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June 29th 2005: Interview with Carlo Zanni

[June 29th 2005]

Carlo Zanni

I simply call it art

One of the artists that has kept popping up over the last few years is Italian Carlo Zanni (b. 1975). He originally got us interested when he launched the Altarboy – a device where art collectors can control when their internet art pieces are online – and he has since been featured twice in our networks list with his eBay Landscape and Average Shoveler. Kristine Ploug talked to him.

What is your artistic background - and how did you get involved with the digital art scene?
My background is classic/scientific. Even though I've been drawing since I was born, I went to a scientific high school attending an experimental program. I remember I was coding in Turbo Pascal at that time. Then, while remaining involved in comics (graphic novels) writing and drawing my own stories, I attended an art college, where I focused my attention on classic subjects (art history, design, film scripting and classic techniques). Then I got a master degree in Web Design. It was late '97 and in Italy we were at the beginning of the bubble. When I decided to work as an artist it was natural to me to merge the apparently two different worlds I had been living in earlier.

Average Shoveler (2004) - commissioned by Rhizome.

A few years back you did an online tutorial for digital art. Can you tell us more about that – and about the objective?

It was called "P2P_.EDU: Peer to Peer Educational for art dealers" and I did it in collaboration with Michele Thursz. The wanted to build an educational bridge between net_works and those people who have a really pragmatic position in the art field, i.e. those discovering, supporting and distributing contemporary expressions of our time: galleries and dealers. In fact, a crucial reason why the market for net based art works has not evolved, is the existence of an out of date business model used in the traditional art market (a theme approached by the first P2P chat conference).
Another ‘big reason why’ is that the main part the current generation of influential dealers, critics, and collectors are not at ease with the language developed specifically to the media used by the artist/collaborations (artists today are making works with tools using programming languages as ‘colors’ and ‘brushes’, formal structures to incorporate the functions of mass media).
More generally, I think that schooling is a key issue to build a better world. Of course I'm not talking specifically about art schooling. Here is the original P2P_.EDU press release.

The question of how to sell digital art seems to come up ever so often. With your Altarboy, you have given one possible solution on how to sell net art. Please, tell us more about the concept and thoughts behind it.
As already stated, there are two technical main reasons why the art market has not moved onto the Net yet: schooling and the lack of an easy model to sell and buy. While many digital works can be stored and loaded from a CD or DVD, Net works need to stay online. So basically many issues and questions rise from that status the first one being: how can I own something that needs to stay public to ‘exist’? (In any case this isn’t totally true, neither so simple. For example, another difficulty is that what people usually call Net Art consists of very different kinds of art work, and that each of them has its own tech and art specs to be considered during a sale). I wanted to find a neutral and very customable model, something characterized by a ‘primordial asset’. So I came up with the idea to sell a server directly, a small personal server. In this way it is up to the collector to decide when and where to put the work online, allowing the network to start again and viewers to visit/interact with it. You can find some sources here

During the online life, Altarboy stores the traffic passing through it (images, text, IP …) in a database so that you can also run it in an offline mode or in an after-internet era. This feature is fundamental because it allows Altarboy to become a witness of our time. And as a 2K troubadour, he can play us stories of our past (when we were probably unaware performers).

The Altarboy Oriana shown at Chelsea Museum in the show Passage of Mirage curated by Christiane Paul and Zhang Ga in the fall of 2004.

Have you sold any - and do you see them as your artistic 'sculptures' or as something that could potentially be produced and used by other digital artists?
Yes, the first one ‘Cyrille’ was sold to Analix Forever Gallery in Geneva. Let's distinguish the aesthetics form of the sculpture (metal case, screen, glass box, petals) from the ‘protocol’ used to sell a net piece. Of course the sculpture is something functional to my vision, so it is really personal, while the ‘protocol’ has been made so that anyone can really use it to sell his art. In the end it is only about setting up a slim server, but this makes the net code a physical object. At the same time, this way doesn't alter the works' specs, the nature of the work is preserved and quoting Sara Tucker, DIA Center Digital Media Director: "The juxtaposition of fresh rose petals with web-based content serves as a refreshing memento mori, reminding us of the fragility and fleeting quality of net art. The owner's option to share it online or not underscores the ephemeral nature of net artworks, a quality that sometimes goes unnoticed when servers are online 24/7."

Have you considered other strategies on how to sell digital art?
Yes, I have. Even if everything, except selling the server, seems to be very partial (I'm talking about Digital Art that needs the web to be alive). In any case, at this point (after Altarboy) the way we sell is no longer an issue, and the reason why a few digital artists still sell their art is not because the art world rejects those works, but because 99,99% of "net artists" don't care about selling their art, neither to start an art career nor to join the art world.

Earlier you talked about the lack of a proper business model for digital art. Now you say that the 99,99 % of the digital artists are not interested in selling. Please elaborate.
These aspects go together, they aren’t separate. What I mean is that the business model is no longer a problem. So if you want to sell and buy net stuff you can easily do it. The other two impediments, however, still remain: lack of schooling and culture for the collectors, dealers, curators and critics, and a lack of interest among net artists in pursuing an art career. It is easier to get attention and satisfaction on the web through forums, lists, links etc., than to try to turn a computer on with your work at White Cube in London. There is a lot of work behind it and this is a part of the process.

The various terminologies - new media art, net art,, digital art to name just a few - is another point of confusion in this part of the art scene. What do you call your art?
I simply call it art. If I have to choose, I would pick net art or new media. The art world doesn't care about these names; these are distinctions for theorists. I simply do my job using a live feedback gathered from the web, which is the same as saying: I paint with colors people bring to my studio.

eBay Landscape. In mountains is the eBay stock, in the branches you see the photo currently shown at

I would like to talk a bit about your other works. One of our favorites here at Artificial is the eBay landscape. Can you tell us how the idea was conceived?
It was done for a show called ‘eBay: buy or sell or buy’ held at the PACE University in New York in 2004. Artist and Curator Jillian McDonald is doing a great job organizing both shows at the gallery and lectures. Basically eBay looks like a simple Japanese (moon) landscape: some bamboos, a terrain field, mountains and stars in the sky. It is a landscape but also a visitors’ temporary portrait. In fact, the sky’s colors are generated from the IPs of the users while stars represent connected people. We used masks to dynamically cut images grabbed from, and a very interesting script which reads the original image pixel by pixel (containing the eBay stock market charts) and erases all the colors except those designing the blue shape that I use for the mountains.
My first aim was to create a kind of single-lens reflex camera avoiding the parallax error between News and Economy. I see these kind of works as related to the concept of performance, but in these cases the actors of the performance are our lives, our social behaviours, we all are unintentional performers and that’s the form of interaction I like the most.
This piece also allowed me to integrate paintings and digital works in a more homogeneous way. I did a cycle of paintings derived from the eBay Landscape, and I painted them in a 1:1 scale.
At this point I’m very interested in shaping my own world, bringing you in, letting you discover you are the matter and an actor playing on that stage, and then painting the result.

You also paint. Please, tell our readers about your paintings and how you combine two such different art strategies/methods as painting and digital art.
My first body of work (2000-1) is based on desktop computer icons. Usually, icons of software I was using to make digital works. I see them both as a kind of new landscape both as users’ digital maps and as such I think they write a type of social genome.

Left: Detail from Landscape, Chronicles / spam attack, 2003. oil on linen. Right: Landscape, Untitled JPEG, 2000. oil on linen.

I also paint desktop's themes: those classic landscapes like a grass field with clouds or a ladybug on a leaf, you can find as standard wallpapers in Operative Systems such as Windows XP or Mac OS X. Other subjects include Computer Viruses, Trojan Horses, IP Addresses and other forms of floating data that even if invisible, surround our daily life and that I want to visualize and store on canvas like in a database. While at a quick glance, my paintings could seem a simple copy -in a larger scale- of these elements, in truth they are painted as our eyes see them on the screen, and not as they really are. I paint them with shades appearing due to the distance from which we look at them instead of copying them as they are programmed, pixel by pixel. I have inverted the process used by Pointillism/Divisionism during 19th-20th centuries. It is an aesthetic choice that hides a precise concept and aim: all my paintings are related to the subject of perception. The perception of the world filtered and mirrored by our digital experience.
Following this process, I see them as intimate paintings, which can evoke personal emotions and private memories in people's minds.
As already stated, eBay Landscape gave me the opportunity to upgrade my approach to painting, starting by working on something more organic and connected than before.
I think that to paint and to make digital works is an unconscious attempt to witness a two-speed world.

eBay paintings.

What are you working on right now?
I’m working on my first book, it will be released next fall published by ICA London. It will contain an intro by ICA curator Vivienne Gaskin and 6 texts written by my collaborator Carlo Giordano, who, besides developing some tech aspects of my works, is also a New Media scholar.

Carlo Zanni is currently on show in VertexList in New York.

Links ...
Carlo Zanni's site:
Time in (2005)
eBay Landscape (2004)
Avagere Shoveler(2004)
Altarboy - Oriana (2004)
Altarboy - Cyrille (2003)
A selection of Zanni's paintings at Analix Forever Gallery in Geneva.



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