Under the fierce critical eye of
Auto Italia

Words by:

Z casts her gaze across a futurist, digitised cityscape.

She invites the client into what she dubs ‘a space for exploration, movement and connection.’ Her image fades into a browser-wide flood of terracotta rock swatch-matching against a beaten terrain of ultra-detailed human skin. This in turn cedes to snapshot iconography of antiseptic, cosmetic cleanliness and statements in the stilted lexicon of spam. The progression is controlled by a two- fingered scroll of the trackpad. It’s an oozing, addictive online experience, affecting enough to engage even the most jaded and integrated internet lifer.

She invites the client into what she dubs ‘a space for exploration, movement and connection.’ Her image fades into a browser-wide flood of terracotta rock swatch-matching against a beaten terrain of ultra-detailed human skin. This in turn cedes to snapshot iconography of antiseptic, cosmetic cleanliness and statements in the stilted lexicon of spam. The progression is controlled by a two-fingered scroll of the trackpad. It’s an oozing, addictive online experience, affecting enough to engage even the most jaded and integrated internet lifer.

Meet Z is the latest project from the consistently outstanding not-for-profit collective Auto Italia. Active since 2007, and having set its stall out at numerous squats and free locations throughout its existence, it now inhabits a dedicated space in London’s King’s Cross. Currently run by the trio of Marianne Forrest, Marleen Boschen and founder Kate Cooper, and assured by the validation of an addition to Arts Council England’s list of National Portfolio Organisation in 2012, Auto Italia’s influence among the discourse of British contemporary art is strong.

It’s curious, given Meet Z’s understanding of ‘space’ as a conceptual notion, that physical space is so key to Auto Italia. As the geographical specificity of the name – adopted from the first donated location they occupied, a disused car showroom – suggests, it is highly important that a literal focal point for the organisation exists, even if only in order to effectively interrogate the function of the art space, to develop ‘alternative approaches to production and exhibition formats.’

A chronology of Auto Italia’s projects traces the evolution of a distinctive, vital voice. In 2010, Auto Italia LIVE presented a cross-section of art and entertainment via live streaming of artist-made broadcasts, performances and discussions. 2012 saw Kate Cooper, Marianne Forest, Andrew Kerton and Jess Wiesner collaborate on My Skin is At War With A World Of Data, commissioned for Artissima, Turin. Presenting female objectification taken to its ultimate ends in a stark dissection of beauty campaigns and propaganda of fear and inadequacy, a female figure is presented as a ‘she factory’; a receptacle of reproductions and desire, a source of DNA, a sinister figure of industrialised, homogenised sexuality.

In 2013, this project was reproduced as part of the Viewing Copy exhibition at Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective, a project curated by Alec Steadman which tested Auto Italia’s ability to traverse space and time with their output, displacing both Auto Italia LIVE and My Skin Is At War… across years and continents. It was also an exhibition curated largely via email.

Late last year, POLYMYTH x Miss Information brought multiple concepts – female objectification, the role of technology in modern life and the transmission from digital to physical spaces – together in a dense and holistic multimedia project. Collaborating with a range of artists, including the musician Holly Herndon, an artist herself revered for deconstructing digital processes, it crafted a central, mythical character, Miss Information, then created her URL ‘boudoir’ IRL, merging with tongue-in-cheek puns and Velvet Underground lyrics.

Most recently, Rigged, Kate Cooper’s 2015 solo exhibition at Berlin’s Kunst-Werke, ruminated further still on female objectification, the hyperreal visions of dehumanised femininity toyed with in My Skin Is At War… heightened by increased budget, meaning women could be entirely CG. These poreless, lifeless-yet-beautiful figures address the lack of agency innate to reproductions of human form in the watermarked, Google-image age; between subject, image, and receiver. The female form was fetishised as an empty vessel of desire, with the dead eyes of a mannequin. Rigged’s evocation of hyper capitalism’s end goal of turning the female form into a consumer product was potent, and unnervingly poignant.

Auto Italia’s current crop of work calls to mind numerous cultural touchstones; the hyperreal, post-internet aesthetic of PC Music, who utilise their sound and presentation to reproduce modern pop in a heightened form; the work of internet artists like LaTurbo Avedon, an avatar manifested as art producer and Amalia Ulman, who turned her Instagram feed into a conceptual performance; the dystopian technological nightmares of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, or even the documentaries of Adam Curtis, the potency of whose dissections of human history only become fully apparent when the viewer is already embroiled in them.

Having met Z, and complied with her direction, we though it only proper to meet two of the central figures behind Auto Italia. Conduced via email, as seemed appropriate, here follows our dialogue with Marianne Forrest and Marleen Boschen.

Auto Italia isn’t a figurative collaboration across an indefinite space, you’re centred very much on a concrete, geographical location. Is the physical space the most important aspect, or is it a way of thinking associated with the studio?

Marianne Forrest: It’s interesting you’ve picked up on the idea of a studio as a permanent, geographic location, as this is something we spend a lot of time thinking about and trying to define (or leave undefined). In terms of spaces we’ve been located in, Auto Italia has moved fairly frequently since its inception. It began in a squat, and the project has always relied on finding donated exhibition spaces from which to work. The lines between studio, office and public space often blur, with the use of each space changing according to what we need it to do. Having a space in which we meet each other and other artists is key to how we produce. Auto Italia is collaboratively run, and I think meeting daily to work together in the studio is really important for that to truly be how we function. However, this doesn’t mean that we necessarily need to have a static exhibition space in order to work as we do.

The use of the line “I’ll Be Your Mirror, I’ll Reflect What You Are” in last year’s POLYMYTH x Miss Information project seems to take on an almost threatening quality – the idea of the insights and information your technology holds about you, of a projected digital self which is separate from who you perceive yourself to be. Is this intentional?

Marleen Boschen: We developed the POLYMYTH project with artist and curator Justin Jaeckle, who was really interested in bringing pop-cultural references like the ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ Velvet Underground lyric into Miss Information’s narrative. But there were connections to surveillance of very private interactions in other pieces in the project such as Home, the Holly Herndon and Metahaven collaboration. Justin’s approach was from a playful context of sampling references and voices in this character, but ideas around how we perform and perceive ourselves through technology are definitely also present in other projects such as Meet Z and My Skin Is at War…How can we use technology to construct something helpful that takes pressure off us rather than feels threatening? I think this comes down to questions around agency and being in control of your own means of production – concerns at the centre of Auto Italia’s ethos.

We’re very interested in how avatars (these could be images, characters etc) can work for you in a positive way, how we can construct a surface that can be intentionally misleading to give room for something else underneath. Always having to be yourself can be incredibly tiring, and having this separation is useful. In a way Auto Italia works like that for us as individuals.

Meet Z, Auto Italia, 2014. Image courtesy of Auto Italia and the artists.

What can you tell us about the Meet Z project and the experience you’re led through by her?

MB: Meet Z is a proposal for new approaches to productivity, and how neoliberal paradigms around work and creativity can be corrupted or employed through someone else; in this case Z, our lead character who ‘works with you and for you, so you don’t have to.’ Scrolling through video, branding, high-res imagery, CGI environments and spam, the experience acts as a trailer or preview that hints at new spaces for work, leisure and lifestyle while thinking about how we’re emotionally and spatially affected by the ideologies around us. How can they slowly break apart? That’s Z’s fate as she gradually gets exhausted during the journey.

What we wanted to do with Meet Z was very much about creating a new kind of experience online, something that wasn’t moving image but resembled the flow of surfaces, images and narratives we experience online in a new way, involving depth and our physical interactions with devices. At the same time it was about creating a collaborative project, working with a great team including artist Pablo Jones-Soler, graphic designer Michael Oswell and photographer Theo Cook. This allowed us to bring together innovative image technologies and coding, thinking about how this could work with fiction and be distributed across different platforms outside the piece such as Instagram and Twitter.

We’re conducting this interview via email, which was the medium used for much of the curation of Viewing Copy at Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, 2013. Obviously there’s a great deal lost via these remote methods of interaction, but what can be gained?

MF: For Viewing Copy this became a really central question, and in fact led to the show’s title, referring to the digital versions of artworks curators share between each other, lo-res enough for quick and endless circulation, good enough quality to get the picture. In a show like this, we were interested in how past projects and even a sense of Auto Italia as a group or organisation, might be transmitted into a space where we knew we were not able to go ourselves. Aside from practical production concerns, and working with new materials that we couldn’t get a sense of before the show, there is actually a certain level of freedom gained through this way of working. When you’re so removed from the physical and cultural location in which you’re being presented, maybe that’s the time to really push past projects into new things.

We spent a lot of time thinking about older projects and different ways we could imagine them, and what could actually get to Cairo, whose customs and postal service we were warned might well not admit artwork into the country. What we were left with was a mass of digital files: video, images and texts and essentially a blank canvas for re-configuring them.

While My Skin Is At War With A Word Of Data takes female objectification to its ultimate ends, these figures are also presented with a redeeming degree of tenderness or affection. Do you view modern advertising, and the entire movement to turn people into consumers as impressive/inevitable, or horrifying, or both?

MF: I think on many levels the movement from person to consumer is complete, though it surely doesn’t remove the humanity from the former! In the My Skin… project, a collaboration between myself and Kate with artists Andrew Kerton and Jess Wiesner working closely with Theo Cook, we were thinking a lot about the physical relationship between ourselves and our bodies and how we digitally present or replicate these. Establishing the characters within the film very much as “workers”, we wanted to question the labour inherent in these forms of communication or self-presentation. Perhaps within these spheres such as advertising and campaigns, there’s space to carve out new ways of relating to mass imagery, tactics we can use as artists, language we can make work for us?

Finally, what other projects do Auto Italia have on the horizon?

MF: We’ve got a lot of international collaborations lined up this year including showing a new commission at Ithuba Art Gallery in Johannesburg in early March (a project commissioned by British Council) and we’re exhibiting My Skin Is At War With A World Of Data at the Hessell Museum at the end of that month. And as you mentioned, we’ve just launched the Meet Z project, co-commissioned by The Space.

For more information about Auto Italia South East and Meet Z visit autoitaliasoutheast.org

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