Interview

Title

URL and IRL: Building dialogues and interactions between contexts with Greencube.gallery

Author

Marialaura Ghidini  Guido Segni  Matìas Reyes 

Date

27/07/2021

Project Title

Greencube.gallery

Keywords

Text

Marialaura Ghidini: Can we begin by discussing what brought you to start Greencube as an online gallery in 2017?

Guido Segni: The year 2017 is the genesis of the project, which was born in an Academy of Fine Arts within a two-year specialised course in Net Art and Digital Cultures. Greencube.gallery was born from a necessity to reflect on what it means to organise an online event, and to try to answer several questions and situations that were being asked online at that time. Namely, the relationship with the so-called real dimension and public space. Within this course, we conceived a project around which we built Greencube.gallery. The project was in fact the first event of the gallery, Your Content Is Here: a performative project that developed as a protest march in Carrara — the city where the academy is located. From that performative event, we built a whole series of situations in connection and dialogue with the online dimension. Therefore, the primary need of Greencube was to build a close dialogue between these two dimensions that are always seen as antithetical, but from our point of view are closely connected.

M.G.: In your presentation for the webinar Curating on the Web (Walkin Studios, 2021) you said that “URL and IRL aren’t opposite but just two distinct forms in which matter can exist under different conditions.” How do you understand curating in the online environment?

G.S.: The term curation is not completely alien to us but at the same time it does not belong to us, after all Greencube.gallery is an artist-run space. We feel closer to artistic practice than to the traditional figure of the curator, even if they are two dimensions that actually have many points of contact. Curating for us is about developing a dialogue, identifying artists and curatorial groups that somehow work on the dialogue between these two dimensions. For us, working online is not a search for merely technological projects, or a ‘trick’ — we have seen several during the pandemic — whereby a classic curatorial project is translated into an online space. Curating for us is simply the activity of identifying realities that know how to work on the themes of dialogue between online/offline.

M.G.: Various curators working on the web have termed the process of working across online and offline spheres as an act of translating, bridging, and transitioning; terms that often stress the disconnect between the two spheres. Yet, your work at Greencube is different, you talk about dialogue and interaction between contexts. What’s your approach to curating projects that nurture such interactions?

Matìas Reyes: This is an interesting question, especially in terms of reflecting on the discourse of translation. As you say, when we talk about translation we imply the idea of translating a message, of trying to get a certain message from one medium to another. This, however, signals the fact that they are seen as separate contexts. This is also true of the idea of connection, which is a less detached concept but still emphasises the need to connect (more or less forcibly) two distinct contexts. For us the focus of the gallery is to emphasise the fact that the passages between these two contexts are not distinguishable. It’s similar to the idea of mixed media: they are elements that come together to arrive at a single result, but without emphasising the fact that one element arrives at a certain point and the other arrives at another. We do not force the difference, that is a given. Conceptually, we don’t necessarily seek to focus on a specific form, like a gallery that only deals in paintings, but of course we end up in a relaxed choice of genre, which is rooted in our background. I am reminded of Luciano Floridi’s “onlife”, a term that indicates the impossibility of distinguishing online and offline. We are always connected (obviously), even when we are not. Just think of the anxiety of receiving a message when you are disconnected — what could happen online while you are not online (F.O.M.O.).

M.G.: It’s interesting how you describe your approach by using the parallel of a mixed media installation….  In the wake of this response, another question comes to my mind. In your opinion, when did the process of palpable coexistence between these two dimensions begin? In the art world, for example, was it when people started talking about Post-Internet, or is the beginning more related to a technological innovation such as the smartphone?

G.S.: I think it’s the latter, because ultimately art is a particular reflection of a technological superstructure. I think part of it is technological acceleration. I can also think of another phenomenon that is important from this point of view: social media, which have intensified the impulses and stimulation from online to offline, and vice versa. The phone has made it even more pervasive. I see them as two elements, which were not alone, that created a strong acceleration. It is true that even politics itself has moved to social media, and from social media is able to create a narrative of reality that is then received as reality. So if I have to see a beginning, my guess is that technological intensification was the trigger.

M.G.: Many of your projects are organised by guest curators. What role does collaboration play in your work? Does it have to do with the idea of creating dialogue?

G.S.: Yes, absolutely. All the projects developed have a fundamental component in the dialogue between the guests and us. The dialogue then translates into many forms. On the one hand, on our side, there is the idea of keeping the projects within a discourse, which is what we were saying about the dialogue between dimensions. On the other hand, we give concrete support to the development of ideas, which can be technological and logistical. Sometimes we happened to collaborate with curators who lived far away from us, and we used the online as a bridge dimension to build something that then spilled over into the physical space. Said without rhetoric, dialogue is the foundation of our activity. It has never happened that we have taken a ready-made project and placed it inside a container. The only case that could perhaps be included in this category is that of Gallery.Delivery, which was a pre-existing project but had a strong recontextualization within the city of Milan. All the other projects have been strongly thought in a site-specific manner, so there has never been a recycled project, but a project thought for the Greencube container.

M.G.: By the way, Gallery.Delivery, of all the projects, is the one that most occurred outside the gallery….

G.S.: Yes. Online there was the algorithmic booking platform that would then enable the allocation of exhibition slots. That was perhaps the project that kept us busy the most. This was because we thought of it over a fairly long period of time — we included it in the programming of the Wrong Biennale and, if I remember correctly, we started on November 1st and ended at the beginning of March. A very long period of time for a service that had to be in a city where we didn’t physically live, and that from a logistical point of view was very demanding. Not Only Cigarettes by Luca Leggero also had a strong presence in real space, even if logistically it was much easier since it was installed inside a cigarette vending machine.

M.G.: Going back to the characteristics of working online and the networked environment. Since the introduction of the smartphone, and then App Store and Android Market, the web, as we knew it, has progressively become corporatised and dominated by the logic of commerce, rather than a space for unmediated explorations. It is like a constellation of many agents and actors at different levels. Many of the projects you presented interfere with this development, why?

G S.: I think it’s normal because what we usually do when we work artistically in the digital sphere, even if in different areas and modalities, is to critically reflect on communication media. The other thing that comes to my mind, more than the question of market and non-market (an issue on which I am questioning myself more and more often, and I think it fits very well with what you are asking) is the fact that on the internet we now always think in terms of content production. That is, platforms are geared so that users produce content, all the time, to be redistributed through the users themselves. From this point of view, the work of Greencube.gallery, even if we have never made it explicit, is not that of content production in a narrow sense, but that of building models of relationships, and moments of reflection around certain tools rather than certain themes. So much so that, as a gallery, we don’t produce artistic objects (which might seem like a purist stance), nor do we produce content. If we take the NFT phenomenon of today, there too we have an immaterial product, ideally a fetish, but in fact a content. Greencube.gallery, does not produce content, but situations. This is why it escapes the logic of platforms, of what is shown online, etc., precisely because it has a strongly performative and relational imprint — if we want to use terms already used.

M.R.: In my opinion it all falls back within the logic that was discussed at the beginning. Despite the fact that we are a digital gallery, and therefore we fit into that logic, we don’t pay much attention to the material that is produced after certain dynamics are created. They weigh the right amount for us, and that comes from our background. The fact that we end up mimicking, or interfering with certain schemes from the inside, such as those of which you speak (the many agents, etc.), comes by itself because, with the introduction of the consumer internet (linked to commercial exploitation), we have to move within these systems. And one of the easiest ways that comes to artists is to play with this. This is similar to the way the early Avant-garde interacted with the industrial apparatus: you get into a given context and start playing with it. That’s where you can say that the “ludens” character of the arts starts to formalise. Then why people do it, who knows? You find the medium of the moment: moving between corporations…. 

[collective laughter]

M.G.: Today, what does it mean to you to disrupt/interfere with digital technology? I’m referring to Greencube, although your art practice probably operates on the same level, and I don’t know if it’s necessary to make a distinction here….

GS: For the people in it, there’s not this abysmal distance between what we do outside Greencube and inside Greencube. I think there’s a consistency, though not a narrow one.
What does it mean to disrupt and interfere? I’ll link to the previous question and answer. In my opinion, right now, disrupting means suspending the status of content producers for platforms. So, as Greencube, it means constructing, through the online dimension, a moment in which we construct something else. This something else can have many formal outcomes, or it can be a purely performative experience rather than a visual one. The point is to be outside of the logic of producing content for them, because today (and perhaps this is an issue that I personally feel very strongly about), if we look at the everyday life of the online as a mass phenomenon, it is this: What does the average user do? They find themselves producing content.
I am a bit older than Matìas and I remember with great nostalgia the times when online was a strongly collaborative and cooperative dimension. I think of historical projects that are more than twenty years old, such as Indymedia. Platforms like Indymedia — without wanting to mythicise them — were platforms where, yes, users produced content, but it was content that could be spent in a different way. There was a close connection with acting out in reality. There was the idea of cooperating with each other, while now platforms have adopted a model of hyper-competition, which pits users against each other in a battle of followers and likes. To conclude, the romantic answer to your question is to stop producing content for platforms.

M.G.: Is it the same for you Matìas?

M.R.: To a large extent, yes. My question when we do certain things is always: What are we doing? Are we making a product? It’s not to necessarily be anti-consumerist, but that’s kind of the point as far as I’m concerned. It’s also about accepting that the context of the first user-generated content, the first wave of Web 2.0, was quite different because there wasn’t yet an institutionalised system for consuming, and making money on the situation. Right now, the catch is that you have to approach it as a reality where anything you make is being monetised in some way. So you’re actually going to be serving the interests of one platform or another. Rather than a political issue — like: What am I doing? Who knows where Facebook is putting money?  — it’s more of a counter-ideological question of what we are actually doing operationally.
There was a quote from McLuhan* that made people think of art as a preparation for advancing technologies. If one considers the critical apparatus of net.art, it prepared you for 2015, or at least you arrived less naïve to the use and consumption of certain technologies. The issue is that, when these spectacular apparatuses arrive, you end up in the naivety of use. But if you go to see an artistic intervention in the same technology from a decade earlier, you arrive more prepared for its everyday use (you use and don’t get used, or less dramatically, you control better how much the tool affects your use). So, to me, the discourse of disruption is about trying to look “sideways” at something new or not so new, and being able to almost predict the typical repetition, which is in fact consumerisation, monetisation, etc.

M.G.: Platforms, apps and mobile services act as digital intermediaries for the most mundane tasks in day-to-day situations, as well as for more life changing activities, such as getting a loan. How can an exhibition online explore such mediation? And why doing it online?

G.S.: The question is extremely interesting. If we look at what was the race to the format of online exhibitions in the first period of the pandemic, my guess is that no one asked themselves this question. During the first lockdown, online exhibitions naively brought the classic concept of exhibition back into the online dimension; trying to recreate its spatial characteristics (the rooms, the walls, the hung artworks). But in reality, the online dimension is a dimension that has its own specificities, that allows to build, to interact in an extremely different way from the physical space. So the most banal answer to your question is that I find it more interesting to go beyond the concept of “showing” and to build an experience that allows you to experience dimensions that are often hidden by the digital device, such as the algorithmic dimension.
In Gallery.Delivery, for example, the online dimension was fundamental because the engine that triggered that mechanism then translated into the work of the courier who delivered the exhibition inside a house. So, even though there was no real exhibition online, the online experience was much more meaningful than any other online exhibition, pseudo 3D, because it triggered a process that could propagate into real life.

M.G.: It’s interesting because, on a curatorial level, by arranging the process of the Gallery.Delivery project you were confronted with the particularities of what goes on behind an online service. It seems simple on the surface but it hides several layers….

G.S.: We would have a lot to tell about this experience because so much happened! For example, we had made contact with a delivery service that we had found with some difficulty, and the week before the first delivery he abandoned us: Bye bye Santa! [laughter] So we had to question everything, and at that point turn to the world of Fine Arts Academies to look for students (I should mention that they were being paid) who could do the service. Why Fine Arts students? Because they were the ones who, quite simply, were most able to understand the spirit of the project. As you say, the process that is put in motion to set up such a service is remarkable, and we ourselves had partly underestimated it.

MG: Although we have partially discussed this already, how has the Covid-19 pandemic changed your work, especially in the light of the dialogue between URL and IRL, and the current hype of ‘being online’ within the art world?

G.S.: We always say this jokingly… but since we were already working online, we decided to surpass ourselves, in the sense that where everybody was going online, we went a bit aristocratic and abandoned the online dimension. We say this with self-irony but, in reality, as soon as we saw what was happening around us, we developed a common feeling: in 2017 we had set up a platform of open dialogue with the outside world to build a comparison between these two dimensions, and when everything was closing and the real dimension was becoming inaccessible, it seemed nonsense to make an exhibition only online. We were interested in building a statement that somehow marked the point of what our thinking was, precisely: the URL is not enough — it needs a relationship with the actual space that hosts it. This was the first phase, which was actually followed by a more hybrid phase, also of restrictions. If we think about what happened in October 2020 and will probably happen again this fall, we’re seeing a regulation of access to the real space, which is why we decided to resume programming. It hasn’t been easy, because having to deal with projects that relate to an actual space, programming is difficult because you don’t know what kind of restrictions there will be: if you can go out, if some areas will be closed and whatnot. So we’re trying to build something that is compatible with an uncertain scenario, which will certainly continue to point the finger at this dialogue.

M.G.: On this note, what do you think of the term phygital, in regards to the process of unifying online and offline?

G.S.: Although I was not familiar with this term, the point is that the pandemic has accelerated the shift of most of our lives towards the online dimension. Let’s just think about the way work has changed: we now work a lot through teleconferencing software — there are people who wear suit and tie on webcam but outside the webcam frame they are in their underwear or pajamas. If you think about it, this hybridisation has really touched everyone’s everyday, so it’s totally normal that a term like phygital has been brought up now. I’m not surprised.

M.R.: However, this term is from 2014, so we have no excuse: the market ate our gallery a lifetime ago, and now we have to change profession. [collective laughter] We’ve fallen into the trap too! The definition I have found says: a neologism used by a hardware retail chain to announce robots…. It was the catch phrase for selling a little robot that was a vacuum cleaner….

[collective laughter]

M.G.: There would need to be a project about it…. I’ll move on to the next question. There is this widespread idea that being online allows for more audience engagement; whereby engagement is often measured in terms of quantity and the country of registration of an IP address. What does it mean to engage with an online audience for Greencube.gallery?

G.S.: This is a difficult question…however in the difficulty I’ll try to give an answer. What kind of online audience do we have in mind when we develop projects? We definitely have in mind the audience of a certain art world, an audience that is digitally literate. We definitely don’t have the branding urge to get lots of views. In a very simple way, Greencube is a research project aimed at the dialogue between the online/offline dimension and for this reason we didn’t consider the problem of the audience so much — I don’t know if this is good or bad… Matìas, what do you think?

M.R.: We’re still really figuring out how to communicate what we’re doing, so let alone how to distribute it among the masses…. 

M.G.: The last question originates from a personal observation. I think the pandemic marked the death of curating on the web as I understood it, or at least it marked the end of its role as a space for exploring the production, display and distribution of art on the web. What’s today’s web?

G.S.: Given that the richness of (bio)diversity is what guarantees survival, I believe that more attempts — even curatorial ones — guarantee a better evolution. In part what you say is true: the online, since it entered the art world, has triggered different mechanisms and introduced different concepts. But beyond the formal outcomes, I’ve always interpreted the web as a more performative space rather than a space to exhibit new forms of expression. And what is the characteristic of the web today? It is precisely its algorithmic dynamic that now extends to the whole quotidian: we go out for fitness and our smartwatch records the data of our heart rate; it records it on a storage device dispersed in who knows which parts of the globe. The online hosts something more than an image or a video to show in an online gallery: it contains a remapping of the life around us. In this sense, I believe that curating, and artistic experimentation in general, should work in the direction of re-evaluating the web as a space for collaborative connection without forgetting to explore its grey areas. So, to come back to Greencube, its direction is to understand that the online and offline dimensions are two states strictly connected in every part, and that for this reason also online curation cannot ignore this dimension.

M.R.: As far as I’m concerned, I don’t understand why you would consider what you saw during the pandemic to be online curating. It was online curating from a purely formal point of view. I personally have a pretty pessimistic view of the whole thing. There was that influx because you couldn’t physically do anything else, and it was either a mere (and very legitimate) commercial operation or, if it wanted to be (even honestly) a critical operation, it could only end up in a statistical lack of quality — it’s difficult to approach online curating (like anything else) with the haste generated by the market.
To make a somewhat anecdotal point, just think of Sturgeon’s Law — a science fiction writer from the 1950s. The critics’ problems with the concept of this literary genre are well known, and when they accused him that 90% of science fiction sucked, he replied: of course, 90% of everything sucks and science fiction is no different from everything else. And when the pandemic happened we basically saw “everything”, because everyone got into online curating. On a more positive note, though, when these ‘pullouts’ come up, it also puts the rest in perspective. It’s similar to the consumer/market talk we had earlier: when the market eats a certain slice out of you then, at some point, you realise what you were doing, or what you’re doing. It makes it clear that when you thought you were coming up with alternative patterns, you were actually making stuff that was perfectly in line with the pattern. It’s the argument we made earlier about interrupting and interfering, and also about algorithms. It’s the argument about using tools. There’s a relatively conscious “consumption” of technological tools, but we naturally forget things, we lose our edge, and when we have these ‘pullouts’, whereby the market comes at us, we start to see who’s using the tools critically and who’s throwing water at the occasional mill. We tend to accept the fatal omnivorous nature of the market, but we should also reason on the fact that someone was simply setting the table for themselves. It’s not only a question of mainstream, it’s also a question of putting oneself on the line with critical credibility at the moment of the pandemic. And addressing that issue was not trivial. So when you have these fiery situations, to an extent, you see all the worst of it but that’s natural.

M.G.: I like that we end on this positive note and with a factual approach. So there’s a 10% stuff that’s great…. Thank you! 

* “I would be curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly recognised for what it is, a precise information of how the psyche must be prepared to prevent the next blow to our extensive faculties.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Messsage.