Stefano Caimi has a full beard and kind eyes. Born in Merate in 1991, he is an artist and professor of Computer Art at the New Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. Caimi’s work combines nature and technology, addressing complex themes such as time and diversity. On the occasion of his latest solo exhibition (Prelude. A botanical invite, The Flat – Massimo Carasi, Milan, on view until May 13), we decided to interview him. What follows is the account of a vibrant discussion that arose one April afternoon over a pseudo-radler and a glass of beer.

Alberto Villa You use technology a lot in your work. In Roots, for example, you translate the dialogic form of plants into computer-generated light and sound, creating a unique performance. How do you incorporate technology into your art practice?

Stefano Caimi Today we are accustomed to having everything packaged, even in technology: we download ready-made software packages and make do with what we have, and therefore we don’t go into depth and research. I prefer to treat technology like any other material: in order to be able to use it, one must first understand it thoroughly. The forma mentis I developed studying architecture allows me to approach projects through a process of research, experimentation, knowledge of techniques and finally production. Technology is not the end but a means to artistic formalization: from my point of view, an art that has as its ultimate goal the use of cutting-edge technology without further development remains sterile.

AV Phytochronos is an installation consisting of a circle of wooden fragments connected to devices that produce a rhythmic scanning of sounds: the ticks, or rather, the silences of different durations that separate them, tell the story of the annual growth of trees. It made me think of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, author of The Little Prince, when he writes that “something shines in the silence,” since it is precisely in the interval between sounds that this work tells of time passing.

SC We have been unaccustomed to considering pauses, and on the contrary, theater does so very much. The silence, the blackness, the pauses are strongly compositional moments that allow us to catalyze attention to the full moment. In Phytochronos I wanted to approach dendrochronology, which is the study of tree growth based on climatic conditions. The residency at Dolomiti Contemporanee allowed me to engage with the Center for the Study of the Alpine Environment in San Vito di Cadore (ITA); therefore, I had access to the database used by researchers to share information regarding tree development over time.Through analysis of the section of trees at the chemical level, researchers are able to understand the climatic conditions of a specific year. Through analysis of the section of trees at the chemical level, researchers are able to understand the climatic conditions of a specific year. I selected two French countries that are home to specimen old oak trees (to expand the range of data). I was interested in creating a system that ascribes a sound to the way trees write weather and climate: in an optimal climatic condition the tree grows faster and vice versa. I then went to work on the time interval between ticks, each time proportional to the growth of the tree. The idea was that by standing in the center of the installation, the viewer would have the impression of being inside the structure of a growing tree.

AV In some works, such as Post fata resurgo and Phyllon, you use the process of galvanization to coat mushrooms or leaves with a layer of copper: is this a way of dealing with the transience of natural things? Is it an attempt to stabilize ephemeral things and to dialogue with an eternal cyclicity?

SC It is an important component of my research: the natural cycle of life is a stimulus for me to reflect on what lies ahead. In nature, death is a new beginning, a continuous rising from the ashes. Post fata resurgo (After death I rise again) is the motto of the phoenix and emphasizes the cyclical aspect of the life of the fungus: what we see is only the fruiting apparatus, but the fungus is composed of an underground vegetative apparatus (the mycelium) that continues to live for many years. Mycelia are especially important in terms of communication between plants and the exchange of nutrients. They are in fact symbionts of plants, with which they establish an extremely valuable give-and-take relationship. This is why plants in pots struggle to grow, while in the soil they do well: because the soil contains mycelium. We often underestimate how interconnected all species are. The Xylella problem that devastated the olive crops of Puglia is a perfect example: land mismanagement, geared toward monoculture of olive trees, overlooked the importance of biodiversity. The disease was therefore fulminating, as the olive crops were totally lacking the defenses they would have had in an intact environment. By this I do not mean that we should stop growing olive trees, but that it is important to do it sustainably, taking into account the reasons for natural complexity: diversity means resilience.

AV What is your view about the impact we, as a species, are having on our own and the ecosystem’s survival?

SC We need to be respectful of nature but without romanticism: it is normal for a forest to burn, for trees to be on the ground, for disorder and death to occur. Undergrowth chaos and organic “dirt” are essential for the life of all species that inhabit the forest: the important thing is to remove our waste, which does not belong to the ecosystem. A tidy, clean, regular forest like those favored during the 19th century is not a forest, but a garden. Today there is so much confusion about these issues, which leads to erroneous management of the natural heritage. Most importantly, the issue of climate change is more about us as a species than about nature. Nature takes its course and “doesn’t give a damn” about us. What carries us forward is our resilience, and this fits perfectly with the progressive view I have of technology and science. It is only by learning to respond, as nature does, that we can progress as a civilization and become more caring and sustainable.

AV An art that deals with the complex issue of sustainability, what impact does it actually have on the state of things? What is the role of art and culture in this regard?

SC To give a single definition of art is impossible, because any attempt would inevitably be contradictory. Art is punk. It is outside certain patterns and concepts, everything applies in art. I think art creates symbols, visions and helps to disseminate. But I also think it is a matter of the observer making sure that what they are looking at, feeling or reading resonates within themselves and brings them to a greater awareness. I certainly think it is important to use contemporary languages and tools, also as a matter of innovation. Science dissemination is important but not the main element-I draw from science to open up new possibilities. The thing I like about art is that sometimes you go looking for who knows what; sometimes you look around and find that you have a whole world to investigate very close to you or even in yourself. Learning from the simple things is what I like most.

AV Is the ethical dimension important in your work?

SC Of course it is. But I don’t consider myself an activist-my role is closer to that of a popularizer, although I’m not even that. I am an observer of nature, telling it through my own sensibility and means, hoping to create a dialogue with people to discover unseen points of view and awareness. Consumerism has created a gap between natural elements and the use we make of them: to our eyes everything seems artificial. It is a detachment from reality that leads to a basic misunderstanding. We are accustomed to the need to own too many things than we really need. My philosophy is this: after buying a product, I have to get 100 percent (and more) of what it can give me out of it; once I do that, I can think about buying a substitute, otherwise it means it is not needed. On the other hand, our society has de-educated us to value time: some things require patience and waiting, and perhaps the pandemic has helped us in this regard. Today’s life is super hectic, but in nature times are much more diluted. Certain time frames serve, in my opinion, to make us feel good; but in a society where well-being is put second to profit, even time has become money.

AV A very special series of works is Phytosynthesis, consisting of prints of digital images depicting “deconstructed” plants and flowers. How did this series come about?

SC Specifically, I looked for a representation that could show the emptiness of which we are made: we have not yet been able to see the atom under a microscope, but there is space between the nucleus and the electrons. On the other hand, there is an attempt to call up the cosmos and reflect on plants as that element that connects us to the sun: through photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, allowing us to breathe and exist. I tried to dematerialize the plants as if they were astral nebulae and remark the connection between the various cells through lines that connect the points the image is made up of.

AV Many have noted formal similarities between the neural connections within our brains and the network of galaxies in space. This is something that really fascinates me: it reminds me of how similar even the most distant things can be, yet so different.

SC That’s right: the various structures of life and reality have incredible similarities. It is essential, however, to grasp the nuances that differentiate them, otherwise we risk flattening everything into an unchanging and boring sameness that prevents us from discovering the particularities of the world. There is also this intention in my work; I try to capture the tension between the detail and the whole. The prints in the Phytosynthesis series, for example, when viewed closely seem to contain micro-landscapes. People viewing them have revealed to me that they have glimpsed images within them that are related to their memories. Moving away, however, the images of flowers and plants appear clear and unmistakable. I think this play on distance and proximity is also related to my architectural studies. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said that “God is in the details.” I am convinced of this, because the attention to detail involves a new perception of the whole. Not so much because of the presence of the detail itself, but because of the possibility of getting closer and farther away, changing nuance and point of view. For me, the fundamental component of art is the possibility of changing perspective and, therefore, always questioning oneself.

AV Speaking of perspectives, mankind has always thought that we are the center of the world, that we have been placed on a pedestal by right of nature. We have been convinced of this by religion and humanism, as well as by wholly specious evolutionary theories. Today, however, recent studies are showing the presence of complex consciousness in animals and plants as well: is there hope for breaking down anthropocentrism?

SC I am optimistic: human beings are part of a complex ecosystem, and I hope that as we move forward we will become more and more aware of this sense of belonging. It is a bit like the human life cycle: adolescence, an age when many mistakes are made that result in more or less serious damage, is followed by growth, a new awareness of who one is and the world around us. The phase we are going through is a bit of a transition between adolescence and adulthood: we are maturing and trying to find our place in the world.

published on ArtsLife & Forme Uniche