Studio Visit SMS | Eva and Franco Mattes

RBA: What was something you experienced or an art piece you saw that changed the way you think about art?

One summer in ’98 we met Vuk Cosic, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and he showed us the work of Jodi, Olia Lialina and the raising Net Art scene. Discovering Net Art changed everything, we were trying to find ways to use the internet to make art and suddenly everything was crystal clear.

That’s the same year you did your Vaticano piece right?  

Yes, in 1998 we made a copy of the official website of the Holy See, with minor changes concealed among the sacred texts. In our version the Pope appropriated pop songs, exalted free love, soft drugs, he invoked the success of student movements and claimed the Church “duty to civil and electronic disobedience”. All sinners were absolved via email and pilgrims were sent off to remote locations. Yet the power of the interface was such that nobody questioned it for an entire year.

I just went on the Vatican’s website thinking it would look way more modernized but it still has the same freaky antique parchment aesthetic

Their website was designed in a period when a lot of websites tried to emulate their brick and mortar presence, referencing the aesthetic of pages and books, hence the parchment background and the very static content. It’s still appropriate for a very static institution that doesn’t want to be questioned, I guess? After all, they’ve been running the same business for 2,000 years…

How did you come up with the idea? What brought it out?

In the mid 90’s we were part of a project called Luther Blissett, a multiple-use name adopted and shared by artists and activists who, anonymously and collectively, were experimenting with new forms of authorship and identity. Blissett became a sort of “folk hero of the information society” by staging dozens of media hoaxes, and the fake Vaticano website came out of that context.

The early net/ culture jam scene seems quite romantic to me, the anonymity, the collaborative spirit… did it feel exciting or was it sort of stressful and weird to try new things? 

I wouldn’t say it was romantic, naive perhaps? With an utopian tinge? Bordering on delusional? How we felt is still reflected in our work Life Sharing. For three years we openly shared our home computer, making all its contents accessible on the internet, private material, including email, texts, photos, and bank statements was freely available in real time to be read, copied and downloaded. The actual hardware was located in our bedroom, with its LED lights constantly blinking a few inches from our heads. It’s still accessible here:

What has surprised you most about this moment we’re in?

I guess how the internet has steered attention to people’s suffering. We’re becoming used to waking up in the morning and go check how many people died yesterday and what’s the prediction for today, it’s like a corona weather channel…

In our work we’ve often dealt with the representation of violence and pain, always framed by the screen, I’m thinking to works like No Fun or Emily’s Video for example, but those are artworks, it’s very strange to see this unrolling in front of our eyes – well, on our screens still – on a daily basis…

How has your notion of transgression shifted since you first started working together?

In the beginning we had a more direct approach, and most of our works revolved around binary oppositions, true vs fake, original vs copy etc, while more recently, especially after 2010, our works became a bit more layered and less binary, more ambiguous? I guess it’s connected with becoming older? You abandon certainties and the world becomes more and more complex…

 What was the first forbidden thing you ever did?

When we were 19 we realized our first secret work together. We travelled around Europe and the US and stole fifty tiny fragments from masterpieces by artists we admired, such as Duchamp, Beuys, Kandinsky, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Koons, from very well-known museums. We kept all the fragments and documented each action with photographs of the work before and after our little intervention.

What was the most difficult artwork to take a fragment from?

Probably Duchamp’s Fountain? It’s made of ceramic, so it took a while to peel off the piece with a tiny swiss knife, on the other hand we really needed it, we thought the project wouldn’t be complete without the Fountain.

Can you tell me a bit more about your recent project? Why do you want to buy someone’s phone?

We just put out a public call to find one person who is willing to sell us their used phone, including all stored photos and videos. The reward is $1000. All the photos will be used to make an artwork on issues of privacy, exhibitionism and voyeurism. The work will preview in our solo exhibition at Fotomuseum Winterthur next January, and it will be part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Love! How you find ‘Riccardo’ when you last did a similar project with Riccardo uncut?

Through a similar public call. It was very important for the work to be focused on one single person. At the end 34 people applied, and several of them were very interesting for different reasons. In order to make the slideshow we spent hundreds of hours with Riccardo’s photos, it was a surprisingly interesting process, that’s why we decided to do it again. When do you happen to carefully look at all the photos a single person shot in 13 years? We ended up knowing him as you’d know a close friend: family, grandma, lovers, colleagues, dog, favorite food, travels, birthdays… very intimate, although totally mediated by the screen, because we never met in person or spoke over the phone.

What is the 15th photo on your camera roll at the moment?

It’s a screenshot of a call with actor Bobbi Salvor Menuez, we’re collaborating on a new video, and so we had a quick chat before shooting. Bobbi is reenacting an interview we did with an anonymous internet content moderator, and the aesthetic of the final video is borrowed from makeup tutorials. It’s all filmed with their phone from home, quarantine style…

Do you think of the internet as a medium or a site?

People have been trying to find a good definition for the internet for a long time, maybe similar to trying to define what art is. 

I think the Internet is made of people. At the beginning we were fascinated by its surface, the interface. Then we asked ourselves what’s underneath the surface? And we started looking at the underlying code. And then we went further, what’s behind the code? The infrastructure, cables and computers and screens. And, finally, what’s behind the screens? People of course! There’s people at the end of the line. You may never meet them, you may never see them, you may never even know who they are, but behind every image, every line of code, every piece of hardware, behind every byte, underneath every algorithm there’s a human being. That’s how we became interested in people. How people who use the internet, and how the internet uses people.

When do you think an artwork is finished?

Hopefully never! As long as people are interested, as long as they mention-parody-copy-sell-buy-trade-pirate-get inspired by-ridicule it… a work is alive. It’s finished when people stop interrogating it, stop using it. It’s not necessarily connected with the author, but more with the viewer, including other artists. Italian writer Calvino said something like “a classic is a book that hasn’t finished saying what it has to say”. I guess it works for artworks too? Good artworks are never finished.