THE ITALIAN JOB – Job n.2, An-Archiving Game, 2014. 17 original copies of photographs selected from the FBI NSAF Archive and two curatorial texts (texts and selections by Monica Bosaro and Emma Stanisic). Archival inkjet prints on Hahnemühle Fine Art paper, 33×48 cm each. 34 elements, X:600cm; Y:100cm overall
The project began within the National Stolen Art File (NSAF) FBI Archive of stolen artifacts: a digital repository of stolen art created by the US government intelligence agency. Together with curators Bosaro and Stanisic (whose curatorial texts are an integral part of the artwork) I created an exhibition based on copies of stolen photographs and focused on issues of material labour and immigration. The artwork exists in two formats: as an animated .gif originally presented at the Widget Art Gallery and as a series of unique physical copies signed by me and sold through a platform for peer to peer commerce. This platform, called OpenBazaar, is an open source project that proposes an online decentralized network that has no fees, no intermediaries, uses BitCoins and cannot be censored.
ITALIANS ON THE JOB: Inside and Outside an Anarchival Impulse
Curatorial text by Monica Bosaro
An-archiving Game is Italian artist Emilio Vavarella’s second project in his series “The Italian Job,” a collection of conceptual artworks (“jobs”) that seek to highlight hidden structures behind themes of originality, legality, artistic authorship, collective processes, digital labor, and the artist-curator relationship in the age of the Internet. The title is an homage to the Italian Theory, a political philosophy rooted in collective processes and theoretical practice.
Specifically, this second project reconsiders the relationship between art production and reproduction in the era of digital technology, in line with the never-ending philosophic debate over concepts of “originality” and the transformation of the “aura” of artworks, as posited in Walter Benjamin’s famous dissertation The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). It focuses on the notion of “job” from the perspectives of the artist and the curator, and it questions the meaning of artistic production today. Examining an historical overview of the material-to-immaterial labor tendency of the last century and the transformation of production into enjoyable activities, this second project imagines a kind of “game” for workers (artist and curators) who have become users. These concepts are intertwined in the project both methodologically (in) and theoretically (out) before and during the production, as well as in the further consideration here presented.
For An-archiving game, two curators were invited by the artist to find and select photographic material drawn from the National Stolen Art File (NSAF)[i], a free-access archive of stolen artworks hosted by the FBI. Using both physical sources (libraries, magazines) and digital sources (Google, online galleries), the curators and the artist established a shared research methodology in order to find quality reproductions of all 155 stolen photos listed in the NSAF. While the archive did not provide all the information (images and key data) that the artist and curators needed to appropriate, it served as the central starting point of the job. This process inverted the traditional curatorial direction and artist-curator relationship; the curators were free to make their own selection, and Vavarella delegated the artistic content of his exhibition.
The resulting project, a new digital artwork, is an animated GIF consisting of 17 selected photographs temporarily exhibited in various ways. First, the work will run as an online exhibition in the Widget Art Gallery. Second, the single images that are part of the GIF were selected with the intention of being transformed into physical artworks, photographs printed and signed by Emilio Vavarella to be presented in the “Deep Web,” the non-indexed portion of the World Wide Web often used to buy and sell illegal goods. The artist, in appropriating the images as if they were his own creation, would sell physical prints to collectors in a manner respectful of the concepts of anonymity, illegality, and collaboration that remain the basis of the project.
On November 7th, 2014, after having worked for several months on the launch of the project using the Deep Web site Silk Road 2.0, something unexpected happened. The Silk Road was closed by the FBI, ironically by the same law enforcement agency whose archive was the starting point of the project. Artists like Emilio Vavarella, who relies on open-source, alternative, and sometimes illegal cutting-edge technologies, are used to these kinds of unexpected issues. Fortunately, soon after the FBI shut down the Silk Road, a new marketplace opened. OpenBazaar, a decentralized network created for direct economic exchanges without any brokerage by companies, promises to be censorship-resistant because of its peer-to-peer structure. The photographs of The Italian Job n.2 – An-archiving Game will therefore be the first artworks available for purchase on OpenBazaar, traded for bitcoins, a global cryptocurrency, and sold directly artist-to-collectors in an open source and independent digital space.
The Artist-Curator Relationship
In this project, Vavarella’s “job” was an act of re-appropriation of other artists’ artworks, rather than an act of first-order creation, or even first-order appropriation. Inspired by and interdependent with “illegality,” the one-year long project attempts to demonstrate how an artist can be, thanks to technology, an active agent in finding new ways to break down the traditional categories of artistic work. The project helps redefine the artist’s role as experimenter inside the current art world’s economic and political structures, especially within the global and advanced capitalist society the Internet describes.
Vavarella chose to work with a medium that constantly plays with the tension between widespread, indexed censorship and the very impossibility of such censorship, and from platforms known for their volatility. Additionally, Vavarella’s choice to work specifically with the photographic section of NSAF is not incidental. The archive proves an interesting starting point for questioning the artistic significance of using and reproducing images at this time of digital hegemony. More than a production intended as a “creative act,” Emilio Vavarella is interested in those forms of collaborative projects aimed at presenting and diffusing artworks, in this case photographs, in spaces where forms of hierarchy and power are horizontal.
It is worthwhile to remember that the figure of the artist has been one of constant evolution since the emergence of the avant-gardes, continuing well into the twentieth century. The art world has moved from acts of re-appropriation and delegation following the work of Marcel Duchamp to the emergence of new methodologies in the late ’60s derived from the conceptualization of artistic work (art as process, attitude, or language), and more recent practices of “postproduction”[ii] have grown popular largely thanks to the rapid diffusion of technologies. As much today as in any other century, if not more so, artists should be considered social agents that use art as a particularly global language, inspiring redefinitions of politics and inviting reflection on topical social issues.
Beyond this, Vavarella, as artist, collaborated with two curators as co-authors. The Italian Job n.2 deconstructs the boundary between artist and curator, distinct “jobs” coined by the “Artworld”[iii] that cannot be kept discrete in such a fluid collaboration. Here, the curator is called upon to find and choose the visual content of the artist’s artwork as opposed to selecting already created artworks or delegating the direction of an exhibition.
The distinction between artist and curator has been an inexhaustible source of debate since its first appearance at the time of the Impressionist movement, when curators at the side of independent artists faced the proliferation of agents of cultural economy in the form of merchants, galleries, collectors, critics, and museums. We passed from the curator as a purely economic agent to an increasingly self-referential curator, focused on his overall “exhibitionary” project to which artistic works adapt. This attitude emerged markedly in the late 1960s with the figure of Harald Szeemann. As art historian and critic Terry Smith pointed out, beginning in the 1960s, collaborations between artists and curators “are second only to those between artists themselves” and can be considered even “more generative”[iv] than artist-to-artist partnerships because they contribute to the change of the contemporary art world (singular) into a collection of temporary art worlds (plural). The artist-curator relationship progressively drew closer to the artists, from “outside” to “inside” the projects, sharing with them research, interpretation, values, and behaviors.
An-archiving Game, where curatorial practice melts into the artist’s intent, exemplifies especially well the behavioral aberration of the traditional artist-curator relationship. Here, not only does the artist delegate in full to each curator the research and selection processes, but in his nearly complete control of the project, he goes so far as to propose a kind of exploitation of their working activity. Here, the artist-curator collaboration generates economic value inside the digital art market, using the traditional channel of the gallery alongside the unexplored sphere of distribution represented by OpenBazaar. This second part of the project would explore, critically, the role of the artist as somebody able to generate economic value from re-appropriation of photographic material, demonstrating the economic divide between original work, appropriation, and re-appropriation. The traditional gallery is, in this case, not the final place of exhibition but again one of exploitation. Mediation of the art by the gallery would likely increase the artwork’s value, inflating Vavarella’s sale of the final artworks in an anonymous and non-centralized marketplace. This constant flux between traditional “jobs” and the bending of artistic roles renders An-archiving Game as fluid as the media with which it works.
Playing with the NSAF
As a curator of the project, I constantly considered a question central to the process: What role does a particular kind of archive play in the artistic-curatorial collaborative process? The NSAF was used as a track more than a proper source, the starting point for a series of circumscribed data that referred to unknown material, to be found somewhere else. We had a frame, but not its content. For this reason, it was not possible to consider the archive a “ready-made exhibition,” as artist-curator pairs often confront, because much research and selection were necessary to continue. And it was research, but on the basis of what criteria? And by what methodology? It was not easy work.
Playing the role of curator, I believed that a well-framed selection was possible only after having collected the totality of the material listed on the NSAF. We started researching the photographs in the fall of 2013, simultaneously from Venice, Gothenburg, and New York, using the web as our main source with the exception of a few physical records. We built our own private database on Dropbox. The collaborative process, far from being systematic (in spite of my attempts) was closer to a game.
The subtitle of the project is, importantly, An-archiving Game, referring to a sort of “anarchival impulse,” a particular feeling identified by Hal Foster in his examination of the various approaches that artists undertake when dealing with different forms of archives. Archives have inspired artists for decades, but their use, strictly connected with artistic and curatorial practice, has exponentially increased in the last thirty years, during which the term “archival art” was coined. Archival artists confront historical, categorized, and lost information – from pre-existing archives to mass culture comprehensions – in order to craft new stories. But because not all archives can be defined as databases, archival artists just as often stumble upon archives that “call out for human interpretation, not mechanic reprocessing,”[v] as Foster states. To the critic, the distinction between archival and database art lies in this dilemma. Archival art fascinates artists precisely because its content is fragmented, indeterminate, and originates from a “preproduction” operation rather than a “postproduction” one. That’s the “anarchival impulse,” wherein artists try to understand the boundaries of the archive, which presents itself sometimes as an unknown totality impossible to delineate, before giving final shape to their project.
The form and the context of the archive are, in the case of this project, a consequence of an “anarchival impulse.” The process leading to the creation of An-archiving Game would be experienced by artists and curators in different ways, so that, once realized, each became a “player” in the artist’s game sprung from an anarchival research project.
The content of the GIF[vi]
The selection of the visual material was initially suggested by the massive presence of black and white photographs of faces and spaces in New York City at the turn of the century. Some of the most well-recognized and historically significant shots were collected here, each describing American society in the first part of the twentieth century. Many of these were already celebrated in exhibitions and publications, and they have since been reproduced across thousands of web pages. Precisely for their fame and their reproducibility, these pictures fit perfectly the theoretical premises of the project.
Our second step, to find the Italian immigrant “inside” the content of the project, was a coincidental but appropriate emphasis we decided to take as representative of our discourse. Some of the authors (H.C. Bresson, Lewis Hine, Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, and Walter Rosenblum) belonged to a particular movement of photographers who, more or less consciously, documented the lives and work conditions of immigrants, and those of Italians in particular, with an eye to social reform. Italians in the states were a hot item in political address, especially as concerned their relation to criminal and illegal activities at the turn of the century. We hoped to find the characters and subjectivities – inside and outside the NSAF archive – at an unexpected point of convergence in our process, and we used this as a guide for our curatorial selection. Vavarella’s GIF displays several images of immigrant workers, each with their particular subjectivity in the space of the metropolis. The interface tells the viewer, with a rhythmic, visual narration, the imaginary journey from their native land (Italy and Europe) to North America.
(89) Berenice Abbott, Penn Station, Manhattan, 1934
A QUESTION OF STEALING?
Curatorial text by Emma Stanisic
This text is my curatorial contribution to Emilio Vavarella’s piece The Italian Job No. 2 An-Archiving Game, a project dealing with the practice of stealing in the artworld. In response to this, I decided to produce my text with copied-paste parts of texts, stolen from various digital sources which I found appropriate for a wide investigation of the theme: Stealing by Caroline Ann Duffy, National Stolen Art File Search information by The Federal Bureau of Investigation, The dotCommunist Manifesto by Eben Moglen, The Future of Copyright by Rasmus Fleischer, Copyright and Innovation by Timothy B. Lee., Deep web by Mindmatrix, Negotiations by Gilles Deleuze.
The most unusual thing I ever stole? A snowman. Part of the thrill was knowing that children would cry in the morning. Life’s tough. We steal. Crime against copyright is one of the most expanding criminal activities since the birth of the web. The National Stolen Art File (NSAF) is a database of stolen art and cultural property. Stolen objects are submitted for entry to the NSAF by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. A physical item has actually been removed yet we can find this object and copy it all across the web. This material object that is supposedly lost can be re-born and displayed and visited again and again and again.
Where are the advocates of freedom in the new digital society who have not been decried as pirates, anarchists, communists? Have we not seen that many of those hurling the epithets were merely thieves in power, whose talk of “intellectual property” was nothing more than an attempt to retain unjustifiable privileges in a society irrevocably changing? Throughout the world the movement for free information announces the arrival of a new social structure, born of the transformation of bourgeois industrial society by the digital technology of its own invention. Music, for example, throughout previous human history was an acutely perishable non-commodity, a social process, occurring in a place and at a time, consumed where it was made, by people who were indistinctly differentiated as consumers and as makers. After the adoption of recording, music was a non-persishable commodity that could be moved long distances and was necessarily alienated from those who made it. Music became, as an article of consumption, an opportunity for its new “owners” to direct additional consumption, to create wants on the part of the new mass consuming class, and to drive its demand in directions profitable to ownership. So too with the entirely new medium of the moving picture, which within decades reoriented the nature of human cognition, capturing a substantial fraction of every worker’s day for the reception of messages ordering additional consumption. Tens of thousands of such advertisements passed before the eyes of each child every year, reducing to a new form of serfdom the children liberated from tending a productive machine: they were now compulsorily enlisted in tending the machinery of consumption.
How relevant is it to declare oneself to be “for” or “against” copyright? Neither the stabilization nor the abolition of the copyright system seems within reach, copyright law is mutating into something qualitatively different than what it has been in previous centuries. A very condensed version of copyright history could look like this: texts (1800), works (1900), tools (2000). Roughly around 1900, however, copyright law was drastically extended to cover works, independent of any specific medium. This differentiation was undermined by the emergence of the Internet, and since about the year 2000 copyright law has been pushed in a new direction, regulating access to tools in a way much more arbitrary than anyone in the pre-digital age could have imagined. Consider radio broadcasting and record shops, which once were inherently different. Their online counterparts are known respectively as “streaming” and “downloading,” but the distinction is ultimately artificial, since the same data transfer takes place in each. The only essential difference lies in how the software is configured at the receiving end. Swedish company Chilirec provides a rapidly growing free online service assisting users in ripping digital audio streams. After choosing among hundreds of radio stations, you will soon have access to thousands of MP3 files in an online depository, neatly sorted and correctly tagged, available for download. The interface and functionality could be easily confused with a peer-to-peer application like Limewire. You connect, you get MP3s for free, and no one pays a penny to any rights holder. But it is fully legal, as all Chilirec does is automate a process that anyone could do manually. People with some programming skills, however, won’t need to do much more than combining a few readily available and otherwise perfectly legal code libraries to compile their own streamripping tool, one that would circumvent the PERFORM Act. For regulations like these to be effective, it is necessary also to censor the sharing of skills that potentially can be useful for coding illegal software. This domino effect captures the essence of copyright maximalism: Every broken regulation brings a cry for at least one new regulation even more sweepingly worded than the last. Another important consideration is that the digital is larger than the online. According to one recent study 95 percent of British youth engage in file sharing via burned CDs, instant messaging clients, mobile phones, USB sticks, e-mail, and portable hard drives.
Such practices constitute the “darknet,” a term popularized by four Microsoft-affiliated researchers in a brilliant 2002 paper. Their thesis is simply that people who have information and want to exchange it with each other will do just that, forming spontaneous networks which may be large or small, online or offline. By being interconnected they can always keep the most popular material available. Attempts to curb open file-sharing infrastructure may only drive activity towards smaller and darker networks. One early darknet has been termed the “sneakernet”: walking by foot to your friend carrying video cassettes or floppy discs. Nor is the sneakernet purely a technology of the past. The sneakernet will come back if needed. “I believe this is a ‘wild card’ that most people in the music industry are not seeing at all,” writes Swedish filesharing researcher Daniel Johansson. “When music fans can say, ‘I have all the music from 1950-2010, do you want a copy?’ — what kind of business models will be viable in such a reality?” Meanwhile, darknets will proliferate and demand for new anonymization techniques will remain high as a general side-effect of the hunt for small-scale copyright infringers. The most eager to take advantage of that situation will of course be the real criminals, including terrorists, while the legitimate Internet may grow fragmented and lose its open, freewheeling character. Deep Web also called the Deepnet, Invisible Web, or Hidden Web is World Wide Web content that is not part of the Surface Web, which is indexed by standard search engines. It should not be confused with the dark Internet, the computers that can no longer be reached via the Internet, or with a Darknet distributed filesharing network, which could be classified as a smaller part of the Deep Web.
A copyright policy that gives content creators veto power over technological innovation may marginally deter file sharing but it will also dramatically affect the pace of innovation in digital media devices. Our current computers and networks are designed from the ground up to facilitate copying without regard to what is being copied. Putting the file sharing genie back in the bottle would required dramatic changes to the Internet and our computers — changes that would make them dramatically less useful for other purposes. Hollywood and the labels have had more or less free rein inside the beltway over the last decade, getting most of what they’ve asked for from Congress. And they haven’t been shy about sending their lawyers after individual music and movie fans caught using peer-topeer networks. Businesses that adopted the copyright industry’s old formula of selling “content without context” are meeting harder times. “Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century,” was once the motto of Mark Getty, the businessman who used his family’s oil fortune to invest in one of the world’s largest copyright portfolios, controlling more than 60 million images.” Getty Images saw its stock price fall steadily since its peak in 2004, before the company earlier this year was sold out to private equity. The failure of Getty Images can’t be blamed on piracy, but rather has to do with the spread of digital cameras. Editors increasingly tend to prefer onthe-spot pictures, regardless of image quality. Sitting on a large database of archived pictures becomes less relevant when newspapers want photography to produce a feeling of real-time presence — an uncopyable quality.
Copyright enforcement weakens general law enforcement. All this may of course involve taking particular positions to make some particular point. But it’s not enough these days to “take a position,” however concretely. The real dispute, once again, is not between proponents and opponents of copyright as a whole. It is between believers and nonbelievers. Believers in copyright keep dreaming about building a digital simulation of a 20th-century copyright economy, based on scarcity and with distinct limits between broadcasting and unit sales, his vision of copyright utopia is triggering an escalation of technology regulations running out of control and ruining civil liberties. Accepting a laissez-faire attitude regarding software development and communication infrastructure can prevent such an escalation. Unauthorized sharing of files will prevail in darknets, online and offline. Creative practices, with some exceptions, thrive in economies where digital abundance is connected to scarce qualities in space and time. The more urgent question regards what price we will have to pay for upholding the phantasm of universal copyright.
The most common thing I ever stole was copy pasted. The border between stealing and creating has never been thinner or has always been imaginary and upheld in the name of order.
- (Online Exhibition) Noemata. Undocumented events and object permanence (2020). Curated by Bjørn Magnhildøen and Ana Buigues.
- AMRO – Art Meets Radical Openess, Festival dedicated to Art, Hacktivism and Open Culture, Behind the Smart World (2016), curated by KairUs, Linz, Austria
- THE WRONG, New Digital Art Biennale, Homeostasis Pavillion (2015), curated by Julia Borges Araña and Guilherme Brandão, online exhibition
- (Online Solo Exhibition) THE ITALIAN JOB – Job n.2, An-Archiving Game (2015), exhibition at WAG Widget Art Gallery and auction with OpenBazaar, curated by Monica Bosaro and Emma Stanisic
“Italian Theory and The Art of Trolling”
by Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti. (eng)
by Marii Nyrop, 2014. (eng)
“ITALIANS ON THE JOB: Inside and Outside an Anarchival Impulse”
by Monica Bosaro, 2014. (eng)
“A Question of Stealing?”
by Emma Stanisic, 2014. (eng)
“Un’opera creata digitalmente con immagini di opere rubate…realmente”
interview by Andrea Bruciati, 2014. (ita)
“An art fair where the physical plane meets the new, digital flesh”
“The Wrong New Digital Art Biennial Brings Together The Best Of The Net”
“Explore an Extraterrestrial Dimension of New Media Art”
“Nueva, híbrida y… equivocada”
“The Wrong: una bienal de arte que no tiene nada de “equivocada”
“Launching the Largest Digital Biennale in the World on Shoestring Budget: An interview with David Quiles Guillo”
“Llevarán el arte a sus manos”
“The Wrong Biennale”