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Valentino Catricalà

Digital / Post-digital
When we speak of our relationship with the digital today, we cannot do without briefly reckoning with the particular moment in which we are writing. Indeed, we are still swept up in the global pandemic resulting from the advent (a real “event”) of COVID-19. We are now entering the third year of the pandemic; by now, we have become much more used to operating in a world we never thought possible, made up of restrictions, masks, distancing measures and much more. In this context, we can see an important change in our relationship with technology: for we have started to use the digital in a way we never had previously. From this point of view, the pandemic can be conceived as a vast laboratory, a rapid accelerator of mental particles that has pushed almost all humanity to construct a different relationship with digital devices.

These changes have also had a far-reaching influence on the art world, especially if we turn our attention to the younger generations, those born over the late 1980s and 1990s. It is not a coincidence that their work speaks to a new identity in a hyper-technological world: from the metamorphosis of the body to identity, from environmental issues to the Anthropocene, from inhabiting new virtual worlds to the en masse use of social media. In a nutshell, this means that a different research attitude has emerged, compared to that of previous generations, in its relations with complex media. Today’s horizons are no longer a matter of experimental explorations into the potential of a given medium, such as was typical of early video art, computer art or the first examples of art and robotics. Nor do they conceive media as a new territory to be conquered politically and economically (from net art to the first forms of experimentation with virtual reality). Rather, for these new generations, technology is absolutely natural and not particular – it is a “mediascape” within which we move in a new “material engagement”.

Hence the digital context that we inhabit today is no longer the one that was familiar to us even only a few years ago. At a first level, the reason for this is purely quantitative, determined by the phenomenon of so-called “big data”. That is, the quantity of data has reached an absolutely unthinkable level, such that today we can say that “In the era of big data, quantity becomes quality”.

Here, we come to a second level of interpretation. This quantity of data has an impact on us, on society, and more generally on the cultural perspective with which we look at the future of our ecosystems. It is a universe that has generated new technological “actors” who are driving new economies and social models. Here, we could cite the development of artificial intelligence: it is made possible by the vast amount of data that feeds it and, at the same time, is today also a necessary resource for disentangling ourselves from within this latter. Or we could think of the emergence of new economic systems, such as blockchain, which cast aside many of the typical actors of the “old” economic system. Or, indeed, of the development of new forms of visuality: “Today, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality, 3D movies, immersive videogames, flight or driving simulators, navigation systems like GPS, artificial interactive environments, and so on, bear witness to the advent of new practices of imaging and consequently to new forms of visuality, which do not necessary rely on an eye that tries to fill the gap between reality and its representation”.

All this has had an impact on art, made evident – as we said earlier – by the generations born over the 1980s and 1990s. With their research, they are simultaneously imagining and producing new futures, new possibilities of life within “technological ecosystems”. For this reason, if we want to properly understand the new territories being explored, it is absolutely essential that we look at artists’ work not only from the standpoint of the reflection that their research stimulates, but also in terms of the direct impact that this research has on society.

In a recent volume, commissioned by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for the I quaderni della Farnesina book series, we identified some of the main themes that artists have been exploring in recent years. Here we reproduce a list to which we will also add some points, revised considering the recent developments:

Hyperintelligence. Artificial intelligence is a constantly expanding field widely being explored by artists today.

The Anthropocene. We have now moved, from the much-debated questions on the post-human that marked the 1980s, to a different way of conceiving a transcendence of humanity through the concept of the Anthropocene.

The new reality of the image. Images are everywhere and, alongside with more traditional images, there is a combination of immersive and augmented forms (extended reality), computer vision and interactive forms (CGI, 3D, etc.).

Expanded Internet Art. A concept taken from Ceci Moss’s book which emphasises the omnipresence of the Internet in a hyperconnected world.

The sound universe. Sound, often reduced to a secondary consideration, is now a fundamental factor in the art world, often designated under the term “sound art”.

The inventor-artist. This label identifies a trend for artists to work in unconventional contexts (scientific laboratories, technology companies, etc.) creating new synergies with the world of scientific and technological innovation.

As can be seen, the list, which we do not have time to elaborate upon in detail here, is not structured according to the technology used, as was the case until a few years ago. Rather, it is based on conceptual macro-areas developed by trying to analyse artistic research within a technological universe. In an era in which we can no longer define where a medium begins and ends, it becomes impossible to identify specific determinate fields, such as robotic art, genetic art, digital art, etc. In a moment in which technology is everywhere and media are ubiquitous, and in which to speak of a specific field of “art and technology” seems an ever more complicated endeavour, it becomes important to look upon art as a territory of investigation, of a-theoretical reflection on our hypertechnological society.

The Italian question
Although Italian artists continue to lack due recognition abroad (or often even in Italy itself), much of their research can be counted among the most interesting in these fields, including on an international level. Italy is undoubtedly a territory of encounter and engagement between all these tensions, and Italian artists today work in engagement with foreign artists and contexts, making it increasingly difficult to speak of Italian “identity” or “essence”. The concept of “identity” is thus itself being dropped, especially in the research of artists who use technology, in favour of a less clear-cut interpretative attitude: perhaps we should instead speak of “family resemblances”, to use Wittgenstein’s well-known formula.

Here, we could think of an artist like Quayola, who engages with the international context by moving between video and robotics and from computer graphics to prints, embracing advanced technologies such as the LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) detection technique. There is no specificity of medium: Quayola’s sculptures produced with a robotic arm are the direct consequence of his work on video, through the recovery of classical iconographies of the past, exactly like his works on nature developed through video, in which the image paints itself as in an expressionist painting, or through advanced scanners that reveal a whole natural environment.

More political is the work of Elisa Giardina Papa, who interprets the way in which we relate today to questions of gender, sexuality and work through complex technologies such as artificial intelligence. Here, we can think of her Cleaning Emotional Data (2020), in which she analyses new forms of precarious work, and the microworkers tasked with labelling, categorising, annotating and validating huge batches of data that assist the development of artificial intelligence.

The work of Invernomuto (Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi), conversely, is a perfect example of research into the relationship between the sound and visual universe. Through site-specific installations, Invernomuto analyses subcultures – that is, the vernacular languages that form the backdrop to our mythologies. Such is the case of Black Med (2019), a platform which contains an archive of voices revolving around the idea of the Black Mediterranean.

Many further names could be analysed, from this perspective, though we do not have the space to do so, here. But what is crucial to understand, from all these examples, is the importance today of art not only as an innovative sector for the contemporary world but also as an engine of innovation for society more generally. That is, art is a way of orienting ourselves through the great challenges that humanity will face in the twenty-first century, in a post-coronavirus future.