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Between the lines of Stefano Marotta e Roberto Russo

Stefano Coletto

Marotta & Russo, Galleria Contemporaneo, Mestre

The expression “digital art” has been widely used over the last few years, in a way which maybe expressed an excessive faith not only in the renewal of artistic expression, but also of society and culture as a whole. It has been said that “the digital” is a cognitive revolution, as well as an innovative way to produce and access cultural production, and in a more radical way that it is a new way of “being”.

Art and digital art. Lets clear this up straight away: art is art (if it manages to be so), and that is that*

Marotta & Russo address the question straight away in one of their introductory texts, with an opinion which would probably be shared by almost all the artists who have grown up with information technology and who aspire to be artists: art is art.

All things considered, we need definitions to explain the technical-stylistic changes. Categories and neologisms are useful inasmuch as they aid the elaborations of historians and critics, they can make some passages clearer, introduce concepts and facilitate the discussion around the artists and their conception of the world.

This is the reason there are terms like “technological art” and “digital art”, with sub-categories such as “electronic art”, “robotic art”, “generative art” or “new-media art”. All this certainly introduces a taxonomic trend which risks being boring and limiting, but it is also, without doubt, very useful.

Speaking about “digital art” to non-specialists- that is those people who, whilst they use a computer daily and know the terms hardware and software, don't know how to repair the machine, don't “open the box”, or don't write programs- immediately suggests that there are artistic expressions which use computers and the programs which direct the computer’s functions.

The digital pervades our environment, it augments and changes the range and nature of our senses, it creates new mental scenarios and languages. Where is the “virtual” in all of this? The digital transforms and extends our perceptive reality.

We must nonetheless ask where the interest in the exploration of the digital world begins, because in the context of contemporary art, too many artworks often show technical innovation, but are already outdated and sterile in terms of the imagery proposed and the metaphors evoked.

From a technical point of view, even this text is made using the classic word processing software, but is certainly can’t be considered a work of digital literary art: maybe the grammar and the vocabulary don't feel the advent of the digital age, the syntax comes from much “copying” and “pasting” and from continuous movement of the cursor. The reason this text has been written probably does feel the dawn of the digital, the meaning is tied to the intention to address the ambiguity of the term “digital art”. The ease of changing and correcting it gives the writer the feeling that the text loses a degree of stability, acquiring a kind of formal dynamism and semantic lightness in our minds. The texts we write seem evermore like cover versions, continuous remixes of quotes and allusions which have already been heard elsewhere or handled by Google’s information network. And we could go on.

Reflecting on the nature of digital art, or the aesthetic quality of its elaboration through digital tools, continually moves between the original idea, the planning, production, analysis of the production, meanings in the reception of the production, production rules and meta-messages of those meanings and broader metaphors such as allusions and concepts which come from that work.

As such we are interested in the digital itself: ours is a conscious, stated and researched investigation into the conceptual symbiosis between the technique used and the psychological, social and linguistic influence which the Digital Lifestyle is having (and has already had) in daily life.

We must consider whether these levels of reading and production can be made explicit when we consider the products digital culture. Even more interesting is verifying whether making it explicit brings about the passage from a culture produced by a specific formal language to something more complex, something which holds a greater tension towards other environments and worlds, such as normally happens in artistic work.

The viewer recognises the novelty in Marotta & Russo’s work if they regularly surf the net and open the windows on web pages, if they often use the play button on their dvd player, if they consider the luminous signs which express the concept of switching on and off, and if they have established an empathic relationship with virtual spaces. A person who lives in this imagery with their mind, their eyes and their hands/body, becomes an inhabitant of the spaces of the two artists. But all of this is just a starting point for a more profound investigation.

From the contents, the conceptual approach and the humanistic implications of the technological process [...]. In other words, we direct our energy to critically question the intimate and social, everyday and epochal consequences of the things which are happening.

The visual elements which identify and relate us to the world of information technology are used for the formal compositions, which a viewer with an intuition we might call “from the outside” may vaguely identify as maps, streets, building sites, traces of the underground, mythical buildings, but also as colossal and primitive computers. These compositions, strictly formalised with philological quotations from the archaeology of information culture are transformed into recollections of archetypes from the history and literature of the past, but also of the forms of buildings of cities from the modernist movement, like a Gerrit Thomas Rietveld projection.

The concept of functionality is immediately questioned, but also relocated because if a playful dimension seems to dominate then the improbable city, the still from the video game and the new inhabitants can only be avatars, planned and programmed for a new place to be experienced.

Thus if we also observe and analyse these representations in terms of tools and devices and not just as abstract and static compositions, they put in motion a dynamic experiencing, a movement within the orthogonal net which indicates a pre-established movement, directed according to a certain idea of functionality. This is the application of an aesthetic set of rules which implies the information of software: an “info-aesthetic”.

With these intersections and these references, the work, in synch with the present, becomes curiously ambiguous, mysteriously antique and alludes to a new human.

We make a great effort to highlight a gap, a new point of view, capable of eliminating a perceived fracture (ideological and not real) between technological and humanistic know-how, the rational and the spiritual factors. The technology tied to hyper-media, thanks to the diverse abilities and psychologies which are called for in their professional use, but also in the everyday life of each of us, drives us to see these two micro-environments as one. As such we are on the threshold of a digital neo-humanism.

The reflection on cultural references in this new planning and functional approach which aims to overcome the technical character of technology brings us to the conceptual teachings of Marcel Duchamp, the form of the alienated and bewildered human in the machines of Francis Picabia, to the appropriation of elements of -what is now- a mass visual culture. This is a sort of “digipop” practice, but one which empties web pages of their contents, simplifies icons in minimalist terms, it becomes an arrangement of frames, relationships between signals and devices, chromatic compositions which are luminous like they are in a monitor.

As such, extending and taking to the extreme the consequences of this concept in an area of contemporary artistic research, the output represents to us the outcome of a conscious act of cultural and aesthetic re-composition around a series of historical necessities.
That is to say, a process aimed at its own continuous re-definition, expressed in the effort to “pierce the indistinct contemporary noise”, in a coherent and dense way, the fruit of the “untidy” excess of communication, both artistic and not.
Already clearly marked by a new aesthetic, highly synthetic and distinctly planning base, “optimised”

A planning process which is clear to itself, a conceptual composition which freezes the emotional aspect in the regular geometry of the grid, seeking a classical essence. Marotta & Russo’s work is based on the aesthetic of the net, celebrating the compositional possibilities of the form, the principal perceptual and organisational element of contemporary seeing. Just like architects or composers Marotta & Russo seem to be aware that the thing which characterises construction is the setting of classical rhetoric and the clearness of the lines which outline and enclose form and rhythm.

The sensation which comes from the works is that in the world of the info-aesthetic we can re-confirm a classical theory as an outcome of the way in which our mind thinks and organises sensory and perceptual data.

This is a statement which is still problematical, and is part of the question of “that which is old and that which is new”.

In other words, behind the so-called “new technologies” there is a conceptual, cultural and anthropological history dating back almost thirty years. Being aware of this is the first step to critically reasoning it out, abandoning the emphasis on the new (it is indeed non-critical), which characterises the “old” media (which are still “common sense” and the voice of God) compared to the “new”...

Bodies designed in three dimensions can re-ask age-old questions, they can break apart and move, opening and closing, question and allude to subjects and meanings which are different from their cybernetic nature, and re-connect to a universal human. However we must ask how these questions can be renewed and how to update the forms of possible answers.
The challenge for Marotta & Russo is that of avoiding a decorative aspect derived from optical art, of sliding into a solely graphical construction of 3D bodies or re-proposing compositional solutions which have already been seen.
Thus, using this design or styling only as a costume, with a playful and ironic spirit, it is possible to support a new proposal of the modern. The modern also presents itself as a fracture between us and the world, and we should thus ask in what way we should consider this tear in relation to information culture. Another theme might also concern the question of alienation, given that these grids also indicate mass media stereotypes, imposed logical structures and obsessive, repetitive geometric and graphic elements.
Thus an artistic practice may include a critique of iconic obsession, without falling into an excessive faith in the planning capacity of the construction of a new formalised world.

The risk is that of remaining tied to a vision which is too classic in the search for a more authentic and complete aesthetic vision. The grammar of the digital is the foundation, but the conceptions of the world and of the present are fleeting and at times they cross over, other times they seem to separate, but they must not be allowed to escape.
The tension must be gambled and the game played to the end, but the two artists seem to be perfectly well aware of this.

Our research starts from concepts of knowledge of yourself and your own historic context, with the aim of always increasing the planning capacity to construct a strictly conceptual language, through the experience of extreme passage through our own historically defined time (“play all the games”, as Rimbaud said).

Thus, perhaps, the art of these times will continue to call itself digital, but be practiced and experienced as art.

*the quotes come from the artist’s web site www.avatarproject.it (no more online)