I do not know how much of what I am writing truly represents the intentions of Eugenio Viola and Gian Maria Tosatti, but – as we see in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton & Company, 1981) – intentionality has been vastly overestimated ever since Plato’s time. It is one of the reasons behind the collapse of the empire of determinism that, according to David Graeber and David Wengrow, we have exclusively nurtured for the past ten thousand years. And I believe there are also some interesting literary and poetic concepts that appear in both The Dawn of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) by Graeber and Wengrow, and History of Night and Destiny of Comets, the project by Viola and Tosatti for the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2022.
I suspect that the rise and fall of the Italian industrial miracle is used in the project for the Italian Pavilion as a narrative (and theatrical) device to describe the collapse of industrial civilisation, and of Italy, in this case in the form of a synecdoche. I truly admire the political position adopted in the curation regarding the question of the environment. As Viola says, “these environmental problems are the result of a criminal relationship with the surrounding environment”. Viola’s optimism as an “ethical necessity, almost an obligation” is backed up by the certainty that physical and cultural boundaries no longer make sense, other than as relics of a failed taxonomy. Only the proponents of self-advocacy can think that what we will find before us may be worse than the fetishes of authoritarianism we will leave behind us when we reach the end of the night. I also agree with Viola’s artistic harmony and with the literary and scientific isotropy of his curatorial vision.
Based on such premises, the choice of a polymorphic artist like Tosatti was inevitable. The immersive nature of his works is equally necessary for it to be used by associative thinking to break down a linear logic that has so far described reality, even outside of the world of art and architecture, in a rational or – even worse – in a divinatory manner. For these reasons, I imagine that, in terms of exaptation, my use of Tosatti’s “sensitive machines” is consistent with the “mirrors” of works such as Mio cuore è vuoto. By “exaptation” I refer to the evolutionary mechanism of the functional co-option of traits that have no function, or whose original function has become obsolete. This was first described by Gould and Elizabeth Vrba in their 1982 article “Exaptation-A Missing Term in the Science of Form” (in Paleobiology, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1982).
The extension of the taxonomy of evolutionary biology towards indeterministic and, I would say in this context, artistic mechanisms shows us how nature works economically, with creativity as one of its manifestations (not as an alternative) and the role of the flexibility of the creative structures known as spandrels, as reservoirs of adaptive possibilities. Allegorically borrowed from those of St Mark’s in Venice, these “spandrels” are sufficiently variable, redundant and different to be able to host new functions that are more sophisticated than the original ones, once the latter have become obsolete. Similarly, in the metaphor proposed by Gould and Richard Lewontin (1979), the art of Byzantine mosaics gives new meaning to the load-bearing structures of the dome of St Mark’s Basilica while also confirming their adaptive qualities. These, in particular, are essential in the event of rapid, unpredictable and uncontrollable environmental events. To paraphrase the words that the paleo-anthropologist Heather Pringle wrote in 2013 in a famous article on “The Origins of Creativity”, it is like saying that only art can come up with sufficiently radical answers to respond positively to phenomena such as environmental crises, whereas the linear, rational thinking commonly used in standard methods of survival is insufficient and, in some cases, even counterproductive.
The distinctive feature of Tosatti’s way of giving tectonic structures new functions, and the reflexive use that the viewer can make of them, shows that potential co-options can be made to scale by adapting and interpreting his works, which are more open to the diversity of physical presences, just like real cultural spandrels. The human presence is one of the possible agencies of his machines, which therefore dynamically include non-human, non-animal, and even non-living ontologies. For example, «My dreams they’ll never surrender», a permanent installation at Castel Sant’Elmo, in Naples, which for centuries was used as a prison, shows a wheat field that needs to be constantly looked after. The multiplicity of meanings here may include those that are indicated, such as the dedication to those who, like Mandela and Gramsci, were able to change the world from their prison cells, and countless others, such as the myth of the cave and the possibility of a real ecosystem comparable to one that Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee describe in their definition of “niche constructions” (2001). Each component in the artistic habitat concocted by Tosatti has equal dignity and plays an active role at least in stimulating the visitor’s creative serendipity.
The fact that a concept in which the visitor is definitively released from the authority of determinism and can freely roam through the clouds of his own mind and set his imagination free is also the result of the partnership between Viola and Tosatti. This gives me hope that the project for the Italian Pavilion will be a success. Traditional exhibition spaces, which require works to be set up with great precision, strictly complying with authoritarian tools such as order, homogeneity, colour tone and even thematic or chronological top-down control of the route the visitors have to follow, are still the most popular among traditional curators. At a time when the liminal space of knowledge is expanding due to obsolescent forms of teaching, self-advocacy by those who express their own role through the transfer of that knowledge is by its very nature an authoritarian act (often in the guise of authoritativeness).
In light of the visionary nature of the later Pasolini, referred to by Viola and Tosatti, the idea of harnessing creativity – including that of the visitors, and of relying on rational thought to deal with the complexities of environmental emergencies, which have caught us completely unprepared –appears to be even more contradictory and perverse. It therefore takes courage and a subversive approach to imagine an exhibition space as a unique, immersive work that favours the variability and diversity of the visitor’s conscious and unconscious interpretations by means of an experiential immersion.
The inexorability of mass phenomena, such as migratory flows and the health crisis, in addition to the environmental emergency already mentioned, show how ineffective reifications – our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities – really are. These include the existence of artifice as evidence of man’s competitive relationship with nature. Tosatti’s critical position is therefore reflected in his exploration of intrinsically ecological hypotheses, in which waste and ruins can become opportunities for upcycling, with art as one of its manifestations.
In Tosatti’s “situated ecology”, as in the Cape Town episode, the ruins of his site-specific installations and the waste produced by society cease to be such, just like any other by-product of nature. They thus become an indictment of industrial policies, for example, which admit to the existence of the destructive nature of the relics of civilisation, as in the cases of Ilva, of the Mafia-fuelled “land of fires”, and of the primacy of emissions caused by constructions at the level global.
As Tosatti himself states, his works produce “a reversal of perspective that is added to the perspective already acquired in order to enter into a dialectic with it and produce an evolutionary synthesis… Indeed, the artist is not a judge, but rather a witness, or at most a prophet, like Tiresias. A prophet whose own prophecies turn on him, for he is on the same level as the reality he speaks of, and an inseparable part of it.”