Pina Piccolo – Gianluca Costantini, cartoonist, graphic novelist, human rights activist. Can you tell us about how your specific style of blending word and image has evolved over the years?
Gianluca Costantini – I started to publish comic book stories about 25 years ago, in a few underground magazines, both in Italy and internationally. My drawing style at that time was very different, a lot fuller and more decorative. I was working mainly on dreamlike states and even my use of words was brimming with references to poetry and literature. Everything originated from a mixture between the work of artist William Blake and the writer William Burroughs. Here are a few examples of my work from those years https://www.gianlucacostantini.com/art/decoration-of-existence-comics What specifically interested me about comic books was the kind of experimental writing they involved; in this sense, artist Bill Sienkiewicz was fundamental for me. Even now, I always start by experimenting with language. Over the last ten years the content of my work has gradually shifted toward a kind of drawing connected, as much as possible, to action and reality. My drawing has become less ornate but calligraphy has continued to be predominant, both in terms of sign and writing. As I experimented, I became very close to Turkish and Persian miniaturists, and, as a result, to calligraphy as a type of writing that is drawn.
PP – Which Italian and foreign graphic artists have most influenced you in your specific style of drawing?
GC – Although I have studied a lot of comic book artists, my specific points of reference were outside of that field. In these past few years, I have been influenced a lot by the work of artist Raymond Pettibon, and by the drawings of William Kentridge from South Africa and Weiwei from China. The comic book artist that has influenced me the most was artist Raul from Spain and the screenwriter Felipe Cava. When I was young, you could often find me in the studio of comic book artist Vittorio Giardino who really broadened my horizons especially about the content of stories, while artist Fabrizio Passarella, my decorative arts professor at the Academy, opened my eyes to the world at large.
PP – How is your work different from that of famous Italian political cartoonists who draw for important dailies such as Il Manifesto and L’Unità? What is the relationship of graphic artists from your generation with figures such as Andrea Pazienza?
GC – I am not a satirist, so my work is quite far from those artists who engage in political satire, even though I really appreciate their work. I think that Mauro Biani is doing excellent work at the Italian daily il Manifesto.
Andrea Pazienza has always been a shadow looming over any graphic artist, but by now we are talking of someone who was active forty years ago. It belongs to the past. I believe I am part of a different generation, one that is completely detached from the comics of the 1980’s. My way of working is quite different. I start from an investigation on Twitter via sources and acquaintances from all over the world, I monitor how these stories develop, building mosaics of stories. These works are not conceived for publication, rather they are meant to go on living in the lives of the people whose story they tell, from activists to the families of people who are subject to persecution, to protest movements in the streets. Often these drawings turn into cartoons that tell a story or images used by magazines or dailies. It all starts though from free-flowing experimentation; as usually commissioned work turns out worse than free and improvised creation.
PP – Word, sign and narration, what stages did you have to go through to find a balance?
GC – It is a complex relationship, constantly evolving. In terms of sign, it changes with each story that I tell, I try to make it so that the drawing adapts to the specific emotional character of the story. Every book, every short story, every drawing published in social media is a new stage, a new step. Nothing should be definitive. Often it can be born out of the artistic experimentation of another artist, as a pretext to continue somebody else’s work and expand it. Fortunately, there is no balance. It’s like when you go on a trip, there is a well defined route but before getting to the destination there can be so many side roads, and often if you take them there is no guarantee you’ll arrive at your final destination. This is the beautiful thing about being an artist, not being imprisoned by the people who commissioned the artwork. Often this kind of creative anarchy finds a lot of appreciation from the sponsors themselves because it ends up suggesting a vision that they did not plan on.
PP -What is your relationship to public protest art that takes the form of murales, graffiti, writers?
GC – I consider street art from the 70’s and 80’s to be the only true form of protest art, as opposed to today’s. Now public art seems almost like a sort of exercise in aesthetics for its own sake. I am not that interested in their experimentation. But that’s only my opinion. I liked the artists that Italian critic Francesca Alinovi used to engage with, I use to love Rammellzee and TAKI 183. That’s all. I have always loved Keith Haring. For a period the Italian graffiti artist Blue seemed very interesting and innovative to me, but then he stopped experimenting, and as I was saying before, he is not that interesting to me now.
PP – Your political vision and the topics you take on tend to be international in nature and in certain ways transnational. Have the communication potential of drawing and visual arts been useful in getting the message across language barriers?
GC – Yes, I am very interested in a transnational approach, I like to explore what I don’t know and throw myself into new topics. I think this lends a certain freshness and usefulness to my work. I think it is exciting to engage in dialogue with activists from Saudi Arabia or from Biafra, use my drawings in contexts I am not familiar with. It’s sort of a poetics that resembles twenty century Italian adventure writer Salgari. My Twitter account http://www.twitter.com/channeldraw has 65,000 followers and the majority of them are people who are interested in a certain topic or work in that field, an open community that acts based on news and a desire to help. Everything through a drawing. Language barriers do exist, but drawings work if the words are in English, or if they are translated by the activists of the different nations. The drawing by itself is not enough, you need help, an activist who is alone is a dead activist.
PP – What do you think of the enthusiastic response young people seem to have towards graphic novels as a genre, as a legitimate form of literature? What do you think of the popularity of events such as Lucca Comix? Who are the emerging young authors at a national and international level?
GC – This is a very interesting period, many books are being published and the book market is growing, but that is not very interesting to me. We have no need to be legitimated at a literary level because we are not literary figures, we are artists. The comic book fairs are a little bit like ceramics trade shows, where, yes there is art, but selling is the important thing. Lucca Comix is a mix between a market and a carnival, a few of the people who go there are truly interested in the comics. I find smaller comics events to be more enjoyable, they are places where you can create a relationship with others. My preference is for attending human rights festivals where people talk about real life and the topics are based on reality. As far as the new authors, I must say that the best ones are my students who come out of the Bologna Comics academy, but, of course I am biased.
PP – How do you relate to new technologies at a technical level of drawing and language? And to social media? Do you see their potential as a way to get your work to the public? Are you able to create networks with other artists through social media?
GC – Technology is very important, actually it was fundamental to my work already from the mid 90’s. I can say I was part of a vanguard that used the primitive web as an art form. For many years I curated the Inguine.net project and with others in those years we experimented with the language of cartoons and web animation. Everything changed when social media arrived on the scene. Everything shifted to how people related to one another. All my work in those years originated from my relation to the social media, the mixing of different types of knowledge between artists and intellectuals. My work on Twitter often reaches up to one million visits and interactions in one month. This type of reach is incredible. Every day there are new contacts and relations. I got important contact and relations through websites such as Cnn (Editor note, in July 2019, Gianluca Costantini was fired from his job as illustrator at Cnn after accusations of antisemitism raised by the US right wing opponents of his work https://twitter.com/i/moments/1154632834742726656), with the Fifdh festival of Geneve https://www.gianlucacostantini.com/human-rights/fifdh-2018-festival-du-film-et-forum-international-sur-les-droits-humains-genève/ just to cite a few, and, of course, with a lot of other artists. I am getting there! This is where the important collaboration with artist Weiwei started, here is an important work I drew for him https://www.gianlucacostantini.com/ai-weiwei-v-skandinavisk-motor
PP – Besides hybrid forms between literature and drawing do you see the potential for fusions with other artistic genre like music, architecture or others?
GC – Yes, certainly. I have collaborated often with musicians, especially Emidio Clementi, the vocalist for the group Massimo Volume, with whom I have put together the comic book “Cattive abitudini” https://www.gianlucacostantini.com/graphic-novel/cattive-abitudini , as well as other projects that are of a more personal nature. In terms of architecture, some time ago I led a workshop on cartoons and architecture during an event https://www.gianlucacostantini.com/2017/09/30/architettura-immaginata-disegnata-raccontata I believe that drawing can mix with any other language.
PP – What are your future projects? If you had to express a wish in relation to the type of action of art or the arts can perform in these times what would it be?
GC – At this time I am working on a comic book about Libya which will come out in September 2019 with Mondadori ( https://www.oscarmondadori.it/libri/libia-gianluca-costantini-francesca-mannocchi/) . It is a collaboration with journalist Francesca Mannocchi, an important book that tells about a country that has collapsed and is exploited, a country that we Italians have to reckon with. I would like for more artists to follow a more humanistic course in their art, produce work that is less ego oriented and self-absorbed, but I think it may be difficult for that dream to come true.
This is the English translation of the interview that appeared originally in Italian in April 2019 in La Macchina Sognante n.14, http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/seguo-le-storie-costruendo-mosaici-di-storie-intervista-al-fumettista-gianluca-costantini-di-pina-piccolo/