The role of the artist within a historical context traditionally derives from cultural and social factors subject to change over time; so it is common that definitions of “work of art” and “artist” are changed in parallel with historic contexts.
It follows that the meaning of what is art isn’t universal and ahistorical. Because of the internet, in our time the works of art are facing a situation which isn’t new but certainly unprecedented in terms of size and scope: they become part of a stream of images and visual materials that doesn’t distinguish between products made by professionals and amateurs. On YouTube one can watch videos of performance art and immediately afterwards video of kittens, without interruption; looking for something on a Web search engine it may be displayed links to artists’ sites as well as DIY blogs. The two sources of production are derived from the same cultural context and both react in their own way to the reality to which they belong.
These issues are central to the group exhibition Eternal September. The rise of the amateur culture (http://www.aksioma.org/eternal.september/) – Ljubljana, 2–26/9/2014 – curated by Valentina Tanni (1976, Italy) and produced by Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art in Ljubjana (http://www.aksioma.org/), in collaboration with Škuc Gallery (http://www.galerija.skuc-drustvo.si/) and Link Center for the Arts of the Information Age in Brescia (http://www.linkartcenter.eu/). The exhibition includes works by 15 authors and artistic groups (professionals and amateurs alike) and a series of special projects and events, such as lectures, film screenings and online exhibitions.
Slovenia is a country where a lot of research on these issues are carried out and, as a geographical and cultural bridge between Western and Eastern Europe, it is an interesting meeting point where to compare different ways of understanding technology. This event falls within a network of initiatives and international projects involving two of the most exciting nonprofit european realities related to research on the relations between new media and art, Aksioma and Link Center for the Arts of the Information Age that previously collaborated in the summer of 2013 for the exhibition Jill Magid. Evidence Locker in Ljubljana.
The former has been founded in 1999 by artist Janez Janša and the latter in 2011 by Fabio Paris, publisher and former gallery owner, Domenico Quaranta, art critic and curator and Lucio Chiappa, consultant for corporate communications: both two are interested in projects that utilize new technologies in order to investigate and discuss the structures of modern society, creating international projects and activities that foster collaborations and exchanges with artists and international cultural institutions. The physical works and events of Eternal September are in the exhibition spaces of Škuc Gallery in Slovenia, while Link Center hosts the collateral event The Importance of Being Context by Roberto Fassone (Italy, 1986) and Valeria Mancinelli on LinkCabinet (http://www.linkcabinet.eu/), the online exhibition space of the Italian organization. They also published the catalogue within Link Editions with contributions by Valentina Tanni, Smetnjak Collective and Domenico Quaranta.
The selected works are very different from each other and were made by both amateurs and professional artists and presented alongside each other without any real distinction between them. Among these there are many that use languages derived directly from Internet subcultures, as Not Sure If Art (2012) by Aled Lewis (1982, UK): it’s a print of a famous meme within popular websites like 4chan or 9gag showing the protagonist of a cartoon who wonders if it’s art or a case of copyright infringement, thus creating a short circuit between the work, the reference material (the meme) and the original source of the image (the TV show). This and other artistic works that use these slangs need a prior knowledge of the modes of communication used within the Web and a good dose of irony.
Another example is My Favourite Landscape (2006) by Paul Destieu (1982, France), a reappropriation of the well known desktop picture with the green hills and blue sky of Windows XP – prints are arranged so as to create the visual effect that occurred when the operating system crashed. This is an image that directly relates to a conception of machine and our interaction with it that are very different from the one we are experiencing today, it’s a glitch that no longer exists and that left room for other kinds of errors.
Another work that uses elements taken directly from the Web is Street Ghosts (2012) by Paolo Cirio (1979, Italy). In this series, he prints pictures of people found on Google’s Street View and posts them without authorization all aaround the world at the same spot where they were taken; during Eternal September this happened in the streets of the city of Ljubljana. This is a project which deals with the issue of the conflict between the analogue reality and its automated documentation by large Internet companies: people who can be seen on Google’s Street View are part of the same landscape made up of buildings that surround them and once they have been physically relocated where they were when they were photographed by the Google car, a short circuit between analogue and digital realities takes form.
As regards the amateurs, selected projects address issues as diverse as, for example, the possibilities offered by the Internet on the modes of writing, the oddity of not contextualized actions which seem meaningless and the production of amateur material which denies the rules dictated by the commercial logic.
Filippo Lorenzin: How and when did Eternal September came up?
Valentina Tanni: I wrote the first draft of the project a couple of years ago. I’ve always been very interested in the visual side of Internet culture, and, as an art historian, I immediately felt the need to investigate the relationship between professional art making and this unstoppable and incredibly diverse amount of creative content that circulates via the Internet. The show is based on one big question: is professionalism still a useful category (in the arts but also in general)? And what happens to art (as we know it) when millions of people are producing dozens of images on a daily basis? This questions, of course, lead the discussion into a great amount of subsequent issues: originality, authorship, copyright, market value…
Filippo Lorenzin: Do you think there is a specific reason why you’ve been so interested in these topics?
Valentina Tanni: I guess that working in the art system for so many years, dealing with all the “artworld” issues, made me fully aware of all its mechanisms and also its flaws. I think I needed some “fresh” ideas and visions, a break from the international contemporary art standard, which is getting more and more homogenized. On the other hand, if you look back at history, you find countless examples of great art that came from unexpected places. The “outsider” theme is definitely not a new one, but I think that the Internet is a game changer.
Filippo Lorenzin: You wrote the first draft of thr project some years ago, a really long period of time in Internet era. What is changed since then?
Valentina Tanni: The main idea behind the project has not changed. The “access” theme and the questioning of professionalism are still urgent issues. Of course I had to tweak the list of the artworks a little bit, because in the meantime new interesting projects have been launched, and some other ones began to feel a bit outdated. The only thing that really changed, in the past two years, is the amount of people involved in this global and ubiquitous game that we still call “art”.
Filippo Lorenzin: Let’s talk about the projects shown in the exhibition. How did you select them?
Valentina Tanni: There are 19 artworks in the show, plus The Great Wall of Memes (http://eternal-september.tumblr.com/), which is a research project I’m working on since 2012. The artworks are very different from each other in terms of medium (pantings, sculptures, installations, videos, web projects..), even if sometimes they deal with similar issues. The authors are both “professional” artists and amateurs, sometimes even anonymous. The selection process for me is always difficult to explain in detail; I don’t really have a method for choosing the artworks, I am very instinctual kind of curator.
Filippo Lorenzin: Could you describe The Great Wall of Memes?
Valentina Tanni: The Great Wall of Memes is a research project in the shape of a visual archive. It began in 2012 as a random collection of art-related Internet memes (“Contemporary Art People: y u no have irony?”, still available on Facebook and Pinterest). The project is loosely based on the Mnemosyne Atlas by Aby Warburg, updating his idea in light of the current cultural context (participatory and viral). The goal is to re-trace the traveling of some images through time and space, highlighting the different ways in which they have been used, remixed and re-invented. The project was also exhibited in a physical space in Milan in 2013 in the context of the show Nothing To See Here at the Swiss Institute (http://www.digicult.it/news/nothing-to-see-here-visual-culture-in-the-internet-age/).
For Eternal September, I decided to updated the project, both online, through a Tumblr blog, and in the exhibition space, at Škuc Gallery, with a new wall installation. The collection is now organized, and you can follow the different theme threads using the tags (if you’re online), or observing the proximity of some images (if you’re looking at the actual wall). Of course, the physical installation contains just a little selection of the whole collection, which at the moment counts more than 2.000 images, ad it’s always growing. I’ll be uploading them all online, though.
Filippo Lorenzin: What have been the reactions of the authors when they have been contacted to show their works in the exhibition? I’m thinking to amateurs, in particular…
Valentina Tanni: The feedback in general was excellent, but some artists felt the need to ask why I chose their work for this particular kind of project. In some cases, in fact, the choices weren’t so obvious. But in the end everyone was happy with the result. As for the amateurs: in most cases we didn’t get any response. We tried to get in contact with everyone, of course, but the general impression is that they don’t really care so much about the kind of exposure we were offering.
Filippo Lorenzin: Looking at this project, I can not but wonder if it is possible to give a hierarchy, an order to this propagation of ideas which, thanks to the Internet, travel without limits. What’s your opinion?
Valentina Tanni: We can try to build a taxonomy, yes, but we shouldn’t be so confident in the fact that our “scheme” will be complete and reliable. Mauro Ceolin’s work Memezoology (2013), for example, does just that. The artist acts as a biologist, studying the different kinds of artificial creatures that live online, establishing relationship between them, and designing diagrams and family trees. It’s a fascinating task, and it is also useful because we learn a lot on how images change and propagate. But still, it’s a utopian task, you can never really accomplish it…
Filippo Lorenzin: As you said before, the selected works are really various in terms of medium. Some projects are inside the gallery while others are in the streets or online: how was it been to set up an exhibition with so much different kinds of works?
Valentina Tanni: Every artwork “suggest” a different setup. Some projects work very well in a gallery space, some other are made to be viewed the public space (it’s the case of Paolo Cirio’s Street Ghosts work), while others are better understood if the user see them online (like Roberto Fassone and Valeria Mancinelli’s web project at LinkCabinet). We tried to find the best possible condition for every single work, thinking about them without boundaries. For the same reason, we included all the projects in the catalogue of the show, in alphabetical order, regardless of their physical location.
Filippo Lorenzin: Talking about the project of Paolo Cirio, could you describe what kind of feedback you have received from the municipality of Ljubljana and its population?
Valentina Tanni: The project was well received. A couple of “ghosts” disapperead quite quickly, but most of the intervention is still there. There was a lot of curiosity and almost no troubles. A part from a street artist who was concerned, apparently, about the posters covering his work!
Filippo Lorenzin: Another project held within the exhibition is The Importance of Being Context by Roberto Fassone and Valeria Mancinelli. What’s it about?
Valentina Tanni: The Importance of Being Context is a very clever project about performance art. It deals with the uncanny relationship between historical performance art videos (like the ones by Bruce Nauman, Marina Abramovic or Bas Jan Ader), and spontaneous actions made by ordinary people that we can find on Youtube. It also triggers a discussion about the concept of “context” and about how much this issue has become central in contemporary art. I won’t spoil the project going in further detail, but people can see it online, on Linkcabinet.eu until September 26th.
Filippo Lorenzin: Context seems to be one of the most important element to identify an action or a work as artistic ones. What does happen when a work realized by an amateur is shown in an art gallery – like in Eternal September?
Valentina Tanni: This is a question I’ve been asking myself before the exhibition opened. I think that, as always, anything we put inside an art gallery tends to be perceived as a “legitimate” artwork by the public. But I also think that the amateur works we put inside the show were already “art”, long before I chose them. Maybe this mechanism is changing, too. Maybe galleries and museums are not the only places where people go when they wanna see “art”, anymore. This leads to a shocking conclusion: is the “exhibition” format still a good one? I’m thinking a lot about this recently…
Filippo Lorenzin: Regarding the main topic of Eternal September, what kind of developments do you think will take place in next years?
Valentina Tanni: I’ve never been good at predictions, but I’m sure this process is not going to stop. We’ll have to rethink everything we take for granted about art making and art viewing. Resistance is futile…