Footnotes for a Techno-Medioevo Exhibition
On 1 March this year, a virtual time capsule landed at the Museum of the Order of St. John in London. It carried with it a collection of exhibits, “scenes, visions and fragments of an alternative history” of the Middle Ages (or rather, the Techno-Medioevo), with the clear objective of conducting “a bold and adventurous exploration of contemporary art, demonstrating the ways in which new technology can be used to re-interpret historical subjects”.1
The simple combination of the prefix “techno” with the adjective “medieval” could cause some ambiguity or misunderstanding, at risk of paradoxically connecting the concept of technology to an age which is usually considered regressive and highly deficient on a scientific and technological level. And, it goes without saying, not only deficient on those levels. If we add that the existence of such an alternative, technological (or rather, post-technological) Middle Ages is being postulated by a group of scholars, historians and artists who met each other as members of a much hoped for “Age of Future”, then this paradox starts to look irresolvable.
This might not in fact be the case, however, if we clarify a few points. The first: of which Middle Ages are we talking? The second: of which future are we talking (supposing there will be one), and above all, what will happen in it?
Regarding the first question, prejudice against the so-called “dark ages” has long-since dissipated among historians. By the same token, a different conception has emerged – less prejudiced, yet still somewhat rigid and schematic – of the Middle Ages as a “middle age”, a period that was said to have existed between a death and a rebirth of the classical world and its superior humanistic values.
This conception accords with what the intellectuals and the artists of the Italian Renaissance (such as Ghiberti, Alberti, Vasari) thought. They considered the Medieval era as a “medieta” (literally a middle age) and one of mediocrity, referring to it with the terms media aetas (Latin for middle age) and gothic (meaning barbaric). They intended to contrast the presumed “barbarities” of the recent past, with the enlightened culture of a more remote past: the civilized ‘humanitas’ – the ‘antico’ – which they believed was returning to nourish and revive their culture, in every sense. In coining that apt, charismatic term, Renaissance, in the nineteenth century, Jacob Burckhardt made that all-inclusive synthesis (of the spiritual, artistic, political and social), which expanded the concept of “rinascita” or ‘rebirth’ above and beyond a purely artistic meaning.2 At the same time, this was a condemnation of the Middle Ages, which was diametrically opposed to the Renaissance, in which “both sides of human consciousness – that which was turned within as that which was turned without – lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil […] through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation – only through some general category”.3
It is well-known that this detrimental and oppositional conception of the Middle Ages has also been contested and invalidated. Here, one of the most accredited “revisionists” should be cited – Jacques Le Goff. Not only did he ensure the rehabilitation of the Middle Ages, extending it well beyond its traditional chronological limits, but he also claimed – in opposition to Burckhardt’s thesis – the necessity of freeing oneself from the “stumbling-block” of the Renaissance and its hackneyed concept.4
Thus, after a reductive and an expansive interpretation of the “middle age”, perhaps once again the truth is to be found at a mid-point. This point is difficult to place with precision nevertheless, given that the “age in the middle” is far from homogeneous, passing as it has through different phases of evolution and experiencing different intensity levels of “medieval-ness”.
We can conclude that the Middle Ages is somewhat more than, and somewhat different to, a simple historical dimension or a discrete chronological phase. It is rather a category of the spirit which, perhaps, operates on “divine inspiration” and which identifies itself in the spontaneous moment of creation, as already claimed by both Wackenroder and more generally, the whole of Romantic aesthetics.5 Consequently, on an artistic level, the spirit would not function by reproduction, imitation or rationalism, as is supposed by classical-Renaissance theorizing. It would, rather, draw from those emotive, creative and poetical representations, which constitute the peculiar dimension of the immaginario (‘imagination’): in fact, “the imagination nourishes man and causes him to act. It is a collective, social, and historical phenomenon. A history without the imagination is a mutilated, disembodied history”.6 We might also say that history without imagination is de-energized and mystified, lacking that driving force which is the catalyst for visions, dreams, and the “finzioni” (fictions) of an imaginative world which is, strangely, more “real” than reality itself. This is because fingere (the act of pretending), with its semantic and etymological connotations, does not only refer (and negatively so) to the concept of “simulation” or “false appearance”, but also to that of “moulding”, and to “shaping” something which is not yet present, but which may become so in the future, following the line of the creative impulse.
It would be limiting, therefore, if not positively short-sighted, to only acknowledge the medieval imagination’s visionary side (of dreams, of mysticism or of madness) and not that part which, in the words of Le Goff, inspired and animated “the rise of medieval humanism […] to the highest cultural and spiritual creations”.7 Amongst these creations we would include both the daring science of gothic constructions, and a proto-science such as alchemy – with its transformative and regenerative vision of the world – or the proto-computer technology of the “macchine combinatorie” constructed by Raimondo Lullo (1235-1315) to support his Ars magna.8
This is the reason why – in those moments when European aesthetics and culture acutely felt the “crisis” and the general exhaustion of the time, when there was a total lack of positive action and aspiration for something better, when there was a decline in cultural values which would have threatened the course of the future – people have turned to the Middle Ages, resolving to re-evaluate Medieval culture. Thus it was with the Gothic Revival, which began as a reaction to neoclassical formalism, but soon expanded into a struggle against religious skepticism and the materialism of the newly-developing industrial civilisation – a struggle which anticipated the problems and risks we are now facing in the post-industrial world.
As a result of these problems, there was a pervasive conviction that the modern age had imploded upon itself, dragging down with it all those “strong” ideas and ideologies which were historically connected to its birth and development. The modern age would either find itself in a condition of “post-modernity”, which equates to the absence of some basic truths, with only pragmatic systems of knowledge;9 or it would lead to the “end of history”10, having neither continuity, nor potential for further development ahead of it, but only material destruction, social disintegration, and a de-personalization of the individual.11
Reflecting upon all these problems, on an aesthetic and cultural level, it is evident that they represented the focal point and the fulcrum of main interest of the so-called “alternative” cultures, which emerged during the course of the second millennium. These were cultures such as literature, music, cinema, and cyber-punk/cyber-goth fashion, where the semantic apparatus and the symbolic constellations are placed in the wake of a “recharging” of the Middle Ages and its multifaceted forms of imagination.
Along these lines, the scientific and artistic “Age of Future” team, led by Marcello Pecchioli, reconnect research with possibilities of making art. Pecchioli has, for nearly twenty years now, been doing highly detailed research into the Middle Ages and its technological, artistic, epistemological, cosmological, multimedia, and historical implications. He has come to the conclusion that this period, seemingly light-years away from our shiny, electronic super-modernity, is rather more consonant than we are ready to admit. With the aim of highlighting such closeness, this exhibition took shape, a show on which these Footnotes will comment, and which is presented, essentially, as “a sort of parallel to the Middle Ages; our project seems to be an illustrated memory and a story narrative”.12
So, what choices have been made, what visual distinctions made, and what is the narrative content? For simplicity, we will divide them into thematic sections which do not necessarily follow the exhibition itinerary, but rather search for an internal continuity in their ideal.
The first of these sections refers to the Imagination of the Epic of the Cavalier and of the Court, in other words, to paraphrase Ariosto, that which celebrates “women, knights, arms, loves, courting and daring feats”. At the entrance to the Museum can be found Gaetano Muratore’s significant, iconic statue Robot crusader (or Teutonic Knight) (fig. 1). It is a self-propelled warrior in armour, which links back directly to men-at-arms and the medieval “gentlemen of war”, as already indicated in the title. Yet to our surprise, it shows a faint connection with the android and the cyborg in sci-fi literature, even though, in its assembly – behind the hi-tech façade – matrixes of practice and thought are traceable to the imaginary proto- or para- technology of ancient or medieval times. We might cite Alberto Magno’s Iron Man (c. 1200 – 1280)13, which knew how to open the door to guests and greet them, and of course the angel and the chantepleure (mechanical bird drinking from a bowl), represented by Villard de Honnecourt in his famous work, Livre de Portraiture (c. 1235, fol. 22 v. and fol. 9 r. respectively).14
Another knight, placed in relation to a woman to whom he is paying homage, greets us just inside the museum entrance – Gabriele Lamberti’s La Dama e l’unicorno, il tatto (il coniglio nero). It is a pictorial remake of one of the most famous late 15th-century Flemish tapestry cycles, the allegory of the five senses, and to our surprise a curious “black rabbit” is peeping out. It is a metaphor, and its anthropomorphic characteristics make of it a trickster – a mischievous, but perhaps incredibly “loico”15 (or logical) little demon – which comes to confuse the cultural, mental, and iconic configurations that are familiar and reassuring to us with its unexpected intrusion.
Diana Cao Shuying’s Two Princesses, inspired by the models and the dominant feminine lifestyles at the Han court (3rd century B.C. – 1st century D.C.), belongs to a world possessing similar cultural refinement to that of the courtly Middle Ages. A Chinese artist, her works illustrate de visu the high levels of development reached by that far-off civilisation, which anticipated future civilisations, exerting no small number of positive influences in the European world, in particular through the increase of commercial exchanges along the “silk road”. The young princesses manage to combine, at Cao’s westernized touch, their original historical and cultural traits with those which characterized the courts of Europe, caught at the first glimpses of the Middle Ages’ decline.
In the second thematic section, dedicated to the Imagination of Religion and the Sacred, we have placed the works of Pecchioli himself and of Cristiano Nanni, although there are traces of this theme in all the artists in the show.
The first work by Pecchioli is a small leaded stained-glass window which depicts an “alien priest” (fig. 2), following the iconography of the Byzantine and/or Roman Pantocrator, but presented and protected in a shrine as if it were a relic taken from a post-apocalyptic retro-future.16
His other work, collocated in the Templar crypt, is the fragment of a sculpture, which at first seems to be every bit as “alien” as the first work. In actual fact, it can be identified as the replica of a commemorative Annunaki stela. The Annunaki are extra-terrestrial gods from the planet Nibiru which – according to some rather unorthodox archaeological theories –17 were the forefathers of the ancient Sumerians, who brought with them the gift of scientific and technical knowledge, which in its turn helped mankind to take a tremendous evolutionary leap.
Just beside this work, we find another with a similarly iconic and thematic design. The work was created by Nanni, and represents another alien which is at once a divine god in the form of a holographic avatar: EVE. She borrows her appearance and attributes mostly from Inanna Ishtar, the terrible winged deity of the Mesopotamian pantheon, lady of love, beauty and war, who possesses many syncretic traits converging with the main Christian divinities: like Jesus Christ, she is tortured and rises from the dead; like the Madonna, she guarantees protection for and intercession with common mortals. In another sense EVE is of course also the personification of the “donna-demonio” (devil-woman), temptress and witch, possessed by evil. An antithesis to the Virgin Mary of medieval Christian imagination, she “incarnated” the topos of “sinful meat” in that perverse and phobic form of “sexualization of the original sin”, which Le Goff describes as a typical ethical and social characteristic of the “middle age”, which forced upon the mother a responsibility for temptation and damnation.18
Following this thought, we almost automatically tap into a further deposit of the imagination: one of an Apocalyptic-Millennial character.
A similar notion permeates the video and sound installation by Tiziano Popoli, Apocalypse Machine 5.0. Positioned within the Museum, it is made up of an interactive carpet-flooring. Crossing this floor, visitors become penitent pilgrims, activating the virtual projected floor and synaesthetically immersing themselves in the illuminated visions (angels, seals, trophies) and the sounds (trombones, thunder, celestial choirs) evoked by St. John’s description of the “day of judgement”. In this way, the visitor enters “a mystical and archaic atmosphere”19, perhaps even prophetic, finding themselves confronted by contemplative spirituality, mysticism and in self-liberating fulfillment.
Forms of “terribleness” and apocalyptic visions are introduced to us, just before Popoli’s “station”, by Vittorio Valente’s Cellule and, following the exhibition itinerary, in various productions by Leonardo Passeri.
Valente, a biological researcher, using silicon and other synthetic materials, creates giant replicas of human cells, viruses and microorganisms, which, if not already pathogenic, could well become so. This work gives shape to another typically medieval nightmare: the epidemics and pandemics of the Black Plague and other diseases which menaced European populations of the period. Elsewhere, Valente has created “silent warriors” or “derma-skeletons”, whose form and structure – mainly consisting of inorganic and metal materials – makes them seem like scary alien colonizers or, rather, like the derma or the bio-botic exo-skeleton of the superman of the future.
Equally evocative of a reality precariously balanced between utopia and dystopia, the various works of Passeri appear to reformulate the history of mankind and human destiny with the disturbing prospect of “a sort of nuclear Middle Ages, in which fragments of humanity […] are crossed by flows of monsters and mutants […], through the streets and cities of these post-atomic, nuclearized and decadent worlds”20. Nevertheless, akin to medieval gnosis which, in order to hide from the omnipresence of wickedness, had faith in the saving principle of Goodness, Valente doesn’t give up or give in apathetically to the catastrophic and post-human nouvelle vague. In fact he sets out to contradict a palingenetic hope, a metaphorical fortress of sorts which is figured by the “conceptual” sculptures placed in the Museum’s cloister garden. At first sight, these sculptures suggest three-dimensional schematizations of cosmological/cosmogonical events, such as the collision of gravitational waves; but they also remind us of the symbolic and esoteric implications hidden in “platonic solids”, archetypes of very human, harmonic and rational creation, and at the same time, eternal models of universal, intangible perfection.
By contrast, in the crypt, Bruno Marcucci’s Il Mostro della Tasmania, (The Tasmanian Monster) offers his personal reflection on teriomorphism, perhaps representing the fossil of an extinct animal or, maybe, one of those fantastic, miniature, demonic “Chimeras” depicted in the various Commentaries on the Apocalypse which regularly appeared during the Middle Ages.21 However, its “significant” materials (plastic, aluminium) and its suspension from the ceiling suggest its meaning, piloting it – a highly appropriate word – towards utterly different concepts: the cockpit of a crashed aeroplane, caused either by accident or hijacking. We cannot but recall the most horrendous and bloody episodes, still painfully fresh in our mind, from the massacre in Ustica (1980) to those of Lockerbie (1988) and of 9/11. But those pages are to be read also as a warning to the human hybris, in its varying manifestations and institutionalizations: from politics to culture, from economy to science.
Even the last work contained in the Museum guards against the excesses of the degenerative scientism of a technocratic system which is out of control. Massimo Trenti’s Capsula del Tempo 1 (fig. 3) is simply an old suitcase, not without a certain shrine-like aura. In any case it brings to mind some type of religious or ceremonial object, albeit as part of a de-sacralized and secularized ceremony. It contains fragmentary formulas on the theory of relativity and faded photos of Einstein, of the physicist Richard Feynman, of his home and of the “atomic mushroom” in Hiroshima;22 plus a notebook full of annotations by the paleobiologist Charles Doolittle Walcott, around whom is woven a sort of intricate historical “mystery”, as the suitcase – perhaps sent by Walcott himself, administrator of the Smithsonian Institution – didn’t reach its destination on time, producing a “disjointed” incident. In his notes, it is clear that he writes intuitively about nanotechnology, at least fifty years ahead of Feynman, who is quite rightly considered the actual father of this field.
Following another interpretation, we come across artists who take part in a sort of alchemic or proto-technological imaginary, in as much as the participation – equal to the sacral and apocalyptic one – is widespread amongst most of these artists, oscillating in any case between high- (writers such as Nanni, Popoli, Valente) and low-tech.
Connecting more or less directly to “infinitely miniscule” biological nature, already explored by Walcott, and to that physical nature of Feynman, Enrico T. De Paris – with his two neon tubes, crowds of people, animals and miniature scenes– “seems to give us the opportunity to connect to expanding micro-universes. It is as if his creation would introduce us to realms and dimensional doors that would otherwise be invisible and inaccessible to us”23. No less exemplary is the work of Roberta Chioni, which equally well exemplifies at once the antique and a suggestion of as yet unrealized potential. The creator of original, anti-conventional experiments in design and cloth materials, this artist practices the painstaking technique of tapestry to “weave” new-generation materials such as fragments of film tape, nets and metal wires, fibre optics and micro-chips. Thus her Homage to Grete Reichardt, displayed in the crypt, fits into that picture of linguistic contaminations and semantic re-codifications which create “a snippet of a hybrid Middle Ages”24, endowed with technological characteristics forgotten or, perhaps, unknown to us.
The unconventional concepts of time explored by the exhibition derive in part from the work of the late conceptual artist John Latham (1921–2006). This debt of influence is registered by a collaboration with Latham’s home, Flat Time House, Peckham (fig. 4), which is now a flexible gallery space. The House’s curator, Gareth Bell-Jones, explores some of Latham’s time-related interests in an essay for the exhibition catalogue. He writes there about Latham’s adherence to ‘the Big Crunch’ theory of the universe – the idea that after a lengthy period of expansion, the forces of gravity will eventually reverse the outward direction of travel and cause a cataclysmic contraction, marking an end to the universe as we know it, before another Big Bang takes place and the cycle repeats. The idea of a time-free state of being, referred to as ‘state zero’ and roughly equivalent to the moment between universes, was central to Latham’s thinking. It motivated his use of glass, for example – a material that he employed to signify a state of timelessness. The Techno-Medioevo neatly paraphrases some of Latham’s ideas, speculating about the elasticity of time – the possibility of reversing it, placing oneself in history and imagining an alternative future, altering our present notions of what the past was, and so on.
One poignant connection between Latham and the exhibition is the aforementioned ‘time capsule’ of Massimo Trenti. Trenti’s suitcase is a bricolage of diagrams, scribbles, photographs and ephemera, altogether making the witty suggestion of a lost moment in time – a suitcase full of important scientific discoveries, sent for display at the Universal Exhibition of 1905 one year too late. The format makes an overt reference to Latham’s well-known work, Art and Culture (1966–9, Museum of Modern Art, New York), another suitcase, irreverently criticising the writings of the critic Clement Greenberg. In Latham’s case, a pulverised copy of Greenberg’s text is meant to suggest the liquidation of an entire cultural project – that of modernism – and Trenti follows a similar path, re-entering history and denying the modernist insistence on a linear progression towards an improved future. This critique of teleology was central to Latham’s practice, and it is subtly adopted by many of the artists whose work is displayed in the exhibition.
At this point, and in the hope that the reader has found our article anything but tedious, we shall leave the conclusion of our Footnotes to an exceptional example: Nao-BlueStorm, the interactive robotic humanoid which moves, speaks, replies to questions, learns new information and assimilates new perceptions. As the product of an evolution of both thought and technology which starts at the entrance to the exhibition, with Teutonic Knight, it is the constant companion, and the final word in “this journey in the dimension of Techno-Medioevo, a hypothetical work and an art historical project. In this London exhibition it seems to find a landing place and its own complete rebirth”.25
Previously shown at Palazzo Grassi ‘Scene, Visioni e Frammenti dal Techno Medioevo’, Bologna 2016, the exhibition Techno Medioevo – Age of Future reloaded is at Museum of the Order of St John, London (1 March 2018 – 16 June 2018) where it is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with contributions by Gareth Bell-Jones and Flat Time House; Thomas Begley, Alan Borg, Oliver Curtin, Francesco Gonzales, Marcello Pecchioli. 152pp. SAGEP Editori
Livio Billo is a professor of literature with a specialisation in History of Contemporary Art, which he has been teaching at the University of Padua for the past ten years. He has written extensively and edited publications and books on historical, scientific and cultural aspects of fashion.
1. A. Borg: ‘Foreword’, in M. Pecchioli: exh. cat. Techno-Medioevo: Age of Future Reloaded, London (Museum of the Order of St John) 2018, p. 16. ↩
2. J. Burckhardt: The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S.G.C. Middlemore, London 1878. ↩
3. Burckhard, op. cit. (note 2), p. 52. ↩
4. J. Le Goff: The Medieval Imagination, Chicago and London 1988, p. 10. A “very long “Middle Ages”” is proposed here, – pour cause of which the fundamental structures were said to have evolved extremely slowly, from the 3rd century to mid-19th century. ↩
5. L. Venturi: Storia della critica d’arte, Torino 1964, pp. 172–197. ↩
6. Le Goff, op. cit. (note 4), p. 5. ↩
7. Ibid., p. 6. ↩
8. See M. Pecchioli: ‘Il caso di Raymond Lullo (Ars Combinatoria) e della mnemotecnica (Memoria Artificialis)’, in M. Pecchioli: Cronache dal Tecno-Medioevo. Ipertesti, Labirinti, Tecno-mondi, Realtà virtuali, Architetture digitali nel sapere pre-scientifico del Mondo Antico, Milano and Udine 2015. ↩
9. J.-F. Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, Manchester 1984. ↩
10. For articles regarding the “end of the history”, seen as the end of certain ideologies, see F. Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, New York 1992. ↩
11. F. Fukuyama: The Great Disruption, New York 1999 and F. Fukuyama: Our Posthuman Future, New York 2002. ↩
12. M. Pecchioli, op. cit. (note 8), p. 29. ↩
13. The Domenican theologist, Albert the Great, owes his reputation both during the medieval age and in modern times, to his sheer quantity of philosophical and scientific written material, which re-evaluates rationality and science. A. Vauchez: Dictionnaire Encyclopédique du Moyen Ȃge, Paris 1997. ↩
14. Conserved in Paris, Biblioteca Nazionale. Ms. Fr. 19093. ↩
15. Endowed in other words, with the highest logical and dialectic capacity. The reference is to the well-known verse by Dante, where a demon beats Saint Francis in the contest for the soul of Guido da Montefeltro (Inferno, XXVII, 122-123). ↩
16. The author affirms that his inspiration came from the science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), by Walter M. Miller, in which the protagonist, a survivor of a devastating atomic catastrophe, comes across some fragments of blue-prints of engineering projects which then become the founding texts for a new religion. To him and his clergy, just like in the times of the Church, is assigned the task of preaching the “verb”: for the good of mankind and for a science that finally cooperates towards such a goal. Pecchioli, op. cit. (note 8), pp. 32–33. ↩
17. A reference to the much discussed theory regarding the “exogenesis” of human civilization, developed by the Sumerologist Zecharia Sitchin and suggested by Pecchioli himself. Ibid., pp. 35-36. ↩
18. Le Goff, op. cit. (note 4), p. 96. ↩
19. Pecchioli (ed.), op. cit. (note 8), p. 33. ↩
20. Ibid. ↩
21. Here let us mention at least those written in the last thirty years of the 8th century, by Beato di Liebana and illustrated in a score of manuscripts composed between the 10th and 13th centuries. See L. Grodecki: Le siècle de l’An Mil, Paris 1973, pp. 214–215. ↩
22. Feynman, as a member of the group of physicists who developed the “Manhattan Project”, is to be held in part responsible for the material devastation and the mass killings which the first atomic bombs produced on Japanese soil. ↩
23. Pecchioli, op. cit. (note 8), p. 37. ↩
24. Ibid., p. 36. ↩
25. Ibid., p. 37. ↩