When living in a world where change goes so fast, the balance of humans, cities and nature has become more and more complicated. Manifattura Tabacchi in Florence hosted a residency for artists that reflects on this balance, culminating in a collective exhibition to explore the relationships between human beings and their environment1. Six artists questioned the role of art, giving it a new ecological essence, combining action and imagination. I’M Firenze Digest met three out of the six artists – Antonio Bermúdez Obregón, Federica Di Pietrantonio, and Violette Maillard – to discuss their works, sustainability, and the impact of new technologies in their artistic research.
by Sabrina Morales Echart and Marines Salcedo Gutierrez. Cover image: detail of Federica Di Pietrantonio, not so far away, 2021. Photo credits: Leonardo Morfini, ADRYA
I’MF: Your project at Manifattura Tabacchi, Bargaruda I is an experiment on movement and sculpture: a motorcycle that is passing through a transition from hydrocarbons to electric energy. The work condenses the different disciplines of creative thought, science, and engineering, blurring the lines of what should compose art and what art stands for. When did you come up with the idea for Bargaruda I? How much did your stay at Manifattura foster your collaboration with individuals outside the art world to develop your project?
VM: The idea for Bargaruda came about in 2019 and took shape during a residency at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, as part of the first edition of the Italy China Prize held by MAECI, MiBACT, Istituto Garuzzo per le Arti Visive, the National Art Museum of China and Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Pechino. The aim was to create an electric car inspired by Siluro Ricotti by Alfa, and to come back to Italy by car/sculpture. While Covid happened, I tried to develop a “simpler” version by planning an electric conversion on a classic Gilera motorbike. MT has been a key element to partner with local institutions like UniFi and Museo Piaggio.
I’MF: Your project for SUPERBLAST, Nature is not green, invites the visitor into two opposing landscapes, streaming live from a jungle in Brazil and a cultivated forest in the Netherlands. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea behind this contrast and how you developed it during your stay at Manifattura?
ABO: I come from a tropical area, a former Spanish colony, where nature embodies extreme violence. Since the earliest Spanish travels, nature has been extracted and its representation imported and imposed. Nature has been the plunder of colonial wars and landscapes have been enslaved until this day, sold by pieces, victimized and even sequestered. Many European countries find some ecological comfort by promoting reforestation, re-wilding, bio-politics, and eco-friendly legislation within their own borders, but there is common negligence and voluntary abandonment of their ex-colonies and the global south in general. In 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell PLC oil and gas company extracted close to 20,000 barrels (1.5M worth) of crude oil from the Amazon Forest every day. The presence of this company in the Amazon goes back to the 1930’s, when a town called Shell was founded in the Ecuadorian Amazon; billions of barrels of crude have been extracted since. The Royal Shell is now the main private funder of the Staatsbosbeheer reforestation programme in the Netherlands, stating to have planted 5 million trees. In any event, both natural landscapes are now connected by political or economic reasons. I developed this idea during my stay at Manifattura, first as a conversation between these two landscapes, and then as the construction of a third landscape, a dark but inhabitable threshold between the two forests. In this time of virtual experiences and remote presentness, it was possible to bring these two places together into the same space, to witness a Zoom call between the ancient South American rainforest and the young European woods.
I’MF: At Manifattura Tabacchi, you used digital reality to create an alternative relationship with our environment. In your work not so far away, you explore urban, natural, and fictional landscapes, analysing their representations in the video-game culture. Can you tell us how you developed the idea behind it and how it changed during your stay at Manifattura?
FD: Over the past few years, my research has been focused on how certain kinds of human attitudes, in particular the ones born from virtual/digital experiences, have an impact on our ordinary behaviour and thinking, without a rigid overall superstructure. It’s not surprising for someone from my generation, but it’s something that I almost feel as a personal, intimate duty to explore deeper. The process I had planned for not so far away was meant to be a solitary wandering through mainstream video games, feeling myself connected to Goethe in his Italian travels, both for his emotional state and for his empirical/scientific method. However, the residency led me to organise some playdates, where I could somehow meet other unknown, lonely wanderers, and share my experience with them in a more collaborative way.
I’MF: The SUPERBLAST residency focuses on the relationship between humans and the environment. We live in a world heavily dependent on technology, yet we criticise its perversion and disruption in our natural habitats. Do you think it is possible to develop a balance between our technological advancements and their sustainability, or should we work towards changing this endless growth paradigm?
VM: I once saw a cat turning on a light. And then the cat opened the freezer, took out some surimi, unwrapped it and ate it. I guess he liked the fish pretty much, without considering the techs around it. Two electric catfish kissing each other; could they produce electricity, or a storm, just through their attraction? I am interested in understanding how nature would develop a passage from hydrocarbons to electric, from dinosaurs to catfish, from surimi to cigars.
ABO: My work is critical about all green policies, eco-friendly legislations and all other hypocritical ways of greenwashing this “endless growth”. That’s also why my work is called Nature is Not Green. I wouldn’t know if it is necessary to change the paradigm or if it is possible to achieve some kind of balance. All I know is that all this “progress” in terms of ecological responsibility is being rapidly transformed into the best marketing tool.
FD: From Bulbapedia, the community-driven Pokémon encyclopaedia: The Escape Rope (Japanese: あなぬけのヒモ, “Hole-Escape Rope”) is an item introduced in Generation I. It is used to escape a cave or a dungeon. From Generation I to VII, it is a consumable item; in Generation VIII, it is a Key Item. When used in the overworld while the player is in a cave or a dungeon, the player is warped to the last Pokémon Centre they healed in (or the player’s house, if they have never healed in a Pokémon Centre). I honestly think that there’s no escape-rope, as in Pokémon sagas (what a shame by the way!).
I’MF: When it comes to artistic research, do you think that the rise of new technologies has changed your creative process? For example, digital technology was believed to interrupt our creative process, as it would restrict us to interact with a screen instead of having an organic relation with the natural environment. Do you think that digitisation and new technologies have challenged your relationship with nature and the development of your creative processes?
VM: For me it goes back and forth. I do appreciate nature and I do create tangible things; my main medium is sculpture, even if the process to get there goes digital sometimes. Take Bargaruda for example. I collaborated with Syde Srl technology; they 3D scanned the Gilera 150 Sport I retrieved from 1960 and thanks to them there was the digital material to plan and print a 3D electric conversion with the engineers at Linea and the Moving Research Lab at UniFi. The result is a physical sculpture that would start a journey and become ephemeral, creating a disappearing act.
ABO: I believe that through technology you can easily access all things natural that are known to humanity. It doesn’t limit our interaction with the natural environment. On the contrary, technology has always been about expanding the limits of our senses; the remote presentness of the body is at the core of my creative process.
FD: My origins can tell a lot about that. Since I was a kid, my father, as a software engineer, has always shared his interest in technology with me. I learned about it in a natural way; it was not demonised as an obscure or non-human tool. That’s part of the reason why I have never chosen technology to tell stories; it is just something that feels really connected and appropriate to the way my personality has developed over the years. Of course, digitalization and technology have changed my relationship with nature and widened my view of the world and its dynamics. I find it deeply fascinating, because it puts me in a position of questioning reality every day, finding new possible views of the past and what will come next.
I’MF: Do you think it is correct to say that your work was developed in dialogue with specific landscapes, natural or otherwise? And, if so, how much did their specific nature influence the creation or your work?
VM: Living in Bellosguardo surely influenced my perception of the world in the most Galilean sense of it. This work is better intended as a discourse, or a movie without a camera. The analogic movement of Bargaruda from Florence to the National Circuit in Monza would pass through the Museo Piaggio in Pontedera, marble quarries and the city of Parma, among other places. I believe there are some Warburghian dispositions of shapes and content that are recurrent and that can be found in this movement in both natural and artificial landscapes.
ABO: I think my artistic research is about unravelling landscape and nature semantics. I believe that nature as a human-modified entity has many behaviours, and these behaviours can be understood as clear signs. For me, a landscape is almost like an ancient text that ought to be deciphered. In that sense, my work would be closer to some sort of archaeology than to dialogue. I’m there to point at signs and to see nature as a cultural construction; nature is just culture in disguise. Anyway, I think that this binary way of conceiving the world is unhealthy. Everything is natural, everything is artificial, and everything is culture.
FD: I often have the feeling that our ordinary life follows a specific path, and at the same time, as a Conditional Statement in the php programming language, something is left behind in the infinite ways of how your life can develop, because you must choose, second by second and so on. That doesn’t happen in the virtual world. In Real-Life Simulation, as well as in Digital Identities and Virtual Panoramas, the unique privilege of choosing can be reiterated as much as you want, a SandBox full of possibilities to explore, to fail, and start again. How much can your personality and emotions take from that? It’s kind of funny that there’s no real game over. Part of my research fools around with media-archaeology, where there’s a lot of what we are that we still don’t know (hardware + software). There’s something sublime in finding, somewhere really far, online icebergs.
Antonio Bermúdez Obregón is a Colombian artist. He lives and works in Bogotá.
Federica Di Pietrantonio is an Italian artist. She lives and works in Rome.
Violette Maillard is a French-Italian artist. She lives and works in Milan.
Sabrina Morales Echart and Marines Salcedo Gutierrez are undergraduate students in Arts Curating at Istituto Marangoni Firenze.
1. SUPERBLAST residency, a project by NAM – Not a Museum, was hosted at Manifattura Tabacchi in Florence between 5 May and 5 August 2021, while the public exhibition was visible from the 16th to the 18th of September. The exhibition shows the work of the six artists that won the international call: Edoardo Aruta, Antonio Bermúdez Obregón, Federica Di Pietrantonio, Iper-collettivo, Oliviero Fiorenzi, and Violette Maillard.