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Contra-circuits of the reality

Riccardo Caldura

Marotta & Russo: Galleria Contemporaneo, Mestre

The electronic page which I’m typing on is framed on each side by functions offering a wide range of compositional variations. Frames, toolbars which can change in a flash the aspect of that which I’m typing. I know little about information technology. I’m a generic consumer, with little inclination about that which is ‘behind’ time saving techniques. More than 20 years ago writing systems which represent the daily dimension of working practice for an increasing multitude of people, underwent a radical transformation. More immediate visibility, fast modifiability and contemporaneous filing: the first Apple user-friendly machine, the Macintosh 128k, dates back to 1984.
The emancipation from the initial and complex procedures necessary for the interaction between hardware and software was due to the extremely efficient system of icons and windows, a very simple and immediately understandable system. The enormous mistake made by Xerox belongs to the New Technology. The company management did not clearly understand what their laboratory was preparing and then allowed Steve Jobs to take possession of the enormous application potential of the icons system. Now my desktop, like that of millions of users, is made of folders and files organised on the background of a little light board, where the square icons seem to be suspended, waiting for the orders of the mouse.
The simplicity of the geometry of the icons is extremely efficient. Strictly two-dimensional, it constitutes the graphic interface (GUI) making computer use accessible to a wide public. The question of the graphic interface is more pervading and extends the field of my electronic desk, including real existence and interlacing with it possible functions and operative controls made by means of the icons.

The whole town seems to be an enormous desk, a desktop, a display where the icons are ordered for its use: road signs, logos, set courses. The pervasiveness, the ubiquity of the technology is made possible exactly because of the extraordinary efficiency of its graphical interface, without which the technique would be only a difficult, blind device, without windows. An airport, a highway, a railway station, a street, the goods distribution in a department store, the instruction handbook of a product are possible and feasible realities, thanks to the quality and precision of the icons on its surface. In a town without ‘icons’ which indicate buildings’ function, in a street without signals, we feel in unknown land, awkward and anxious as one who cannot decode his surroundings. We feel anachronistic and slightly incomprehensible if one gives us or if we give someone a handwritten sheet. Our reality is a kind of algorithm, divided in sub-algorithms enlarging its complexity. Maybe a handwritten sheet is becoming an outdated thing, meaninglessly complex for people who are more or less aware of living in the computational efficacy of a ubiquitous Turing machine.

The pervading graphic interface which surrounds us has a geometrical, flat, two-dimensional origin, simplified in shapes and colors. It is explicit, in that it allows no mistakes, it is a strictly binary system: yes/no, rule/offence. There are no corners of shadow in the iconic and algorithmic flatland. It developed with increasing efficiency simultaneously as the city grew and its functions increased. There has to be the most evident and the least ambiguous relation between the building’s function and its public representation. A wheel repair shop must be near a crossroads and must incorporate, clearly, its utility in the building itself. The front of one such building is made of concentric circles as in the project by the utopian architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux. Mondrian’s writings testify that in artistic field the development of the new image, ‘modern’ according to him, may reflect a universalistic inspiration of theosophical origin. More concretely it also demonstrates his experience in the metropolis (Paris, then New York) and of the stimulus which the buildings’ walls provided. Thus the ‘universal’ turns into the primarity of grid and pure colours to define very simple two-dimensional forms: small rectangles and squares with the rhythm of the streets and routes of the American megalopolis, like in Victory Boogie-Woogie, 1943-44.

The concrete communicating efficacy of the supremacist Malevic’s purism comes out in the advertising interfaces to convey new consumer models to the emerging socialist society, models which were graphically developed by Rodshenko with Majakovsky’s contribution for the slogans of a number of products. The ‘geometrical’, the two-dimensional, the primary tend to become elements of a functional and vastly diffused iconography and at the same time one can sense an escape line along which the artistic elaboration will progressively free itself from the concept of functionality. 
The colour plan of the walls conceived by Theo van Doesburg aspires to free itself from the architectonic, creating the conditions for the encounter with the architect Oud. What might “treating the three-dimensional space as a pictorial work” mean if not to contra construct in terms of an architect’s work?1

Is the graphical interface, developed to make the language of information more accessible to an enormous number of consumers, evolving along a similar escape line? Abstracting this from its original function, contra-constructing, as the works of Marotta & Russo show, a parallel system (from the city to the object)? The autonomy of the ‘visual’ is as though it were in ambush and waiting for the ‘right moment’ to deconstruct the remaining function that endures in the various graphical interfaces, starting the game again: from the functional efficacy of the algorithms solved by means of the icons, to the progressive independence from any operative function, delivering the icon from any concrete, ‘real’ operative reference.

(Along the escape line of the ‘visual’, the reality seems forced to strike back becoming ‘image’, in order to be up to the new level of abstraction attained by the ‘visual’. Otherwise it is doomed to be ‘blind’ like a street without signs, or strange like a town made up of buildings without functional differences).

A web page is similar to the front of a building, where a visual and informative dimension corresponds to every single space. The central area is surrounded by a circle of elements whose function is graphically solved in the two dimensional diagram. The central area represents the main contents of the web page. It is framed by the other informative functions. If the web page was to be emptied of its contents, and only the formal structure was kept, the two-dimensional and geometrical simplicity beneath it would become more evident. It is the formal structure used in Marotta & Russo’s research to contra-construct a new image: the image of a ‘city’ generated by the pure primary forms constituting the composition of web pages. This is the origin of the Under the Domain… sequence. The artistic contra-constructing begins to free the graphical interface from its function in order to generate a new paradoxical strict and exclusively digital urbanscape. This is constructed from elements taken from the computer page layout and the graphical interfaces, separated from their functional and informative specific ‘contents’.

In the set following Under the Domain…, Marotta & Russo further increased the deconstruction and reconstruction of graphic interface iconic elements coming from the field of technological information and highlighted in the title of their work: ObjectKit.
Kit is a box which contains the elements necessary to put together an object. It represents a children’s game and a great trade innovation that internationally made every consumer an Ikea collaborator. The realisation of Bauhaus intuitions and projects, combining readymade prefabricated elements, for the standardisation and international diffusion of products.
Marcel Duchamp’s final work (Etat donnees, 1946/1966) was put up after his death, according his wish, following an instruction handbook which he had prepared. The walls of a building if seen by a neoplastic standpoint can change into chromatic sublimations, in weightless combinable pieces which can be assembled together (compare the Maison pour artist model by van Doesburg, 1923). In ObjectKit the graphical elements from the technological information field, separated from their communicative and interactive function, are again purely compositional and prefabricated elements thanks to which new visual ‘objects’ can be reconstructed. They are without body, purely two-dimensional as surfaces, having something of the fixedness of a totem image and its archaic vivid polychromy. The digital composition of the image seems to give back, unexpectedly, something of the subtle inlays of objects and products made by cultures very far from hi-tech canons. They are objects as totems, digital icons without any apotropaic and symbolic value. The contents of an image have vanished like this, as the walls of the building have disappeared, as the contents in the compositional grids of a web page can be voided and modified continually. There are no more contents, only abstract images which can be digitally re-combined over and over again.

The last two works by Marotta & Russo show a movement to a more and more articulate organisation of the digital image. The interplay between the image and the real shows itself not only with the oscillation of the real to the image but also as the contrary oscillation of the image (digital) to the real. One of these last two works is a video projection with an indicative title, Timeline where it is the time of the image which scrolls to indicate the relation between the visual experience of the crossing of the urban space and its synthetic projection in the interplay of geometrical components coming from the visual digital codex. The other work, Outline, is a complex installation showing the architectonic and spatial tendency of Marotta & Russo’s compositional methods. Outline recalls a closed circuit system, with something of the components and the module architecture done by a modern data processor. At the same time it visually recalls maps, networks, wiring which constitutes the invisible dimension of a city pervaded by service technologies. The essential image in Outline dissects, deconstructs and reconstructs the idea of connection and wiring and underlines its visual side. Contemporary icon of data and information communication, it is contra-circuit of a reality which seems to be always more reliant on the image as its vehicle of justification.

(1) “Contra-constructies: chromatic analysis of the project in its most significant form (the axonometric projection, abstract-simultaneous representation)”. Compare Sergio Polano in “Il colore dello stile. Note sulla neocromoplastica architettonica di De Stijl” in “Mondrian e De Stijl – L’ideale moderno” (pp. 126-128). Olivetti/Electa ed, Milan 1990.