Massimo Vitali: The photos for this book date back to when?

Gabriele Basilico: They are all from spring 1978. They were born for a precise reason, and end there. After this experience of dance halls, which we can consider similar to reportage work, I practically stopped photographing people and began dedicating all my attention to city landscapes.

Giovanna Calvenzi: Why did you create them? What is this “precise reason”?

GB: The dance hall photos had an official commission. During that time, the magazine Modo was directed by Alessandro Mendini, an architect who came from “radical” experiences. He had been the director of Casabella for many years and was interested in the culture of architecture and transversal experiences. to explore in a more original way. During those years, dance halls became a phenomenon that was catching the interest of designers – and not only. They were popping up just about everywhere. In 1978, the “Ca’ del liscio” was inaugurated in Ravenna, a dance hall as big as a stadium that could hold about three thousand people. A veritable revolution in the amusement for the masses system. In Italy, especially in Emilia Romagna, but in many other cities or small towns as well, there were these new macro performance objects: huge boxes, semi-spheres, pseudo high-tech constructions, crazy and extravagant objects. Dance halls were born from the transformation of places that had been previously dedicated to other kinds of music or to free time. For Mendini, they were the expression of a creativity that looked to Las Vegas, to the kitsch, more than to important, traditional architecture. In any event, it was a phenomenon that in those years was amusing and new. Mendini was especially fascinated by their design, because on the inside almost everything had been designed: from the armchairs to the bar counters to the graphics, with a wide use of plastic and psychedelic lights… So he proposed shoot to me, a trip along the Via Emilia, from Piacenza to Rimini, up to the “Ca’ del liscio”. Along the way I came across ten-fifteen of these incredible places. I left with a journalist friend, Paolo Carloni – he, too, was excited about the undertaking – and I started working with my Nikon and my flash. Back then I was fascinated by social issues handled with subtle irony, like in Robert Altman’s film Nashville, or in Bill Owens’s photo book Suburbia.

MV: But I recall that in those years, everyone, even those who had different jobs, dreamed of dance halls, of those strange people who went dancing… that is, it was a world apart, so to speak, a totally unknown world. But precisely because of his, because it was different, it exerted a noteworthy influence.

GB: We felt like we were part sociologists, part photographers, or in any event protagonists who were thrilled by these exuberant and original places, though which had a familiar, Italian flavor to them…
So I began photographing the dance halls, with their kitsch design, and then I discovered dancing, the craziness, the lights, the typical events like “Miss Emilia”, “Women and Engines”, dance contexts for old people and young kids, and other events…  […] The flash was a true element of surprise, for me, who took the photos, and for the people, who were photographed. It would suddenly light up something you could barely see in the dark. Our generation was born with the legend of the reportage. We looked to the great reporters, from Cartier-Bresson to the Americans. Then things changed, other legends arrived, but that was how it all began. We developed the film to the max. We almost never used the flash – just for special occasions. Dealing with dance halls with reportage language was something that, all in all, was familiar to me.

“I’m doing this project on discos and I’d like to come and take some photos, but we’re going to use this big tripod, then the flash…”, and they would say: “Well… come, ask for the electrician, and get together with him…” They didn’t even ask why. It was totally crazy.

MV: I got to discos over twenty years later. […] If you work on beaches, what do you do in the winter? Where do you find the people? And then I thought that discos were great places, where the people went even in the winter. That’s why I decided to start working on the world of discos, which is a world that is, in my opinion, absolutely impenetrable, with really strange people. I found a disco in Viareggio. I think it was called “Il cavallino rosso”. It was a place for young kids – for fourteen-years-olds – on Saturday afternoons, right near a beach. Outside there was the sun, people swimming, and then there was the sun, people swimming, and then there were these kids dancing inside, closed inside, with such a . deafening noise I wasn’t able to get the chassis into the car. Then man gets used to everything, and so after a while, by my third disco, at four in the morning I would lay down on the amps that were pumping out ear-shattering music and fall asleep. I kept going. I went from one to the other. I called the managers of the discos, and that wasn’t easy either. They’d keep their phones on the hook only half an hour a day, and I’d try to explain: “I’m doing this project on discos and I’d like to come and take some photos, but we’re going to use this big tripod, then the flash…”, and they would say: “Well… come, ask for the electrician, and get together with him…” They didn’t even ask why. It was totally crazy. Usually, we’d arrive at around four or five with the first electricians. I’d set up eight or nine flashed – 3,000 kilojoules each – I’d mount the tripod, then wait for something good to happen. The problem with discos is that you don’t see anything, so if you didn’t focus before the evening began, you’d lose an entire night’s work. When I shot off my flash, the light was blinding, but the people – who knows if it’s because of the drugs or maybe because there were a lot of strobe lights around – didn’t really notice anything. Maybe they thought my flash was an effect of the disco. I really didn’t take that many photos, and so during the evening there were about eight or ten times when the flash went off. In discos, I had the feeling I was going straight to the heart of the problem. I was certainly interested from a sociological point of view. And yet two factions were immediately born: those who liked my photos and those who insisted that I keep on shooting beaches.

From Dance Halls to Discos. A Conversation on a System, with Gabriele Basilico and Massimo Vitali, in the presence of Giovanna Calvenzi and Alberto Bianda, Milan, July 2, 2007 In Disco to disco, Milano, Charta, 2007, pp. 9-16.