Emilio Vavarella is an artist of Italian origin who intersects interdisciplinary artistic practice and theoretical research, with particular reference to the hidden mechanisms that underlie the relationship between human beings and technological power.
The artist begins his training with studies in DAMS at the University of Bologna, continues with the specialization in Visual Arts at the Iuav University of Venice, culminated in a six-month fellowship at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design of Tel Aviv and Bilgi University in Istanbul. He is currently engaged in the PhD in Film and Visual Studies and Critical Media Practice, at Harvard University, with a research dedicated to the relationship between the concept of “human being” and what Vavarella calls “media models.”
Vavarella has participated in the most prestigious art and new media festivals such as: EMAF – European Media Art Festival, JMAF – Japan Media Arts Festival, Stuttgarter Filmwinter, BVAM – Media Art Biennale, NYEAF New York Electronic Arts Festival, Turin Film Festival, Toronto’s Images Festival and St. Louis International Film Festival. His works have been exhibited in numerous art centers such as MAXXI in Rome and MAMbo in Bologna, among the most important in Italy, and at the KANAL – Center Pompidou in Belgium, The Photographer’s Gallery in London and the Museum of contemporary art Vojvodina in Serbia. Outside the borders of the European continent, he presented his productions at the Museo de Arte de Caldas in Colombia, the Museo Nacional Bellas Artes in Santiago, the National Art Center in Tokyo and the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York. The artist has also received numerous prizes and art scholarships: the Contemporary Factors Award (2019); the grant from the NYSCA Electronic Media and Film Finishing Funds (2016); the Francesco Fabbri prize for contemporary art (2015) and the Movin’Up award (2015). Leonardo – The Journal of the International Society of the Arts, Sciences and Technology (MIT Press), Digital Creativity (Routledge) and CITAR Journal – Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts.
What is striking when visiting the artist’s website, full of photographs, videos, critical writings, for most of his production, is the refined, and at the same time complete, ability to manage complexity.
This is one of the characteristics necessary for today’s artist, whose success is no longer based on a single talent, but largely depends on the way in which his production machine moves and communicates with the world. In this case the artist returns his story as a gift, which arrives directly to those who visit it. This talent is linked to the fact that, despite in his work he “challenges” the maximum current technological power systems – such as Google, Amazon, Artificial Intelligence, the same paradigms of making art in the contemporary – Vavarella remembers and accepts, always and anyway, to be a human being.
And it does so, as Italian art teaches, through storytelling. His photography has a cinematographic quality, it is never static, it is a continuous movement of light, sensations, memory. The artist, who in an interview of ten years ago defines himself as “an observer and a mediator”, actually does much more than this: in his productions we can identify at least three figures that he embodied along his path, until he get to fully synthesize them in his current personal aesthetic.
In his first works, Emilio Vavarella is a saboteur: we see him walking arm in arm with Michael Foucault among the things and the words, until their “limit”, until their contingent nature emerges, thanks above all to the identification of the “technological error”, which reworks with a narration made of different levels of language, from painting to the net, from sculpture to programming. In “The Sicilian Family” (2012-2013) he tells his family through 44 digital elaborations, the result of the alteration and interaction between codes and personal memories, until obtaining a new and unpredictable aesthetic solution, dictated by his gesture.
In “Report a Problem” (2012), of “THE GOOGLE TRILOGY”, he travels in Google Street View photographing all the “wrong landscapes” in which he comes across: they are the errors that thanks to a function can be reported to the company, which include problems of locating the place, missed censorships, wrong colors, inconsistencies, random appearances. In the “The Italian Job” series with his “Embarassement Party” (2014), on the occasion of a digital residence on the cloud computing, Emilio Vavarella hacks works, texts and photographs of all the artists participating in the online exhibition, releasing the “act of theft” under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license: the goal was to detonate the concepts of originality, legality, artistic legitimacy, collective processes, immaterial work and the 2.0 relationship between artists and curators.
The second period goes from “TRANSICONMORPHOSIS” of 2013, where he realizes, in collaboration with Fito Segrera, a performance in which the emoticons they receive through a chat are transformed into electrical impulses that force the physiognomy of the face to change by imitating the expressions of the digital analogue, goes up to “DREAMSCAPES Analytica®” of 2017, which investigates the relationship between productivity, rest, and data economy.
During this phase Emilio Vavarella is a real “media-flaneur”: with Gilles Deleuze’s wings, he flies non-stop, building his own plural, multiple, mutant, not anthropocentric, but always sensorial, emotional and intellectual identity. The way not to get lost in these works is the call to memory: in MNEMOGRAFO (2016), he created an automated system that uses a simple system of Google Alerts and bots to monitor the online presence of discussions and articles on the earthquake that occurred in northern Italy in 1976, or in THE CAPTCHA PROJECT (2014), enters into a contract with the painters of Dafen of New York, for the pictorial reworking of screenshots of CAPTCHA codes (Completely Automated Public Turing test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), with the aim to tell the story of workers from the poorest countries, exploited to replace the bots they solve manually.
Emilio Vavarella is a fundamental figure of the Italian artistic contemporary, also because he is part of the 17 projects that received the prestigious Italian Council award in 2019, organized by MiBAC – Directorate General for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Peripheries, with the project entitled “rs548049170_1_69869_TT (The Other Shapes of Me)”, where he was supported by partners MAMbo (Bologna), Arthub Asia (Shanghai), The Film Study Center at Harvard University (Cambridge) and Ramdom.
Furthermore, as part of the “Per Chi Crea – Nuove Opere” (MIBAC / SIAE) program, he produced the work “MNEMOSCOPE”. Both works, awarded in Italy, are the subject of future events promoted by Ramdom in the extreme province of APuglia, in Gagliano Del Capo, Leuca and Tricase. Here the artist surpasses himself, approaching Leonardo, above the distinction between arts, disciplines, epochs: when we observe these works in first person, we forget who produced them and we enter the sphere of desire, as we imagine to be protagonist of what we are experiencing.
“MNEMOSCOPIO” (2020) is a site-specific installation for the Capo di Leuca area, composed of an experimental cross-reality viewer (XR), through which the physical reality of the place where the work is installed overlaps and merges with a map of 3D memories: this map was assembled on the basis of data extracted from the interviews, conducted on site, to those who left Capo di Leuca but then returned.
“rs548049170_1_69869_TT (The Other Shapes of Me)” (2020) is an installation composed of a modified Jacquard loom, a fabric and a video: “It is a great installation based on the conversion of my genetic code into fabric, made by my mother using one of the first industrial vintage computers: the nineteenth century Jacquard loom. The title of the work refers to the first line of text resulting from the genotyping of my DNA. The final work consists of a modified Jacquard loom to host a video of the production process of the work and the resulting monumental fabric.
This project advances my research on the origins of binary technology and its most recent applications: from weaving to programming, algorithms, software, automation processes, up to the complete digitalization of a human being “(E.Vavarella). An absolutely “extra-ordinary” work, like the motto of the latest generation wearable device “Google Jaquard”, which “weaves new digital experiences in the things you love, wear and use every day to give you the power to do more and to be more ”, a commercial product that actually only serves to activate the basic functions of a smartphone such as listening to music or making an online purchase.
The artist, who does not make the reference explicit, responds with the video of the work where he celebrates the power of the montage of the attractions of Ėjzenštejn, the suspense of the embraces of the Hitchcockian images up to the Aphex Twin cut, when the face of the artist’s mother emerges from the purity of the whites and blacks, deep and detailed of Vittorio De Sica’s Neo Realism, made with constant movements of the camera of Studio Azzurro or of Woody and Steina Wasulka. “Our ambition is simple: to make life easier. By staying connected to your digital world, your things can do so much more “.
Giada Totaro: Emilio I’d like to take advantage of this interview to deal with some issues that do not emerge from the material on your rich and engaging website. Let’s start with your personal story. When did you understand and decide to start your career as an artist?
Emilio Vavarella: I am going to answer you with some anecdote. People often ask me “when did you discover you wanted to be an artist” or “when art became serious for you”. In reality, the answer is unique: I always knew I wanted to be an artist, even before I knew that art was a discipline, a job, a profession, a career. I have always done exactly the same things you see on my website, but at ten years the quality was certainly lower. A few years ago, I recovered a comics hypothesis from my parents that dates back to elementary school. It was titled “Metamorfosi,” which was one of the main subjects of my Master’s Degree at IUAV, more than ten years later. I had forgotten about it, but the idea, or rather, the fascination for certain phenomena, was already there.
Another curious story: I remember that in a geometry lesson I was very fascinated by descriptive geometry, where you use geometric formulas to represent mental constructions. I immediately started looking for a way to use descriptive geometry to “geometrically systematize time.” A bizarre project that came to my mind during the first year of my PhD at Harvard, when I came across the concept of time as an isomorphic space. Last anecdote related to childhood, in the first grade I started writing all the numbers on a sheet of squared paper, each number in a square, like a code, 0,1,2,3,4 … going to the end of each line, and curious to know what kind of chromatic pattern would come out of it.
As a kid, I was pretty certain that I was going to discover some secret codes in the process, but in reality I was self-taught with the rudiments of data visualization. I understood it a few years later, and I made one of my first works on it. I like to go back, with my memory, and to tie up all the loose threads. Therefore, returning to your question, I have always tried to discover something new, and to use the tools available to me in an unexpected way. This for me is already making art.
Giada Totaro: When did you start partipating at art exhibitions?
Emilio Vavarella: For the entire period of study at the University in Bologna I did not do exhibitions but I created many things. But I knew that those results were experiments, not works. Only when the result of these experiments, on a material level, began to reflect my ideas more closely, I seeked external verification. I started to participate in the first competitions for young artists towards the end of the master’s degree course.
Shortly thereafter, I was selected for several exhibitions that were important to me at that time, such as the annual collective of the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, the Lapsus exhibition at the Marangoni Foundation and the Biennial of Young Artists of the Mediterranean. In the meantime, I moved to New York and in a few months I exhibited twice at Eybeam, which in those years hosted the researches of art and technology closest to me, discovering a small world that seemed made just for me.
Giada Totaro: Which ones they are and how do you manage the necessary tools and funds to carry out your works?
Emilio Vavarella: If you pay attention, all my first works in terms of materiality are very poor. At the beginning many of my projects consisted of simple screenshots. So basically with a computer I already had everything I needed. I could travel without worrying about a studio or bulky materials, and send my photos digitally to festivals and group shows making others print them. It was art at zero cost or almost. Minimize expenses to maximize return, investing mainly in the communication and dissemination of my work. For a long time it has been this way in terms of production strategies, and if possible it still is.
I think of “THE CAPTCHA PROJECT” in partnership with the painters of Dafen, or the works of the THE ITALIAN JOB series. They are all projects in which the economic issue of financing is not only present but also explicit. Somehow I use it as a pivot to unhinge, for a moment, what is the logic of the art system, perhaps finding a new way of making art, or starting a collaboration, some kind of partnership, even an appropriation of something of others, if you pass me the term.
My film “Animal Cinema”, made in 2017, is the perfect example: produced at no cost, by using appropriate materials on the net, it continues to be shoot and talked about. But other projects instead require large investments, as evidenced by the budget obtained through the Italian Council for the production of “rs548049170_1_69869_TT (The Other Shapes of Me)” and the conversion of my genetic code into fabric, which today is my more complex work technically.
Giada Totaro: Is it possible today to make art on a zero budget?
Emilio Vavarella: Absolutely yes. My main medium is thought. The rest comes later. Materials shape our thoughts but thoughts, even the most ambitious ones, are always cheap. A good storytelling and a bad story cost the same, and having good production strategies is a way to make each idea an opportunity, rather than a limit.
Giada Totaro: Do you have any particular figure in the history of art?
Emilio Vavarella: If we go back 500 years there is Leonardo. The multifaceted figure who always manages to do everything in the best way. It fascinates me a lot. If we go back to the modern era for me it is Duchamp, who has completely revolutionized the course of art thanks to the use he has made of his ideas, shifting the emphasis from technique to concept.
Giada Totaro: Regarding the artists who work with new technologies, is there a figure you particularly esteem?
Emilio Vavarella: I would not say that there is a specific person, but in these days a small essay of mine came out on a diverse group of artists who have worked with the technology of Google Street View, Google Maps and Google Earth. I tried to systematize a landscape inhabited by artists who share a certain fascination with me about technological power.
Giada Totaro: Entering even more in detail about the methods of production, how over time you have created your works and if your approach has changed. Do you work alone, do you have a space, do you have a team that supports you?
Emilio Vavarella: The answer varies from project to project. Because for example both for “MNEMOSCOPE” and for “rs548049170_1_69869_TT” I worked hand in hand with Ramdom, which means that I was able to count on a capable and varied team. In some cases, comparing for example with new technologies, I realize that I lack specific skills. And simply for a project economy, for a matter of timing or convenience, I decide to turn to other professionals. But it is always a collaboration, in the true sense of the word, that’s mean that when the work is completed, I go back to work independently on a new idea and the other person returns to what he was doing before. In general, then, even when I collaborate with others I need to determine the general line of a project and to take care of all the details. It does not matter if it is the point of view of a video recording, the font in a graphic, a sound effect, or other aspects.
Giada Totaro: How do you bear your living expenses?
Emilio Vavarella: I entered Harvard University four years ago for a fully-funded PhD that allows you to study, research, and then give you access to teaching. For two years now, I have also been a Teaching Fellow, and I teach both theoretical and practical courses with a regular university salary. I am also represented by GALLLERIAPIÙ of Bologna, which is doing an absolute quality work in promoting its artists. And finally, it must be said that growing project budgets and invitations to international festivals certainly increase responsibilities but consequently artist fees also rise. It is not easy to juggle complex and competitive spaces like these, but it is also not impossible to work following one’s passion.
Giada Totaro: The problem in Italy is that unfortunately not everyone has access to teaching, there are no PhD programs in academies, it is very difficult. What do you think about it?
Emilio Vavarella: In Italy, to be honest, it is also very hard to find a market for young artists, so you don’t even have the kind of more or less stable support that can come to you from a private collector. And the issue is not that young good artists are missing, the problem is that collectors culturally closer to emerging artists are rare. At the same time, there are public funds for contemporary art that almost do not exist here in the United States, therefore in Italy it is not all to be thrown away.
At the moment there are many initiatives in this direction from MiBACT, which subsidize various types of cultural production. Here in the United States the public system is in a profound crisis. Even comparing my PhD at Harvard to the public doctoral system in Italy is quite complicated. My department, within a private research university, admits and finances an average of three people per year. But of course for every three admitted there are thousands of valid researchers and artists who remain outside.
Giada Totaro: In the United States how the private art sector operates? Do the paintings of THE CAPTCHA PROJECTS, for example, or the sculptures of DATAMORPHOSIS, find a market?
Emilio Vavarella: Yes, the market is there, and that type of work certainly has a commercial outlet in collecting. But currently, I don’t have a gallery that represents me in the United States and we must also remember that painting is the medium preferred by collectors. And I, as you know, am not a painter. Many artistic research projects would never see the light of the day if they had to rely only on collecting. Here is the importance of a synergistic relationship, which manages to involve collectors as well as the public and academic sectors, and perhaps also companies, galleries, research centers and foundations. For years, I have been working precisely in this perspective, building bridges between different realities.
Giada Totaro: In this historical moment, what would you recommend to a young artist who faces this field, to go abroad or to stay in Italy?
Emilio Vavarella: I would advise him to have as many experiences as possible but knowing well that none of them is necessarily the key to success. Going abroad is not an absolute necessity, but an option that involves several critical issues, and, on the contrary, staying in Italy also has advantages. Regardless of where you live, what matters is opening up to the rest of the world, to other ways of interpreting reality, of working, of thinking. We must be able to seize opportunities by making virtue of necessity.
For me, the risk to be avoided at all costs is to fall too much in love with what is already known, precluding oneself to the new and what is not known. Let’s close with one last anecdote. In Italy we often speak of ‘provincialism’ and I asked myself why this term is so predominant in public discourse. ‘Provincialism’ is a term that also exists in English, but I have been in the United States for almost ten years and have never heard anyone say it.
rs548049170_1_69869_TT (The Other Shapes of Me) “Idee, ipotesi, assunti e oggetti”
The exhibition in Gagliano del Capo (Lecce, Italy) opens on 31 July and closes on 13 September 2020 in via Margherita di Savoia 78 – from Wednesday to Sunday, from 19 to 22 by appointment.
The work is available from 1 to 14 August 2020, from 18:00 to 20:30, at the Hotel Terminal in Leuca from 17 to 23 August, from 18:00 to 20:30, at Punta Cannone in Tricase. Starting from August 25, the work will be viewable at Lastation by appointment.
Finally workshops for children aged from 6 years “The other shape of me”: every Thursday in July from 18:00 to 20:00, in Gagliano del Capo – Lastation, Piazzale Stazione, n.2.
Info and reservations: 329 93 36 478 – firstname.lastname@example.org www.lastation.it www.ramdom.net