Engineering clay at Radicate
By Julia Buntiane, Editor-in-Chief
Radicate, the nonprofit organization based out of the University of Savona (Italy) campus engages artists with researchers in energy science and engineering through their "Be Sm/ART" residency program, now in its second year. We talked with Radicate's founder and artistic director, Tiziana Casapietra, and current "Be Sm/ART 2" resident Francesca Perona:
Julia Buntaine, SciArt Magazine: Why was Radicate founded?
Tiziana Casapietra, founder & artistic director of Radicate: Radicate is a non-profit independent organization founded in 2013. Our main aim is to deeply understand our times and our rapidly changing technological landscape through contemporary art practices and research. Our office is located in the Smart City, which is part of the Savona Campus where the Environmental and Energy Engineering department is developing the first example of a smart energy micro-grid. The university campus is therefore an exemplary laboratory in the development of the futuristic Smart City, where we believe that art must play an important role.
In order to comprehend global shifts from the standpoint of contemporary art, we regularly conduct conversations with contemporary art interpreters. These conversations are realized with the use of new digital media technologies that enable the construction of a global network. We are attracted to the immaterial, sustainable, and intimate use of these forms of communication. These conversations are made readily and permanently available on our online platform radicate.eu.
During these conversations, we discuss urgent questions related to sustainability, migration, climate, geopolitical and economic changes, and stunning developments in science and technology. These issues are also ultimately developed within the context of transcultural and interdisciplinary projects, such as the project “Be Sm/ART,” which also includes experts from the fields of engineering and science. These projects are materialized in the form of events that address both the territory in which the projects are conceived as well as the international research community that it references.
JB: What does Radicate aim to do with its residency program?
TC: “Be Sm/ART” is an artistic-scientific project that calls in artists to creatively interpret the Smart City experimentations carried out in the halls of the Ligurian University Centre. We aim to stimulate an experimental vision that transgresses the dichotomy of art, science, and technology, and ventures into unknown territories. The idea is to have artists, scientists, engineers, and technologists exchange views on the common grounds of research and experimentation to offer their special vision of the sustainable city of the future. We strongly believe that an interdisciplinary approach is what we all need to better face the complexity of our times and huge challenges of our near future.
"Be Sm/ART 2" resident Francesa Perona
Julia Buntaine: Why did you want to be a “Be Sm/ART” Radicate resident?
Francesca Perona, Radicate resident: I was really interested in the framework offered by the Be Sm/ART residency. I felt it required exactly my methodology and skills: I am generally on the look out for opportunities to create interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborative work.
My research always starts from investigating a material and the opportunities afforded by it. Sometimes this research is driven by functional design purposes and therefore I spend a lot of time in the scientific literature looking for specific chemical and mechanical properties; in other cases my approach is more historical and cultural and requires an anthropological and ethnographic approach. I generally spend a lot of time talking to people, especially older generations, to better understand their relationship with the material, and how it has evolved (or was forgotten) over time.
Clay and clay artifacts fascinate me. I think that these objects can be interpreted as “geo-markers” of the local territory, since the fired objects maintain specific bio-geo-chemical characteristics that perfectly describe the geology and geography of the area where the raw clays are extracted. It’s a bit like a diary of the material.
In addition, this area of Italy has a huge history and for a long time the local economy has relied on ceramics manufacturing, an industry that has undergone various shifts and is now in huge crisis, since most of the ateliers and factories are shut due to lack of a market. All these aspects made a very interesting starting point for a project.
Last but not least, I have experience working between traditional craftsmanship and new technologies, so the challenge of merging traditional ceramics fabrication and digital fabrication through the Fablab robotic arm was a super exciting opportunity!
JB: Has your work always involved science and/or technology, or is this new for you?
FC: I generally work at the intersection of design, science, and technology. I have worked on a range of academia-industry projects investigating design opportunities of reactive materials in future scenarios (mainly polymer-based responsive materials). And I have also developed a range of artistic projects during residencies or commissions which required a similar interdisciplinary approach and involved various actors from different disciplines.
I’d say that my work has developed towards this collaborative, interdisciplinary practice, where I act as a "glue" between experts from different fields, translating ideas horizontally and adapting approaches and processes from one field to another.
JB: Why do you think it's important to bring together the arts, sciences, and technology?
FC: I think we need more diffractive practices (K. Barad), capable of offering more holistic and hybrid perspectives on science and technology.
I believe that interdisciplinarity allows “creative” practitioners and scientists to ask new questions, or answer same questions with new materials, from a different angle.
Scientific research goes so deeply into a field, a topic, a sub-topic, and a sub-sub-topic, that sometimes it is difficult to relate the results back to something purposeful and meaningful for the general public. I believe that sometimes asking broader questions and adapting findings from these niches to a here-and-now purpose allows the development of interesting and innovative solutions. It also helps the general public to better understand scientific research which can otherwise appear quite abstract.
A similar approach is needed in technology. Apart from the fact that it’s a field that is still widely white-male dominated, it is also driven by commercial needs (if not military research) and mainstream applications in my opinion often kill potential alternative applications that could be more purposeful. (This is actually a subject that could be the topic of a long discussion, so I hope that it doesn’t get misinterpreted). So open software and open hardware cultures allow to open these black boxes and offer critical perspectives.
JB: What was your favorite part about this residency?
FC: The whole process was great. I left the project very open at the beginning, so that I could absorb the most from every discipline before taking a clear direction. For my work this is the best approach.
What was surprising in this particular project was the strong bonds that we were able to create with every single collaborator. By the end of the project we are all really good friends, a bit like a family. This is really important and is part of the success of the project. Every discipline contaminated the others, and we all learned something we didn’t expect at the beginning. So definitely the learning process was the part I enjoyed the most!
JB: What were some (expected or unexpected) challenges of this residency?
FC: I was aware since the moment I got the residency that there were various aspects to merge. Since the actual residency lasted for 2.5 months, I knew I had to refine the concept as much as possible before even landing in Savona, through multiple conversations with each collaborator, so that I could dedicate the time of the residency to the making process. This is generally one of the challenges with this type of work. Everything happens in a short time so you have to be able to make decisions and change directions quickly, without compromising your ideas and keeping the aspects of the project coherent with each other. This was for me the biggest challenge. Obviously ideas evolve, and the “making” part needs to adapt to the changing reflections. It all happens organically and unexpectedly.
I would say that there were few “eureka” moments during the project.
First of all, after having finished the local clay research part and having visited the Fablab in Turin to start testing ideas, I realized I wanted to work horizontally rather than vertically. This was really unexpected because until that moment most of the work I had seen both in the Ceramics Museum of Savona, and in the Fablab were vases and dishes, so the decision to work on 2.5 dimensions and on a massive scale rather than a self-contained object was an unexpected change for my collaborators. Luckily everyone loved the challenge.
Another interesting unexpected turning point was the workshop I led with environmental engineering students at the Savona Campus. This happened after three weeks from my arrival. I explained all my thought processes and my doubts to the students. We discussed the meaning of the work developed by the Department of Engineering with a very critical perspective, highlighting both the positive aspects of the research and the potential threats. When we came to the point of discussing my proposed aesthetics for the artwork and the way I wanted to organize the Smart Grid data to illustrate the research work, the students were really helpful in understanding how to weigh all the aspects and organize them structurally. It was an eye-opening three hour chat which really gave a direction to the development of the artwork.
JB: What's next for you?
FC: Cecilia Chilosi, from the Museo della Ceramica di Savona told me before I left “Now, you will never be able to get rid of ceramics.”
She is so right. I found something in this material that is extremely fascinating. It’s both primitive and extremely sophisticated, it’s inert and alive, it has incredible material properties and aesthetic possibilities…
I am really interested in the area of scientific research which is called bioremediation, which involves using living organisms, like plants, bacteria, fungi, to clean polluted environments on a big scale. I am investigating the potential applications of ceramics within this context. An active use of ceramic matrixes for bioremediation purposes, potentially in cultural environments where this craft is ingrained and can provide economical as well as environmental sustainability.
Ceramics for the Anthropocene is not over yet!