Today we cross the gates of the “Fabbrica del Vapore” [“Steam Factory”], which has always been a reference point in Milan thanks to its numerous exhibitions and cultural events. One of them was “Artevisione”, organised in 2016 by Careof and Sky, when the space opened its doors to artists and professionals looking for a studio space. This is how Niccolo’ Benetton and Simone Santilli aka “The Cool Couple” found theirs. It’s been a while since the duo has been making themselves noticeable and they are justly gaining more and more recognition. After a brief chat and a quick look at their latest work in progress, we understand why. Apart from being incredibly funny, Niccolo’ and Simone have something that it’s hard to find nowadays – a well-thought sense of irony, that, surprisingly, still manages to provoke. Their studio, based in this Liberty building, is characterised by what we could call an “organised chaos” where they share ideas that often spring from reflections on the “paradoxes” that mark our contemporaneity.
Your experimentations lead to different styles, but do you have a specific Modus Operandi?
That’s right – we don’t have a favoured style, but we do have a constant way of approaching a project. Everything starts with a research phase which varies in length depending on the work and ends up constituting the main structure. When we figure this structure is solid enough, we chose an apparatus that we reckon might transmit our idea in the best possible way. We then concentrate on its “formalisation” – the actual creation of the artwork is deeply connected with its specific installation and its interaction with the exhibition space. We try our best to keep all these phases under control – we think that the quality of the transmission is fundamental. We care that the artwork doesn’t talk exclusively to the field’s professional otherwise it will end up staying in self-referentiality.
What do you expect from your job?
We don’t expect that much. When talking about our job meant as “artistic profession”, the matters are more worldly; but when referring to a specific project, we at least expect it to provoke something! It is like a sort of algorithm – a process that, at the end of the day, has to be working. The artwork, once conceived, needs to survive, stand on its feet and, most of all, needs to be able to hold a great deal of stress. Having said so, we don’t ask our art to change the world.
Most of your artworks contain a strong sense of irony deeply connected with our society. You’ve said that often these stimuli grow from daily “paradoxes” – the “Dudú case” is an example (for those of you who don’t know, Dudú is the puppy that Silvio Berlusconi gave to Francesca Pascale as a present). This episode contributed to a growth in poodles’ sales of 20% in less than a year (and the title of your work highlights in fact that “Cool People Love Poodles”). Dudú became a celebrity – many tabloids have been talking about his habits, tastes and love stories…
Yes, we question ourselves on many aspects of modern society, the ones that to us sound hideous. The ideas are born when we feel some sort of friction.
In regards to this, could you tell us something more about your project “Cool People Pay Happily”, recently presented at MACRO? It is a sort of presage, a “what if”, that invites us to reflect on something we see every day without even realising it…
For “Cool People Pay Happily” we put the so-called “freemium” experience under a magnifying glass. “Freemium” is the word used to describe the phenomena of the “free, but only to a certain extent”. We realised how dramatically fascinating this marketing move is – despite the apparent democratisation of certain goods and services, we are walking in the direction of some sort of natural selection of the user, which of course creates considerable “gaps”.
Freemium’s politic is based in fact on a series of concepts and terminologies that recall principles of equality and participation which had already been used almost twenty years ago to describe the first internet utopia. However, this similarity is just appearance.
All the resources are yes, available to everyone that owns an internet-connected device, yet with some limitations – Spotify is an example. Also, our idea of freedom gets distorted by the fact that we apparently seem freer than ever to express ourselves. However, since the debates take place on private platforms, one can’t be surprised if marginalised as a result of protesting in someone else’s “house”. This leads to talking about the “Internet for poor people” – a project that aims to take the Internet to underdeveloped parts of the world. This will allow the population to cheaply browse a few websites, which will be chosen based on the company users decide to sign up with. Freemium economy is an integral part of our daily life and one wonders whether this attitude is going to have some long-term consequences on our culture – for example, having to pay in order to have certified news and being able to watch something which is not trash.
We tried to apply the freemium economic style to the art world and understand how we could deliver the message to that part of the population which has a relative perception of the problem. Since the art market is based on the trade of luxury items, exclusive so to say, and exclusivity is a fundamental trait of freemium, we realised this could have been a perfect contact point to exploit.
This provocation highlights that attitude of accepting certain dynamics and adapting to disadvantageous conditions, for fear of missing out on some opportunities. This sounds incredibly familiar especially (unfortunately) when talking about Italy, specifically in regards to the art world. What is your experience in this case?
We were actually talking about this matter with some friends, in regards to a quite emblematic episode that didn’t arise as many open critics as we expected – the Quadriennale in Rome. The thing that left us puzzled right from the start was that the budget for the curatorial projects was basically non-existent.
Facing these premises, we found ourselves divided between the enthusiasm of participating to the event and the difficulty of accepting its conditions. We knew well the advantages of making a sacrifice and participating, yet we were very torn. If even for the Quadriennale these were the conditions, how could we expect to find decent working conditions without leaving the country?
The two exhibitions proposal we received were very different from one another but both contained some problematics. One of them, in particular, asked the artists to think about artworks that didn’t have either production nor transport expenses, wanting to highlight the invisibility of the artists’ work, that is rarely being paid for if not when the artwork’s sold. Fortunately, we then found out that the staff accepted some complaints and that some changes had been made in order to financially support the event, incrementing the budget.
However, the overview is quite worrying. We fight for Foodora’s workers and we are glad when there’s production budget. We could have the power to change things, but if no one stands up for him/herself, then our work will be increasingly less and less protected.
Could we say that we are missing a proper support of the institutions?
Italy is defined by many realities and it is a country that is often described with too much ease. Still, we cannot deny that we live in a world where, if you as an artist ask for a certain fee (which should be legitimate on every level) then you raise eyebrows. Without the support of institutions and private banking sector that acquire the youngest, it seems normal for an emerging artist to want to grow outside Italy. But let’s not forget that abroad, as normal as it is, local artists are given the priority. Also, foreign artists in their 20s have the experience and the self-awareness that us Italians mature with a delay of ten years. Unfortunately, there are some laws which we can’t run away from – your quotation determines your work, that’s undeniable. If you are not part of an auction then you are not recognised by the system. This means that there are some inevitable steps, which in Italy are even slower and more intricate. What matters at the end of the day, is finding the right people to construct a well-supported network.
For all these reasons, often artists find themselves in the position of having to be promoter of him/herself. This is why we always ask this final question – you find yourselves in an elevator with a famous curator and you have a minute to tell him/her about your work – what would you say?
“The cool couple” – we design, produce, install and ensure until everything is up on the walls, in a fucking COOL way.