In conversation with curator Valentino Catricalà

Valentino Catricalà (b. 1984, living between Rome, Milan and Manchester) began his career as a curator in 2015, researching the most central themes of the relationship between art, new media and technologies. Over the course of a few years, Catricalà has worked with several important institutions: since 2021, he has been artistic director of the MODAL Gallery at the SODA – School of Digital Art in Manchester, and he was recently appointed as a member of the board of directors of the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. We had a conversation with him about curatorial practices in the era of the digital revolution.

When you started your professional career as a curator, New Media Art was already established in specialized centers and festivals, but remained in its niche, making rapid inroads into institutional circuits (and almost always outside Italy).

I started dealing with curatorial practice rather late in the year, because I had previously undertaken a research process. During my PhD I worked with ZKM in Karlsruhe, the Tate in London, and Dundee University in Scotland, and then I decided to put this knowledge into practice. The first big project I did was founding the Media Art Festival in Rome, and I was already 29 years old. When I started as a curator, I didn’t come from a pre-established path, such as one of the specialist masters you can find nowadays. And when I was talking about art and technology, it was still a niche: you went to Ars Electronica, you went to ZKM, but if you put forward projects outside of these specialized circuits, they didn’t take you into consideration.

Today, however, the discourse on new media has entered in a disruptive way into the mainstream: nowadays it is almost impossible to talk about contemporary art without talking about new technologies.

Our technologies, our media universe, and the artists’ approach have changed. A few years ago, this interest started to grow, but there was no expertise. And I started working at a very fast pace. Why was my career so fast? Because I framed a series of issues that were about to emerge, yet I tried to constantly update myself on current research for these issues. At the same time, this sudden openness towards technology has caused, as a result, an uncritical entrance of these topics anywhere in the art field. Whereas only experts used to talk about it, suddenly everyone was talking about it, often superficially. I saw many of these great exhibitions – “art and new technologies”, “art and artificial intelligence” and so on – often hosted in important institutions, always involving the five usual artists, and I said to myself: “I don’t have to do this. I have to give something more“. And what is this “something more” that I can give? My own research.

ZKM | Center for Art and Media, © Photo: Achim Mende

While the sector gets saturated with more and more (valid or not) offers, how can you discern and carry out an authentic curatorial discourse that resists fleeting trends?

One of the mistakes you can easily make – and I used to make it too – is thinking in slogans. Especially those related to technology, where the technological issue is often dragging the artistic matter. This mistake happens because technology has its own charm: unlike a brush, which is not going to do anything if you do not use it, technology is able to move independently, it has its own time that goes beyond us. Slogans work great on the spot, but they leave nothing behind. And so, if you engage with these slogans, your professional life is bound to that of the slogan. Look at all the curators who emerged during the NFT period, that today have disappeared into thin air. The question is not how much technology can help art, but rather how much art can help technology and our society. You simply have to situate art back to the center of the conversation: if you do that, you realize that contemporary artistic processes are not so different from those of Michelangelo or Raphael. If you fight this urge to follow the latest technology, you can understand who is really doing the work of an artist – and not because he’s using technology, artificial intelligence, or virtual reality, but because they’re just being an artist.

Who are, in your opinion, the artists who are able to observe more clearly the most current changes of our present (those related to the digital age, of course)?

In my opinion there is a generation born in the ‘80s that led to a revolution in this sense: Cécile B. Evans, Ian Cheng, Jakob Kudsk Steensen. Take Jakob, for example: if you see his works, the point is not that he uses virtual reality, the point is that he has been carrying an artistic talk about ecology, about post-anthropocentrism, in a dialogue with biologists and scientists. The point is that he talks about our human condition today. Then there is the generation that was born in the 1990s, which we are seeing emerging right now.

MODAL Gallery at the SODA - School of Digital Art, Manchaster

We are also gradually witnessing the crisis and the slow dissolution not only of the "boundaries" between disciplines, but also of the Western dualism. Thus, we finally move towards overcoming the material/intangible rhetoric, real/virtual, that at least initially permeated - a little - the discourse on New Media Art.

Much has been said about the Deleuzian passage from the binary to the rhizomatic. The truth is that the system somehow always reorganizes itself, and it always gets back on track, until the next rhizomatic revolution. I would be careful about emphasizing the excess of evidence in blurring disciplinary boundaries: the boundaries between disciplines have always been mobile, but this does not mean that they do not exist. The boundary between art, architecture or design continues to exist, even if in some more experimental point they can meet. Moreover, we have to say that we are in a very complex era: if on one side there is what you just pointed out, on the other – on a political level – we are witnessing a very strong return of traditionalism; we are in the period when there is less nuance of the boundaries than ever. The traditionalist right is ruling almost the whole world, yet there is a society that is pushing the boundaries of binary thought and gender theory. On the other hand, there is a strong traction that blocks this progress. This traction is very strange.

What, in your opinion, is the extent of this change in progress, and how can the artist (and a curator’s work) convey it?

I believe that an art that does not push boundaries is not art – it has always been so. The curator’s role, in this period of traction, is to foster a dialogue between these two forces. You cannot make a frontal criticism against traditionalism, but at the same time you have to try as much as possible to smooth and mediate its return. In this context, it will be interesting to see Adriano Pedrosa’s Biennale, and what kind of short-circuits it’ll bring out. The artist’s role is to push the political and aesthetic boundaries, avoiding just taking some “politically correct” formulas and simply applying them. And we curators need to foster it as much as possible, and do it through solid research. When I select an artist and I write an exhibition theme, what I’m doing is actually cutting out a piece of reality, highlighting it and telling the audience, “look, it’s important to think about this“. And this cannot simply be “how artificial intelligence is changing the world“.

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