NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 44


Of Designing, Of Translating, Of Searching

Cinzia Ferrara

Discussing the design of visual communication entails the constant drawing of parallels with the issue of translation, regardless of the content concerned. Discussing the design of visual communication for music entails a two-phase translation, due to the need to transform content not only by giving it a different form of expression from its original, but also its very nature that, from abstract and impalpable, becomes concrete and tangible. In this process, which may take on a hermeneutic value, the designer acts as a translator and prepares the ‘crossing of the bridge’ by handling design tools and manipulating contents and concepts with the aim of obtaining the translation of an element from invisible into visible as the outcome of the transformation process. 
Nothing is more deceiving than the apparent simplicity of the term “translation.” However, translation is much more than a mere, automatic process of substitution: on the contrary, it literally means ‘to carry from one place to another that form which is the transposition of a thought, the interpretation of the word, the deep betrayal of the original meaning.’ Borges would ask his translator not to stop at the written word, but to go up, scrambling over steep paths until he would reach the truest intention of what he meant, going well beyond the metaphor of language use to represent reality in an incomplete, imperfect way.

I doubt that Franco Battiato has ever asked Francesco Messina to develop a paradoxical process similar to the one described above – I doubt it because I know the liberalism of the former, whose mind is an open sea, and the independence of the latter, who is a careful listener but also very determined in the choices he makes. From the outset, their relationship has been one between people who are used to walking along parallel paths that cross more and more often, betraying the laws of geometry – and when this happens, more and more frequently, they’ve had to look into each other’s eyes. 
Francesco Messina is a multifaceted designer, since he is not only a visual communication designer, but also a musician and composer, meaning he can not only listen to music, but also understand, imagine, and write it. And he does so by swimming across it, so to say, moving swiftly between the lines where he bumps into scattered notes, filling the space and time in which a composition grows. He is, however, also able to dive into music, going through its layers down to its abyss, moving away from the surface and the light that is refracted there, and towards the most secret, obscure motives that generated that music. 
His twofold role cannot be underestimated when interpreting the many projects that have marked his long, generous collaboration with Franco Battiato, also a musician, singer and songwriter, composer as well as poet, painter, and film director. An insatiable researcher, never tired and never satisfied with the peak he has reached, which becomes a privileged position to glimpse into and choose a new destination for his journey. 
Francesco Messina and Franco Battiato meet in 1974. Over time they become friends, partners and more and more necessary to one another, building a strong, intense relationship. Music is only one of the reasons behind their bond, while an elected affinity is generated by those substances, apparently inert, and however always intimately willing, which one may observe in their looking for each other, attracting each other, absorbing each other… paraphrasing Goethe1. A role in this may be played by Sicily, which is in the DNA of both, the land which maps keep calling an island but which in fact, as Gesualdo Bufalino draws it with words, is a continent2 where everything is mixed up, changing, and contradictory. 
Their encounter takes place on the terrain of music; communication design will come later, after they have recognized each other as similar yet visibly different, distant and complementary like the East and the West. It would be more than reductive to think of their “dialoguing” as a mere designer-client relationship: we should rather recall excellent examples that would take us back in time, making us think of men with special intelligence and sensibility. Francesco Messina’s translation work is always precise and meticulous, far from being a mere literal transposition, completed using all the tools available to him, and it is always possible to look through it, following the line of his words, which show lucid thinking and expressive capacities that are definitely rare, and which tell how each project was generated starting from the title, the texts, the music, the intentions, from a thought, having recourse to a gemmation and/or layering process, depending on the case, but always based on the removal of the obvious, of the superfluous, of the exceeding. 
Among the recurrent instruments used in his projects is photography, his own or produced by others, before or after, fortuitous or constructed, found or retrieved, but always “contaminated” – as he likes to say – manipulated in a post-production process, invaded by colour – including synthetic or monochromatic, with contrast taken to the limit or reduced to a dramatic black and white. 
Traces of these manipulations are visible in many of his works, in the sky of mount Ararat, made forcibly dark and nocturnal; in Battiato’s portrait where the seat disappears and his body seems to fluctuate in space, surrounded by palm trees and desert dunes; in the pattern of flying storks who, unconsciously, invade the background of a composite image; and still, images stored in memory and then resurfaced to be used, sometimes flippantly, just like the wind which blows their skirts up. 
Most of the time photography is called to take on the role of a co-protagonist, who must learn to coexist with other elements of the composition and to dialogue with them. These include the typography chosen (sometimes manipulated), always different and paying attention to the main elements including images, titles, and texts. It is a versatile instrument that adapts to contents taking on different forms, as it happens to the stem of a plant that follows the outlines of architecture and redesign. It can also be more unpredictable and reject them, creating uncertain, contradictory patterns. In the various composition processes typography takes on a pregnant, autonomous or remissive form, working on its own, combining different alphabets, feigning the ageing of a contemporary font, sometimes also involving punctuation in contributing to the composition, always revolving around the double T in the middle of Battiato’s surname. 
Then there are the images, either drawings or illustrations, taken from books, designed ad hoc, expressions of a vast, deep visual culture that draws from the past and from the present in a bold, though not disrespectful way – images which are manipulated, cut out, coloured or deprived of colour, piled up to compose landscapes of shapes in which the relations between parts are never obvious but become invisible threads to follow, like in a path that takes us elsewhere with one step alone, as the protagonist of the film Ulysses’ Gaze by the Greek director Angelopoulos says. 
Francesco Messina’s projects are small, self-contained visible worlds in which a different expressive tale, parallel to music, develops – built out of thought-of images and of thoughts with a form, all drawn from that gulf, never saturable, of forms and images which resembles Giordano Bruno’s spiritus phantasticus3
One of these microcosms is found on the cover of the record L’Era del Cinghiale Bianco, released in 1979, whose main plate, sketched in black on white, needed a careful work, entailing first research and selection of every small image taken from the books in his library dedicated to traditions of all ages and cultures and then the reproduction, re-drawing, re-touch and finally inclusion in the final composition. This was followed by airbrushing with aniline inks, in which a fundamental role, as he writes in his book Ogni tanto passava una nave4, was played by the illustrative style of Tadanori Yokoo a Japanese artist whom he admired greatly. 
Another of these microcosms is that in which Francesco Messina makes a completely different choice to tell the album Apriti Sesamo, released in 2012, where everything is invaded by a burst of light that transforms quickly, taking on different colours and swallowing every element of the composition, only sparing a simple, austere typography, merely necessary to reproduce the title. 
They are overcrowded or almost deserted microcosms, but still compressed, evocative scenarios deserve further reflection in search of those translated contents. 
Even writing about visual communication design entails having to address the issue of translation. This activity also carries out that crossing of the bridge that can never be slavish, pedantic, or consequential, but should try and look through forms, to read and interpret them in order to sense the thoughts that generated them, and finally to make the backward journey that leads from the visible to the invisible, trying – though this can never be guaranteed – not to be mistaken.

1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Le affinità elettive, Einaudi, Torino, 1962.
2 According to atlases, Sicily is an island, and it must be true: atlases are honourable books. One would like to doubt it, however, when you think that the concept of island usually corresponds to a compact lump of race and customs, whereas here everything is mixed up, changing and contradictory, as in the most composite of continents. It is true that there are many Sicilies: I’ll never stop counting them. Gesualdo Bufalino, La luce e il lutto, Sellerio, Palermo, 1996, p. 17 [my translation]
3 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1988, p. 91.
4 Francesco Messina, Ogni tanto passava una nave, Bompiani, Milano, 2014, p. 57.

Cinzia Ferrara

is researcher professor, Aiap President, architect and graphic designer. Besides her design work, she writes on visual communication, teaches and holds lectures at international conferences and several Italian universities and design schools. She has written numerous essays and articles published in national and international magazines. She is the supervisor as well as organiser of conferences, exhibitions and workshops. She lives and works in Sicily that is a continent more than just an island.

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