THE BLOG
03/08/2011 11:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'I Read, I Think, I Paint'

Once upon a time the artist tended to also be an intellectual of wide, general knowledge with an impact on society in the fields of fine arts, politics, journalism and education. Now the smart phone is replacing decades of everyone's accumulated knowledge at the touch of a button. It is the more fascinating to meet a representative of the simply-beautiful, old ways.
78-year-old Ruffo Caselli is a humble genius with a dial-operated telephone, only one in number in his fifth floor apartment in a 17th century building in Ovada, Piedmont, Northern Italy. The population of Ovada amounted in June 2008 was 11,941 citizens total. Caselli does not posess a computer either.

One could call him a technophobe, if he didn't happen to be the very antithesis. Caselli has been painting microchips, their impact on society and interpersonal, human relations since the 1950s, foreboding the tremendous impact these electronic particles consisting of small crystals of silicon semiconductors will have in the very near future. We are now surrounded by microchips in wristwatches, microwave ovens, cell phones, garage door openers or space shuttles.

And though humanity created a technological universe, the search for meaning continues and even seems to grow stronger with the increasing establishment of the technical life style. As Caselli puts it: "Technology imitates life, chips are us."

With an invitation by the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco to visit the West Coast of the United States in September this year, Ruffo Caselli will leave his home country the first time in decades for the retrospective "Fifty Years of Microchips," curated by Carmen Gallo of New York City.

Lia Petridis Maiello: When did you develop the idea to paint microchips?

Ruffo Caselli: As soon as I read the news, announcing their invention. I was always artistically inspired by technology and innovations, new and old, and before I started painting microchips I showed human-like transistors, calculators, TV sets and Integrated circuits. They inspired me for years. When I learned about microchips, I thought: "They invented integrated circuits, now they should reinvent humans." I saw it as metaphysics married to physics, a new frontier of our mind. I felt we had entered a new era where the physical and the spiritual merged. The analogy between the new invention and our way of being became clearer to me. I started to design something I would call human-biocomputers in the late 1960s, treating computers as an extension of the human nervous system. "You will never sell a painting," an infuriated gallery owner in Milano screamed at me. Nevertheless, my work has been shown in many cultural institutions in Italy, in well over 120 non-commercial venues.

LPM: Why do you think you had the urge to express yourself artistically through microchips?

RC: The world is not the same -- and we are not the same. We no longer see the world as we used to see it, let's say, 50 years ago. It seems to me that our mental and even our biological evolution is closely tied to the evolution of computer programs, they are evolving simultaneously. The leading technological advances of the 20th century were based on computer programs. Thirty years ago I was painting humans like robots, now I paint robots that look exactly like humans: an Italian journalist wrote that my robots have mutated into humans. My work focuses on several interrelated topics: personal identity in a technological world, values, relativism and philosophy of mind, the phenomenological view of consciousness, and, ultimately -- the loneliness of mankind.

LPM: How important are microchips today?

RC: They can "make us or break us." They are present in every aspect of our society: it is my hope that they will be used to promote world peace and to continue to solve global problems. We need them now more than ever, since we have become so co-dependent.

LPM: Who was your inspiration in the early days?

RC: My first heroes were the great men of the Renaissance. I was born in the year of 1932 in Florence, Tuscany, in the very same building where the extraordinary genius Leonardo da Vinci once lived for a while. When I was a little boy, I read all I could about him. I considered him my inspiration: he was not only a painter; he was also a mathematician, a scientist, an inventor. I started to draw when I was very young and my first drawings were copies of Leonardo's inventions. That's when I first discovered technology.

My other teacher was the early Renaissance painter Giotto, a master of design. Very early I studied his way to draw figures, according to nature and the golden proportion. If you observe his work, at a glance you see the whole picture, the whole drama.

At 17, after studying at the Technological Institute in Milano, I went to work in Egypt with an archaeological expedition: My responsibility was to draw the findings and to take note of the explanations of the Egyptologists. I was in awe with what I saw: pyramids, in their monumental, dramatic scale, revealed impressive engineering and a refined technology. In my opinion, this seemed impossible to achieve thousands of years ago. I entered hidden chambers, burial grounds, took notes of figures and inscriptions, I became a "human camera." My "clones" of the 1970s and 1980s are definitely inspired by those elusive Egyptian figures.

In the 1950s, I was inspired also by the work of Wassily Kandinsky: he wanted to create an art of spiritual renewal, believing that humans have lost touch with spirituality, being concerned with material things. Each and every one of my paintings wants to be, at least for me, about spiritual renewal.

LPM: How does your lifestyle, which I learned is simple, impact your art?

RC: My life has always been, and still is, simple and spare, almost Spartan. I lived and worked in Milano most of my life. Now I live and work in a small town in Northern Italy.

I am alone, I eat simple food, I don't drink alcohol, I don't smoke, I am not concerned with public life, I never owned a car. In my home, built at the time of Leonardo da Vinci, I live exactly as he did, except for a TV set and a phone that I don't like to use. I don't even have central heat; I never owned a microwave, a dishwasher, or a computer, not even a refrigerator.

I do not allow myself to be distracted: I read, I think and I paint: These are my luxuries. I get up very early, I walk a few miles, then I go to a neighborhood cafe for espresso, buy a couple of newspapers and a book and go home to read and paint. Often I'm inspired by the news, by new technologies or inventions, or by a phrase heard as I'm drinking coffee.

LPM: Please explain Cybernetic Existentialism.

RC: The name appeared a quarter of a century ago in New York, at Spazio Italia Gallery in Soho, where I had a show of my paintings titled "Chips Are Us." Cybernetic Existentialism came up in a conversation between two gallerists: Leo Castelli and my curator, Carmen Gallo. Carmen said: "Ruffo is an Existentialist and a Cybernetician." Leo responded: "Cybernetic Existentialism". The focus of that exhibition and of my art in general, is an essential/existential observation of the nature of humans in relationship to contemporary technology and of the ethical demands we are facing. In my paintings appeared cyborgs, hybrids of computer-humans, and intelligent robots with silicon hearts. Decades ago, I was playing with the same metaphors; the difference is that in the '70s and '80s I painted humans like robots. Now my robots are exactly like humans. It was and it is conceptual work, an exploration of the implications of possibilities, extremely powerful for my imagination because, since childhood, I always had the fantasy to be an inventor and I let my imagination do the rest.

My subject is always the human condition and now, as we speak, I feel we behave as if we were the last generation to inhabit the planet.

It is my sincere wish and struggle (with my art, of course), that technology could prevent the final battle, Armageddon, disastrous not only for the human race but or all life-forms. It would be my proudest achievement if, with my art, I could inspire feelings of peace and love to our fellow humans.

LPM: What is the meaning of life to you?

RC: I believe in God, I live according to ethical principles, and I still search for answers about life and its mysteries. Most of them are being revealed, but we still have more questions than answers.

Personally, I always wanted to do something to leave a mark for future generations, even if will be my paintings, where I recorded not only the greatness of technology, but the frailty of human condition, including mine, my loneliness, expressed with humorous tones. Often, to soften the subject, I give the painting a sweet title or an ironic one, but my subjects are serious.

LPM: What is your stance on modern technology (Internet, iPad, etc.) and its impact on modern human communication?

RC: Ironically, I don't own an Ipad, I don't use the internet. Something very funny happened to me recently, at the coffee shop. A young boy greeted me very cordially, I introduced myself and he responded: "I know who you are, you are the inventor of iPad!" referring to my early paintings where the human figure was always filled with little squares -- computer disks and integrated circuits. I could not convince him that I had never even held an iPad in my hands. Definitely, in real life I'm left behind, and one day I will probably buy one. I think the first thing I will do is to open it to see what is inside.

When I pass by an internet café and I see people communicating with machines and ignoring each others, I think that computers, Ipads, and cell phones, are answers to a need for companionship, ideas, answers that another human cannot give: they fill a vacuum. The idea of akasha and akasic records tormented me for years: the place where, everything that ever happened is recorded. Perhaps the answer is the World Wide Web!

LPM: How do you communicate and why?

RC: I'm trying to communicate with my paintings. I'm not social at all. To me it is much easier to paint than to talk about my paintings. I occupy only a little space in the universe, but I would like to communicate ethical values; that will be my proudest achievement if I could communicate a reflection on the human condition and an encouragement to promote world peace.

LPM: Should artists be political?

RC: Artists raise challenges. In my opinion, an artist is always political.
I'm a student of life, my subject is human consciousness in evolution, and since I don't paint with a sale in mind, I take the liberty to be free.

This interview was translated from the Italian language by Carmen Gallo.

More information about the artist is provided by the journal "Cybernetics and Human Knowing."