1999 is a multidisciplinary project presented by Slam Jam, which explores the myth of the New Millennium specifically in relation to Milan’s youth culture.
Curated by KALEIDOSCOPE, the project brings together a new video commission by French filmmaker Baptiste Penetticobra, a performance by Amsterdam-based artist and choreographer Michele Rizzo, and an animated billboard by Milan-based digital artist Giulio Scalisi.
HIGHER xtn., the most ambitious performative commission to date by Michele Rizzo (Italian, b. 1984), explores the club as a space for self-expression and communion. Previously presented at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in January 2019 and featuring an original soundtrack by Lorenzo Senni, the work furthers Rizzo’s investigation on transcendent and synesthetic approaches to movement, drawing a trajectory between the late 1990s Italy and millennial Europe through electronic dance music and club culture.
FEDERICO SARGENTONE: For the exhibition “1999” at Spazio Maiocchi, you’ve been asked to investigate the aesthetics of a very particular fragment of time— a landmark moment at the turn of the century and its mix of collective euphoria and early digital dystopia. Can you tell us what 1999 means to you?
BAPTISTE PENETTICOBRA: In my memories, 1999 was a moment of subtle poetic tension. People were expecting something to happen. I remember there was a solar eclipse in the summer of 1999, and people were going around for days with iridescent goggles designed to look at the eclipse. How weird is that? We were all nervously waiting for it, as we all nervously waited for 2000 a few months later. Both of those occasions turned out to be quite uneventful, but I still remember them vividly today. I think it has something to do with some sort of self-fabricated mythology that took shape back then. Thinking about it today, I don’t think that the transition between 1999 and 2000 is necessarily significant, but 1999 still holds a special place from a fictional, poetic standpoint.
MICHELE RIZZO: Looking back at a period that was incredibly exciting. I’d say my key memories are related to my nerdy scooter—a blue Piaggio Zip that first belonged to my sister; my first Merit cigarette; the strangest, deepest, life-invigorating attraction towards the Internet, which took over my previous main occupation: watching MTV. At that moment, I felt that my identity was at a boiling temperature, but I realize now the entire world was in a transitional state. The activity of surfing the Internet was a new, immersive experience of dematerialization. It felt euphoric.
GIULIO SCALISI: I’ve never actually thought of or looked back at the ‘90s in my research. I tend to be wary of anything that is already being consumed and digested by mass culture, and as we all know, ‘90s aesthetics have been having a resurgence for quite some time now, particularly in fashion. For me, the year 1999 and the turn of the Millennium are characterized by an eerie contrast between the promises of the rise of informatics and an ingenuous, esoteric view of it. This combination generated a glitch—a word that became trendy around that time—in the way we looked at the future and our relationship toward the other.
FS: How old were you in 1999? I’m curious of how your personal memory of that time feeds into the work you’re presenting.
BP: I was eight years old. I actually associate 1999 more with my older brother, who was a teenager back then and got to experience late-‘90s teen culture firsthand. He bleached his hair, wore Wu-Tang t-shirts and all that.
My own memories of the late 1990s and early 2000s are very much linked to music and sound. Music is definitely the most effective time capsule to me—images are way behind!
In Untitled (bug), there’s a constant use of faint music in the background, whether it’s the muted techno bass playing through the walls, a car radio, the crackling of cheap headphones, vibrating Nokia phones, the sounds of an aquarium pump or of cereal being poured into a bowl by someone in another room. None of these are aggressively present, but they tend to create a soundscape that contrasts with the bare aesthetic of the film, ultimately shaping up some sort of artificial climate, a mental image.
MR: I was fifteen. Probably because I was right in the middle of my adolescence, 1999 for me is related to a bunch of super-intense emotions. I was discovering myself, starting to experience my interest in whatever could be considered creative—I was playing piano, loved drawing, wanted to be an actor—but obviously I was also discovering my sexuality. I was bullied for being queer and was figuring out how to fight back. I was also rebelling against my parents and dreaming of leaving my hometown. I guess these are more or less normal things for that age, and what they all had in common was an acute, almost painful—although not necessarily visible from the outside—sense of enthusiasm. In Greek, en theos means “possessed,” taken over and governed by an outer force, and this is exactly what I remember about that period.
GS: I was seven years old. I would go to school, get back home, watch Dragon Ball, and if I wasn’t hanging out with my friends, I would spend hours with my Nintendo console. That’s why I was fascinated by the idea of recreating that experience for this exhibition. I remember being completely captured by the 3D-rendered images moving across the surface of the screen—maybe because of my age and lack of obligations, or because our relation to the virtuality of the screen was still so new.
FS: Michele, in Milan you will present HIGHER xtn., your most ambitious performative commission to date, which explores the club as a space for self-expression and communion. Originally presented at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in January 2019 and featuring an original soundtrack by Lorenzo Senni, the work furthers your investigation into transcendent and synesthetic approaches to movement, drawing a trajectory between late-1990s Italy and millennial Europe through electronic dance music and club culture.
MR: With my work I try to suspend time, first by manipulating the experience of its flow, and then by diving into its altered fabric and exploring it. It’s an experience of time which is an experience of space, like traveling. The club is obviously a device that catalyzes such perception. Ultimately, at least for me, the rave is a space that goes well beyond the walls of the club—it dissolves into a larger space which is not unlike the realm of the virtual in how it allows potentiality to unfold. The aspect of catharsis of the club is only functional to the extent that individuals can rebuild their identities anew, and a lot of it happens through movement and dance. This is what makes the experience so special: it’s almost a ritualistic process of self-transformation, incredibly intimate, which can happen only due to the fact that a large group of people are entertaining it at the same time. HIGHER xtn. is a distillation of all these elements.
FS: Baptiste, in your new work Untitled (bug), a five- channel video installation specially commissioned for the exhibition, you also explore memory as a collective practice. Set against the backdrop of a gloomy Milan, recreated in distilled form through a minimal theater set, the coming-of-age narrative subtly feeds into the genres of street opera and indie horror. Depicting a crew of urban teenagers reminiscing the paranoia-tinged events of New Year’s Eve 2000, the videos adopt your signature language of spoken word and prosaic monologue to deliver the collective portrait of an alienated, dysphoric youth.
BP: Untitled (bug) is divided into five sequences (one per character), and each sequence is a monologue in which one of the characters is speaking directly to the viewer. I’ve used monologues as a primary means of narration in my previous films, and I was happy to keep exploring this form. I tried making 1999 more of an environment, a milieu in which the characters can live, rather than a narrative and linear object. The films can be viewed by bits or all together at the same time, it doesn’t really matter. The characters’ discourse is just a collection of signs and signals about an obscure event that I hope the viewer will try to piece together. There’s no real desire for hierarchy or clarity. Similar to the narration, the film’s set is quite basic, composed of limited means (a couch, a car, a scooter, some speakers) in a neutral white space. They act as a series of clues that together depict a rather mundane, prosaic context; they are evocative shortcuts, some sort of shared signals of an occidental youth’s decor.
FS: Giulio, in your new work Angelo Azzurro, you’ve built a 3D environment where the narrative is rendered through a pre-digital, early-video game aesthetic, especially that of the late-‘90s platform games genre. Can you explain your process of translating that reality through technology?
GS: They say that the history of humanity is the history of technology, which is something I agree on: what were we before we used sticks and ropes? I think it’s important to consider how technology informs the way we look at reality, to really register what is going on in contemporaneity. To me, as an artist, what is really powerful, or speaks loudly, is when artists are able to convey the effect of these innovations through their work. For this show, I was interested in the relationship with the luminous screen of our devices. Cinema, television and video games provided a means of escaping reality; with the advent of the smartphone, however, the screen has become a tool to augment reality, the key to the completion of this hyper-reality we live in. So now, to escape reality, you have to escape the screen.
FS: In a way, the three of you are each creating your own version of a specific time-place dimension through specific symbols. What references have you incorporated in the work?
BP: The image quality and camera were a huge deal for me. We’ve used a DV camera, which was pretty popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s for video art. It records on tapes and produces a soft-focused, low-contrast, cushy image that feels somewhat timeless. Another visual reference that was constantly in the back of my mind while in production was the Scary Movie series. It’s dumb, but those films definitely defined my visual culture growing up. The couch scene in Untitled (bug) is very Scary Movie-esque. I liked the idea of 1990s video art and Scary Movie colliding into something new.
MR: A few years before starting the research for HIGHER xtn. (which started around 2014), I came across the sacred dances of George Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic who lived in the beginning of the past century. Those dances, mostly performed in unison and displaying an incredible technical rigor, were believed to connect both their executors and their witnesses to a higher level of consciousness. In this sense, dance was recognized not as a symbolic or representational tool, but rather as an actively speaking and transformative language—a condition I totally relate to.
GS: Yes, indeed. To me, a way to counteract and escape hyper-reality is to create other forms of simulation, wherein the mediation of the interaction between the characters and the surrounding are more apparent, with the resulting becoming almost comical. These mediation mechanisms are more evident by citing experiences that we have in our daily lives and using images we’ve all probably come across. In the case of this project, I was particularly influenced by Japanese RPG games for the way the characters talk and interact with each other. The way the human characters are pictured is an attempt to commingle ‘90s video games with my personal aesthetic in drawings and comics. On the other hand, the background tries to offer a somewhat realistic portrait of the city of Milan, but like a theatre backdrop, it serves only to place the story in a particular time and space: Milano, 1999.