piccinni started their project in 2015, they couldn’t know exactly where it might lead, or the circumstances of release. It’s a cruel irony that the book is coming out now, about the fading fumes of a global pandemic. Everyone’s emotional state has been tested over the past two years, as has our outlook on illness, medicine and the future. Not so long ago, it may have been difficult to understand olive growers dislocated by a pest. That’s probably less true now. We experienced a similar societal trauma in Puglia. But while the coronavirus is thankfully receding, the OQDS has no relief in sight. This too should pass. But when exactly is uncertain.

By bearing witness to the problem, this book expands awareness and is of service. It’s an art world’s version of hard-hitting journalism, and it could be enjoyed in purely aesthetic terms, like a beautifully crafted monograph. But he offers no solutions, and it’s hard to come away feeling anything but helpless. It’s a feeling we’ve grown accustomed to since early 2020. But that doesn’t make it any easier to live with.

Collector’s point of view: Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni don’t seem to have consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, interested collectors should probably contact the artists directly via their website (link in sidebar).

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