Although many years have passed, the most favourite question of art critics (and not only) is still the same: “What is the artist’s role?”. We do not know whether the impossibility of escaping from such a question is due to the deep impact made on Twentieth century’s art by some giants (Duchamp and Warhol most of all), or if the steadiness of critical thought can be charged onto the urgency of an aesthetic paradigm or even onto the same critics’ idleness. As a matter of fact, in order to explain the cultural characters of our time, a confrontation with the afore-mentioned topic is unavoidable.
Unfortunately it is not easy to do that, given that artist Mauro Ceolin, present in September and October to Triennale Bovisa in Milan with his exhibition Contemporary Naturalism, VIVENDI – da Lassie ai Pokemon, made of hybridization his trademark. In fact, at the base of his work lies an analytic attitude, reason to study and ultimate goal at the same time. His methods of research lie on the border between a large body of disciplines ranging from sociology to biology, anthropology to chemistry, from science of materials to neuroscience. Before such a wide arsenal of options it would be practically impossible to give some answers to the first question, but the artist’s extraordinary coherence of work comes to our aid.
While on one hand the target is on contemporaneity (media aesthetics, videogames, photo-video-cinema imaginary), on the other an unquenchable passion for science (bio-physio-zoo-logy) is revealed. One on side the bringing up-to-date of the discussions about landscape and nature topics, on the other the development of relational practices, where the project becomes integral part of artistic activity.
How to be mediators between these seemingly distant aspects? Through the indiscriminate usage of artistic means, whose selection depends exclusively on the scientific need to confirm theories and assumptions. That is why there is no predominance of painting, sculpture, installation, book, audiovisual activity, performance, but rather the necessity to make these art forms integrate and spread the results of the debate.
Not even the text you are reading is immune to media pollution; the artist has decided to take it through a real and virtual path, whose key to the reading he explained as follows: “I’d like to integrate this interview as an active element of ContemporaryNaturalism project. The answers have been elaborated within a physical space which will be visualized by an electronic map available online, where the interview established relations with space, time and thought. The integration into the electronic format will describe the dialectical event through links and other multimedia devices. Within the written answers, a tag will correspond to the place they were elaborated in, and at the end can be found the Google Maps link of the entire elaborated path.”
Claudio Musso: That attitude to research, that way to investigate reality and virtuality seems to resemble more the scientific method rather than artistic practice strictly speaking, and is no doubt a peculiarity of your work. How did this perspective born? And how did it change over the years?
Mauro Ceolin: I have always considered “real” and “virtual” as part of the same permeable and osmotic whole. I think that since the half of the Nineties computers should be considered as household appliances. Otherwise, every dynamics concerning this tool leads to a great number of meanings, expressed through a multitude of signifiers. Well, signifiers have been and are still among the topics analyzed by my aesthetic study. ifugio capanna gnifetti, 3.647s.l.m.>
From the end of the Nineties to about 2006, I saw my research path as a map, representative of an area of human activities, which was prevalently developing around the infosphere of new electronic media. For biologic and cultural nature, videogames and internet have been the right fields where to carry out a broad research, by observing and illustrating their significant improvements. Such studies produced a series of visual experiences, translated with a flat aesthetics: these experiences, results of vector programs, were capable of catching updated landscapes and new icons, representative of new and expanded cultural-economic scenarios. The choice of using tools for vector design was necessary in order to give coherence to the subject-object relation. Once the aforementioned aspects were historicized, in the online project http://www.rgbproject.com made between 2005 and 2006, I turned them into action by representing what-were-happening-outside-of-me, and I wanted that action to explain a fourth landscape, by observing the same cultural environments.
Claudio Musso: On WikiArtPedia there is a section about your project gamePeople. Aside from the inevitable reference on Pop Art for common features such as subjects’ isolation and chromatics, the most interesting aspect is the social element. To pay an homage to a category of producers that forged the videogame imaginary means to make a reflection about the permeation of certain aesthetic principles. What do you think about it?
Mauro Ceolin: I agree. gamePeople has been, and it is still, an up-dating of genre: the portrait in visual art. I think all who labelled this series as “pop” lacked of subjectivity/knowledge, inherited by those who defined this kind of search tout court.
In everybody’s mind, videogames stars are videogames’ characters (from Mario and Luigi to Tommy Vercetti, up to Altaïr Ibn La-Ahad); instead, I found extremely interesting to depict their creative developers, bringers of an amazing narration of our time. Or better, twenty years ago game designers like John Carmack and John Romero were just “boys” who were experimenting new forms of “entertainment” and “spreading” of their products. In some cases they were employees in certain companies that would have become the best ones for cultural entertainment.
I don’t want to bother you with history, for there is a wide national and international literature that speaks for itself. I just want to say that, as you rightly suggest, the social component and the aesthetic reflex produced by gamePeople series are the logos of this research..
Claudio Musso: SolidLandscape, DebugLandscape, ExpirationDate: all of these projects explore the idea of landscape on different levels and from unusual perspectives. It seems you are experiencing an obsession where, almost effortless, Canaletto and SuperMario Bros melt into each other. What does contemporary landscape mean for you? Why proposing another reflection about it?
Mauro Ceolin: The projects you listed transfer the perspective focus towards the monitor, our current window on modern world. And as any window, beyond it, new “landscapes” are available. The visual component is like a trigger for vertical considerations produced by these series, but it is a character’s duty to know how to catch them. It is like walking in a forest and recognizing only elements perceivable through macro-categories, like flowers, trees and animals. The same elements are inserted into vertical sub-categories for the most trained eye.
Obsessions are the key to shift from the knowledge of oneself and surroundings, establishing continuous relations and thus new meanings. Nowadays, the multiplicity of landscapes proposed by productive devices need an analytic reaction/relation by all the active subjects of our society. Personally speaking, by using the metaphor of the screen/window, I decided to analyze certain specific aspects of the new collective spaces created by mass distribution of electronic technologies.
In a different way, DebugLandscape set a reflection about the sense of producing/make images today, by suggesting a parallel relation between information debug and visual art role on ethic topics. All these little variations of sense (from SolidLandscape to ExpirationDate), connected to the other projects, produce the visualization of a structure of thought; like a map observed from above, such structure relates my work with the surrounding temporal context. aghetti di ercavallo, 2621 s.l.m.>
Claudio Musso: It’s been some time since people talk about videogames aesthetics and supposed influence of videogames on our perception of real. On one hand, some of your projects ask the question openly, while on the other there is the attempt of a more discrete research, that goes under the surface, and investigate the sources. What is your opinion on the matter?
Mauro Ceolin: The arrival of videogame languages and their apparent forms in our society have led to new formal behaviours. Then, to talk about videogame aesthetics is not totally wrong: yet I still have many doubts whether they produce an influence on what we call “real”, if not for the economic dynamics they create.
To put it simply: playing a videogame, using a knife we are allowed to perform many actions: we can peel a fruit and eat it to survive, slash a person to hurt him/her or even cut through a piece of wood. Both videogames fans and detractors are people who make the same effort to carry on their own ideological creed after all: instead, I am persuaded that the instrument is a neutral means; it acquires polarity only when a subject choose how to use it. Yet I think this aspect is still to be explained better and with more knowledge.
I want to take on a neutral position. I try to represent in an analytical way what occurs and transforms when different disciplines and signifiers converge. The rhizome proposed by the series/projects, is related to the users’ demand. If watching the portrait of Ken Levine we do not move away from his face, or we do not investigate the nature of the flame surrounding the creator of Bioshock, we cannot understand the meaning/synthesis the explosions have in the game.
Claudio Musso: You are fascinated, guided and inspired by important figures the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci (for ContemporaryFluids), Ulisse Aldrovandi (for COntemporaryNaturalism) or Andrea Alciato (for ContemporaryEmblems). It seems they are like mentors to you rather than idols or models. How do you relate with these “legends of art”?
Mauro Ceolin: I consider Plato, Da Vinci, Aldrovandi, Linnaeus, ALciato, Darwin, Galileo, Lamarck and Frazer, Cage, Ceccato, Baetson, Dawkins and many others as the pioneers of my investigations. I found very interesting the fact that their studies, strictly connected with the times they lived in, are complementary between them. To read Darwin’s autobiography is illuminating because it fulfils his vision in relation to his times and topics, and makes you understand his contribution to the history of evolutionism. So, I see them as functions that pave the way for an aesthetic methodology: after all, I prefer reading an essay rather than a novel, because life itself is narration.
Claudio Musso: Let’s come to ContemporaryNaturalism, maybe your most ambitious work, almost a meta-project where to deduce the principles of a poetics. It is not only an archive, and it is not exclusively about reproducing virtual forms of life. It cannot be defined neither artistic work nor scientific research. What is it exactly?
Mauro Ceolin: ContemporaryNaturalism, unlike my previous projects, has always been intended as “seminal project”. By following a descriptive logics, it developed a series of expansions oriented to the research of emerging patterns, and not to the creation of objects. On the surface appears the instruments of natural science, converging with contemporary visual arts practices; under the visual line, instead, there is a continuous tension created by relations and cognitive mechanisms. ampovecchio, 1310 s.l.m. >
In the 70s, Joseph Kosuth was setting an interesting marker, by claiming that only art could follow the path left opened by philosophy, because the plurality of artistic means of expression grants a greater communicative efficiency than verbal language does. Well, by translating unpretentiously the structural nature of this input, ContemporaryNaturalism claims to rethink evolutionism not only as biological process, but also as passage towards an evolution between material and immaterial.
I am thinking about the penetration into everybody’s mind of what is commonly considered as real. The way how modern societies, formed by the massive use of contrasting information and modified by multiple passages of the same news between different sources, end up creating new forms of “life”. A classical example can be found into the character of a novel, now become celebrity thanks to a TV series, Lassie. Who did ever hear someone exclaiming “Look, a Lassie!” when addressing to a Rough Collie? After such a misunderstanding a new family of canines is created, where shape and surplus of information constitute its new biological DNA.
Here a wide chain of examples could be examined, starting for instance from the current role of some viral subject, spread as social identities through the use of computers. But for that I suggest you go reading the documents of ContemporaryNaturalism official page and the wide literature on the matter (see Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins)
ContemporaryNaturalism, being definition of art object and seminal project, denies any object limit and considers the whole project design, included this interview, as part of the artistic work. A lecture produces a social sculpture, an exposition event arranges a relations plan, and all the objects gravitating around are to be intended as elaboration examples, useful to visualize/define a fourth landscape, ultimate goal of the research.
We are witnessing a multitude of events, and many of them are noises in the service of little or great groups of power: ContemporaryNaturalism is meant to illustrate those realities which invisibly determine collective behaviours, generating entropic process. Nowadays, natural science has linguistic tools to build narrative metaphors, that undergoing modifications, repetitions and corrections as sculptural objects do, proceed towards three-dimensional levels of signifiers, giving birth to a different key to the reading of contemporaneity.
The culture of money stands out the multiple emerging beauties:ContemporaryNaturalism is a dynamic precipitate and for any other device available today I suggest you go and see the page of the site that contains research elements and memories.
Claudio Musso: As we said at the beginning of our interview, in September and October the project will become an exhibition-lab in the spaces of Triennale Bovisa in Milan. For the occasion, during the exposition period it will be allowed to observe more closely the research. In addition to objects, documents and performances, a huge installation structure will be realized. How would you describe this exposition?
Mauro Ceolin: The exposition has an official description of its own, concentrated in three months of meetings with Alberto Pizzati Caiani, scientific director of Triennale Bovisa in Milan, and his collaborators. VisionLab, as said in the description, does not want to tend to a defined form, but instead, through a constant development, will produce a series of visual/documentation elements, results of a work characterized by a wide temporal space: from the visualization of alphaTaxonomy (2006/2011), with an installation structure of 50 linear meters, to the presentation of research elements and cross-over collaborations of the last few months. Moreover, for the first time in Italy some champions of personal study and research documents that VisionLab considers relevant to the project will be exposed. I think VIVENDI is a clear example of what I was talking about first, a collaborative process in relation with a space/environment. VisionLab intends to export such methodology to other institutional places, with the purpose of defining a process: an hypothesis of museum of un-natural history, investigating those new scenarios that ContemporaryNaturalism aims to describe through the experimentation of cross-disciplines.