Domenico “Dom” Barra is an Italian artist who believes in digital “remixing.” His work draws heavily on cultural references which he cooks up in graphic design style and recreates to make statements about society in all of its brutal reality http://www.behance.net/dombarra. We chatted about his work, his life and his artistic message.
MICHAEL: Hey Domenico, Your work is great. It's so BOLD and graphic. You're a graphic designer. First of all, what's the difference for you between graphic design and art?
DOMENICO: Hi Michael, Well, thank you so much for considering my art worth a conversation. I am really delighted about it. I think for graphic design, we mostly refer to computer generated pictures so art produced through the use of computer-related software and techniques (collage, for example) to create images. I believe that graphic design is just one of the many creative processed artists could approach and use to make a finished work of art. I guess it depends on what point an artist is trying to make as well. I mean, often the technique used in a process could mean more to the artist than the subject of a work of art itself, so graphic design could result as the best process for applying a specific technique and inspire the use of it. I mentioned the technique of "collage," which I use a lot in my graphic design work (see "Biutifool Beastard vs the Great Masters of History of Art" and "Sociopolikatastrofika"), but I prefer to call it "Remix." Through graphic design, I aim to encourage the use of "Remix" in the arts (visual art, music, video, literature). I use digital remix and graphic design to push the use of alternative licenses to copyright as creative commons licenses spread through the internet and the "Copy, Cut, Paste and Share" culture in art. So, I could say that the difference is that graphic design is a process which through a technique, aims to achieve a goal, art! Bold art, art is a message to people and for the people!
MICHAEL: As you said, you use a lot of cultural references and influences in your work. Do people have to understand the work from your point of view or can they have their own view of your work?
DOMENICO: Independently, if a person likes or dislikes an artwork or if they perceive it positively or negatively, I believe that people will appreciate more if they try to understand it according to the point of view of the artist. Of course, it is a logical, natural consequence that then they draw their own conclusion about it and either disagree or agree with the artist in her/his visual communication perspective and aesthetic taste. I try to translate into images my thoughts and I always try to be as clear as possible, but it would be pretentious if I believe that I can't be wrong in what I am communicating with my visual language. Art is very democratic and people are free to have their own opinion of an art piece and its contents. Of course, we don't expect to understand a book in a foreign language if we don't own the idiom, so it is the same for an artwork.
MICHAEL: Aren't you in Italy? Where are you exactly? Is your type of art accepted in Italy? Don't Italians even today prefer Michelangelo?
DOMENICO: Yes, I have returned to live in Italy after 7 years spent in England and an on/off residency in Spain for two years. Well, about the Italians taste for art, I am not sure. I guess that the taste can be very different depending on one's perspective and perception. We are susceptible to mainstream art like other cultures, but at the same time, we are open to novelty and unusual art by artists with a distinctive and unique imagination. Of course, for people who prefer the classic, academic style, there is enough art for every "appetite.” I have never paid much attention to the issue of what people like and where they are from to be honest. That could turn into a massive obstacle for my creativity and also it could turn out that I find myself making art just for a certain kind of people while being afraid of not succeeding in my attempts. My art is never an attempt to like, it exists as it is. Thanks to the internet, we artists have the positive chance of building a wide international audience and reaching professional contacts living in different countries. The possibility of exhibiting abroad is huge, as is receiving international appreciation. This can reduce the depressing feeling of being out of step and context and unacknowledged by a closed kind of culture. There is always time to be appreciated, even after life, history teaches.
MICHAEL: You really like referencing poster art, large graphics and nudity. What is your attraction to these things?
DOMENICO: When I was a kid, I guess I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was really fascinated by the professional figure of the advertiser. I was really attracted to image advertising. I wished to become an ad man, but growing up, I realized that I needed to be freer and less concerned about satisfying customer's wishes. Also, I became more aware of the effects that advertising has on people's choices and life. So, I am not prepared to focus my creativity just on the goal of capturing potential buyers’ attention just to sell either a product or a service, even if with brilliant results. It is against my life values. When I work on my digital still images, I do it having in mind advertisement billboards, especially the works part of the project, "Sociopolikatastrofika.” Sociopolikatastrofika is made of works which should be looked at as a sort of bizarre advertisement campaign of the sickest type and without a minimum of ethics. It has the only aim of disturbing and making people aware about society’s worst nightmares and with a good load of sarcasm. Nudity appears just as an element. It’s one of the ingredients for this melting pot of society's worst realities. Nudity is very present in advertising, so it is in my large graphic billboard poster art. I hope soon that city councils will give more space to art on billboards on our streets.
MICHAEL: I find it so interesting and yet disturbing that we live in an extremely visual society where visual stimulation is practically everything and yet artists don't get any real respect. What do you make of this?
DOMENICO: I’m not sure, but I guess a lot has to do with the mainstream art world creating shining "idols" and obscuring the rest of the talents around who grew under a dusty shadow. In the collective imagination, art became a business. Dodgy marketing for profit has spread around its ideas and theories really like a disease. This has also a lot to do with the capitalistic inflictions we have to deal with, where money value, trends strategies, branding, dealing and promoting art as a mere consumerist product, status symbol, investment, have had a massive influence and fascination on the art audience. Art became just another "victim" of profit, the great art bubble. People got attracted to and hypnotized by the fake sparkle of the art superstars (artists, dealers and curators). If an artist was in the business, deal! In these circumstances, an artist could have risked to become a money-driven creative. Money has doped a lot of minds and creativity lacks real sparkle. I guess people have noticed a lot of the scum behind many businesses, including art and they took distance from it. Contemporary art is a bluff! Hate it or love it or just leave it to the "schooled" ones and even worst, to the wealthy individuals. This is a catastrophe according to my point of view. Luckily, things are changing. Art is the result of human creativity through a wide range of activities. We are becoming more aware of the importance of creativity in all of its aspects, especially how important creativity is in education. As Sir Ken Robinson said, “Creativity is as important today in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”
MICHAEL: Yes, but we can't take the profit motive out of art completely. I mean, if you want to make a full-time living as an artist, you do have to sell your work, No?
DOMENICO: No, of course not. The logic of capitalism applied to art worries me. The logic of marketing applied to art worries me. The big fish eats the small fish and takes its place. I can be very smart, but it will be very hard to compete in a market where there are big investments to make profit. In the logic of any market, to make money we have to invest money. I can invest money to make my art, not in selling it. Someone decides to invest money to sell my art? This person is not investing money for the sake of art only. This person will invest a lot of money to persuade people in buying my work. Promotion costs a lot of money. Persuasion costs a lot of money. I am not totally free in what I do. We are talking about making a living and nowadays making a living costs a lot of money, so we are talking about selling a lot of works probably and the channels to promote and to sell a lot of works are expensive. People are fascinated by notoriety and notoriety is expensive. People have a strong will in buying but not enough confidence in choosing what to buy. We live in a world where there has been given little value to money but everything depends on it, money is the measure of everything, including the respect towards someone's work. I am positive that things are changing for the best - common sense will have the best case against art brand fascination. Artists must sell what they create and not create what just sells and be slaves to fashion. A lot of artists are fine doing so, but this can't monopolize the whole market. It will result in the death of creativity and there are already too many cadavers around.
MICHAEL: What ideas or concepts are most fascinating to you as an artist? What do you like to explore in your work?
DOMENICO: I am fascinated by everything to be honest, like a child, but more than when I was a child. What really inspires me is the absurd; the absurdities that regard our daily lives and also the absurd which builds up in our minds, the infinite realm of fantasy. The dumb gray cage and the green open field. The rest is all about REMIX! The world we are living in shocks me every day with its terrible facts. I always had a strong focus on sociopolitical issues, even as a young boy. I was an avid reader of newspapers. There are happening too many evil events that are of serious concern to me. I am a very emotional and sensitive person. I can't avoid them and I can't pretend that nothing is happening and carry on my way. I am very busy in my community. I do as much as I can to improve what is rotting. Art is my strongest medicine. I try to control the dread depicting the troubles in pictures where sarcasm plays as antidote to the poison. John Dos Passos, the American novelist and artist once said, "A satirist is a man whose flesh creeps so at the ugly and the savage and the incongruous aspects of society that he has to express them as brutally and nakedly as possible to get relief." This is the way I feel. I am mesmerized by the high level and high scale of absurdity we have reached as societies, especially in the Western world. I find it scary and amusing at the same time. My legs shake for fear while a grimace appears on my face, sometimes I even laugh at it, I get crazy. I like to investigate the worst sides of the unquestionable human failure and show them into grotesque and discrediting images. It’s a sort of counter-publicity with visual actions against the culpable and their accomplices – also the many institutions, governments, corporations, individual citizens and, at the end, practically all of us more or less with our ridiculous passive naive behavior regarding the course our lives. In these sociopolitical art projects (Mea Patria, Sociopolikatastrofika, The Idiots, Beautiful People Plastic People), I find myself as one of the victims, but at the same time, one of the executioners. I’m the judge and the indicted. The artist and the muse. Often, I must escape from this nonsensical but, apparently, logical and nutty human race and its busy world and I feel like exploring over the borderland of reality. I march into the vast camp of fantasy, perceptions, primeval instinct, anomalies, a world where each of its creature’s absurdity become a quality, a distinctive character. I capture that feeling of liberty, engaging with my own sensations, driven only by my perceptions at the speed of my thought, the wildest way that it can be done. My project "The Lab of Anomalies" is the result of this process. I like to work on any concepts in support of open culture, I love remixing. I like to explore any ideas which could result as a good way for spreading culture and knowledge among people, bringing high culture among other cultures. To do so, I created, “Biutifool Beastard,” a bmx pirate and a remix artist re-styling the works of the great masters of history of art in a contemporary, visual artistic key.
MICHAEL: Does remixing add to the confusion or do you really attempt to make sense of society in your work?
DOMENICO: Well, I try to make sense of society every time I approach a new work, especially if I am wishing to put emphasis on some issues which concern our lives. I am trying to point a light on those issues through a creative discipline. “Sociopolikatastrofika” is based on facts that have global influence and there is a massive use of digital remix in those works. In "Mea Patria," the focus is on Italy and the remix is more about assembling objects together when it occurs. In “Biutifool Beastard” and in other works, the remix is more playful. The “Biutifool Beastard” project is also a campaign to promote alternative licenses to copyright and a campaign in support of free culture, open source and the accessibility regarding certain type of data. In this project, I am trying to make a political statement, putting remix at the centre of the concept. Remix is not confusion because it is not just about putting random pieces from different sources all together. Remix is a technique and it always existed. If properly used, it is a brilliant way to create and to spread new ideas, it is a very powerful artistry. Remix is also a global movement with a very clear manifesto made of four points and the first one it says that culture always builds on the past. Remixing is nothing new. We are not talking about stealing ideas, I hope this is clear. I think that putting limit on remix is like trying to control the future aiming for a less free society.
MICHAEL: Finally Dom, what do you want to do in the future? Do you think that maybe one day you could be creating plein air paintings in Tuscany? LOL.
DOMENICO: Well, I cannot exclude it, but I doubt it. Probably, if I have enough money to retire and I need to relax from the city life, Tuscany would be marvelous place for enjoying some peace. And if I will have some spare time on my hands, I would love to pick up a hobby, maybe plein air painting. I don't know why, but the idea doesn't really excite me. I wish to myself that I will always have a huge drive towards new art practice. I would love to learn more about BioArt. Also, I would love to see my graphic characters animated in a film and I would love to see my work featured in magazines and newspapers internationally. I would like to exhibit around the world too, but I am more keen about working with the press than with galleries. I am getting more into public art as well since I started to work with an art collective here in Napoli. The best, of course, would be to become the pioneer of a new art discipline.
MICHAEL: Thanks Dom, this has been great.
Check out Domenico Barra and has “Remixing” at http://www.behance.net/dombarra.