Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael Maizels reviews Arte Programmata

Lindsay Caplan. Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control and the Computer in 1960s Italy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. 431 pp.

Review by Michael Maizels

23 March 2023

Arte Programmata provides a nuanced, incisive window into the ways in which artists grappled with arrival of computing technology in postwar Italy. The volume attends to the intersecting currents of aesthetic exploration and resistance to these profound new technologies, all of which took place against the shifting social and political contexts of the 1960s and 1970s. The broad outlines of this story will be familiar to media-focused scholars from prior research on the US and select parts of Europe (to date, mostly the UK and Germany). However, Caplan’s volume demonstrates that Italy belongs within this historiography. And given the recent election of the rightist Giorgia Meloni to the position of Italian Prime Minister, the topic feels suddenly more timely than expected.

Caplan’s book takes as its overall theme the conflicted relationship between “freedom,” “control” and “collectivity.” The volume probes at ways in which the affordances of technological control are figured as both the shackles of top-down control and the ground from which new social bonds might emerge—and thereby engender new kinds of freedoms. These tensions are held in play through a series of chapters that explore the unfolding of technology-driven exhibitions and art practices in Italy, the first of which, Arte Programmata (1962), gives the book its title. Not as well known as later events like Cybernetic Serendipity (1969) and Information (1970), Arte Programmata deserves a larger historical reputation. The show took place at the showroom of the Olivetti corporation—perhaps akin to an Italian IBM—and featured a litany of both individual contributors as well as alphanumerically denominated collectives (Grupo N, Grupo T, and more). Pace Caplan, the included works sought to destabilize the finished objet d’art into a mediated screen of interactivity between artist, work, and viewer. Out of this heady milieu came Umberto Eco’s notion of the Open Work, which subsequently coalesced into a major touchstone of aesthetic theory writ large. Recovering and unpacking the technopolitical context in which this idea was generated is alone a worthy achievement.

The following chapters contain additional pleasant surprises. Chapter two follows the various Grupos as they stood up ambienti, media-rich environmental installations. Grupo T’s Spazio + Lines luce + Spettatori (1964) constituted a gridlike box of motion-activated lights, while Ambienti a shock luminosi (1964) flooded viewers with what Caplan describes as “light and sound to the point of blurring all distinctions between oneself and surrounding space." These constructions clearly presage not just the work of contemporary artists like Refik Anadol and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, but were also out ahead of period explorations undertaken by American artists such as Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham. Chapter three returns the Italian scene back into the international context, juxtaposing the work and theories of the programatta set with curatorial vision set forth in Cybernetic Serendipity and Information. Different than these British and American successors, Caplan argues that the Italians took a particularly nuanced approach. Technology was neither a site of resistance nor utopian dreaming, but a set of tools in which the richness of open societies and planned communities could possibly find a best of both worlds.

Overall, Arte Programmata makes a valuable contribution to the media art history of midcentury Europe. One small blindspot in the manuscript can be arguably found in the lack of exploration of the business of technology in Italy versus Europe and the US. While Caplan pays admirable attention to the ways that technological tools intersected with political and social upheavals, one feels that a sense that the question of how capital flowed into these systems would provide an important layer of interpretative context.  Nevertheless, the book is comprehensive in its treatment and will provide numerous threads of further exploration.