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  • DematerializationFrom Arte Povera to Cybermoney through Italian Thought
  • Karen Pinkus (bio)

This essay is a rather broad, free-floating consideration of the term “dematerialization.” It is inspired by two poles in Italian theory and praxis: the first is the movement known as arte povera of the late 1960s and early 1970s, years that correspond to the period of the dematerialization of the art object as defined by the American critic Lucy Lippard, the Italian critic and “father” (Pope?) of arte povera, Germano Celant, and others.1 For our purposes, we might think of arte povera as conceptual sculpture in a pre-digital age. The second pole is constituted by various reflections on narrative, paper, and digital commerce in contemporary Italy.

Of course, “dematerialization” is by no means an exclusively Italian concept; in fact it should be considered as intimately tied to globalization. It does imply a somewhat specific temporality: it is a movement or force that follows upon a period of materialization. On the surface, dematerialization may seem like a gesture of liberation, a strategy to overthrow the stockpiles of materials left by the previous generation, a break in a trajectory toward a planetary junk pile. Dematerialization is different from an antimaterialist attitude, strictly speaking. To dematerialize is to acknowledge a prior period of materialization (particularly acute, in the case of Italy, during the ultra-fast economic boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s). It emerges as a retro-movement, then, possibly retrograde, possibly progressive; certainly worth distinguishing from both the immaterial and the sustainable.2 The key question that this essay addresses, through Italian thought, is how can “dematerialization” help think the paradoxical overabundance of useless materials, and simultaneously the tendency toward immaterial production?3


We could begin by turning to that “first” authentically Italian modern art movement, Futurism.4 Futurism was by no means a movement against capitalism or the commercial [End Page 63] potential of the art market—quite the contrary, in certain senses. Yet at points the practitioners affiliated with the movement did make use of the notion of impermanence. Giacomo Balla (a signer, along with Fortunato Depero of the 1915 “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe,” the manifesto which most explicitly suggests the potential to commercialize the Futurist brand identity) worked in cardboard, tissue paper, wire, mirrors, and other materials later recycled by arte povera. He did so not in order to trump potential buyers but to increase the potential for movement in the work of art. The “poor materials” were a means of distancing himself from the static and flat surface of the canvas that had failed to reproduce the dynamic volume of speed. It was their capacity for transparency (tissue paper), to be lit from inside with light bulbs, to be transformable, and possibly even noisy, that made these materials attractive to Balla, rather than, say, their potential to break up or disintegrate. After sculpting Force-Lines of Boccioni’s Fist in cardboard, the same year as the manifesto just mentioned, Balla later cast the identical form in bronze. Perhaps he felt he could do so, having established the dynamism of the piece in its earlier incarnation. “The Futurist Reconstruction” is revolutionary for its rhetorical insistence on sound, perhaps the most dematerialized of all art forms, as a key element of sculpture and architecture. Of course, the manifesto was a (dematerialized?) form sui generis, not a retrospective or truthful account of actual works produced. We should, then, be cautious when we use such writings or proclamations in a discussion of questions of materials and materiality.

When Lucy Lippard used the term “dematerialization” in what is by now an historical context, it had various valences. To dematerialize the art object itself was to deconstruct, play with, or détourne the possibility of a consumable art object. To achieve the goal of dematerialization, some artists positioned themselves as conceptualists who had their work fabricated by others. Some worked through the theme of energy as matter; they strove to negate the work as opus of a single creative hand, in concert with prevailing theories of the death of author; or they sought to negate the work as institutionalized product, engaging in a critique of...