Alice Cannava, Occulto (Berlin):
Challenging our Individuality Obsession and the Romantic Cult of Genius
The Western world loves its moral panics. Every generation has one to call its own: in the 60s, it was rock and roll. The 70s, drugs. The 80s saw mad allegations of sadistic ritual abuse. The common culprit? The devil, obviously. Though the original incarnation of the word “occult” has zero ties to Satan, fearful whispers of occult influences and symbols underlie many conspiracy theories, from the Pentagon’s power in Washington, to the sorcery of Dungeons and Dragons.
But let’s not forget the etymology of the word. The Latin occultus simply means concealed. Clandestine. Hidden. As Alice Cannava, founder and editor of Occulto magazine, asks, “What’s more hidden and unrevealed than science in nowadays’ general culture?”
Originally, the word “occult” helped philosophers distinguish between the measurable world—the bailiwick of science—and the immeasurable world—the reality existing beyond reason and the corporeal. This in the sixteenth century, a time when the two realms of thought enjoyed less polarization than today. Occulto plays within that grey area between hard science and soft spirituality. It looks at the laws and truths we apply to nature, like e=mc2, and apposes them to the laws and truths regulating social behavior. Where concrete mixes with abstract, allegories and art abound.
As with most contradictions that we note at a certain age and make our life’s work reconciling, the gap between science and humanities revealed itself to Cannava due to the example of her parents. More specifically, her father, whose interests range from logic, philosophy and information technology to activism in the Italian Communist Party. “I have been happily taking advantage not only of his loaded science bookshelves, but also of the example he represents in terms of being open to different disciplines and experiences, avoiding a predictable step-by-step career, and studying further through all your life.”
Cannava found inspiration not only from the books on her father’s shelves, but also from the paintings on the walls. She recalls two Paul Klee reproductions in particular: Senecio, a childlike Cubist rendering of the head of a man going senile, and Ad Parnassum, a hypnotic mosaic painting that uses pointillism and divisionist techniques to depict either a pyramid or a mountain or both.
Cannava recalls painting a “very bad” copy of Klee’s Blue Night and her art teacher telling her that “Klee’s paintings are music compositions and that he felt so much like breaking into museums at night and stealing some of them.” Klee once said that his paintings were abstract, but based on memory. He also said a terrible world produces abstract art and a happy world produces secular art. He probably would have loved Occulto.
Cannava’s father, Paul Klee, Satan…all of these men referenced in an article about an art and literary magazine, run by a woman, that reinterprets the male-dominated enterprise of science. Does Cannava seek out female contributors as a sort of neo-affirmative action? No.
“Don’t get me wrong; I do see the patronizing approach of many guys toward women engaging in whatever they think is not their thing—scientific research, software development, music, random sex, leaving dishes unwashed…Yet Occulto‘s microcosmos is way ahead of such issues. I don’t need a specific policy in order to involve brilliant ladies in what I do. It simply happens all the time.”
Occulto asks difficult questions: Why do we look for shortcuts to knowledge and power? Why do irrational and revealed truths fascinate us? “What lies behind the insurmountable gap dividing humanities and science?” Cannava has some hypotheses for the last query.
“In random order: a misunderstanding of the multi-faceted nature of intellectual and creative activity; the Western world’s obsession with individuality and the romantic cult of genius as one of its stickiest byproducts; laziness and impatience; bad education systems and downhearted teachers; the definition of what culture is as spread out by influential characters and media; the actual difficulty and complexity of scientific knowledge, especially if one considers its latest developments; the hyper-specialization of professional figures in any field; the seductive power of irrationalism; conformism; internal power games within the academic world. You can go on.
“I think science potentially teaches a great lesson about working hard and doing your stuff while not taking things or yourself too seriously: You are curious, you have doubts, you check the results on the way, you try again. All this has a lot to do with irony and humor. We all know how annoying and unhelpful an arrogant person who lacks self-criticism and humility can be. Apply such an attitude to a whole system of knowledge and there you go: Revealed Truth is no fun.”
Image: Courtesy of Occulto