“From Screen to Nature and Back Again”: an Interview with NEEN founder Miltos Manetas

by Mara Sartore
April 9, 2018
Mara Sartore
Manetas Miltos

On the occasion of Miltos Manetas’ solo show at MAXXI, Rome we interviewed the artist to learn more about his art and practice, mostly related to social networks, selfie, fashion and the imaginary of the contemporary age.

For his solo show, Miltos (Athens, 1964) brings together with large canvases a world populated by selfies, a reality observed by Facebook, pornographic images next to fashion, the streets of the whole world he recorded by Google. A painter, conceptual and theoretical artist, recognized at international level for his internet-based works and for having founded in 2009 the first Internet Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Miltos tells about the emotions and the imaginary of our contemporary era.

Mara Sartore: In 2000 you founded NEEN (the first art movement of the 21st century) which investigates the Post-Internet Art. How have the things changed during the time? Which is your relationship with the internet and social media today?

Miltos Manetas: Around 2001 “The Post Internet Society” was born. I remember buying a little box that year, it was a wireless modem that you could connect to your laptop and have internet everywhere! To test it, I drove to very remote places in California until I finally reached the deserts of the Death Valley. The thing always worked! But a week later, the company that was producing it cancelled it’s service, returned the money to those who had bought it and closed down it’s business, literally disappeared! Not one journalist wrote a single word about that disappearance and never again such an internet-anywhere device came back in the market. The oligarchy of phone companies – the stars of our days – was re-established. Still, it was evident that this planet had now a new atmosphere and that was internet. What we call Western Society, quickly start re-organising in that environment: to live without internet connection, would now mean loneliness and it would have a great cost to your life and profession. After 2003 already, it would take lots of guts to stay an “Unconnected”.
I think it was there, on the depths of the Dead Valley, in a location full of gigantic mosquitos where stones are rumored to move around when nobody is watching, that I experienced for the first time the frenzy of Existential Computing. Suddenly, it was as if my presence in that particular spot, the presence of the car that brought me there, all my instruments, my clothes etc, were adding ones and zeros, computing. That same year, I met John Perry Barlow and we became friends. Life for Barlow was all about “frenzy” but of another kind: getting together with people, all kind of human souls, geniuses, assholes, losers and unbearable winners of the Silicon Valley type, neo-drug addicts, meta-politicians, shy sex-exploiters, you name it.. What really Barlow was doing with us, was building up a society network – not a social one, there’s a big difference.

MS: In your work you proceed in two directions: on one hand you employ a traditional and more “classic” technique, the oil painting, on the other you experiment the web and the virtual universe. It is fascinating this dialogue between the tactile, material and physical aspects of your practice and the notions of virtuality and abstraction of your main interest. Could you tell us more about your practice?

MM: I will respond to this question with Newpressionism’s slogan: “From Screen to Nature and back again”

MS: You’ve stated: “The landscape of the screen is for us as nature was for the Impressionists. We live in contact with the landscape of the screen, so it makes sense to paint it”. Could you tell us about your concept of art and your relationship with the internet society?

MM: Yes, nature was a new thing for me, I discovered it late in 2010 when I went to sleep on a tree in the middle of the Amazonian forest. From then on I start thinking at Nature not in terms of how Nature it is called but as an attempt to naturalize a side of the creatures around us. The Indios, for example, call animals and trees “people”, there’s no division between us and nature. So when I say that computers and digital objects are nature is because they are part of the abstraction that we consider nature and they become more and more nature.
I don’t have a concept of art nor even of myself as an artist. I feel as an operator who is searching in the dark. I find myself in a sentence by Eraclitus which states: “Man in the dark lights a candle for himself when the light from his brain is over”. This is best way in which I can describe myself when I do art.
As for internet, this is a landscape that I’m floating in it, I search in every corner of it trying to find some light. What I know about it, my relationship with it is a tactile and digital feeling, it has to do with my fingers.

MS: During the Venice Biennale 2009 you launched the Internet Pavilion. On this occasion as well as in 2013 with the project curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, your interest was addressed mainly to the “unconnected”, to those who do not use the internet. Do you think it is still possible for people to live without internet?

MM: Yes, there are people who live without internet. It is an unprivileged condition, proper of those people who cannot afford internet. This could sound strange but this happen because there’s a huge separation between us and them. Nowadays we cannot imagine people without connection, mobile phones, ecc… These figures become more and more significant today as they are becoming for us holy figures. This was my intention when I launched the Internet pavilion in 2009. In that context I was looking for unprivileged people among the privileged ones, because people engaged in the art are privileged. And I found them, there were unconnected, even artists that were acting without internet. These are holy figures, at least for me

MS: Could you tell us about your works from the series “Internet Paintings”, on view at MAXXI? Which is the creative process behind these artworks?

MM: I started in 2002 and it is an ongoing project. During these years, I started thinking at the possibility of existential computing. I don’t know the exact meaning of this but it was a concept that come in my brain on a rainy day in London and which I lost during the same day when I was doing a video.
According to the multiverse theory, for example, how shall we live our life now that we know that the universe is not unique but maybe it’s part of a larger system? I don’t think there are other universes around us but we are changing our vision of the reality thanks to the progress of technologies, the scientific and physic theories. If we take in consideration this possibility of multi-universes we shall think every time at the act we do or don’t do. For example, we are thirsty while working on a desk: my brain wants me to get up and have a glass of water but my body doesn’t move. What should we think? Which is the real act we did? Which is our relationship with the things around us? This is existential computing for me. I decided that I should use this exhibitions to experiment and construct quantum computer or at least test them. The idea of the exhibition was to use paintings as computational objects, as codes and databases. The space is full of codes and is still under constructions. In this context, I see myself as an operating system, a software that interrelate with the works and the environment. The most interesting thing is what we left out of our projection. What will be happing if we start making computations?

MS: You were born in Greece, lived in Italy, LA, London and now you are currently based in Bogotá. Could you tell us about this nomadic life stile and your perspective on the cultural scene of the city where you live now?

MM: I moved to Italy as Greeks didn’t want me to be an artist. In Greece my professors at school told me that I had no talent. Actually they were right as you don’t need to have talent to be an artist. To be an artist you need wisdom. In my life I moved slightly to the West because we are western people and we are used to move a little bit to the west and a little bit to the North. I first arrived in Rome, then in Milan and there I was stuck. Western and powerful cities are like blackholes, like packmen, they grab you, they eat you and they keep you there for sometimes. I stayed in Milan for 10 years. Then I arrived in New York and in this city I was stuck again. In the US I moved horizontally as this is the structure of the country. So I arrived in Los Angeles where I was grabbed by another kind of hole, the hole of a billiard play table. After that, I was bounced back to the East, as I cannot further to the West. The West ends in Los Angles. So I started coming back to the East, to New York, and then to Paris and London. I started living in a triangle, by moving frequently in these cities. In this way I become an important Western artist until I found a moment when I wanted to die.
At that point I met the South. I met São Paulo and Bogotá, in Colombia where I discover nature, and fatherhood. Here a lot of things changed into me. I had a sort of modification which affected my operating system. It happened something that obliged me to change as if a windows operating system is installed into a Mac computer. I discovered locations of the South and this brought me back to where I start, to Greece and Italy, Sabina close to Rome.This is my Google map story.
The cultural scene of the city is something I detest. Every city of our Empire world is the same. In terms of visual art there is a remaking of the 90s aesthetics. But there are peculiar and interesting situations where artists are doing completely different things which attract me. That’s why I want to collaborated with these people which I invited in the exhibition as well. So I will see them and paint them, as I am nothing more than a painter.

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