Art In Conversation
Federico Solmi with Dan Cameron
“I think its a great privilege for an artist to be able to express himself with a video installation, with a painting, with VR, with anything, why not?”
On viewLuis De Jesus
April 24 – June 19, 2021
Not long after he began making video works in the early 2000s, Federico Solmi started to incorporate the “first-person shooter” point of view familiar from video games. Organizing the sequence of tableaux so the viewer appears to be constantly moving in and around the action, Solmi’s adapted gaming architecture also enables massive chunks of virtual landscape (and other backgrounds) to sweep rapidly under, over, and past us. Mimicking conventional strategies of pursuit and escape, our visual perspective isn’t that of a stable point fixed in space, but rather something akin to a stunt pilot operating a small aircraft mid-hurricane, with accompanying feelings of occasional seasickness and vertigo.
Before Solmi began employing it, the digital architecture of video games was rarely, if ever, incorporated into museum art, and never with such overt aggression. The constant forward thrusting of the phantom “camera,” itself an overdetermined phallocentrism in action, conjures a vocabulary of violent subjugation: invasion, colonization, and conquest.
Meanwhile, the flickering, shaky movement of the action in Solmi’s videos hearkens back to early cinema and its imperfect methods of rendering motion, but it also reveals his painterly techniques. If you look at one of Solmi’s personages for an extended period, each facade is revealed as possessing at least two separately painted surfaces with different colors. The constant oscillation between them is quick enough to pass without notice, yet slow enough to remind us that these are, technology notwithstanding, handmade creations.
Solmi’s recurring subject is the knowing abuse of power, and he has a bleak and urgent message for us regarding this particularly agonizing moment in history: it has happened before, it will happen again, and there is very little within our power to stop it. Bucking convention, Solmi even sees it from the perspective of the aggressors, whose greatest wish is to wall themselves off from the rest of us, the better to enjoy the fruits of their plunder.
Dan Cameron (Rail): Federico, I first walked into your exhibition Chinese Democracy and the Last Day on Earth in 2012 at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles in Culver City, without knowing anything at all about what I was about to see. I left that first encounter with your work a little bit destabilized. As a seasoned viewer, it’s not often that I encounter something I simply cannot explain. I didn’t understand how it was made and didn’t know what went into it in terms of production, but more, I felt like I’d been introduced to a completely new way of looking at the world, one that was forcing me to adapt to it, to meet it halfway before I could comprehend what it was trying to convey. So from that first experience, I thought this guy must have an aggressive attitude and, you know, be constantly spouting Marxist rhetoric. Then I met you and I thought, how is this extremely nice person the author of this frequently sinister work?
Federico Solmi: When you say you feel destabilized by seeing an artwork, that’s the best compliment you could ever give me, because in most gallery and museum events that I go to, it’s very rare to feel shaken by an artwork. I feel like it probably has to do with the traditional academic training, where somehow everybody is so well behaved. I’m a self-educated artist, but I also had the chance to teach for several years at Yale University School of Art and School of Drama, and I see that this attitude that you detected really comes from me being an outsider.
Not an outsider in the sense that I’m not part of the art world, because I’m fully embedded and invested. But the thing is that I have to do my own research. I did all of my own work without having a mentor, and at the beginning that is very painful and difficult. But when you get to have the experience, and you have been in New York for 20 years, you really feel that it is a tremendous freedom that not many artists have. So when you see that this body of work is a combination of painting, drawings, video animation combined by gaming technology with motion capture, maybe you think that all of these mediums are not supposed to be blended into one. But to me it came very naturally, because I never had anyone tell me I should do this or I shouldn’t do that.
I’m very hardheaded. When I have something in my mind, I like to get to the bottom of it, and back in 2003, gaming technology was becoming fascinating to me, and I started to observe closely the development of this industry. I’m not a strictly technical person, but I understood that technology would change the world, and that’s what I believe is happening now. If you think about the last 20 years of our lives, it has been shaped by just one thing: the technology that invaded our homes and workplaces. I simply saw as an opportunity to use these great tools that were coming into the mix. But I always use technology without forgetting the great tradition of master painters and master draftsmen.
Rail: When you talk about gaming techniques for visualizing the world and for creating a spatial experience that the viewer navigates within, it seems to me that this is an extension of classical perspective, of using an illusion to fool the eye. As you said, it’s really an extension of old master painting. And that’s why I want to ask you to pause for a second. You were self-taught, and yet you’ve been teaching at Yale. So right away that would suggest an unusual trajectory professionally. You’re from Bologna, and you started out in a profession that really is about as far from being a video artist as one could imagine. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Solmi: I had the privilege, growing up in Bologna, of going to church, where you have these incredible paintings. I was profoundly influenced by these images of death, murder, and betrayal in these church frescoes. Of course I didn’t realize that I wanted to be an artist when I was five years old, and instead I was entangled in the family business, and didn’t have the chance to come to the United States until I was about 25, and it was too late to go to college.
I knew that I was an artist, and I did all I could do from 18 to 25 to educate myself through books, seeing exhibitions, and going to talk to the few artists that I met. And then, once I was finally ready to leave Italy, I came to New York. It was very hard, but at the same time, it was incredibly liberating, because you have complete freedom of mixing whatever you think fulfills you. I remember one of my first gallerists told me, “Oh, Federico, it’s a very bad idea to mix paintings with video.” And I said, “Why?”
I felt this tremendous freedom that helped me to create what you see in the studio. Sure, Italy had a big impact on me for the tradition of the draftsman, of course, but I was trying to say more through my artwork than just painting beautiful pictures. I want to talk about issues in society that bother me, issues that afflict a lot of people in a very negative way. I realized that I was an artist when I wanted to use my art not as a decorative element in a house, but to tell a story. And that’s how I started creating my first video animation in 2003, using drawings, and then step by step I got into gaming technology and discovered how it might help me develop my own work.
What really struck me was that within the virtual environment, someone could represent a parallel world that resembled the one in which we were living, but one which you could also tweak. So I was terribly motivated to control this technology in order to create a parallel universe with my work, a metaphysical space in which I could tell my narrative.
Rail: I know this is a little obvious, but video games are not typically made by starting with painting, right? People don’t usually sit down with a brush and paint, and begin creating a world that’s going to appear in a video game using those traditional tools and techniques, or am I completely wrong?
Solmi: In the early phase of digital media, there were a handful of artists who were attempting Machinima as a way to record video game footage and present it in a gallery setting, and I understood that that was not my nature. I wanted to use my own sensibility, and also believed that those techniques would look old and obsolete in a few years. That’s why I started basically replacing every digital texture with hand-painted textures that are scanned into a computer. I felt this extreme devotion to the history of painting and the history of craftsmanship, and I couldn’t separate the two. I thought, well, I’m an artist in the 21st century, and if I want to make something remarkable, I have to be knowledgeable about what came before me, but also use all the tools that are available today.
So, I figured out how to domesticate technology. Instead of it feeling cold and distant, I blended it with organic painting texture, and drawings, and with motion capture I created something that, in my opinion, is very human. You feel like you want to touch it, and that’s a feeling that normally doesn’t happen with digital media.
Rail: Just to clarify, every surface, and every detail of every surface on every object, character, and part of the architecture, began as something that you painted by hand.
Solmi: Absolutely. Well, first it begins with a conceptual idea that I have and the subsequent planning and sketching. And then of course there is a lot of time consuming work both in the digital field and in the act of painting.
I’m also a big fan of early cinema, and one of the most important elements of my work is a similar emphasis on analog techniques. Myself or one of my assistants perform in a motion capture lab. The body is recorded, and movements are transferred into the characters that I create and place in the virtual realm. It’s very important to transfer the performative element through natural body movements, what an actor can add. This came from my love of early cinema, in which an actor who couldn’t speak was conveying meaning through the movement of their body. So, in the studio, my assistants and I use very simple gestures that replace the spoken word. I’m very proud of this.
The biggest question that I think mankind will have in the future is: “Are we going to be overwhelmed and strangled by technology? Or are we going to be able to domesticate technology, to be able to coexist and still have control of our future?” Because at the pace that we’re going at today, in 50 years, we will be nobody, we’ll be completely replaced by AI and AI art.
I don’t want to go too deep into this question, but I feel like we’ve realized there’s no limit to the computer. So, I think it comes down to how we can coexist with these machines.
Rail: I want to keep picking away at this idea of space, but let’s talk about it in reference to specific works, like in the video installation The Great Farce.
Solmi: That was presented for the first time in Germany, at the Schauspiel Opera House for the B3 Biennial in Frankfurt. It’s a nine-channel installation that is completely occupying one of the main squares of the city. What I really enjoyed was seeing how the people getting off of trains and walking down the street were interacting with the work. Because, of course, one of the goals of creating this large installation is to engage the viewer through social commentary art. And to be honest, I was very impressed by the fact that we didn’t receive any complaints because I remember that the volume was kind of loud.
This was my first larger public project, and quite a bit of work, but one of the main sources of inspiration, especially regarding the difficulty of the display, was the 1927 film by Abel Gance, Napoléon. It was a movie that really had a big impact on me because it was the first time a filmmaker was able to project on three screens simultaneously, and The Great Farce installation is composed of three triptychs running simultaneously. On a few occasions, you have a single screen that was made of nine projectors.
Rail: In 2018, I invited you to participate in Open Spaces, and we were lucky enough to get the collaboration of UMKC’s main art gallery, which involved more of a wraparound installation.
Solmi: Which for me was a very important step because I moved from a public installation into an immersive space, which, by the way, made a big impact on me when I started to work in VR. The idea of creating indoor video projections where there were two big rooms, it was like an experiment for me to create VR work later, because in the end a wraparound installation basically brings you inside the world. Usually, when you are in front of a video installation, you are a spectator. I think in the wraparound installation, you become a participant in the viewing.
Actually, this piece now is displayed at the Phillips Collection for the 100th anniversary exhibition, Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. This is pretty amazing to me, to be part of a museum that has opened up to this kind of work. When I went to the Phillips Collection 15 or 20 years ago, it was to see Van Gogh and Jacob Lawrence. Now they’ve opened it up to experimental work, which is amazing.
Rail: What about American Circus (2019) in Times Square. I was there. That was a great night. Can you talk a little bit about that piece and how it came about?
Solmi: Well, it was strange because when you take over Times Square and all of its screens, you have an issue with censorship. And, of course, you do not want to create something that will cause a scandal or some kind of outrage. And step by step I started to think that, instead of using this grotesque character or that historical figure, I would use the screen of Times Square as a mirror of what Times Square is. Since I came to New York in 1999, I have always had a weird relationship to Times Square. I was extremely attracted to the colorful exuberance of mass entertainment, but I was also attracted to the extreme demonstration of capitalism and wastefulness and business. For the first time in my career, I did not use any characters. But I did create this sort of circus of festivity, and at the same time there is an element of critique in this very exuberant advertisement sign. It’s sort of a satirical interpretation of what American capitalism is, in its extremist form. I think that the public had a good time because it was very playful, very colorful.
Rail: Shall we talk about your current body of work?
Solmi: The newest piece is a video installation called The Bathhouse, which is an extravagant party that takes place in a glamorous villa that recalls Roman architecture with mosaics. The central element of The Bathhouse is an ancient Roman spa, and all of these characters, from the founding fathers to Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Hernán Cortés, and religious leaders from different ages, all meet together in this ultra lavish party, and let themselves go to complete degeneration. You have leaders from 2,000 years, 3,000 years ago, up to date with contemporary society. They are dressed with their armor but also look like popular icons, so there’s a lot of sunglasses and jewelry. They’re all having a terrific time and we, the people, the citizens, we just look at them from a great distance because, unfortunately, that’s not the life that we are part of.
Rail: That’s the perspective that I want to deconstruct a bit if we can, because it repeats itself in other works, including The Great Farce, and it’s when the ruling class—we’ll call them our one percent—get together, and the doors are closed and no one can see, they behave with the most extreme decadence, even perversion. Going back to The Great Farce, how when conquerors enter, the natives are there waiting to see them, and they’re jumping up and down in joy to embrace them. And it seems there’s this comically exaggerated idea of the perspective of the oppressor, where we’re not seeing what comes after—the consequences of the actions of these powerful, decadent people. All we’re seeing is them letting down their hair and having a good time, enjoying the fruits of their theft and extortion. I’m intrigued by this as an end of empire point of view, or maybe postcolonial commentary, as I think it gets to the heart of the politics of your art and the way you choose to comment on things you don’t like.
Solmi: When you do something that is so politically oriented, I think you naturally start with the idea that there’s a lot of things that are wrong in society. Because there is a tradition of artists starting from centuries ago who used their work to try to destabilize power. Of course, I don’t believe that with my art I’ll be able to overturn a government, but I do believe in speaking out about things that are failing in our society. I’m definitely an artist of the persuasion to want to help trigger the mind of people to maybe look at history and our society in a deeper way.
When I was working on the series “The Brotherhood” in 2015, I remember the level of discomfort some people had seeing my work because I was criticizing the way that American history was narrated, and in 2015 it was not so cool to talk about colonialism or to talk about how Native Americans and African Americans were exploited. Now it is more of a trend to criticize this ethnocentric and white supremacist view of history. But I remember in 2015, people would give me a hard time and I felt very lonely. To me it was simply a process, an adventure, in that to become an artist working in America meant I had to really understand the society in which I was living. That’s why I started to read A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, and Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano, and other sources to educate myself about the country.
I’m still like a guest. I’ve been here for 20 years, and I feel that my relationship with the United States is fantastic, but I will still probably never be American. That’s what it is. That also gave me the freedom to interpret historical events in a very open way, because I don’t feel the pressure many American people feel about talking and showing the dark sides of the society. I do believe that all of the issues in American society today are a consequence of starting with some very shaky foundations. That’s what I’m interested in at the moment.
Rail: Well, I think that you have, in terms of the limitations that you’ve created for yourself through this medium where there’s no text, no dialogue. The only way we can relate to these characters is through this visualization of them, which you’ve made, just for the sake of argument, intentionally crude, even repellent. And yet, I’m thinking a lot about the notion of bread and circuses. Because it doesn’t really feel like we’re looking at corrupted political leaders, and instead we’re just living another moment of empty celebrity culture. So instead of looking at what political and corporate leaders do, their actions, we tend as a society to trivialize all public life, and instead gawk at celebrities, their spats and their divorces, their so-called hardships. This feels like both of those things at the same time, almost like you’ve collapsed the two ideas together, so that ruthless politicians and empty-headed celebrities become the same thing, you fuse them together until they’re all Ivanka Trump.
Solmi: Absolutely, because if you think about it, we’re all complicit in this, especially in the nurturing of celebrity culture. I simply create this narrative to make sure that people are aware of this criticism that I make toward the leadership, but also probably to myself and to us all in a collective sense. This idealization of the celebrity can be very obnoxious. It can create a lot of negative narratives and negative outcomes in our society, but no matter what, we’re still doing it. I really think that I’m simply embedded in American society, way more than in the country where I come from. I live here and completely love where I am, and I don’t think I can ever work anywhere outside New York.
Rail: I want to connect this to the way you use gaming technology, because one of the things I was thinking about is that the reason these digital environments that you create are familiar to us is how they relate to first-person shooter games, this activity of flying through spaces and directing yourself on a jet into spaces where you’re conquering things and shooting adversaries and then moving on to the next stage of your triumph. What you’re doing, by contrast, is creating these very enveloping spaces, which are very seductive, but they’re also really hideous. Rather than wanting to fly around in those spaces with those characters, it’s like you’re trying to pull us inside a world that we don’t want to go in, because it’s really scary, and these people are really scary.
Solmi: I’ll take that as a compliment. You know, I feel like they’re very seductive. It’s not easy to be seductive with digital media, but to me, the technology is just one piece. When I am inside this universe that I’m creating in the studio, I really think like a filmmaker from the 1920s, who builds all of these film sets and has the opportunity to create all of these characters. I really enjoy going with the camera and capturing these intimate moments and dialogues with gestures that occur between these leaders.
My goal is to be assertive about digital technology as a form of art. That and, of course, to be absolutely unique, so people can recognize a work of mine from a mile away. I’m so invested in creating my own secluded universe that the way that I convey its meaning and aesthetic is my primary goal. No matter if I do it with drawings, or in a VR experience, the work must represent an innovation of my own aesthetic, and therefore my message, because, to me, art is the essential vehicle of communication.
Rail: Going back to The Bathhouse, there’s something I want people to notice, which is that the surfaces of all of your characters and objects and textures need to flicker, right? This is where the comparison to primitive, early cinema comes in, where they can’t just remain one color. They have to keep oscillating. Why is that?
Solmi: Well, if we go back to the 1933 King Kong movie, for example, what I was really attracted to, for the first few seconds before the title credit, was all of this flickering of the film. This technique is really a way to fight the flatness of digital technology, and maybe these are irrelevant details for many people, but for me they are extremely important.
Technically speaking, when I paint one texture, it gets reworked and scanned three times. So when I am at the studio, when I mount the video, this means cycling through the texture three times. For every character, I have more or less 10 to 12, 11 by 17 inch paintings. And for every character, each texture has to be painted and modified by me three times, so I do three scans in order and we recycle the texture three times, along with everything else that you see.
Some of these works are moving now to LA, to open at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. The title is The Bacchanalian Ones, which I really like. Friedrich Nietzsche was obsessed with Dionysus, and a lot of painters that I admire painted their own versions of “The Triumph of Bacchus.” The idea is to create a scene in which you show that this leader’s only goal is to unleash the pleasure of life.
I had the pleasure of working with the Rowan University engineering department, and my goal was to create a VR experience, but make it unique. So basically I thought, what about the viewer coming to the museum? Instead of just looking at a VR experience, they could also wear a 3D-printed, hand-painted mask of one of my characters, which was such a key part of the pandemic. So now I’m creating a new VR experience which will use a new wireless headset called the Oculus Quest 2.
Rail: One could quite easily envision a future iteration where there are, say, eight characters. Each one is a different spectator, moving around within the same VR experience. And they’re actually disguised as characters within the world.
Solmi: Absolutely, this is just phase one. For the next phase, what I’m hoping to do is have people from home, who own an Oculus Quest 2, get to have the same VR experience that the people at the gallery experience. I’m not there yet, but I’m really pushing so that anywhere in the world, they can connect and experience The Bathhouse remotely. I’m just waiting for some permissions, but hopefully it’s going to happen before the opening of the exhibition.
Rail: And you’ll have the experience of walking around inside that world as one of the characters?
Solmi: Absolutely. This is already happening at the gallery. I’m simply trying to upload this VR experience into a server within a VR community that will allow anyone who owns an Oculus Quest 2 to basically enter into this world and make decisions. So you can decide if you want to go smoke a cigar with George Washington, if you want to go and have a drink with Alexander the Great. Or you can simply be a voyeur and experience all of this and just be a part of it. With the VR experience, which is also called The Bacchanalian Ones, you have controllers, you can go inside the pool, navigate, move wherever you want, and become the narrator.
Rail: I guess it’s safe to say that all of these years building a dimensional world, a spatial experience based on video games, made it maybe a little bit easier for you to adapt your process to VR. It seems like you’re already halfway there by having done it the hard way, piecemeal, almost a craftsman’s approach.
Solmi: Well, I have always been seen as the eccentric one, the one that was doing weird things. Now, finally, time has caught up with what I do, because I don’t see a different way. I never felt that weird or eccentric. I just felt that really taking the job of an artist seriously meant taking full advantage of what the 21st century was offering me, you know, with real difficulty sometimes, and great stress. But it was so obvious that the technology was going in this direction, just as it’s also obvious that the new generation, the 15-year-olds and 12-year-olds, will consume art and see exhibitions in a completely different way from our generation.
Rail: They’ll slap on an Oculus and walk around to virtual galleries?
Solmi: I don’t think that the future is just in VR, but I can tell you that I think it’s a great privilege for an artist to be able to express himself with a video installation, with a painting, with VR, with anything, why not?
Rail: Let’s talk about the current installation in China.
Solmi: This is a 16,000-square-foot room at the Ocean Flower Island Museum in China, which is about to host this massive exhibition of international artists called Tides of the Century. For my part, I have submitted an immersive adaptation of The Great Farce—believe it or not, they told me, “Federico, your installation is too small, you have to create additional content to fill out the room!” So I went back into the piece and created three additional video segments to complete the circumference of the museum interior, and likewise provided a video projection to light up the floor. Basically, this is going to be an experience, with 1,000 visitors moving through the artwork, sort of like sharing a VR experience because of how completely immersive it will be. I think there are 40 projectors being used for this installation, and it’s the inaugural exhibition for the museum.
Rail: And in perfect contrast to a 40-projector immersive work in a 16,000 square foot room, tell me about the drawings.
Solmi: Drawing for me has always been the center, not that I was often able to show it, you know, and now I’ve been exposed to all this digital imagery for so many years, and I’ve always been fascinated with polygonal images and 3D wire-frame graphics. And thanks to the pandemic, I was able to open a second studio just dedicated to drawings. I thought I wanted to bring to life some of these virtual assets and digital skeletons that I’ve been playing around with for decades, to bring them to life in a unique and draft-y way. So, basically, what you see are not really accurate polygonal figures of course, because to a digital animator these drawings are completely inaccurate. I wanted to create this atmosphere, recalling the etchings of Rembrandt, the drawings of Georges Seurat, the spatial relationships of Morandi. I wanted to create a sort of magical, metaphysical zone, and then introduce images to this atmosphere that are a bit destabilizing, maybe, because people are not used to seeing drawings coming from virtual sources.
This is how I spent my Christmas holiday, in the basement of my home. I was always waking up very early, before my family got up, and I spent five or six hours drawing. What you see is, from the left, a character that is sort of like Napoleon, then you have a native king and then you have George Washington, then a Native American, then Cortés, and finally you have Christopher Columbus. What I thought was, what if I create a very ironic image, a satirical portrayal of the conquistadors as though they came to America to pay tribute, and respected Indigenous culture, learning to dance with the natives? With all this play of light and shadow, some people might say it came out macabre, but I think it’s very poetic. I didn’t want to make anything macabre, but I wanted to do something poetic with subjects that, unfortunately, are the legacy of this country.
Rail: I look at this drawing, and I don’t see it as satirical. I see it as almost tragicomic.
Solmi: Well, absolutely you can call it that, but we still have to speak about one thing that in my opinion doesn’t make a lot of sense, which is how the art world itself could exclude, over the past 20 years, all of these important discussions that are happening today. Maybe it’s the beginning of something much bigger, so that art is not just for an elitist group. Art has to reach a much wider audience, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for most of my career.