Network culture, activism and new media art in Italy

by Valeria Federici

Institutional, historical and artistic contexts in which new media art occurred in Italy are examined in my doctoral research project, entitled Network culture in Italy in the 1990s and the making of a place for art and activism which focuses on the use of information technologies by artists and art collectives operating out of social centers, self-regulated sites of sociality located in and around Italian urban areas. Some of the questions I take into consideration are the following: What are the effects of the computer and the use of digital devices on artistic production? How does public reception and interaction change with information technologies? What is a digital aesthetic? Is new media art outside of the conceptual art parameters? How does information technology and political engagement intertwine? What is the “network” and how does it involve art?

Italian social centers were not necessarily in opposition with existing traditional art spaces or exhibition opportunities as many artists working out of social centers—among which, the collective Giovanotti Mondani Meccanici, Rome-based artist, Agnese Trocchi, and Florence-based artist, Tommaso Tozzi, and others—were often featured in international exhibitions or institutional venues. However, during the period under consideration, social centers allowed for experimentation with new technologies, acting as incubators for artistic exploration, a role that has been overshadowed by the general perception of their function as laboratories for political activism.

An example of these artistic practices is Museo virtuale interattivo – Centro sociale virtuale (Virtual Interactive Museum – Virtual Social Center) by Tommaso Tozzi. The work was presented in occasion of the exhibition Soggetto-Soggetto (Subject-Subject) at the Castello di Rivoli in 1994. The museum environment is reconstructed virtually, although the look of the virtual walls is a rendering of the physical walls of the social center Ex-Emerson in Florence. The installation blended the space of the Castello di Rivoli with the one of the Ex-Emerson bringing the collaborative practice of sharing as typical of social centers to an institutionalized environment. At the same time, it allowed users connected via a BBS to interact and to modify the arrangement on the virtual walls of the museum and to feed into the installation their own content.

The interest that social center participants and managing collectives demonstrated towards information technology early on makes these sites a relevant case study, in particular in relation to “collaborative” art and contemporary disruptive artistic practices as well as to the development of a digital aesthetic.

Tozzi_Anni_Novanta_Install

Installation view of Tommaso Tozzi’s project as part of the exhibition section “Concetto e Scrittura” at Anni Novanta, Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna, and at the Musei Comunali in Rimini, 1991 – Image courtesy of the artist

However, the context of Italian alternative art venues and the work emerging from it has remained at the margin of art historical recounts. Even though an early display of art engaging with information technology took place at the Venice Biennale in 1986 (more than a decade before Documenta X signaled the advent of new media art to the world in 1997), it seems as the international stage did not provide a proper contextualization to make new media art accessible and comprehensible to viewers. In order to re-trace the history of Italian new media art, my project focuses on how official and alternative art spaces that supported and promoted experiments in the field of art and technology in Italy intertwined, as well as on the gaps that contributed in relegating the experience of Italian artists and activists at the periphery of new media art historical narratives.

Further readings:

___Disrupting Business: Art and activism in times of financial crisis, edited by Bazzichelli, Tatiana and Cox, Geoff, DATA browser 05, Autonomedia, 2013;

Ascott, Roy, “Distance Makes the Art Grow Further,” in Art at a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, edited by Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark, MIT Press, 2005;

Bishop, Claire, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso, 2012;

Kester H., Grant, The One and the Many. Contemporary collaborative art in a global context, Duke University Press, 2011;

Jackson, Shannon, “Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art,” in Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, Routledge, 2011.

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