Italian Council research grant winner Alice Pedroletti on her latest project in Milan

Artist Alice Pedroletti is giving a glimpse at the results of her research on the city of Berlin, islands, and artificial intelligence with a special project for miart in collaboration with the Untitled Association.

Untitled Association, Alice Pedroletti, “Death of a folding boat on dry land [Study for an archipelago],” miart 2022. Courtesy of the Artist. Alice Pedroletti

Can you tell us about the project? What are you presenting in Milan?

I’m presenting ‘Death of a folding boat on dry land,’ the second part of more extensive research titled “ATRII / Berlin. The city, the island.” developed in line with the nine-month residency undertaken at ZK/U – Zentrum Fur Kunst und Urbanistik in Berlin in 2021, supported by the program Italian Council 9.

The first part is titled “Islands never cry.” It was a site-specific installation where I considered the wind an element and tool for crossing barriers, revealing itself only through the consequences of its movements. Three rectangular, white textile modules were installed on the northern side of the building as sails waiting to be inflated. As artists in residency, we tried to address the contemporary contradiction of creating collectivity in the distance while dealing with imminent questions surrounding the reconstruction and future of cultural spaces. We challenged the limitations caused by physical barriers in the form of construction fences surrounding ZK/U and social barriers prevailing today.

“Death of a folding boat on dry land” – which was shortly presented last summer in an ongoing research format – is now conceived for miart [the modern and contemporary art fair in Milan] as a transversal space in which I deal with two key themes of my research: archives and islands. The ‘booth’ design includes a wallpaper specially made by Jannelli&Volpi, a company I had already collaborated with, in 2018, which serves as a backdrop to two monitors for the video “Her ship was so small (the Boatbuilder)” and six photographs from the new series “Study for an archipelago.”

Untitled Association, Alice Pedroletti, “Death of a folding boat on dry land [Study for an archipelago],” miart 2022. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo Paolo Consagra.

The wallpaper pattern shows some of the drawings that are part of the research. I am collaborating with an artist friend, Isaac Schaal, on a prototype of a folding boat (archivable), and we have entrusted part of the work to an Artificial Intelligence (AI), conceived as my assistant, almost a duplicate of myself in fact. I have adopted an approach that is antithetical to what machine learning envisages: I use small datasets, which I collect, clean, and reorganise following an order based on the perception of colour, the visual association of form, human instinct, and emotions: actions that are difficult to reproduce mechanically, but which through the programming of a specific algorithm it is possible to imitate. We are interested in answering the question ‘how to create an autonomy of thought in machine learning systems?’ “Her ship was so small (the Boatbuilder),” the styleGAN video we present, recounts precisely the exercises performed by the AI in drawing the construction plans of a folding boat. Sequences of images that show themselves in an almost primitive form of sign, like contemporary hieroglyphics describing a surreal ‘object,’ with which I ironically propose to sail to reach an island or our idea of an island.

The six photographs, from the “Study for an archipelago” series, on the other hand, reveal different scenarios in dialogue with each other through materials, traces, and human presences. They aim at recreating the poetical cartography of a territory that is more emotional than real: I relate the natural island to the social island typical of the urban context. Miart is also an opportunity to present my first publication, published by ZK/U Press and produced in collaboration with graphic designer Ilaria Pittassi. The whole research is conceived as an archipelago of contributions. People who have worked together in a transversal and fluid way despite the distance or perhaps because of it. 

Alice Pedroletti, The other island Public action in a remote place Rabbit Island Lake Superior, 2018. Photo by Andrew Ranville.

Why Milan?

Milan because it is my city and, as I often say, “it will always be.” We have an unstable relationship as if we were friends who quarrel once in a while. I have been lucky enough to live in many places outside Italy, always with the idea of coming and going, returning and bringing back the worthwhile things to help avoid seeing the useless ones happen. I have grown up in social contexts that have allowed me to develop a critical significant – and creative – sense of institutions while at the same time maintaining a possibilist, proactive attitude and an intense investigation of the territory. I collaborate with some [institutions], such as the Cittadella degli Archivi of the City of Milan [which] together with Mi.Ma – Archivio Metropolitano di Milano, will constitute the largest central archive in Europe.

Cittadella hosts “ATRII”, a collective I founded in 2015 dialoguing with Ugo La Pietra and Gruppo A12. We investigate, through contemporary art, the concept of the atrium from a processual and theoretical point of view, and the artists’ projects are hosted in an archive defined as ‘Open and future-oriented.’ ATRII cultural association, born from the encounter with curator Eugenio Martino Nesi is also based in Milan. 

Therefore, when Untitled Association – my partner in the project I won with the Italian Council 9 – proposed my research as a cultural project during miart, it seemed obviously a complex event, but extremely interesting and necessary, especially after two years like the two just passed.

Untitled Association, Alice Pedroletti, “Death of a folding boat on dry land [Study for an archipelago],” miart 2022. Courtesy of the Artist.

How did you come up with it? When was it born?

I have been working on the concept and idea of islands for a long time. Even on natural islands, when it’s possible to reach them. Along with other themes and topics that interest me and that I can also relate to my daily life: architecture, geography, geopolitics. Archiving is my practice and work methodology. I focus on the relationship between sculpture and image, on the idea of matrix and body. The relationship between man and nature, the elements they have in common.

Undoubtedly this new phase has been stimulated by several things: Berlin being an island, Moabit, where I lived and which is really an island neighbourhood, and the stillness to which we were forced. Immobility, in which I found an even more powerful, comfortable, and alienating dimension of self-isolation than the one I usually create when I immerse myself in a project. This thing worried me but also stimulated me. A difficult period, at times emotionally violent, but of profound reflection and personal growth. I discovered new things and new ways of being with others. But I also see more clearly what surrounds me, the difficulties that so many people face. Maybe that’s why I’ve been looking for a way to trigger long-term collaborative processes.

I feel like an island, but I am part of an archipelago. Working on building a folding boat was a natural consequence: a body size object that I could quickly put away or carry with me, like an emergency kit to escape.

Where can we find it?

The Database of the research is, accessible from the computer and mobile in two different formats: the mobile version is an artwork itself, composed of gifs sequences and text about imaginary islands and the idea of navigation and isolation. If one connects from the computer is similar to my studio wall archive, and there is the possibility to interact with the window to discover some hidden images. The same graphic that composes the publication. The project is an ongoing dialogue between digital, analogue, and editorial practices. Then you can look at my website, of course. 

You are Milan-based, but you currently live and work in Berlin. How is the city?

Berlin is an island, was an island, and will be an island. It appears different every time you look at her, in Italian, ‘city’ is a female word, and I like to keep the gender in English too. Sometimes it is like a mirage, sometimes it’s a fata morgana. Often the city is overwhelmed by an incredible wind that reminds me of the ocean: the climate is certainly an essential element, almost as if urban and natural merge into a new form of city, organic, which tries to resist an imposed structure. I love dry cold weather; I can’t stand the warmth anymore, not in cities. I need space and nature, and Berlin is really green. 

I talk about it in my publication: “The City in the City. Berlin: a green archipelago is an important case for architecture, urban planning, and island-related studies. Designed by Oswald Mathias Ungers with Rem Koolhaas, this project is based on the idea of a ‘multicentric, urban landscape.’ The historically, socially, and environmentally relevant ruins of West Berlin – which was destroyed during the War – are, to Ungers and his colleagues, actual archaeological remains and autonomous cities. They consider them ‘quasi-islands’: sharply separated from one another, surrounded by forests and green areas – icons of the future of the city and its growth. The city in the city’s manifesto highlighted the relationship between geography, urban structure, and community, helping shift the concept of the island from the Ocean to the mainland, thanks – among other contents – to drawings and infographics that look like modern-day Medieval maps.”

It’s a mirror-city: it reflects you for what you want to be: everything, nothing, something; one person of many, many in a solo one.

What are you working on?

I’m working on the AI drawing plans to realise several sculptures to build the boat, and I will go back to Berlin and continue shooting the archipelago. In a couple of weeks, I will talk at a seminar about “archives,” part of Endless Residency curated by Giulio Verago, Rossella Farinotti, and Silvia Conta. With ATRII Collective, we have a new permanent installation by artist Gianni Moretti to organise and set up here in Milan.

Long term: with Ilaria Pittassi – the art director of the publication presented at miart – we are working on a new self-made publication project about archives. We intend books as objects and want to explore the possibility of our collaboration in a new direction, creating special editions. Then I have a duo project in Berlin with artist Andrea Familari: it’s called u-form, and we work in digital geography, databases, sounds, and images.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.