A conversation with Paola Lagonigro curator of the review on Italian Computer Art, as part of the exhibition Video makes happy. Videoart in Italy, in Rome.
Giada Totaro: Paola Lagonigro, on the 28th of May 2022, the screening of the review curated by you on Italian Computer Art was held as part of the exhibition Video makes happy, curated by Valentina Valentini, and running from 12 April to 4 September at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and the GAM (Gallery of Modern Art) in Rome. Which are your studies and your actual profession?
Paola Lagonigro: I am an art historian, currently an official of the Capitoline Superintendence for Cultural Heritage. All my university studies took place in Rome: I studied at Sapienza, a university where I also did my doctoral research, focused on the electronic art of the 1980s. In particular, I was interested in investigating the artistic and technological experimentation that has gone through a decade often remembered for the return, in the art system, to painting and more generally to the traditionally understood artistic object. From this path was born the discovery of an artistic context that I knew little, namely that of the so-called Computer Art, an expression no longer used today because it is supplanted by other definitions such as New Media Art, Media Art, Digital Art and many other labels. Studying the Italian Computer Art for my PhD research, which ended in 2019, I realized that in Italy there is a peculiar context compared to what happens abroad, where we talk about computer art already in the 1960s. Studying the Italian computer art for my PhD research, which ended in 2019, I realized that in Italy there is a peculiar context compared to what happens abroad, where people talks about computer art already in the 1960s. Although there is no lack of universities and research institutes, there are no situations that have given impetus to artistic experimentation with new technologies like was abroad. In Italy, before the 1980s, synergies between the world of art and that of technological research were very rare. For this reason, the arrival of personal computers represents a real turning point: computer science is no longer the prerogative of scientists alone, the computer begins to enter everyone’s homes and, consequently, also for artists it becomes a more accessible medium, in both operational and economic terms. Much of Italian computer art comes from a “bottom-up” experimentation. This means that most of the time artists create works independently and, for this reason, these productions are characterized by that typical low-tech graphics of the early 1980s. This happened also abroad, but from what emerges from my research, it is something that most connotes the Italian context.
G.T.: How was the idea and the curation of your review on Italian Computer Art born?
P.L.: The review was born within the exhibition Video makes happy, curated by Valentina Valentini and dedicated to video art. In this regard, it seems important to me to point out that many of the artists present in the exhibition were keen to underline the difference between Computer Art and Video Art: their works were born “from” the computer and not from optical shooting tools. The novelty introduced by information technologies was precisely in this new nature of images: in the Eighties the expression “synthetic images” was very used, that means produced “by synthesis”, in other words with the computer, through the use of programming language or, simply, with the graphics tablet. In any case, the process of creating the image was happening “inside” the machine, unlike Video Art. However, the dissemination channels were often the same festivals dedicated to “electronic art” where it was present a lot of Video Art as well. Regarding the selection of the artists of this review, these are naturally those who experimented with the use of computers in the 80s, so even if I decided to include some more recent videos, even until 2020, it seemed right to me that the authors were always the same. It is the generation that discovered the computer in adulthood and that moved in a context in which analog technologies dominated. In essence, the Computer Art of the 1980s is “Digital Art in the analog era”: indeed it was impossible to create avideo totally on the computer as we are used to do today, even with a smartphone. So all these artists had to compete with analog technologies, even simply to transfer the video onto magnetic tape and be able to apply a soundtrack.The first video of the review, Pixnocchio (1982) by Guido Vanzetti and Giuseppe Laganà, is actually a film, a stop motion on film: every single image, drawn using the computer programming language, is photographed on the screen, therefore the novelty it is not in the animation technique, but in the possibility of introducing “synthetic” images, characterized by an electronic aesthetic, that of the pixel celebrated in the title of the video. Another artist who initially adopted the method of photographing the screen, to make slides to be projected, is Ida Georsa, the only one among the artists of this scene with a different path because she does not work with personal computers, at least not before the 90s. Gerosa is fortunate, compared to others, to be able to collaborate with research institutes such as the IBM Scientific Center and the CNR of Frascati where it has the extraordinary possibility of working with machines with technical capabilities far superior to those of ordinary personal computer. Technical skills that will prove to be fundamental in creating those material and color effects that Gerosa loved to seek back already in the 70s with printing techniques, such as aquatint.
Regarding the other artists, the most common technique is the transfer of animations onto magnetic tape. This depends not only on technological reasons, such as the possibility of applying a soundtrack, but also of distribution: the videotape guaranteed a possibility of circulation and diffusion of the work. And there are also those who try to challenge video technologies, playing on the 25 frames per second of the analog PAL system, for istance the Altair 4 group (Pietro Galifi, Stefano Moretti, Avio Mattiozzi) in Acid Time (1989), a work which was born on the computer, but which is closely linked to the functioning of analog video. Or there are those who go beyond the so-called “specificity” of the medium, also exploring other media, such as Giovanotti Mondani Meccanici (Antonio Glessi, Andea Zingoni, Maurizio Dami) who cross comics, video installation and performance. In the review I tried to bring out the main lines of research of Computer Art of the 1980s, starting with the affirmation of a new aesthetic, that of personal computers, visible for example in the works of the aforementioned GMM and Crudelity Stoffe (Michele Böhm and Marco Tecce), where we see all the technical limitations of an Apple II (highly successful computer), which, however, were not impediments for the artists at all: in other words, the low resolution and an extremely limited color palette rather become potentialities, new elements to be explored. In this regard, Böhm also writes a manifesto in which he announces the aesthetics of Crudelity Stoffe, all based on the programming language and the limits of the personal computer, as opposed to the great cinema productions. And even in more recent works, the same artist continues to investigate the limits of the machine, but now in a totally different way and with the use of hyper- realistic graphics.
Another interesting trend is that of the relationship between images and music, a field that was widely investigated by Adriano Abbado who carried it forward until very recently. Abbado chooses to use the computer because he senses that it is a tool thanks to which he can “audiovisually compose“: with digital technologies, indeed, it is possible to manage both the graphic and the sound part, something that no other previous medium allowed. The topic of the relationship between images and music is also very strong in the work of Correnti Magnetiche and it is no coincidence that Abbado was one of its founders together with Mario Canali and Riccardo Sinigaglia, even if he soon left the group. In the case of Correnti Magnetiche, there are different solutions ranging from the rigorous use of programming language to the use of the graphic tablet, with a much more immediate, spontaneous, we could say, a pictorial approach to the medium. In this regard, it is interesting to note that there are artists who defend the importance of programming and others who instead seek a reinvention of traditional graphic and pictorial practices in digital technologies. In addition, in the chronological path that I traced for the review, I also tried to bring out the technological evolutions: from 2D graphics of the early 80s to 3D graphics, up to virtual reality in the early 90s.
G.T.: Each work also tells the evolution of technologies and software that today are obsolete, but which have characterized the aesthetics they represent. How is this heritage preserved and how important is it to leave traces of the history of the innovations they tell?
P.L.: The issue of media conservation and obsolescence is common to that of Video Art and all works on magnetic tape. In fact, in the case of Computer Art, there are further problems. For example, there are some works that it was not possible to show in the exhibition because they are not really videos, but graphics generated in real time on the computer, such as Daniela Bertol‘s first works, therefore they are closely linked to the hardware with which they were create. In many cases, of these works, unfortunately, there are only slides that document them. As for the videos, it all depends on how the magnetic tape is preserved and what kind of videotape is digitized: for example U-matic in the most fortunate cases or VHS in the less fortunate ones. Some works were recovered during my PhD research, such as those of Crudelity Stoffe. I believe that in the case of Computer Art the problem of conservation is rather delicate because it deals with works born from digital technologies but which, inevitably, had to migrate to analog support. The paradox is that now those media are obsolete and the videos must be digitized, but each step, starting from the very first transfer on magnetic tape or from the photo of the screen, already represents a loss of information and therefore of image quality. In other words, unless you restore the original hardware, an option that is hardly sustainable, you will not be able to see the images in their initial quality. Even more complicated is the problem of conservation of interactive works based on obsolete devices, such as the installations by Fabrizio Savi, of which only a single- channel video has been shown in this review. Therefore the problem of conservation is crucial and is also one of the themes addressed by Video makes happy, on the occasion of the various study days organized, but also in the volume edited by Cosetta Saba and Valentina Valentini, which accompanies the exhibition. It is also worth to mention the VARIA project (https://varia.cultura.gov.it/), coordinated by the General Direction for Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture, which aims to census the archives of artist videos and films from all over Italy, as a preparatory operation for protection and conservation. In short, the hope is that this great exhibition, thanks also to the support of the institutions that promoted it, will lead to an improvement in the problem of conservation.
G.T.: A common feature of the artists viewed during this review is the relationship of their aesthetics with other disciplines, such as Science and Mathematics. In a word they are transdisciplinary artists. What do you think differentiates Art and the artist from other branches of knowledge? Is it important today to spread these experiences also among the younger generations?
P.L.: Certainly it is important, not only for transdisciplinarity, but also because it is a question of knowing the origins of that digital production that is very wide today. It must be said that the Computer Art scene was, let’s say, “a niche”: it had a certain resonance especially in festivals dedicated to electronic art, but still remaining on the sidelines. Even today some of these artists, pioneers of Digital Art, continue to be little known because it is only with the digital revolution of the 90s that the spotlights are turned on. One of the first attempts to recover this history was a research project coordinated by Silvia Bordini and Francesca Gallo in which I had the pleasure of participating during my doctoral research. I refer to the research on the Camerino Electronic Art Festival: one of the first and most important showcases for Computer Art in the 1980s, which indeed had a special section curated by Rinaldo Funari. The research had among its sources the material collected by Funari, a fund that was recently donated to the Rome Quadriennale. The book that was born from this project was entitled, not surprisingly, At the dawn of digital art (Mimesis, 2018): in short, we are dealing with the origins and personally I believe that it is essential to know the birth of the phenomena we pass through. We live in an era in which the word “algorithm” is a key concept and knowing that artists were creating works based on algorithms already in the 60s gives us a different awareness of current events and I would say that it also helpsto understand and a better contextual digital art today and to perceive different phenomena and media that we persist in defining as new.
G.T.: Paola, we thank you very much for this conversation. My hope is that this heritage will soon be disseminated in the Art History programs of schools of all levels, coming out of archives and research centers, to support the building of future generation identity in the post-human and post-digital era. In these days, it is with great regret that we learn the news of the premature death of professor Marco Maria Gazzano of the University of Roma Tre, where I studied writing with him both of my degree theses, the first on Ida Gerosa and the second on video art between the United Kingdom and Italy through the study of the REWIND Artists’ Video project. With him, for the first time, I have met this wonderful world, as he defines in one of his numerous manuals, “from film to electronic arts, round trip”. Thanks Professor Gazzano! This interview is dedicated to you.