A Conversation with Mattia Casalegno

Mattia Casalegno is an Italian interdisciplinary artist living and working in New York. His multidisciplinary work is influenced by both post-conceptualism and digital art, and has been defined as relational, immersive, and participatory. His practice explores the effects new media have on our societies, investigating the relationships between technology, the objects we create, our subjectivities, and the modes in which these relations unfold into each other. 

Brett: What is the origin of your practice?

Mattia: I started doing visuals in rave parties in Rome, in the late '90s. What was interesting to me at that time was not contemporary art but the electronic music scene. With a friend of mine, Giovanni D’Aloia, I had co-founded a collective called Kinotek, and we were doing a lot of experimental projects between sounds and visuals. That was the moment when video-projectors and computers were starting to get small and cheap, so we were carrying those around in parties and VJing events. That was fun. It was the first time I was pretty much free to experiment, and to do things that were not being done.


“We were playing a lot with this idea of how you can interchange the languages of audio and visuals into creating certain aesthetic experiences”


BW: Who or what influenced you early on?

MC: I was very much into video art and early net art. My heroes were Otolab, an experimental audio-visual group based in Milan, Oginoknaus in Florence, and the minimal live-media stuff that was coming from Berlin. There was an early VJing European scene, with collectives and groups from Spain, UK, Germany. It was a very active period.

We were mostly participating to media arts and electronic music festivals in Italy and Europe. That was my biggest influence – and, of course, all the big video artists of the time – but what I was really into was my peers’ work.

With Kinotek we were not just doing visuals but experimenting in many different directions. In 2003, With Enzo Varriale -a researcher in neuropsychology at the University in Rome- we premiered a live media performance based on the visualization of hundreds of audio recordings based on EEG (Encephalographic Data) - the ‘sound’ that brains emit, cfr.). Our interests at that time were very much based on science and technology.

It was very much a time when everybody was starting to have a laptop, but computers and graphic cards were not that powerful yet. The fastest and cheapest thing was audio and visuals, and we were into this idea of how you can interchange the languages of audio and video and creating something different which is the sum of the two languages.

After several years, by the mid ‘00, I was VJing as a full-time job, doing clubs every week. It started to be a really serialized activity, not that fun after all. One time, for a festival in Belgium, I made a sort of VJing jukebox, an interactive kiosk where the audience would use different sliders to choose the style of visuals by themselves, and a software would then play visuals in the room on the beat, mixing the content based on the live audio and the style chosen: techno VJing, electro vying, ambient, chill vying, etc. etc. Basically that's where I stopped. After awhile, I started to become really interested in materiality.

BW: Looking around the studio, I am seeing the anti-VR headset based on some S&M influences. I also see 3D-printed facial masks and a variety of different bound monitors. Can you talk about some of the conceptual underpinnings of these ideas? 

MC: My work is very sensorial, I’m very interested in physicality. Lately I'm working on what I call “micro-environments”, sort of immersive experiences, very much how I would do with audiovisual installations, but more intimate.

End/User, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: Shani Pak

End/User, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: Shani Pak

BW: Could you tell us more about the anti-VR headset?

MC: In collaboration with the LA-based design studio Metonym, I designed a series of masks lined with green-leaf volatiles (the chemical released by grass just after it has been cut) that envelops the user in darkness. The mask replays the sound of your own breathing back with a slight delay -when you breath out you hear yourself breathing in, and vice versa.

I’m really fascinated by the relationships between memory and the olfactory. The smell of fresh-cut grass recalls a primordial memory related to the outdoors and nature, who every child has engrained in themselves. The twist is that the chemicals that the plants emit when they are been cut, is actually a distress signal communicating danger and pain to the other plants nearby. So what is nowadays linked to a memory of nature for most humans, is actually pain for nature.

At the beginning the masks were lined with actual fresh sod, that I would get straight from Home Depot. One day I bought a big patch of sod, brought to my studio and started to play with it. My original idea was to create an entire room, but then I thought, maybe I should do the opposite. Instead of creating a space for people to move, let’s create a really constrictive, enclosed, sort of non-space.

The Open, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

The Open, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

BW: Which is the antithesis of both VR, which is further away from reality.

MC: Virtual Reality is all about the eyes, the sight. But when you cut one sense off, the other ones are more receptive. That’s what interesting to me. It's the same thing when you tie people.

BW: Can you talk about the collaboration with the Japanese bondage artist? It's really interesting and fits in also with this idea of the sensory.

MC: I was researching a lot the aesthetics of bondage. I like this idea of tying down some sort of freedom in order to induce a heightened state of awareness. You're tied to your entire life. I like that state of mind, where you feel in danger. Your body is more open, in a way. It's that fine line between the possibility of death – the impossibility of movement – and freedom.

Anyways, I was working on these kinds of ideas, and started to literally tie objects, like big TV screens, 50-65 inches. At that time I was planning a relatively large-scale installation for an art space in Florida, and I wanted to work with the particular style of Kinbaku, which is the Japanese version of the Western idea of bondage. The quality of the work, the artists working in that kind of medium was amazing to me. Soon I realized that I will never get to that level of mastery, so I started to reach out to people in online BDSM communities. It was there that I met Alex R, a real artist in his own way. He’s a system engineer by day and rope artist for the porno industry by night, and has an immense experience with this art form, which is based on trust and mutual respect. It made me think how everybody has so many personalities within. I love to collaborate with people in my projects. I've worked with musicians, chefs, neuroscientists, architects, astrophysicists, and everybody brings with him the world in which he operates.

TWINS, installation view at The Projects, Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

TWINS, installation view at The Projects, Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

BW: Can you talk about one of those projects?

MC: In early 2010 I was living in LA and working as studio manager for Lita Albuquerque, a dear friend and great artist who’s been very instrumental to my practice. She was asked to participate in a festival at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, and we started a conversation with John Good, an astrophysicist working at the Exoplanet Science Institute, the lab at Caltech that is studying and categorizing the new planets that in the last five years or so are been discovered outside of our solar system.

The lab is managing a huge repository of data about these planets: the speed at which they are orbiting their stars, their masses, temperature, chemical composition, etc. We ended up making a durational live-media performance in collaboration with the LA Master Chorale, that included a live visualization of the 3500 confirmed exoplanets.

The piece started at midnight, lasted 4 hours and was staged on the bridge at the observatory, which is the bridge that Einstein walked to meet Hubble, who in the ‘50 was the first to see that the universe was expanding. Einstein couldn't believe it because for him the universe was infinite. In his mind, everything was perfect and static. So he went there, to talk with Hubble, and here there's this picture on the bridge with Hubble all happy, and Einstein making a frown.

BW: What does it mean to you to have an anti-VR experience, or to bound a screen in a way to use materiality with the digital?

MC: It might be a statement on the way we're living, on the relationship we have with technology. In the end, I’m interested in talking about what we do with technology – how we change with it.

The physical bounding of a screen can also be seen that way, where you just want to keep this thing in control. I grew up with computers and for me the digital is easy, but at the end it always ends up being in the physical world anyway. Even the most immaterial digital experience has always a real, physical side to it. And the hard fact is that everything falls down in the end.

Whenever you enter something in a digital space, everything looks amazing, everything is floating, shiny, and perfect. Then gravity comes in. I’d spend all this time designing perfect images, and the computer was like, yeah, let's do this. But then when you have to build it, or install it, or make it working consistently, that’s where the real problems kick in.

BW: Your studio is organized based on sort of growth cycles. Can you talk about how you're thinking about your own process – the studio work as an actual artwork, or theorizing the studio process?

MC: I'm not a very systematic person. So I figured out that maybe it might help to have a system that I can impose on myself, so I can stick to a method. I looked a lot into how small businesses or companies run their businesses. What is interesting is – or at least for me, what is useful  - is not necessarily having a final product, but a system where ideas and solutions are constantly fed back in the creative process. So I figured out a way to organize all the activities of my studios in areas or “stages”, based on the stages of the agricultural cycle.

There is a stage where I basically plant my ideas, as if they were seeds. That’s the prototyping phase, the sort of R&D section of my studio, where I test processes, materials, technologies, possibilities.

Then, when a project is going to happen, that's the production phase. That's where you start to produce things - an installation, an experience, an object, a situation - that’s when a seed grows and evolves into form.

Then comes the harvesting phase, when you get the fruits of your work. What’s interesting is that during harvest, you get also the new seeds to plant for the next year, and so a project is not just complete, but it sort of goes back into the seeding step, where you keep on researching and experimenting with the ideas you've previously actualized.

BW: So, it's like integrating a formal R&D process into the studio?

MC: Yeah. And also, before you plant something, you usually prep your soil to create the best conditions for something to become a reality. This is the fourth stage of my studio operations. That’s when I try getting people involved, reach out to peers, to press, when I organize studio visits, workshops, etc.

RBSC.01, installation view at MACRO Contemporary Art Museum, Rome, 2013. Photo: courtesy Aaron Bocanegra

RBSC.01, installation view at MACRO Contemporary Art Museum, Rome, 2013. Photo: courtesy Aaron Bocanegra

BW: The process and the materiality seem to really matter for you. It's about going through the steps.

MC: Yes. it’s about following a cyclical methodology. It’s about recirculate energy and materials in the system. I’m always been fascinated by cyclicality and repetition. One of my favorite piece I made operates in a similar circular way. It’s a scary, weird machine that endlessly produces an edible thing, over and over again.

BW: What was it producing?

MC: It's basically baking a piece of bread that looks like a sacramental host, and stamping a logo on it. It's a sort of machine that feeds you. When I came up with the idea, six or seven years ago, I was also thinking about the idea of automatization itself. I started to think of a certain large-scale machine that would automate a process. At that point, the design of the process was more important than the final product. Duchamp would call it a ’bachelor machine’, a machine that is not producing anything useful.

The title of the piece is "RBSC”, which is based on the name of an enzyme that plants use during the photosynthesis cycle to produce energy from oxygen and sunlight. It’s the most common enzyme on the planet, and a sort of very “slow” enzyme, being evolved when the atmosphere was full of CO2.

There is a big effort in biotechnology to design a “faster” version of it, so that we can sort of keep on dumping carbon dioxyde in the air, in the hope that our new engineered, faster plants will absorb more of our waste.

BW: It's great. I really love it. It reminded me of the Eucharist, as well.

MC: Yes. With the advent of the rite of the Eucharist it was the first time we used a symbol for sacrifice instead of a real animal, or living thing. It was completely detached from nature. That was the very moment when we disconnected with the sacrificial aspect of nature.

BW: Also, what I find interesting in the machinic there is no body, no whole; only parts.

MC: Only desiring machines, body without organs. After the disconnection from nature, desire is not coming from a lack of something, but out of production.

In the ”Symposium" Plato talks about desire as something that you are missing and aspire to. I desire my lover. I desire food. I desire something I don't have. But then, after Freud, we started to think about desire not as something you are missing, but as a process concatenating desiring machines through bodies and things.

My machine is a kind of nothing in a way, because you need that symbol to be in yourself. That symbol is this desire of transforming your environment in such egotistic and shortsighted ways. We might rationally conceive that we are going towards destruction, but we can’t escape to make ours what is outside of ourselves.