Vittore Baroni was born in 1956 in Forte dei Marmi, Italy, and lives and works in Viareggio. A Music critic and investigator of countercultures, he has been one of the most active operators in the mail art planetary circuit for the past three decades.
Since 1978, he has been promoting exhibitions, events, publications and collective projects on Art Networking and net cultures that anticipated the Internet. He also dealt with visual and audio poetry, street art and comics meticulously. I met Vittore in Viareggio, in his house in Via Cesare Battisti, a treasury of wonders for all those interested in the dynamics of the net and creative correspondence, seeing as he collects hundreds of materials, envelopes, stamps, records and works from collective projects accumulated over thirty years of postal communication.
We spent a lovely afternoon together, surrounded by the surprises hidden in his archive that often come back to life in order to pleasantly entertain the many guests who visit Vittore and his family (cat and rabbit included) and we thought about the current dynamics of social networking, relating them to the artistic experiences and practices on the net of the past few decades.
Tatiana Bazzichelli: Do you think that networking platforms defined with the term Web 2.0 (Facebook, Myspace, Youtube etc.) are important in order for younger generations to get more involved with the concept of networks, or are they a mirror of a involution in net practices? What do you think the term “making the net” means today?
Vittore Baroni: Vittore Baroni: First of all I think that we have to accept the fact that there’s a new generation of social networks that have sprouted from a constant evolution of technological and communicative instruments. By doing some research it’s evident that there are not only the most commonly known social networks, but it’s such a vast phenomenon that it’s difficult to give an opinion on the value of these and consider them more or less positive compared to the more “traditional” networking practices. In a few words, I believe that the presence of these instruments is useful; what becomes decisive is understanding how to use them and for what purpose. Even Ray Johnson, known as the “father” of mail art, in reality didn’t just use mail in his networking activities, but for example he also used the phone, for physical encounters with groups of people based on particular strategies. Networkers are people who don’t close themselves in their study in order to make their art; instead their primary objective is the desire to build nets and communicate with other people. The act of communication becomes a work of art.
I find it very useful that there are millions of people who are beginning to approach the theme of networking by connecting with one another. It seems obvious to me that the social networks that have had and will have more success are those where people find a certain amount of practical use. Before the Internet existed, I was part of the music circuits and music collectors, and this network had already expanded worldwide. The Internet, with all it’s affiliations defined by the term Web 2.0, is an instrument with enormous potential, but, and this seems impossible, we’re still not able to use it fully yet. Every time I come across collective creative projects online, I’m surprised to state that the results obtained are often inferior in terms of networking than what was capable of being achieved with postal art through a simple postage stamp.
There were decades of countercultures and political battles, during which the most common means of communication used was the simple instrument called “mimeograph”. The flyer given to people on the street, during 1968 (which in Italy was actually 1969), the fanzines or punkzines from the punk era, created an efficient and disruptive action in certain circuits. A process such as this should be even more exponential with the Internet, because it is directed to a much wider audience. But I believe that we are still not capable of using the instrument efficiently. Maybe we should wait for Web 3.0? You realise that many of the peer-2-peer networks are still widely used to exchange pornographic material; a large part of the world’s population is subject to the digital divide and problems of primary survival; others seem to prefer an “individual” life concept more than a “social” one; I don’t think we’ve gotten to an arrival point and a total maturity of network practices, despite the fact that many think the opposite.
The hope is, as it was in the 1960’s when hundreds of thousands of copies of independent magazines per printed, that today new forms of social networks can be developed that are more elastic and really favour creative work. Usually the “inventors” of these platforms are young adults that start doing this kind of thing just for fun, and this is positive. We’re still in a very immature phase: to be on Facebook is more like going to a piazza and listening to people chatting, with someone who shouts a little louder once in a while. But the structure of networks is not thought of in order to create a constructive dialogue. If tomorrow social networks made with fewer restrictions and no strict rules will be successful, this will be a step forward and perhaps there could be a new counterculture. In the past these practices arose because the “entertainment” was so restricted that the subversive content would leap up and become evident more quickly. Today we are saturated by data and voices. On the one hand it’s positive, but on the other the message becomes diluted and no one knows how to take part actively.
Why was Luther Blisset so right in the 90’s? Because we realised that we were missing a certain mythology of attitudes and ways of thinking; what Franco Battiato described as “a permanent centre of gravity” was missing. Once upon a time you would go to see a concert like Woodstock and on the stage you would see “mythological” people who were like lightning conductors and diffusers of energy. Today in the network dynamics we have an explosion of artificial democracy and equality, which creates a total opacity; the subject of individual responsibilities tends to crumble in an undifferentiated mass of fragmented data. Once upon a time people like John Lennon created a song that had meaning because it was created by people like him, but also because it was perceived by an audience that contributed to distributing it and spreading it through people’s imagination. If a song of his like “Give Peace a Chance” was sung by millions of people in a piazza during a protest, a virtuous circuit would be created that contained the artist and the public. In the frenzy of equality of Web 2.0 the most satisfied are those who have the power, because the problems are still the same but people have the illusion that there’s a full freedom and the possibility for everyone to have their 15 minutes of fame. I think that current social networks are reality shows for everyone. Now we just have to transform the reality show into a cultural program (which is a difficult task!).
Tatiana Bazzichelli: I ask myself whether the network of mail art and the net practices that were inspired by this, much before the Fluxus experience, can find a place in the current generations of social networks. I think of the fact that the mail artists themselves and the networkers can use social networks as a territory for artistic criticism. Do you think these practices on the net are reversible or immeasurable?
Vittore Baroni: The creation of mail art coincided with the diffusion of postage as a means of communication in different circles, like that of the New York Correspondence School founded by Ray Johnson, but also those of visual poets in South America, or artists within the Iron Curtain. The genesis coincided with a practical need: the idea of connecting in the most simple and functional way possible. George Maciunas understood that there was a network of people who shared artistic and creative objectives but they were in Europe, America or Japan. It was no surprise that Fluxus came about through a festival in Germany, spinning a web via the post and telephone between different people who had common interests. There was an intense epistolary correspondence activity behind Fluxus. Ray Johnson the most efficient and economical way to create his artistic network through the post and telephone, but if he were still alive today he would probably use to internet too.
In fact the true primary essence of mail art was not the fact of “using the post”, but to begin sharing projects. No one who practices mail art has an absolute or fetishist attachment to the post as a means, and no one has a refusal toward different means of communication and new technologies. On the contrary, the computer has revealed itself as being very useful for filing archives, for managing large databases, to layout and print your own pages of stamps and much more. A lot of postal artists, like Piermario Ciani, began using the Commodore 64, the first computers, the fax machine, trying to learn the first programming language, mostly to be able to communicate. Some people tried to create “alternative” postal systems for artistic correspondence, like Ulises Carrion and Peter Kuestermann.
When the use of the computer spread, many mail artists began to use email while using traditional mail, in so doing not giving up on the pleasure of the “physical” manufacture, but using email to send invites quickly, for daily communication, etc. Mail art is a non-profit and non-commercial artistic practice, but can be very expensive when you start to communicate to hundreds of people. The natural generational replacement is always moving toward electronic ways of communicating.
To answer your question I believe that these practices are reversible, within the limits of the fact that in some countries the computer has become the most common means for communication. But for mail artists in Africa or China the computer is still an expensive means and so postage is still widely used. In the projects of the past few years, I have tried to send mail art project invites via post but also via the Internet. In this way I saw how many participants I could involve through these different channels of communication. In 2008 I managed a project on the artist’s book, based on the theme of Utopia, sending the invites through different art websites, like those dedicated to the continuity of Fluxus, to the creators of stickers or street art. The invite was open to everyone and bounced around different websites and blogs, with the risk of receiving an unprecedented amount of work. I received 170 artists’ books in total from 26 countries. Of these, about two thirds came from the mail art circuit that I built over thirty years of correspondence. Not more than 50 came from authors that saw the invite on the Internet.
People on the net are unfamiliar with the mechanism of mail art and perhaps they believe that it isn’t possible that everyone can take part in a project and everyone gets free documentation. Perhaps they think that there’s some trick underneath it all. There’s a strange discrepancy between “analogical” networking and digital networking. I took part in various creative web projects, conceived with a similar structure to that of mail art, and I realised that the number of participants was considerably reduced compared to Internet’s potential. In order to create digital networking, paradoxically much more work is needed, despite the fact that there are more potential users. People are used to the fact that web projects are for rapid and of immediate fruition, Internet language is rapid and intuitive. To participate in a web project can be reduced to the fact of writing a simple line, or sending a ready-made image. For mail art there are slower and more personal preparation times, but people seem more inclined to use their time creatively, with a view to the work they will receive in exchange for their own in their letterbox. Mail art is communication, but it is also a gift, a potlatch. The speed of Internet often brings to a weakening of the content of a message.
Tatiana Bazzichelli: How do you explain the diffusion of net art projects in the 90’s then?
Vittore Baroni: Thinking about net art, when I go to the various Biennale events or make use of projects on the net, I have the impression that these sharing platforms, that are often conceptually innovative and well-built, are actually used by very few people over the course of time. It reminds me of conceptual art: put side-by-side with great enunciations, the work often seemed a little stale. Often the net art works, after an initial moment of enthusiasm, don’t have a future on the net, and “good games” are invented that remain static in the enunciation stage. They aren’t used by a vast audience and (perhaps) they only make the net artist look good, or whoever created the work and exhibited it somewhere. The work remains in the history of net art, but is poor in its social use and quickly becomes obsolete and cannot be found on the net any longer.
From my point of view net art is an elitist practice, common in the cultural industry, which must continue to produce catalogues and make imaginary capital. I’m almost happy that mail art was not historicised and studied. Maybe it’s not worth much, or maybe there’s something uncomfortable in its “openness” and “gratuity”, in its pointing the finger at regal nudity, which is best not to talk about too much… The sum of art + Internet should, in theory, trigger revolutionary projects, which are being delayed and are difficult to concretise.
If we take the computer-generated music field for example, it’s been at least 30 years since people like Brian Eno have experimented with robotic music, without having created any masterpieces. We’ve gotten used to a world that travels at light speed, but maybe cultural paradigms have gestation periods that don’t coincide with our consumerist frenzy. Since I was a teenager, I was fascinated by artistic movements and cultural phenomena of opposition, from Dadaism to Fluxus, from the Beat Generation to Hippies, which brought a fertile movement of strong ideas for a change in real life, capable of really giving you something. In the recent years of postmodernism, that I hope are ending, we took elements of modernity and limited ourselves to rearranging them, without really going beyond (post), and without opening ourselves to a new dimension of art thanks to the net.
Perhaps hacking or net art practices have not yet found a way to leave a real “gift” to those who use them. When, as a boy, I looked for underground magazines by sending a few dollars sealed in an envelope to New York, hoping that I would get something in return, the experience enriched me, those materials provoked cultural shocks in me. Until we can create a strong mentality through current media, the conclusion will always be something like Facebook. Lots of people put together, but who exchange poor and superficial content.
Tatiana Bazzichelli: Perhaps what’s missing in Web 2.0, which was included in Mail Art, is the fact of creating a “real” exchange and generating a criticism of the medium itself. Perhaps we should try to create strategies in order to move social network users to more “traditional” forms of networking?
Vittore Baroni: Well, it would be strange to go back to mailed fanzines instead of blogs… Actually I think the Historical phase of mail art was over at least a decade ago, mail art has had its time and we cannot go back and take the same route. But mail art can be useful as a Historic memory, as well as the preceding forms of analogical art. What should be favoured at this point in time is an attentive analysis and study of the past of networking, its many small threads that are often hidden, which could give useful advice to those who work with computers today. Like the case of the forty years or more of the History of Mail Art whose interior and humus developed phenomena that few know anything about, like Neoism, Multiple Names, Plagiarism, Impossibleism, Trax, the Luther Blissett project, that represent the tip of the iceberg. We should have the patience and curiosity to study the origins of artistic networking, taking example from those few critics and authors that have triggered a theoretical observation on the subject (Chuck Welch, John Held, Craig Saper, not to mention your book on Networking Art), to avoid to continue to discover what has already been discovered but to also try to comprehend how to develop less superficial sharing mechanisms in digital networks that aren’t so connected to commercial frames of mind.
I hope that in the not so distant future platforms like Myspace or Second Life, where you are caged in enforced structures and behaviour personally I feel like they are “concentration camps” leave room for other possibilities where you can really feel comfortable. More suitable experiences that are more similar to mail art are for example Flash Mob, which use the web to give life to physical meetings, to live a common albeit brief “aesthetical” experience, a bit like the meetings organised by Ray Johnson. In my opinion, we must overcome the distinctions between art and non-art, between personal identity and artistic work, between worker and work, between individuality and collectives, between virtual and physical encounters. With a few friends I’m trying to move in this direction, through a project that uses the web but needs real life interventions, thought out to involve people who know nothing about net art or hacking or art in general.
The project is called Wandering Places and pushes toward collective exploration, on convocation of the single participants, of concrete places that mean something to these particular people, like a door that opens onto a memory, a dream, a utopia. The first meeting was on top of Mount Borla, in the Alps, in a natural valley where the forest opens up to a circular vision of the sky. These places are documented on a blog on a social network Ning (where Italian mail artists created the extremely active Dododada: http://dododada.ning.com/ ), in so doing creating a kind of geo-psychic shared map, where every participant can suggest new situations for meetings or other “wandering places” suggested by others.
“Creative” social networks should be usable by anyone, not just those who have specific knowledge in the artistic environment. Luther Blissett was created in this way, like a unique “public” icon that anyone could take on, deprived of any specific characterisation in the art world. I think there can only be a new generation of artists/networkers when people begin to find pleasure in taking part in different projects, when they will find a way to enrich themselves in them. There must be something constructive to exchange and share. It’s not necessary to always hide behind nicknames for efficient results, the fact of getting together physically without barriers is perhaps the true objective of “making the net”. When an experience is created where we find ourselves alone with other professionals of the field, then we know that something is not working. Even if I am against the star system, I realise tat today we are missing “reference figures” that are used at catalysts in order to coagulate forces.
Tatiana Bazzichelli: In social networks you don’t create the platform, but find yourself in someone else home, trying to furnish it as you prefer and producing content for third parties. Why do you think there are so many users on Facebook today, despite the speed and superficiality of exchange, whereas in the BBS’s we were always so few, even if talking about ways of thinking and utopia?
Vittore Baroni: Communication on Facebook is very easy and at the same time all social networks allow an integrated way of sharing that was impossible before: with your mobile you can film something and put it on Youtube, then link it to Facebook. All this, at the time of BBS, was unimaginable. The procedure is immediate and easy, you can promote yourself easily and reach a lot of people with one click. On Facebook everyone is curious about what happened to old classmates, or people they haven’t seen for a long time, and through word of mouth the number of users has rapidly and excessively increased. People join out of curiosity but they stay because the chatting is company and it’s also a kind of authorised voyeurism, but it could also be a nine-days’ wonder. As soon as there will be a similar network, but a little more pleasant and useful, the users will move on. Look what happened with Myspace. It had Facebook’s function, but now it has become an obligation to anyone who has a band and often the record companies themselves create pages for their artists.
There are a lot of new ideas for Social Networks that are in incubation, waiting to have success or to be abandoned. For example, Arturo di Corinto created a great network with the objective of monitoring Italian politicians, to make the dialogue between voters and politicians as transparent as possible. The doubt is whether the project will really be capable of capturing the interest of people and make them participate, so that the platform can be updated regularly, the truth of information can be verified, etc. Perhaps a social network about a single politician would be easier to concretise, where voters and adversaries alike can confront each other.
Wikipedia is a good example of a virtuous platform, which works with the contribution of everyone and provides a useful service. The system works if everyone uses it correctly, starting from and open source concept, if you feel part of it. In many social networks you feel uncomfortable, you have the sensation that you’re a temporary guest. I believe that from the moment we really feel at home, at ease and certain of the possibility of sharing an experience with others without a Big Brother breathing down our necks, then we can really talk about social networking.