THAT INVISIBLE MASS
PRISCILLA PALLANTE DISCUSSES AUGMENTED ROME
An Interview with Niccolò Fano of Mat3ria, Rome
The present interview is an update and expanded version of a conversation between Niccolò Fano and Priscilla Pallante in 2019. It covers the early life and evolution of the Augmented Rome project, and now incorporates its move into the Web3 space.
Niccolò Fano: Despite your short career, which started in 2016, your work is often situated in the abstract category of “fine art, conceptual photography”. I know we have discussed this definition for a long time and that the label does not fit as well as it used to. Let’s start by introducing the relationship you have with photography as a medium, to arrive at a more accurate description of the type of artistic research that you do.
Priscilla Pallante: I don’t like the term conceptual, so if I had to choose a definition it might be “researcher”. I don’t feel aligned with those who define so many contemporary experiments in image-making as post-photography, whilst simultaneously announcing the death of photography; I’m not ready to relegate the medium to the “physical trace of an object on a sensitive support.” This is why I would rather broaden its field of action in the search of representation through the use of tools that are apparently outside the scope of its modus operandi, but which demonstrate the same aptitude towards image construction.
NF: You have used numerous such tools that depart from the photographic medium. Augmented Rome, in my opinion, fills and highlights what the limits of photography are in the context of themes such as yours, with a high rate of descriptive complexity. It would be good to reflect on the media you have decided to combine with photography, and how you’ve used them in the final (exhibition) version of the project, prior to NFTs and smart contract technology becoming available.
PP: Realtà della fotografia, by Giacomo Daniele Fragapane, was the book that pushed me decisively in the direction I have taken, striking a very fine balance on the tightrope between photography and everything that is thought to be far from, or not of it. Even today, the photography world is unfortunately too caught up with the most traditional aspects of photography. This is why so many artists, myself included, have had to push against the notion that we should not be considered as artists using photography, but as artists straddling photography and contemporary art. This is what motivated me to take small steps towards the virtual; I was fascinated by the modalities through which one can represent reality through the computer, and I started to experiment with 3D printing.
Subsequently, I approached the realm of sound. In 2017, I started analyzing audio spectra through a project called Plastica vol. II, Spectrum. For a more recent project (Ciucciuì – 2019/2020, which has recently become a book), I used Audio Paint, a software that can convert pixels into frequencies that I used to produce a synesthetic documentation of a story that my grandma and my parents used to tell me when I was a child. With Augmented Rome, I resorted to cymatics to configure the sonic weight that I perceived within my city, but could not see. Cymatics observe the arrangement of molecules within a fluid (or even within solid particles, like thin sand) in more or less complex geometries based on frequency, by transmitting sound vibrations through a woofer.
In my case, the analyzed sounds were collected in open, urban spaces. Since these are not “pure” sounds, the results are extremely coherent with the sound data being visually chaotic, or–to the contrary–unexpectedly linear. This results in a complex portrait of Rome, where the comparison between collected images determines its appearance. The same work of data collection, synthesis and classification was done on architectural structures present in specific areas of the city: I observed, simplified and reduced the architectural elements to fundamental geometric solids, by reproducing samples of all types through 3D printing, to then assemble them according to the conformation dictated by the characteristics of the physical place.
All these elements were then used to recreate a parallel version/vision of Rome, a city whose appearance here responds to sound mapping, and not traditional, visible data. The outputs are stereoscopic images that are three-dimensional when viewed through the right tools, but through which it is impossible to move. These images aspire to set aside the visible, to erase it and reconstruct it in an augmented reality setting that serves as a stand-in for ours. They are thus simplified in form but amplified in our perception, with the invisible being materialised and represented.
NF: Augmented Rome talks about our city without making direct references to your place within it. You don’t introduce us to an exclusive and private vision but rather to an enlarged one, populated by emptiness and therefore presenting a quite democratic aesthetic. How was the project conceived, and what is your personal relationship with the city?
PP: My analysis, born at a time when I felt particularly overwhelmed by my city–feeling crushed by it, even in the absence of obstacles–deals with the physical weight of something that engulfed me, but that I could not see. The idea of working on my hometown therefore starts as a form of self-inflicted violence, a visceral search for something–the unseen–from which it seemed impossible to escape. I tried to observe without passing judgment, to gather data without contaminating it with the innumerable assumptions that conform perception and identity.
NF: Your Rome has a visual surface that is deliberately disconnected from the field of reality, a result obtained by studying and interpreting the relationship between void, image, sound perception and scientific research. Tell us about the bibliography behind Augmented Rome, about your relationship to numbers and cymatics, and your obsession with the aesthetics of invisibility.
PP: Numbers have always fascinated me and, from a very young age, my mother fostered this passion with books on the subject. I still remember some of the number tricks contained there. I began to count everything: the steps that I climbed, the ones that I took, the number of letters contained in a word. Counting became a ritual to me, and it sometimes still is; I have a veneration for the mystery of numbers.
I asked and I still ask myself numerous questions, from the most complex to the most banal. I used to ask them of my mother ceaselessly, and I would not give up until I got an answer that satisfied me; though most of the time, that satisfaction was fleeting. It is possible that it is thanks to that hunger for answers that I started my approach to physics, a subject that is in constant dialogue with the reality and functioning of the world. I began to wonder what shape what we mistakenly describe as Empty–that invisible mass that weighs on our shoulders as we walk through the city–could take. I was stubborn, enraptured by sound waves, and determined to materialise them. After studying the history of cymatics and reading about the first experiments conducted in the medium by Hans Jenny, I moved onto the fundamentals of acoustic physics. Thanks to this journey, I discovered the beauty of the sound that trams produce as they follow their own course, in the air displacement produced by the metro as it arrives at the platform, or in a recorded voice transmitted in the Pantheon as it bounces off the circular walls, to wrap itself around you.
NF: Augmented Rome was presented for the first time thanks to the collaboration between two spaces (Curva Pura and Spazio Y) that have been fundamental parts of our city’s independent cultural fabric. How did this solo show come to fruition, and how did you manage the challenge of a diffused exhibition in a city like Rome?
PP: As I was finalising the work, it dawned on me that the optimal version of the exhibition would have it being developed in more spaces. The goal soon became to recreate and promote physical movement in the city, the very moment undertaken in my research. Augmented Rome, as a body of work, consists of various phases, lending itself to being dismembered and experienced in several places at once. I was looking for independent spaces and realities at the edge of the Rome quadrant, with the intention of relocating some of city’s center to the suburbs that for years were the protagonists of cultural resistance in our city. The Quadraro and Ostiense areas fit perfectly within these guidelines, and I was lucky enough to find two spaces that courageously supported the work and took up my challenge. Spazio Y presented the analysis of what was carried out on sound, through an installation mechanism I designed and assembled myself. In both cases, these installations were especially designed for space, to foster an experience premised on sensory tension.
NF: Then Augmented Rome is showcased at Curva Pura in its freest, most eclectic form, combining components and techniques–3D printing, VR viewers–with an experimental installation process developed through months of work. The project’s vision, expressly left both partial and unbalanced at Spazio Y, is revealed as a dystopian and avant-garde landscape at Curva Pura. It is a city recognizable only by its iconographic portions and symbols; a way to reimagine that city in limbo. How did you imagine and construct this Rome?
PP: My Rome, born from the scientific research behind the project, is heightened in perception and simplified in form. I felt the need to reduce it, probably due to my need to detoxify myself from the city’s overwhelming excesses. I wanted the complexity of the sound and physical envelope to move inside, forcing an approach to facilitate the emergence of detail. The path created by Curva Pura requires physical movement, in some cases imposes inconveniences, enhancing a highly individual reading and experience of the installation.
The exhibition was structured to transport and disseminate the intimacy of my studio and the cold taste of my artistic language–poisonous, yet at the same time soothing, pulsating, alive…just like my city.
NF: When I read about and started studying smart contract technology and NFTs, I immediately thought about your work and the implications the technology allowed for it, in terms of its development. What is your current perspective on the technology itself, and how have you leveraged it for a project such as Augmented Rome, that dialogues between the material and immaterial?
PP: When you first told me about NFTs, I was completely in the dark about them; though I immediately sensed the potential this technology could have for my general practice. I am thinking above all of the possibility of using digital space as an extension, a prosthesis, of physical space, and of the possible connections between these two, simultaneous dimensions that can be generated through technology, themes that have concerned my research for some time. As I see it, Web3 has allowed for an evolution of my work, giving me the chance to further reflect on the concepts of the visible and the invisible, the concrete and the virtual, the material and the elusive. If, during the early stages of the work, I tried to render aspects of the city that escape the visible by using the photographic medium for this transfer to take place; through NFT technology I paradoxically rediscovered a tension towards objects, questioning the concept of matter in an environment devoid of physicality. In the process, the Roman architectures sprung back to life as two-dimensional images, and in the three-dimensional form generated by the 3D modeling from which they were born. This opened up the possibility of having them transformed into objects by the user, suggesting further reflection on the concept of the “souvenir” or fetish that’s so often linked to the touristic exploration of a landmark.
The cymatic images, on the other hand, which were generated through sound, are disconnected from a purely visual fruition, transforming into multimedia experiences that retain the malleability and elusiveness that distinguish them. They find their solidity when they are translated into three-dimensional digital maps that, as in the case of architectural models, can be enjoyed as digital sculptures or material objects.
Through Web3, Augmented Rome preserves its fluidity and purposeful sense of incompleteness by proposing an acoustic portrait of Rome that escapes its repeated two-dimensional form in a continuous shift between physical and digital space, and a continuous tension between representation and materiality.
NF: Where do you see your work going from here, and what can we expect from your projects now that you have added this new component and tool to your practice?
PP: I am increasingly fascinated by the creative possibilities that code and dynamism can generate in works of art by, for example, having them change by responding to or artificially imitating the action of time. There’s also overcoming the idea of the digital as an ephemeral, passive dimension that is unable to generate experience. I also find the idea of hiding information and data that is not immediately visible within the works fascinating, as a means to activate reflection on the multiple levels of complexity a work contains. All of this pushes the user towards an experience that does not end with vision.
These are issues I look forward to continuing to explore. With Augmented Rome, we are, after all, already working on the enhancement and extension of a physical space through a virtual one.
Niccolò Fano (Rome,1985) holds a BA in Photography at the University for the Creative Arts, a Masters degree in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins and a Creative Ventures MBA scholarship from London Business School. In the UK he has taught at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London and the UCA in Farnham.
He currently lives in Rome where he is the founder and director of Matèria. Based in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, Matèria opened its doors to the public in 2015. The gallery proposes an exhibition programme that touches upon all aspects of Contemporary Art.
Fano is currently Program Director at the Rome Institute of Photography (ISFCI) and has taught as visiting lecturer for Officine Fotografiche Roma, Rome University of Fine Arts, IED and Luiss Business School.