Beyond the artist, towards the artist

Valentino Catricalà

To speak today about the popular is no simple manner. The rise of digital technologies has allowed for an impressive growth in the possibilities of manipulating information, lowering the costs of technology and, at the same time, creating programmes that allow anyone a simple means of modifying images, sounds, and any other information as they wish. This was the great novelty of digital technology, already present in nuce in earlier analogue technologies, such as video electronics and, even earlier, in the mechanics of cinema and photography. We need only think back to the age of photography and the importance of the amateur, who could pick up a camera and create an image without too much effort — a technological device that allowed anyone to become a producer: “You press the button, we do the rest”, proclaimed a major Kodak ad already at the end of the nineteenth century[1].

The digital takes over the reins of this history, this capacity of technology to simplify the processes of image (or sound) production. It does so precisely thanks to its automatism, i.e. to the fact that a large part of the process is delegated to the machine itself, freeing humans from complex, mechanical functions. The digital takes over this history and raises it to excess, indeed so much so that we can speak of a post-amateur era, the collapse of professionalism, and the dominance of popular communication. This means a creative popular communication, which requires a commitment on the part of users, a constant production of images and sounds, and their continuous remixing. This communication is also marked by certain milestone shifts such as the advent of smartphones in 2007[2]. Images that are used, re-processed, and re-used; images that are shared, posted, and remodelled; images without sources, recognised and unknown: a huge, dynamic archive, a culture in constant evolution.

At this point, we get into the second part of the question of the popular and the fallout of this easy “hyperproductivity”: namely, the sheer mass of information. The vast digital universe that we are living through is — and this is its characteristic — a quantitatively overflowing universe of information. This purely quantitative dimension has a knock-on effect on quality: both, as we have seen, in the very possibilities of creation, and in the need to invent new tools for orientation and research within an expanding digital universe (machine learning, the semantic web, etc.).

In short, we are all immersed in this universe, no one excluded. And contemporary art is also immersed in it. Indeed, perhaps artists were the very first to realise this, even before the advent of digital technologies[3]. But it seems that the real point today is a different one: in this sea of creativity, what role does art play? Or, how can we talk about art today? As Valentina Tanni points out, «Today we are faced with a vast mass of creators who simply do not recognise themselves in the figure of ‘the artist’, whether professional or amateur, and who produce images, works and projects without aspiring to any specific status»[4]. We see this in memes, as Tanni tells us, but also in other digital cultural forms. Think of NFTs, and the platforms that contain images certified through blockchain technology. It is really very difficult to get a handle on this universe using the classic categories of contemporary art.

If it is increasingly complex to talk about art in this vast ocean of content, the new digital context is being investigated by artists/activists, beginning a deep reflection on our communicative popular culture. The data is being explored through technological experimentation that drives reflection on a “new dwelling” — the possibility of inhabiting our world in a new way. Many artists are working on these themes, such as Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico with the project HER: She Loves Data. This cultural research hub uses data and calculation (complex algorithms, artificial intelligence, networks, ecosystems) to create processes of cultural acceleration through art. Another example is the work of Carlo Zanni, who has for years been pursuing projects reflecting on how to inhabit our technological society.

It is interesting to turn particular focus to the artistic operations of Alterazioni Video, and especially the concept of “turbo films” devised by this collective. Turbo films are a genuinely new film genre, a new language composed of footage made by the artists themselves and clips of images taken from the Internet, “a film genre in between spaghetti westerns and YouTube neorealism”, as they put it. Turbo films arise from the Web, from an online way of working, also because the members of the group each live in different cities. Thus began sessions of exchanges of e-mails, messages, videos, and links, apparently without a logical thread, completely unrelated to the classical logic of film production. This leads to the production of the films, which is also completely free, without pre-established logics, often involving entire communities. Real incursions are made, here, in which the artists physically come into contact with places, people, and real objects, using low-cost technologies, all mixed in with images taken from the Web.

Turbo films represent a response to the constant flow of data in which we are immersed, a response to mass “popular communication”. This act subverts the rules of the game, by way creative processes that combine physicality with virtuality, somewhere in between authorship and amateurism. It is an act that still imposes the gesture of the artist, a figure who is immersed and almost unrecognisable in the logics of images found online. And it is one borne of the conviction that “The only avant-garde today is probably to be found in the collective mind of YouTube”[5].

[1] Maurizio Vitta states: “Photography was thus born as an industrial and mass art, but it immediately raised disturbing questions of an aesthetic nature: it questioned the concept of the author, redefined the concept of truth, and forced thought to venture onto the treacherous path of images”, in M. Vitta, Il rifiuto degli dèi. Teoria delle belle arti industriali, Einaudi, 2012, p. 14.

[2] This creates a new psyche, as Éric Sadin tells us, when he speaks of “the enslavement of individuals owing to capital accumulation, which simultaneously generates the troubling sensation of an increased control” : Io Tiranno. La società digitale e la fine del mondo comune, translated by F. Bonomi, Luiss University Press, 2022, p. 20.

[3] On the role of videoart as a site of experimentation and anticipatory innovations, I will refer the reader to segnalo S. Lischi, La lezione della videoarte. Sguardi e percorsi, Carocci, 2019; M.M. Gazzano, Kinema. Il cinema sulle tracce del cinema. Dal film alle arti elettroniche, andata e ritorno, Exorma, 2012. Also worth mentioning is Videoarte in Italia. Il video rende felici, a cura di C. Saba, V. Valentini, catalogo della mostra, Treccani, 2022.

[4] V. Tanni, Memestetica. Il settembre eterno dell’arte, Nero, 2020.

[5] From L. Tozzi’s interview of Alterazioni Video in Zero Magazine, 17 February 2016,<>

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