Today, for GAME OVER.Loading Pier Luigi Capucci provides important hints for reflecting on our near future. He is founder of Noema, online journal and network that connects projects at the crossroad between art, science, technology and society. His research is a point of reference in Italy and abroad for anything that concerns studies on communication, the new media and the new art forms, and the relationships among arts, sciences and technologies.
Elena Giulia Rossi: What did it mean to be involved in art, science and technology 15, 20 or 30 years ago?
Pier Luigi Capucci: At the beginning of the 1980s, I started working on the connections between artistic forms, technology and science. I graduated in 1985 with a thesis on visualisation technologies and holography, one of the first in Italy. I was lucky enough to meet people who were important to me, who stimulated me and invited me to hold seminars at the Faculty of Performing Arts (DAMS) of the University of Bologna, who I collaborated on projects with, including Lamberto Pignotti, Omar Calabrese and Giovanni Anceschi. At the same time, I took part in the debate in the art world, involving among other things a collaboration with Pierre Restany lasting over a decade. Restany is one of the most important art critics in the world, with whom there was great harmony and mutual respect, leading me to join both the magazine D’Ars, which he directed, and Domus. In the 1990s I published three books and started teaching permanently at university – at La Sapienza, where I was invited by Alberto Abruzzese to teach the first New Media course in Italy, and at DAMS in Bologna. In 1993 I curated what was perhaps the first interactive art exhibition in our country and the following year, together with my students, founded NetMagazine/MagNet, Italy’s first online magazine. The 1990s was an important decade for the spread of art and communication technologies and there was the explosion of mass computing, the Internet, computer art and, in the middle of that decade, net.art emerged. Since the early 2000s, forms of expression based on biology, robotics and life disciplines have developed.
What did it mean to be involved in art, science and technology back then? In Italy, only a few visionaries, including those I have mentioned, understood that creation, forms of expression, art, communication, culture, society… would be profoundly influenced by the technoscientific revolution. Outside Italy important events were taking place, but here everything was delayed. We were fighting historical prejudices, a constant challenge during my research. I could relate dozens of anecdotes. Once, in the early ‘90s, at the Fine Arts Academy in Bologna, where I had been invited to give a lecture, a student stood up at the end of my talk and started shouting that I was in the pay of the Japanese zaibatsu and, as I was teaching at the University of Bologna at the time, “I was working for a shitty institution!”
On the other hand, there were countless times when the public, and often colleagues, asked the fateful question: “But is this art”? To which, of course, over time I had come up with various response strategies. It was a very frequent question in the 1990s, then became increasingly rare as we entered the new millennium. It is now back in vogue, in a less obtuse way, for art forms based on biology, life sciences, Robotics, Big Data, Artificial Life and the various offshoots of Artificial Intelligence.
Throughout your research career, an interest in life in its various forms has accompanied your interest in art – on the genetic level with the advent of biotechnology and robotics, and with regard to climate and all aspects of ecology. What motivated you to embark on these paths?
My interest in the natural disciplines and life sciences, ultimately in what I call “Nature”, emerged in the second half of the 1990s as the consequential next step. All artefacts produced by human culture – devices, tools, machines… – imitate the form, function, dynamics and content of Nature, and are the result of simulations or applications of natural phenomena and technologies that the living world possesses and has developed over millions of years of evolution. Mankind has always drawn inspiration and resources – cognitive, material… – from its surroundings. It has always copied Nature and the living. Living beings are the best model because from their origins, that is for several billion years, they have adapted to the environment and survived through continuous variations, which we improperly interpret teleologically as “solutions”: this is the best model because it has experience of the world.
Nature is continually being referred to, depicted and interpreted: in images, ornaments, jewellery and motifs printed on clothes. And in the arts, from Palaeolithic images and works celebrated in art history to contemporary art forms based on contemporary scientific disciplines. But computers, Artificial Life, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, synthetic life and nanotechnology also draw inspiration from Nature. Human beings copy the appearance and behaviour of Nature in all their activities, basing the worlds they can imagine and create on it. Nature is in everything we do, it resonates and lives again in our creations – we repeat, simulate, modify, reinvent and recreate Nature. Nature is our inspiration and our horizon for events; we belong to it and, at the same time, try to avoid it; we are reflected in it but it also eludes us; it is omnipresent and simultaneously elusive.
So, from its very beginnings, human culture has tried to simulate Nature and living beings. From the dawn of the symbolic to indicative signs, oral language, images and writing, human culture has revealed Nature in gestures, recounted it with words, depicted it with images, described it and handed it down in writing. This is a process that still continues today using the same methods – signs, speech , images and writing – enhanced by increasingly powerful and pervasive technology and media. However, in the same way, it has also sought to transcend Nature and living beings by reinventing them, creating over the millennia countless imaginary entities, physically non-existent but absolutely present and sometimes fundamental for cultural life: gods, heroes, dragons, chimeras, unicorns, centaurs, sirens, wizards, witches, monsters…, up to contemporary superheroes. Figures that have populated, and still populate, the human imagination – from fairy tales to novels, from comics to films, from television series to videogames… Figures that are materially and physically non-existent, present only in the domain of the symbolic: inhabitants of parallel worlds, a sort of “Second Life” based on the symbolic, the “First Life” being the biological one.
Nature also comes first in the evolution of the “Third Life”. Today, in fact, the symbolic enables mankind to create increasingly powerful, autonomous, self-sufficient devices and artefacts. These entities, organisms and hybrids can exist and act in the physical world presenting aspects and behaviours similar to those of living beings, in a process that will be increasingly evident and differentiated in the future. Autonomous agents and artificial life forms, autonomous objects, robotics and biorobotics, modified or expanded organisms, organic/inorganic hybrids, synthetic life… Since an international conference in Vienna in 2008, I have called these entities, organisms and hybrids created by human culture and which are analogous to living beings “Third Life”.
The question that has always attracted me is: why has humanity throughout its history continually sought to create from itself quasi-living entities, beyond its own biology, within the symbolic or the physical world, by building artefacts, devices and machines that behave in a similar way to living beings? As well as symbolic universes linked to rites, myths and religions dating back to the dawn of mankind, from the 3rd century BC onwards in almost all cultures – from China to Europe, from Japan to the Arab world – there has been evidence of the production of automata which, over the centuries, have complemented the technologies of various eras, up to contemporary robotics and biorobotics.
This question opens up some very interesting reflections.
How can art and, in particular, these experimental forms that have delved into life in all its forms, actively engage in the changes we should be working on?
In more or less direct and profound ways, they have changed and continue to change the idea of life, living beings, nature, reality and the world, towards more general and pervasive ideas. Perhaps we have never paid as much attention to life as we do today, to living beings, nature, human life but also the living non-human life that surrounds us, passes through us and pervades us, both inside and outside our bodies. The more we know about the dynamics of life, living beings and nature, which we have tried to copy, simulate and emulate for millennia, the more we feel guilty about the responsibility this awareness creates. We are no longer dealing with things that are external to us, that we can dispose of freely, without rules and with indifference and without any cost, but with relationships that pervade us, that are the very foundations of our world and our existence, which we come from and cannot be separated from without disappearing.
Today, our culture is at a crucial junction, about to make a difficult, epochal cognitive, even evolutionary leap, recognising itself in “shared otherness” and empathy, overcoming the obtuse and selfish anthropocentric dimension that underlies religions, philosophies and cultures, and which has brought us to the limits of our very existence. But also leaving behind superficial and equally obtuse visions of a “good” bucolic nature without differences or of a splendid idyllic arcadia, a primitive state to which one can return. Visions which are so present in environmental movements. In this crucial step towards a new awareness, art forms can be very important.
What tools should we adopt in order to be able to relate to AI in the best possible way and what balance do you see coming between robot-AI-human beings, beyond imaginary predictions?
We should try to understand an evolution that has led us to create forms similar to living beings outside ourselves, with living characteristics and/or behaviour. We are at the beginning of the latest phase of a journey that began with humanity’s acquisition of symbolic ability. I have called this process “the process of externalisation”, because it has led to the gradual replacement of human capacities and functions – of the body – with inventions. First, from the Palaeolithic period onwards, humans created tools and objects to defend themselves and enhance their interaction with the physical world and which accompanied them, replacing parts of the body. Then, thanks to images – from the first ornaments, almost 120,000 years ago, to Neanderthal wall signs from almost 70,000 years ago, to the cave paintings of the Sapiens, about 40,000 years ago – and writing from about 7,000 years ago, mankind has placed part of its knowledge and memory outside the body, fixing them on supporting aids. This made it easy to share this information in space, between different cultures, and over time, across generations and history. Then, thanks to increasingly complicated and automatic machines and devices, over time mankind has progressively outsourced activities, tasks and operations outside the body, reducing body fatigue while expanding its action and impact on the world. Finally, we have entered a further phase of externalisation, this time of reasoning, choices, creativity, knowledge and autonomy from the body, thanks to algorithms, Artificial Life, Artificial Intelligence, Neural Networks, Robotics, the Internet of Things…
Therefore, one has to ask oneself about the reasons for this process, its purpose, the possible future balance between humanity and its creations, its “new nature” – the Third Life to which it has given rise. Could this be a sign of a transition in which humanity is the driving force behind a further evolutionary phase of nature? I am reminded of George Dyson, who wrote in 1997: “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the same table: human beings, nature and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” (Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence, New York, Perseus Books, 1997).
images: (cover 1) Pier Luigi Capucci at the Venice Biennale, 2017 (2) Pier Luigi Capucci in Ottawa for «Emergent Forms», 2018 (3) Pier Luigi Capucci, robotic portrait (4) Pier Luigi Capucci with Con Stelarc in Perth, 2015 (5) Pier Luigi Capucci, Me_hockneynized (6) Pier Luigi Capucci at Ars Electronica 2017
Since the early ‘80s Pier Luigi Capucci has been concerned with the studies on communication, the new media and the new art forms, and with the relationships among arts, sciences and technologies. His theoretical activity is concerned with technologies of representation and communication, with technoscience-based art forms and with the media archaeology studies. He has been professor at the Universities of Rome “La Sapienza”, Bologna, Florence, SUPSI – University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Southern Switzerland in Lugano, Urbino and Udine. Currently he is professor at the Fine Arts Academies of Reggio Calabria and Urbino. Since 2007 he has been working as a supervisor in the T-Node PhD Research Program of the Planetary Collegium (University of Plymouth), and from 2013 to 2018 he has been appointed as Director of Studies.
The interview to Pier Luigi Capucci is part of GAME OVER.Loading, a project aimed at researching and studying new “cultural entities”, people, objects or research from different disciplines (physics, bio-robotics, AI, agriculture and medicine) and transporting them into the art world. This is a research project, but also a gesture that goes beyond simple interdisciplinary dialogue, becoming quite radical: a real “transplanting” of research areas aimed at preparing future c(o)ulture, where “creativity” equals “invention” and “invention” equals contributing to a transformation. A spark, a sign of a genetic mutation, a change of direction, a short circuit. A different energy that is also marks a change which is taking place and could constitute new lifeblood for the Culture system. This first phase is an investigative one aimed at visionaries, hybrid thinkers from various fields, including those from the cultural sector, who can express their views on current needs, each in relation to their own disciplinary field while generally respecting culture and society at large. Project team: Anita Calà Founder and Artistic Director of VILLAM | Elena Giulia Rossi, Editorial Director of Arshake | Giulia Pilieci: VILLAM Project Assistant and Press Office; Chiara Bertini: Curator, Coordinator of cultural projects and collaborator of GAME OVER – Future C(o)ulture | Valeria Coratella Project Assistant of GAME OVER – Future C(o)ulture.
All previous interviews and interventions: Interview to Primavera De Filippi by Elena Giulia Rossi (Arshake, January 21, 2021); interview by Azzurra Immediato to Leonardo Jaumann (Arshake, 28.01.2021); interview to Valentino Catricalà by Anita Calà and Elena Giulia Rossi (Arshake, 04.02.2021); multiple interview Stefano Cagol to Antonio Lampis, Sarah Rigotti, Tobias Rehberger, Michele Lanzinger, Stefano Cagol (Arshake, 11.02.2021); interview to Amerigo Mariotti by Azzurra Immediato (Arshake, 25.02.2021);Andrea Concas’s video intervention (Arshake, 18.02.2021); Interview to Peter Greenway by Stefano Cagol (Arshake, 04.03.2021), Intervento di Giulio Alvigini, Bye Bye Boomer, Game Over Art World (Arshake, 11.03.2021); Interview to Ken Goldberg by Elena Giulia Rossi (Arshake, 18.03.2021); Intervention of Eduardo Rossi, invited by Chiara Bertini (Arshake, 25.03.2021); interview to Anuar Arebi by Azzurra Immediato (Arshake, 31.03.2021); Interview to Giovanni Gardinale by Valeria Coratella (Arshake, 15.04.2021);Interview to Luca Gamberini (Arshake, 22.04.2021;Interview to Lorenzo Piombo (Arshake, 29.04.2021);Interview to Art is Open Source by Anita Calà (Arshake, 06.05.2021); Interview to Giuseppe Mariani by Azzurra Immediato (Arshake, 13.05.2021);interview by Chiara Bertini to Nicola Poccia (Arshake, 27.05.2021);interview to Francesca Disconzi and Federico Palumbo (Osservatorio Futura), Arshake, 03.06.2021.