Speaking about digital identity in Italy may lead us to assume that such identity constitutes a special case compared to what has developed in other countries throughout the last decade. Of course, this is not true ‒ although during the last 10 to 15 years Italy has built up a controversial and partly unique relationship with the Net, social networks and more generally speaking with open and p2p structures compared to many other European countries.

Indeed, on one hand we have experienced at least two “waves” of artists (often linked ‒ because of their education ‒ to counter-cultures and avant-garde experimentation), who have related to the Net and its structures in a critical manner regarding the concept of identity (and not only identity). Nevertheless, it is also true that Italy’s leaning towards populist talk and an enthusiastic and “functional” representation of the self ‒ bearing in mind that this has been boosted by the severe economic crisis and the definite loss of structure of the political, cultural, economic and work contexts ‒ has found a perfect match in the tendency of networks to select (in an algorithmic and/or personal manner) one’s circles on the basis of personal relationships but also more and more within a logic driven by social, economic and professional processes.

Art and criticism on the Net in new millennium Italy

Here we could celebrate Italy as one of the European countries that has reflected the most ‒ artistically speaking ‒ on how the Internet has been changing, both from a technological perspective and a social and political one. For instance, Eva and Franco Mattes (http://0100101110101101.org/, members of the historic group of artists, activists, writers and performers Luther Blisset, also at the origin of the author group Wu Ming) have been working on the ideas of representation on the Net, identity and copy since 2000. They have reflected not only on the invasive aspect of the Internet in our lives but primarily on how the individual (sometimes the artist himself) relates to the Internet in terms of a representation and narration of the self (or of a fictitious version of the self) presented to others. Works such as Darko Maver (1998-1999), Life Sharing (2000-2003), Portraits (2006-2007), No Fun (2010), My Generation (2010), Emily’s Video (2012) are key examples of this. Paolo Cirio even goes beyond the use of a single type of media and focuses on the computer environment made up of data flows. His approach is often political, and social, and comes from his experience in the [epidemiC] group ‒ which acts against the Net’s economic and political macrostructures. As stated by Tatiana Bazzichelli in a historic interview on Digicult, “Paolo Cirio strategically places some parts of a jigsaw puzzle that can only be completed by directly involving its reference points, whether it is the corporations, the media systems or the so-called ‘users’ of the ‘net’”. On this matter, we must mention works such as People Quote People (2007), Open Society Structures (2009), Face to Facebook (2011), Street Ghosts (2012) and the more recent Overexposed (2015).

We should also recall the works of Molleindustria (literally “soft/weak industry”), an online radical video-gaming project by Paolo Pedercini ‒ who has always tackled big social and political issues, such as job insecurity and alienation linked to work, religious divergences (whether spiritual or not) and satirical simulations of processes involving the intervention of some big multinational companies. Looking at the work Mayday NetParade (2004) today reminds us of the need to establish a definite “self-portrait of the new temporary workers” and to attempt to “auto-represent” counter-cultures ‒ the incongruity with what happened on May 1st 2015 in Milan, when the Expo was inaugurated, is obvious to everyone. Other examples, in recent years, are research by Mauro Ceolin, the Les Liens Invisibles, Marco Cadioli and Salvatore Iaconesi who in 2012 – for the first time in history – hacked his medical file, sharing his brain tumor with the rest of the network with the project “La Cura – My Open Source Cure”: a biopolitic performance in which the disease is at the center of society and the re-appropriation/socialization of data becomes the metaphor and the starting point to reclaim the human being and its complexity.

Over the years, well-known critics, journalists and scholars have attempted to “tell the story” of this artistic phenomenon and reflect on the topics deriving from it: Alessandro Ludivico, director and founder of Neural; Marco Deseriis, researcher and author of the reference text “Net.Art: L’arte della Connessione” (Net.Art: The Art of Connection) written in 2008 with Giuseppe Marano; Tatiana Bazzichelli, a critic, scholar and activitst and recently the author of the book “Networking. La Rete come arte” (Networking. The Net as Art); Valentina Tanni, historic writer of Random Magazine and Artribune and the author of the project “The Great Wall of Memes” (2014-2015); Franziska Nori, the curator of the group I love You (2002, 2004), one of the first exhibitions in Italy on these topics; Domenico Quaranta, who recently launched the Link Art Center with Fabio Paris and who some years ago curated two key exhibitions, Connessioni Leggendarie. Net.art 1995-2005 (Legendary Connections. Net.art 1995-2005, with Luca Lampo who is also a former member of [epidemiC]), and Game Scenes, within the 2005 Piemonte Share Festival (which resulted in the book Gamescenes. Art in the Age of Videogames with Matteo Bittanti, 2006). We should also mention figures who are more closely linked to the social and political discourse, for instance Jaromil and the Dyne.org foundation, that has been carrying out research and development on free and open source software and platforms since 2000, the San Precario (“precario” being a temporary worker) and Serpica Naro networks, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s Orfeo Tv or the Ippolita books ‒ the group which produced the texts Open non è Free (Open is not Free) and Nell’acquario di Facebook (In the Facebook Aquarium). Last but not least, we would like to mention Antonio Caronia’s reflections on virtual bodies. Antonio Caronia was an essayist, academic and journalist who died recently and to whom we would like to dedicate these thoughts.

Italian users between local and global

We had to be thorough in our selection and we are aware that, despite the quality and quantity of thoughts published on the topic, there is growing bewilderment among Italians concerning their relationship to identity on the Net. Online, Italians behave adopting patterns which come from their social customs: as if using their hands to “mime” also when on the Internet, they show themselves to the public, often appearing as what they are not, speaking about several topics and expressing opinions on everything. This way, they blend into new social environments, which are functional for their own narrative, whether private or professional. They play uncritically with visual languages and codes that are nowadays shared on a global scale. It is as if many of the themes covered throughout the years by our artists, critics, curators and scholars were less appealing ‒ less interesting for the collectivity ‒ and almost outdated compared to new self-narrative models on the Net that leak more easily into the broad networks of cultural innovation, open culture and net economy.

If we look more closely at the concept of identity, it is linked to the concept of person, and going back to Greek this brings us to the idea of mask ‒ that is to say the layers that cover, whether consciously or not, what in western culture is considered the authentic element. Nature before the individual. Indeed, today Italians on the Net behave as if they were a “mask”, both in the sense of “wearing” a mask (concealing their true identity) and of “being” a “character”, often a “trace” of oneself frequently displaying excessive peculiarities and narratives.

On this subject, the period from 2008 to 2009 was the moment in history when the increased popularity of new online collective structures could be perceived collectively. This corresponds to when Facebook became widespread not only amongst the so-called “native digitals” ‒ a generic umbrella term which is useful for our analysis ‒ but also in the older generations. This was one of the reasons for the existence of two differing approaches towards the Net, which in 2015 communicate with one another in a fairly direct way: the use of the Net in the work environment ‒ and not only for personal purposes.

In recent years, there has increasingly been overlapping between our work lives and our personal lives, between the time spent at the office and our leisure time. This has led to one extending onto the other and ultimately to a shift in our time management. Today, nearly ten years on, smartphones have become the new collective object of veneration, ensuring around-the-clock connectivity.

On one hand, therefore, there is an idea of Net as “digital piazza” and “democratic” place, in which a simple logic flattens out the differences between individuals, making them users with equal dignity who share the possibility of expressing their most personal identities without the mediation of the “real world”. On the other hand, there is the idea promoted by the system, that is to say the “branding” of oneself with well-calculated care, often using specific tools such as Klout or Google Analytics. These all constitute steps in the storytelling of one’s experience.

The full-time intellectual

This phenomenon also includes intellectuals, whose popular legitimation is in Italy almost always conveyed through their positions in discussions on the most debated current news stories. Whether it is politics or social topics, sport or cheap humour, they have to be able to manage their characters to avoid coming across as figures belonging to a grey zone which cannot be easily defined. Being on the side of “the people” (and, in a more sophisticated manner, on the side of the “counter-cultures” and the “artistic avant-garde” from which codes, languages and networks can be taken) has constituted, especially in recent years, a fast and simple way to revamp declining careers. Or to spark new and unexpected ones. In this sense, therefore, we have experienced some narrative issues in the arts and culture worlds. The social support structures that according to traditions and goals should reflect and be actively involved in the actual status quo of a country ‒ defining its moral status, acting as a guide and mapping out the critical thought of the people who live in it ‒ have been affected by increasingly fluid and unstable Net structures over the past five years, marked out by complex social structures and ambiguous narrations and behaviours which are often representative of a shared perception.

Be Italian: the new generation artists

In this sense it is comforting (but not astonishing) to see how some Italian artists belonging to the second wave have the energy to reflect on the new ways of representing the self on the Net. Their way of carrying out artistic action is often ironic, strongly aesthetic and careful about the complexity of the current era, without however taking the risk of “reducing” narration to a technical and/or interpretative exercise. This is perhaps because they grew up in a more international environment, through which they came into contact with different languages and studies or maybe because they are the offspring of the current economic and political crisis. They narrate by carefully observing and meditating, reflecting and fiercely denouncing with disappointment and anger the current status quo of Italian art, society and culture.

One of the most well-known examples of this in Italy and abroad is definitely IOCOSE, i.e. Matteo Cremonesi, Filippo Cuttica, Davide Prati and Paolo Ruffino. They are spread out across Europe and founded the group in 2006. Since then they have produced works reflecting the disenchantment of a generation that grew up dipped in nineties “technocentric” optimism. They do not believe in the legitimacy of the main narrations provided by the system or by the utopias, and their ‒ often distressed ‒ language often conveys such disillusionment. Some examples of this are Yes We Spam! (2008), A Crowded Apocalypse (2012) and In Times of Peace (2014).

Another group which is spread out worldwide is Alterazioni Video (Video Alterations). Its current members are Paololuca Barbieri Marchi, Alberto Caffarelli, Andrea Masu and Giacomo Porfiri, and since 2004 they have been producing videos, installations and relational works that very often focus on specific situations relating to Italian society. The project Incompiuto Siciliano (literally “Incomplete Sicilian”) is an example of this tradition. It began in 2006, with the aim of keeping track of the big incomplete public works that are scattered around Italy (the so-called “ecomostri”, or else “environmental monsters”), thereby giving them new aesthetic and artistic dignity.

Silvio Lorusso belongs to the same generation but tackles different issues. Both an artist and a designer, in his works he combines an extraordinary talent for closely observing specific topics and a way of expressing himself which is always astonishing and never didactic. For instance, in Kickended (2014) he gathers a large quantity of crowdfunding campaigns which did not manage to raise a single penny on Kickstarter. The project, which uses graphics and mechanisms that immediately remind us of the American platform, mocks with bitterness the (not kept) promise of economic success which is at the basis of the neoliberal narrative of these platforms.

It is difficult to define and categorize the work of Salvatore Iaconesi, artist, hacker, designer, activist who, with Oriana Persico, launched the international platform/network Art Is Open Source. Salvatore and Oriana explore the mutation of the human being with the advent and widespread accessibility of networks and ubiquitous technologies. AOS promotes and implements a possibilist vision of the world in which art acts as a binder between different disciplines, creating global performances like Angel_F (2007) and Enlarge Your Consciousness 4 Day 4 Free (2012). In their case, code and binary expression algebraically represent a narrative of our lives that shines spontaneously through “encoded interstices of our city, of our lives, of private and public spaces where we dedicate ourselves to work, consumerism and the narrative function of ourselves”.

To them, a code, some data or a binary expression are algebraically representative of a narration of our lives, of a representation of our identities ‒ which reveals itself naturally through the “codified interstices of our cities, of our lives, of our private and public spaces in which we devote our time to work, consumerism and the functional narration of ourselves”.