Game Over. If Federico Solmi’s work was characterized by an ironic destruction of myths and (anti)heroes, and the violence of his narration faded into laughter, with his latest exhibit, From Uterus to Grave with no Happy Ending, and video installation Douche Bag City, his satire becomes more bitter and deals with a highly topical theme – as always– and with a very personal style.
After Rocco Siffredi, King Kong and the Pope, the protagonist of the new video installation Douche Bag City is a Wall Street broker: the quintessence of a capitalistic, materialistic and frantic world, Dick Richman is thrown into a sanguine and claustrophobic Inferno, in which every hope is gone and from which it is impossible to escape. In a series of animations created as levels of a video game, Dick Richman confronts other monsters in furious, bloody, and most of all, no-win, fights. Each video ends with the message “game over”, and Richman’s death – a virtual death, of course, that condemns him to starting all over again in another level.
The mortgage bubble, the Stock Exchange debacle and the Bernard Madoff mega- scandal have scarred the American economy (and consequently the global economy), but most of all they have revealed the fragility, the flimsiness and the meanness of a system that considered itself invincible, and that finally ended up crushing the same people that financed it.
Solmi renders these themes mixing – once again – high and low culture: drawings, animation, extreme violence and video games, all set in a chaotic “parallel universe” in 3D (created as usual with the cooperation with the Australian artist and University Senior Lecturer Russell Lowe), where references to the traditional representation of the “classical” Inferno coexist with graffiti and pop culture, presented on small screens with Baroque-like frames.
After being exhibited at LMAKprojects Gallery in New York, at the beginning of this year, Douche Bag City will open in June (with a different format) at the Santa Fe Biennial (Digicult is a media partner for the event). We interviewed Federico Solmi in New York and reached his collaborator Russell Lowe by email in order to talk about this project and its further developments.
Monica Ponzini: Douche Bag City was exhibited as an installation, together with a number of your previously shown videos, but not with paintings or drawings as in previous exhibitions. Why did you present only video? Do you plan to further develop this kind of medium?
Federico Solmi: Since my first video animation, I realized that telling stories using drawings and 3D was congenial to me, and that I could involve the audience more. I think the public is often not involved in the contemporary art world, because, unfortunately, indecipherable codes are imposed on them. This is the main idea for me: tell a story, even if mad, crazy, using drawings – and with the Internet and interactivity, everything has been amplified in a way I didn’t imagine.
I want to tell about today’s world, and the city that is the most contemporary, crazy, but also the most the most visionary, the city that can foresee what’s going to happen in 10, 15 years – and living in New York for me is very important. I’m planning to develop this project and make it interactive, but for now I’m focusing on video. We used the videogames technology for one simple reason: I wanted to create a video animation based on mathematical formulas, because I wanted everything in it to be controlled in every detail by me.
In a videogame, I choose the character, I make him move around as I wish in the environment I want, I can choose the characters Dick Richman has to fight with. I wanted to create the simulation of a society as it could be in a near future. In a sense, it’s a parody of how we are controlled in the society we live in, sort of a “cage”, where we try to control our destiny.
Russell Lowe: In traditional key frame animation artists build “film sets”; backdrops to the action that in most cases don’t extend beyond the field of vision of the camera being used. The backdrop for one scene could be right next to another scene that in the context of the film is temporally and spatial quite distant. In contrast computer gaming environments are as spatially and temporally consistent as real world environments.
For Douche Bag City we could create a whole world where visitors would find themselves stuck with Dick Richman, facing the same challenges possibly dealing with them in a different way and then again, maybe not.
Monica Ponzini:You say that video for you is the best way to tell your stories. Would interactivity be a way to go in that direction? Do you feel you would keep your own authoriality, or that you would entrust the public with part of the creative process?
Federico Solmi: We still have to decide when interactivity will be available in this project. Basically, right now Russell and I have created a videogame that we recorded as we played. We have the interactive platform to make it available for the spectators or online, but we want to understand what the best way is to present it to the public. It has been created as a instrument I could control, and for now I want to focus on the installation I will bring to the Santa Fe Biennial 15 large video installations, but not interactive. To make this platform interactive, I just have to draw the menu, but I want to wait for the right event to launch this feature. .
Russell Lowe:Interactivity changes things completely … rather than me and Federico telling stories it becomes me and Federico and members of the public creating stories. Currently Federico and I, and a volunteer team of “actors”, go inside Douche Bag City and film our exploits. The public’s involvement will be entirely of their own making, totally unscripted … so they might choose to interact directly with Dick Richman, by helping or hindering him, or they may choose to face other challenges…even team up with other people to do so.
In terms of technical challenges, most are overcome already due to the way that we make the short films. One really important challenge relates to the interface between the public and the virtual environment… many people are still reluctant to engage with games via a keyboard and mouse. We’ve experimented with using a typical PlayStation/Xbox controller linked to a PC and people seem find those a little more intuitive.
Recently I’ve embedded motion sensors within an environment that picks up people’s movement and translate it into the game passively. GPS feeds are another way to create interactions within the game environment. The great thing is that many of these technical considerations reflect the economic, social and cultural aspects of the work we’ve been developing to date.
Monica Ponzini: In general, did something change in the way you work? How do you collaborate?
Federico Solmi: Since my last show, a lot of things have changed in the way I work and I organize my studio and my relationships. I was included in bigger events and had more funds, which gave me the opportunity to dedicate myself to more ambitious works. For this last project I had to take more collaborators who would do the “manual labor”, reorganize my work. Now, thanks to my collaborators, I can focus on the more “theoretical” aspects and work to improve myself, find people who inspire me.
For now, everything is less amusing and more stressful, but I feel that is also a period of transition, and if I continue this way I can achieve the level I would like to reach. Work wise, I’m very happy: I dedicated a year to this project, this satire of Wall Street and the economical crisis .
My collaborator Russell Lowe has grown in his career and at the same time was able to keep up with my ever more demanding requests. I’m also developing the project Fucking Machine, After Leonardo, an installation, a paradoxical machine, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci and the symbols of today’s power, in collaboration with Lee Gibson, a New Zealand Senior Lecturer.
The Santa Fe Biennial will be an important moment for me: I will be included as an American artist and my work will be exhibited with works of artists I admire, within a program that, for the first time, aims to summarize video animation experimentation in the United States and in the rest of the world in the last 20 years. This Biennial, where I will come with the work I consider the most mature of all my works, will be a great change for me.
And the turning point was definitely Guggenheim Fellowship for video in 2009: it gave me confidence and the opportunity of shifting from the status of “degenerate artist” to artist supported by academics and American critics. And it was important in order to be able to continue my way, satirizing the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, and making fun of their vices and whims.
Russel Lowe: We meet face to face very rarely, so almost all of our communication is done via web based technologies. We use Skype to talk, and ftp via my website www.russelllowe.com to transfer large files when Skype isn’t convenient to do so. On a more conceptual level the organization of our projects is in constant flux our use of contemporary digital technologies gives us real flexibility and agility in terms of responding to new ideas and cultural events.
Monica Ponzini: In Douche Bag City there’s a vein of pessimism that is less detectable in your previous works. Do you feel that this work represents you better?
Federico Solmi: It’s difficult for me to talk about this work, since it is still in progress, but I have a very clear idea of what’s going on each project is something that is already in my mind and that I only have to translate into artwork. This installation is a pivotal point for me: compared to my previous works, I realize that it’s no longer the work of an aggressive, exuberant kid, looking for attention, but the work of a more mature and experienced person and becoming a father changed me a lot.
I would say that my juvenile enthusiasms, the idea of changing the world, unfortunately aren’t there any more. There’s more resignation towards reality and the powers that dominate society.
There’s always been a dark side in my work, but before I used to “kill it” with irony. The joy, the satire that was there before is gone here, although this is an extremely happy time in my life And even the irony, what interests me is that it makes you think: even behind the apparent simplicity and brutality of the execution, there’s always the idea of our society as a mise-en-scène. The message is still the same, but this time it doesn’t make you laugh.
Monica Ponzini: You were born and raised in Italy, but you’ve been living in the US for 10 years. How are your European roots (the critic Blanca De La Torre, for example, talks about contact points with Pirandello) and the American experience present in your works?
Federico Solmi: I’m convinced in a sense that for me America has been the “promised land”: all these things never would have happened in Italy or Europe, this is the center of contemporaneity.
America is also a great source of inspiration: everything around us, for better or for worse, is in a sense the anticipation of what will come. Sure, on a cultural level, I’m particularly influenced by European culture, but I’ve been in America for 10 years and I was trained artistically in the US. In Douche Bag City, as well, I understand that my European roots are almost gone: the subject, the main character aren’t a European legacy any more, as they were before.
In a way, right now I’m reading European authors Pirandello, or the German sociologist Georg Simmel, but I realize that I’m fascinated by the American culture, and in my present work there’s very little European culture. What I’m interested in about Europe are the traditions, the past, the classics, but I think that Europe is attached to the past, while here in America it’s easier to make drastic changes. And my interlocutors at this point are here.