Marialaura Ghidini: In my opinion you are an editor, a journalist, an artist, a researcher, an entrepreneur, an activist and a curator. Could all these roles be encapsulated in one definition in the context of contemporary art production? Do you think that this multifaceted approach of yours is connected to your work with technology, with new media?
Alessandro Ludovico: I don’t know if I can qualify for all of them. I think I am an editor. I know I can write a text very easily; I can “write my socks off”, so journalist fits. Researcher? Yes, my main passion is to connect concepts and facts, and research them both in the past and in the present. Artist? A more difficult title. Even though I can’t deny I am, I have always stressed that I don’t feel I am, strictly speaking, an artist. I have made artworks collaboratively, in group, maintaining my role as the writer or the theorist of the group. Entrepreneur? I am not, or if I were an entrepreneur I would be a totally failed one! [Laughter] Activist? Through art. Curator? It’s a stolen title—I didn’t start as a curator. It is something I have done, but together with other things.
Is there a single definition that embodies all of this? I am not sure there is, because there are so many fields of culture that cannot just be summarised in a single title. Actually, I think this also reflects a contemporary problem, which is the need to engage with so many different fields at once. That said, I am still one of those people who strongly believes you shouldn’t be—as the British say—a “jack of all trades, master of none”. You should really focus on something, on the things you are passionate about; those you feel you do better. So, I usually define myself as a writer. This is the only thing I feel comfortable with. Even if there are some stolen titles that I play with, a definition that could be used [to define my work] is networker. It is kind of a lousy definition, especially if you consider the Italian concept of networker, which is used to indicate someone who cheats everybody. But the real networker is a person who is able to connect people, concepts, and situations —to connect other people without being part of the deal. In this sense I really feel that I am a networker, and I use my network to nurture other people’s networks and connections, to facilitate whatever situation I believe is worth contributing to. So this could be the answer in a word.
MG: When you talk about post-digital printing you refer to two concepts I find fundamental when discussing artistic production online, a type of production that has now moved towards modes of production and distribution across the online and offline. The two concepts that you mention are hybridity and processual objects. Can you tell me more about this? I have been looking at hybridity in relation to contemporary artistic production and gallery display; can you give me some examples taken from your personal experience and research within the field of publishing?
AL: The starting point for me—even though I had thought about this before—was when I started my current main research into the relationship between online and offline publishing. There were quite a few questions that needed to be asked. The first one, the main one, was: why is online print only happening now? Why did Napster happen in early 2000 and the boom—if there is a boom—of e-books is happening only 10 years later? Why did YouTube happen in the second half of 2000 and online print now? One of the reasons I think I have found is that print is very strongly rooted in the physical object: it is completely physical and at the same time it is the oldest interface for cultural objects we have had, dating back 500 years. There is a saying that defines print as the perfect interface; in fact, you instinctively know how to deal with a book, but not necessarily how to deal with a record or a video. So, for books and magazines, for print in general, this question of the digital and physical is even more prominent than with other media, and this relationship emerged as a crucial one in my research. Historically, this question entails tracking back how the physical interface evolved and how the digital one emerged, then finding when they juxtaposed, crisscrossed, or merged, even partially. At the end of this, the need is to look at what is going on right now, or even better to look at what could happen more than what will happen. And rather than predict, this need is more about trying to imagine the future, to realise it and implement it. In the case of print, scattered sites and experiments made by printing content that had previously been processed have emerged in the last few years. So I started to wonder: “This could be what could happen which did not happen before. There is no historical moment in which technology would have generated something like this before”.
MG: What are the instances that you just mentioned?
AL: Historically speaking, these instances are more conceptual than practical. Take the Dada poems, for example: Tristan Tzara explained how to generate a poem by taking a copy of The New York Times, cutting an article and all the words and then recomposing them where you want, which in effect is a purely generative process. There are many other historical examples, like Raymond Queneau with all his experiments in literature, especially the ones with the Oulipo [Ouvroir de littérature potentielle] movement. The Cent mille milliards set of poems is a book in which the poems are cut in to strips, so you can read any strip of any poem in a kind of combinatory way; potentially you have millions of different poems. Again this is generated from physical things. In these instances, there were already, embryonically, the concepts I mentioned [hybridity and processual objects] but they were not fully realised. Now, what we have are extended networks, and behind these networks there are the huge computational powers of machines — in fact, although we tend to see those machines more and more as purely communicational structures, we are forgetting that they have incredible computational powers. It is interesting that [via these networks] we can elaborate the content and not just distribute it. In the print world, the debate is always about: “We have print things which are expensive to print and to distribute, but if we go digital we don’t have printing and distribution costs”. That’s the general main argument, but there is one point that is completely missed here, in my opinion: the network is not only an infrastructure for distribution it is also made by computers, which can calculate digital information to accomplish this distribution. These calculations, this processuality of contents, can affect the production itself. If you connect them with very obvious network references, such as the spatial locations and where the content is produced and processed, for example, you can have very interesting things: cultural and processual objects which can be produced within the print realm. There are already many artists’ experiments with such concepts, even though we are at the very beginning. And the key issue here is to have content that has been processed, and not just harvested from the network and then printed. This is another dimension, equally interesting. But it is one thing to have a concept about how to elaborate content, to devise a process and apply it to some content, and another—in the case of print—to freeze it in the space and interface of a book.
MG: Could you give me an example of any publishing projects you think incorporate this [read: social processes enabled by digital networks]?
AL: There are quite a few. There are some projects that are close to purely generative processes. There is this artistic project called Written Images for which artists (selected by a jury) provided algorithms that generated artworks which were different every time. What those guys [the people behind the Written Images project] did was to make a single generation of each algorithm, take a picture of it, put the pictures all together and print a book, which is unique each time it is printed. They also went a bit further to reinforce the concept. They asked Bruce Sterling [science fiction author best known for several novels and the Mirrorshades anthology] to write the introduction, which was created in a way that can be slightly different every time you print it. Another example that takes a step further from this use of a purely generative concept deals with classic book categories, such as biographies. The French artist called Grégory Chatonsky made an artwork titled Capture that is about generating an entire music band. The artist harvested lyrics from the Internet and created music based on them. Besides these generated music pieces, he also staged remote music concerts in which the music generated itself. They lasted hours. He took this further too. Chatonsky generated a band biography by instructing a software programme on how to retrieve specific kind of images and texts on the net and then assemble them in an automatic way to produce it as a print on demand publication. So you have a band biography for a band that does not exist. Again you are using the process here and not just the network. A third example is—and I could go on for a while!—the most artistic one. There is an Italian duo of artists, Les Liens Invisibles [Clemente Pestelli and Gionatan Quintini], who question the format of the artist catalogue, better still the artist monograph. They created 100 titles of artworks through finding pictures on the net and determined their year [of production] and artistic techniques to make 100 non-existent artworks plausible. In a very automatic way they generated a collection of artworks by creating a monograph in which invented artworks were described as if they were real ones. If you look closely at it there is not much difference with any other real artist’s monograph.
MG: Was all the content sourced from the Internet via an algorithm then?
AL: Yes, it was sourced via an algorithm. The algorithm plays a very crucial role because it has to be very effective to give life to the work. Otherwise you’d just have a random thing. In this case you have to ‘see’ that, for instance, ‘that’ picture could represent ‘that’ artwork with ‘that’ name and technique. Then the calculation, the processual nature of this virtual object becomes plausible because it is effective, and then you can trust it. At this point it gets printed, and when it is printed we trust it even more...
MG: Yes, we trust things more when they are in print, why?
AL: Your question is empirical. We trust printed stuff more because it is not modifiable, changeable. Once something is printed, you cannot modify or change it. And the digital is based exactly on the opposite, which is that everything can be changed, reprogrammed, recalculated. It is the physicality that generates the trust, because in print you have plenty of pages, and these pages are the space, so that you can dedicate that space to a specific content forever. It is the page content. In the case of digital you have no space at all, you have just your screen, which is bidimensional, it is very limited. So there is no space you can dedicate to content forever, and you need to change everything all the time.
MG: Is there any possibility we can talk about site-specificity in-between online and offline from your point of view, without making a distinction between these two modes of display and of working?
AL: This is not an easy question. The thing is, we are assuming we are using digital means all the time so that we are talking about post-digital as a definition of reality, which is not split into virtual and real but is just one continuum so to speak. But at the same time there is a kind of anthropological question of how I am affected, how I physically and perceptually react in front of a screen. And how I perceptually and physically react in front of anything that is retro illuminated, for example. There is this thought from [Marshall] McLuhan that I really love and I included in my book [Post-digital Print, 2012]. He says that we are totally fascinated by screens because they are retro illuminated, like the glassworks in a church that were made to be retro illuminated because we react differently to this. They seem to glow with light, they have their own enlightenment, and we are just contemplating them. What McLuhan was hinting at is that we are mesmerised by televisions for similar reasons, and I would say that now we definitely are by the multiple screens we deal with all the time. So this something in-between is actually tricky because it should be either a kind of new space where I am not technically in front of a screen or it should be something I just perceive.
MG: My next question was supposed to be about publishing in relation to the hybridity we discussed, but in a way we have already touched upon it so I will move onto the next question: how would you define the role of the contemporary publisher?
AL: This is a very vast question. I am not sure I can easily answer it! I mean the only thing I think is necessary for a contemporary publisher is to metabolise this network concept. So he should not only have a strategy and a concept for what he is publishing but he should think in networked terms. For example, who is reading and where he is reading? What I am publishing? There is not a big difference with the past except for the available channels, the platforms and the scale probably. I still think that more than the publisher the key role is that of the editor. The editor is the filter; he is filtering information and is the mediator of the whole concept he is trying to put together. So whatever specific mediums the publisher is using—Web, print, writing on matchboxes or writing on bank notes—the editor is crucial. And again, ISEA2013 was great for the meetings I had there. I met Judith Doyle from Toronto and she told me that there is no school for editors, there is no official school you can attend to become an editor, it is something that you just do, that you feel how to do or not.
MG: Well, I assume a curator is also an editor, and as an editor she/he learns on the job, via using different platforms...
AL: ... and practices...
MG: … and practices as well, yes.
AL: But still I think curating and editing are quite different practices.
MG: What does make them different? I find this interesting because I come from a curatorial perspective. My PhD is within the curatorial field, and we have these historical tropes, especially within the new media field; these definitions like ‘the curator as editor’, ‘the curator as filter feeder’, ‘the curator as aggregator’... and we are using publishing terms, right? So I wonder from your perspective who are we then? [Laughter]
AL: That I cannot answer! I already have enough problems with defining what publishing professionals are doing at the moment... I don’t want to go into how curators, and new media curators can be defined. Too much work! [Laughter] The whole field is borrowing terms from publishing because publishing is a very established field and if you say editor everyone knows what you are talking about. So using these terms can be very effective. But they [curators and editors] are similar and different at the same time. They are similar in that they filter information very heavily; one really has to reduce the amount of interesting information around a single concept to achieve a very strict selection that one thinks is worthy. They are similar also because this selection rather than being omnicomprehensive has to be very representative; it has to tell a lot about their concept. And finally, they are similar because if one is passionate about this work one really cares about each element, and even the details about each single element. As a curator one would take care of a corner of the pedestal that has been a little bit scraped and would ask people to clean it. And as an editor, one would put a parenthesis where it is missed. The difference is that with curating one deals with artworks and as an editor one deals with text mainly; one also deals, in the instance of a graphic editor, with pictures but they are always meant, traditionally, to complement a text. These days I am reading a book about the paperback revolution in the sixties. For example, think about The Medium is the Message by McLuhan. It gave all this space to pictures; they were preponderant in that they were not meant to be illustrations, they were totally part of the text, on the same level and with the same importance. We are back now, even with experimental magazines except for very few examples, to having the text as the crucial thing and pictures as less preponderant elements. Artworks are a whole different world compared to text, or I could say that to deal with them is quite different. Another difference is space. I mean, I have never thought as a curator, I have only spoken with a few curators, but I have been completely entranced and hypnotised by some curators in my life. And one of the few things I think I have understood is how a curator manages the space, that is, the experience of the person who is involved, engaged, immersed in the space is absolutely essential. So as a curator one deals with the space he has, whatever that space might be; it can be completely virtual, or heavily physical, or it can be small or huge, but a curator deals with that. It is crucial. As an editor — strictly speaking — one is not thinking about space, unless there are constraints such as that the text has to be 10,000 words. That is all the space constraints an editor has, and then it is the job of the graphic designer to make it looking beautiful or attractive. But the task of the editor does not involve the space. That said; another similarity between the two is that one deals with an artist about his concept and the other with a writer about his concept. So a curator triggers an artist’s by saying: “Have you though about that?” or “This part has a lot of potentials, maybe you can think about developing it a bit more”. The same happens with a writer for things like: “Yes, this part of the text is so powerful so you have to move these few lines at the beginning” or “You should engage the reader and take him by hand through the text”. These approaches are again similar for both the roles.
MG: So are you saying that an editor does not deal with forms of presentations, but with content mostly? I am going off topic a bit perhaps: I have pretty much been organising exhibitions online lately so I deal with space in a very different way, sometimes I think I am an editor because I feel that I work with a page, which, although to me it is an extension of what a magazine page could be, entails a very different interaction but at the same time is limited...
AL: … it’s confined.
MG: Yes, it’s often all about the screen and what happens in relation to it. I envisage how people might be in front of a screen and sometimes I feel this is quite similar to dealing with a page of a book, although it is different too.
AL: There is one crucial difference in my opinion. If you want this to happen within a physically defined screen, yes, it is quite similar. But if you think about the properties of the screen, the page is infinite and then you have a whole different world so... again... it depends on how you define the space. But you can make an exhibition in a magazine as well, and you can edit artworks that are only made of text, literature. And you can also be a skilled editor and be called a curator for a specific task.
AL: But still it is how you approach it. I understand this whole online thing, because the space online is hard to define. But again what I would do when it comes to online exhibitions, if I was really free to engage with it, is to think of not only the Web page itself but also all the incredible space that can emerge from a Web page.
The full-length interview is available as downloadable PDF.