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Mocking the Arts Establishment? In Italy it can be an expensive ordeal

16/06/2011
Roberta Buiani

Featured image: Walled out and hammered by Marc Garrett

A young guy in his early Twenties becomes curious about the world of the arts. He decides to do what others would do in these circumstances: he picks up a few arts magazines from a local newsstand and browses their content looking for the latest trends. However, he increasingly becomes frustrated with the amount of advertisements that fill these magazines, that appear to prevail over any sustained discussion on the arts. He dislikes the way art looks more like a big commercial circus than the honest display of creative talent. He grows disaffected with the patronizing tones of editors and so-called authorities in the field.

He decides to denounce this publicly by creating an online fake of Flash Art online, the current leading contemporary art magazine in Italy, choosing the telling URL of ashartonline.com (as opposed to flashartonline.com), and filling it with his own content. Following the magazine’s distribution (for a fee) of a publication that claims to contain the contacts of over 30000 galleries and curators (the Arts Diary), he decides to compile his own list of 3300 artists and art dealers contacts searchable online and to make it available for download (for free) to anyone. Noticing the patronizing tone and the rude replies that Flashart director, Giancarlo Politi, dispenses to whomever objects to his artistic and editorial choices, he creates a forum (letters to the Director, part 2) that encourages disgruntled artists and critics to voice their discontents. The website grows and receives a considerable number of hits. Not enough for being properly considered mainstream, but still a pesky doppelgänger and a welcome critique of Flash Art. The success that this modest détournement enjoyed during the six months of its existence showed that Luca Lo Coco, the young creator of ashartonline definitely had a point.

At this point the story sounds a lot like many other stories of netartists and netactivists who have directed their criticism towards institutions and corporations, or towards other fellow artists and arts databases, by cloning, hacking, spoofing, and mocking websites to short-circuit the usually lethargic and cynical flow of information that characterizes institutionalized outlets. Countless groups and collectives like the Yes Men, 0100101110101101.org, and later Ubermorgen, Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico, to different degrees, have practiced and supported this and similar tactics for years. Posing as WTO representatives or Spokespeople of major corporations, The Yes Men have made the fake as their main tactic since the mid-nineties to draw attention to the shady practices that organizations such as the GATT and WTO were conducting under the nose of unaware and apathetic individuals; operating within the independent art world and often turning their attacks towards this very domain, the 0100101110101101.org have perfected the practice of forgery of logos, artists and artworks to unveil the laziness of an art establishment more interested in the popularity of the artist signing the artwork than in the quality of the artwork itself, more focused on ways to sell art rather than honestly evaluating it, more preoccupied with establishing powerful networks with other equally powerful art critics and dealers rather than actually doing some genuine research. Inspired by Andy Warhol, Dadaism and the avant-garde and empowered by the technical potentials of digital media, the pranks and actions of these artists and media practitioners have become well-known among anyone interested in media activism and artivism, or among anyone who finds at least some cursory interest in media creativity.

Given the precedents, Luca Lo Coco’s take on Flashartonline is not an exception. Ashartonline was a website that exploited the spoof against the formulaic and uninspired direction of the arts publishing in Italy and the condescending attitude of a bunch of self-elected gate-keepers of the arts. In a typical situation however, maybe this site would have been remembered as one among many actions, a grain of sand in a desert. Maybe, the website would have enjoyed some short-lived popularity among a relatively limited supporters, but as it often happens in these circumstances, it would have likely been ignored by the director and the magazine it was criticizing, or just forced to shut down. In the end, Ashartonline was a clever website, but it was also fairly innocuous, barely scratching the surface of the colossal enterprise it was targeting.

Disregard, or pretending nothing has happened, has always been the most effective reaction of a targeted institution against spoofs, parodies and fakes. Unsurprisingly, when the Yes Men appeared on BBC posing as Union Carbide reps announcing that the company was ready to take responsibility for the Bhopal disaster on its twentieth anniversary, the real reps retracted the announcement but then didn’t bother going after the pranksters, behaving as if the episode hadn’t even occurred. They knew that starting a legal action would have drawn too much negative attention to the company and given free publicity to the Yes Men [1]. When the 0100101.org recently revealed that an installation of a cat in a cage [2] had not been executed by art star Maurizio Cattellan but had been created by the duo themselves, no fuss was made and no legal charges were issued. Instead, a simple disclaimer was issued [3]. The piece, as the artists themselves explained, went “back to the Internet,” from which the idea (and the picture of the cat) had originally emerged.

However, for reasons that we all fail to understand, the story of ashartonline took quite a different direction. Luca Lo Coco found himself at the center of a vicious attack initiated by the director of Flash Art Giancarlo Politi himself: not only was the website shut down, a surprising, but not totally unexpected outcome, but a judicial case which lasted for over three years ensued. Politi, it turned out, sued Lo Coco for infringement of intellectual property and other counts of damage for a total amount of 200,000 Euros. Even the judge didn’t find Ashartonline damaging enough to justify the absurd indemnity. However, he admitted, the website could have been the cause of a certain confusion (meaning that it had achieved his goal, a small consolation for Lo Coco). Thus, Lo Coco was given a deadline to pay a much smaller, yet still unaffordable fee of around Euro 7,000, a mix of legal fees and other bureaucratic expenses. When he did not produce the money, officers showed up at his door to confiscate his furniture.

Now, some might contend that Politi, might not responsible for the cruel epilogue of this story, an extraordinary and strangely efficient move by the justice system, especially considering that the whole story takes place in Italy. Apparently, it was Politi who insisted that the confiscation went ahead as quickly as possible. This last bit adds even more outrage to this already absurd story, whose unfolding has already catalyzed a number of incendiary discussions on various Italian-based listservs and arts magazines [4]. In fact, to add insult to injury, the value of the furniture confiscated from Lo Coco falls short the amount he owes Politi. One wonders whether this is the end of the story or we should expect more surprises.

What makes this ordeal especially controversial and absurd is not the style Lo Coco used to splash his criticism on a website. It is the exaggerated reaction of the director  of a respectable arts magazine who should have known better, but went all the way against an individual who was no particular threat to the publishing giant and who had no way to seek protection against his ire. At least a couple of reasons should have prevented Politi from keeping going at Lo Coco: first, if the precedents set by the egregious examples of 01001.org and the Yes Men may teach us anything, no counterattack has ever turned out to be the best reaction against spoofs and satires; second, as most of these examples have been recognized as forms of creative activism or as arts interventions, they should have been known to an arts publisher who claims to be knowledgeable on the emerging and most recent contemporary arts. Why this ridiculously ruthless reaction? Did Politi really fear (mistakenly) that Lo Coco website could constitute a threat to his magazine and its readership? Why didn’t he stop once he had obtained to have the website obfuscated? Did he think that letting a lone challenger have his way would have unleashed a whole horde of jackals just waiting for the right opportunity to disrupt his undisturbed realm? Was this an exemplar punishment?

Lo Coco, with his young age and, at the time Politi pressed charges, with a limited experience of the arts world as well as a almost non-existent network of allies to consult for mentorship and advice, was a really easy, too easy target. Thus, this action appears to be a rather gratuitous show off of power (both symbolic and material) towards someone who was virtually defenseless. Even more disturbing is the ludicrous amount of money that was asked from Lo Coco for the so-called damages caused to Flash Art. Politi’s move to silence (and of course defeat) Lo Coco using financial superiority is a trend that actually reveals the director’s personal view of where power resides, confirming exactly what Lo Coco wished to demonstrate with his website: power in the arts business is not measured on the basis of some cultural, or intellectual value and skills, but on money. 

Second, Politi’s exaggerated reaction appeared to become gradually an act of intimidation directed to the whole independent arts community rather than a personal affair between him and Lo Coco. The latter, on the other hand, was the perfect scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb that would serve to re-affirm loudly and ostensively the power of BIG ART, authority, hierarchy, and institutions against the younger, subversive, independent emerging arts. The message sounds loud and clear: see what happens when you dare criticizing the powerful and dare not playing by the rules established by the Artsworld? This sounded like a warning to all young and independent artists, just in case they have the temptation in the future to challenge the existing power dynamics hierarchies. Had art star Maurizio Cattellan created something similar to Lo Coco’s, asks journalist Helga Marsala in an article dedicated to the episode, “…what would have happened? Clearly, no accusation, no lawsuit. On the contrary, Politi would have even dedicated a magazine cover to this work [5]”

Ultimately, what happened might have been a source of great (financial) discomfort to Lo Coco. He probably would have never thought that such dispute would be taken this far. However, the circumstances of this episode unleashed a great deal of solidarity and sympathy towards Lo Coco-David fighting against the taxidermized and conventional Politi-Goliath. Many individuals offered to get the voice out or to write notes and articles about this outrageous episode. This means that there exists a –somehow—unified network out there ready to take action when such crises ensue. In the long run then, this unexpected cohesion might cause more discomfort to Politi. He thought he would just get away with annihilating his enemy. However, if Lo Coco really bothered him, suing him might have just been the wrong move. In fact, If he had done his homework he would have probably known what happens when you try to defeat your adversary in this way: you might inadvertently create more publicity for him. This story has already given Lo Coco much more visibility and respect than he would have gotten, had he not being sued and humiliated in this way. In other words, this story has already put his name among those subversive artists who have no problem challenging the system. In addition, the same sudden emergency that cost Lo Coco his furniture and that initiated the just mentioned encouraging wave of support, also caused a great deal of thinking and brainstorming on how to react (creatively, of course) against Politi and other’s bold attack. Thus, we should all thank Politi for having given us an idea for future critical (and humorous) actions against his magazine and his arrogant attitude, as well as for having reinvigorated and definitely strengthened our network.  

1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiWlvBro9eI and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lScyQYUHLA&feature=related

2 Cat in a cage http://rhizome.org/discuss/view/47989/

3 http://www.inmangallery.com/artists/WEASEL/2010_WEASEL_press_updated.pdf

4 See Digicult “www.ashartonline.com. Net Art da Pignoramento” http://www.digicult.it/digimag/allegato.asp

5 Marsala, Helga, “Giustizia è fatta? Ora non infierire, Politi” ArtTribune http://www.artribune.com/2011/05/giustizia-e-fatta-ora-non-infierire-politi/

1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiWlvBro9eI and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lScyQYUHLA&feature=related

2 Cat in a cage http://rhizome.org/discuss/view/47989/

3 http://www.inmangallery.com/artists/WEASEL/2010_WEASEL_press_updated.pdf

4 See Digicult “www.ashartonline.com. Net Art da Pignoramento” http://www.digicult.it/digimag/allegato.asp

5 Marsala, Helga, “Giustizia è fatta? Ora non infierire, Politi” ArtTribune http://www.artribune.com/2011/05/giustizia-e-fatta-ora-non-infierire-politi/