The modernist notion of sensuality is perhaps epitomised by the splayed green marble walls of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, or the exuberant black onyx in Adolf Loos’s Villa Müller. The exposure of that which cannot be seen harks back to the classical tradition of displaying wealth through material opulence, such as porphyry. In the 1970s, this aesthetic approach got camped, or maybe just picked up where the Renaissance left off, where painting marble veins was treated as more valuable than the real thing. The early work of Arte Povera partnered with the burgeoning industry of synthetic material manufacturers in post-War Italy to discover a form of sensuality appropriate to the contemporary age. Parasite 2.0, the young Italian design studio of Stefano Colombo, Eugenio Cosentino and Luca Marullo, uses contemporary synthetic building materials in often revealing and unusual ways to reflect upon the inherited traditions of modern sensuality and discover what a contemporary sensuality might look, feel, smell, sound or even taste like.
Nick Axel: I was looking at your project Ugly-ism (2018) the other day. Staring at these shapes, these blocks of foam that were ever so delicately constrained by industrial straps, I couldn’t help but think of Bernini’s statue The Rape of Proserpina (1621–22), which was described by his son as ‘an amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty.’
I can read this tension in your project. There is something very sensual to the way these two, almost contradictory materials come together.
Eugenio Cosentino: Everything in design today tries to be perfect, well-proportioned, perspectival and so on, which then we, as its users, have to accept and conform to. The design of objects and our environment is, in this way, fundamental to social constructions, such as gender. With Ugly-ism, we wanted to embed a non-taxonomic, non-binary understanding of social life into furniture. We wanted to focus on creating something non-proportional. These blocks of foam don’t have a precise shape, or a precise function, and there are metal rods stuck into them in different directions. If one of the objects is turned one way, it can be used for one thing, but if you turn it onto its side, it can be used for something completely different. You can use them for anything you want. They can always be something else. Avant-garde fashion today is also trying to avoid the perfect body. Like Vetements, who use clothing references from outside of the classical canon of fashion, like industrial uniforms, trying to develop clothes that could fit any kind of body. Their clothes don’t have a size; there’s no dimension. They can fit everything and everyone. There is an openness of form, one that mixes different things and allows them to work together, which is crucial to this negation of functionality.
There is something fetishistic in the softness and constraint of the foam, like bondage.
Luca Marullo: All of the shapes come from an imaginary. Next to this, there is a very playful part of the project, which is its use of colour. There is, as you point out, something fetishistic in the softness and constraint of the foam, like bondage. But it also speaks to the amount of attention being placed on ‘ugly’ bodies, or disproportionate shapes.
Stefano Colombo: This occurs with regards to the materials also. From afar, these objects appear to be really heavy and seemingly monumental, but when you come closer and touch them, they have another life. Although they look like plastic, they are actually really soft. It’s like how looking at a body in front of you is completely different from being in relation with it. We love when our projects become something different depending on the way you engage with them.
Nick: This is an especially interesting point you bring up, this idea of expectation, surprise and paradox. I would like to return to this later, for now I want to focus on fetishism and think of it as a technique of resistance. If we think of BDSM communities, there are largely two different approaches for dealing with the violence of normativity. One is to celebrate and fetishise those that fall outside of it, while the other is to embrace its rules and take them to their extreme, their limits. I see this other, campier dimension of fetishism in other projects that have an almost hygienic aesthetic, like Pantone Lab (2017) or Monolithic Rituals (2018). In both, as a viewer, you feel like you are going to be processed for surgery, or for some sanitised and voluptuous experience.
Eugenio: We started from the idea of a chemistry laboratory to create the aseptic environment of the Pantone Lab. The idea was to create a space in which colour was created, so we used a set of super precise materials, like plastics and metals, to achieve a sort of religious world for that act.
Nick: There seems to be quite a strong tension between these pigments in the bottles and the cleanliness of the space itself. It’s almost like there’s an inherent danger in their juxtaposition, like, what if one of them was to fall over and spill on the floor, or what if someone was to pick one up and throw it over the walls? The perfection of these laboratory spaces also makes them a space for deviance and transgression.
Eugenio: One of the most important things in the project was the choreography of the scientists that were working there. In order to make the tension more felt, we invited performers to produce the colours while the pavilion was open to the public.
Nick: Kind of like Damien Hirst’s set of installations in the Torre at Fondazione Prada, which I just saw and, despite the fact that I never thought I’d like an artwork of his, was blown away by. It’s a series of vitrines, one of a scientist working in a lab (A Way of Seeing, 2000), two that have fly nests and insect-killing lamps in them (Waiting for Inspiration, 1994) and then a monochrome painting on the wall made up of dead flies (The Last Judgment, 2002). Each on their own, maybe not, but seeing them all in sequence was remarkable.
Eugenio: Recently we have worked with choreography through engaging models in another installation for the fashion brand Grifoni. Their fashion week presentation was taking place in an architecture studio whose floors were made out of white Carrara marble. We covered the floor with green plastic film, and then had eight models move a set of stairs that was used as the catwalk. The stairs and the models were in the courtyard, and the audience was located on the veranda above, so there was an obfuscation in the movement of the stairs and the fact that the public could really see the clothes only after the models had walked up them. The models moved the stairs almost like it was a religious ritual!
Nick: What was interesting about your Monolith Rituals project, though, is that it’s an autonomous object in a highly unpredictable and dynamic landscape.
Eugenio: Monolithic Rituals was a project to redesign a photo booth, which we had the possibility to bring to Terraforma Festival outside of Milan. We wanted to create a totem that at first sight appears very heavy, but when the machine is turned on, becomes transparent. When it’s on, and looked at from up close, you can see through the black plastic of the shell and see into the inner mechanisms of the machine. In both of these projects there’s an important attention paid to materials. We always try to stress the materials in order to take to their characteristics, in this case the perception of solidity and transparency, to the extreme.
Luca: Sometimes we start our design process from those properties. This is what happened here. The company invited us to redesign the photo booth, and initially we thought this was crazy; to redesign something that no one uses. It felt as if we were working on an archaeology project. So we thought about what the perspective of a designer from the 1950s or 60s might have been – a time when relics like the photo booth were operational – and how they were imagining the future. We drew inspiration from thinking about what kind of materials they were using or that were novel at the time, referring to the way designers like Joe Colombo or Ettore Sottsass, or even H. R. Giger, were using high-gloss plastics to create voluptuous, curvy shapes. It resulted in a curiously tactile outcome: those who didn’t see the photo booth in person, who only have photographs as their reference point, are always asking us whether it’s soft, or if it’s rubber, and if so, whether they can stick their finger into it?
Nick: It looks like latex.
Eugenio: Yes, it does, but it’s incredibly solid. All we did was take a very typical photo booth, the one that’s in all Italian metro and railway stations, and put a new dress on top. We changed its clothes. When the machine was off, you could only see the shape we gave to the new machine, but when it was on, a light let you see the original shape of the photo booth. We sought to show an image of the machine, so that the audience could view it as if it were a vitrine located in a museum of archaic artefacts.
Nick: I love how you inverted the relationship between voyeurism and exhibitionism here. In a traditional photo booth, you are the subject of the camera’s gaze, but you turn the photo booth itself into something worthy of our gaze.
Luca: Obviously, the person seated inside the photo booth, on the stool behind the curtain, can take a picture of themselves, but nowadays taking a picture has almost become a daily routine that everyone partakes in. Why then should you need to use a specific machine when you have your smartphone? It’s so easy: unlock the screen, open the camera app, turn the camera, click, picture taken. But that wasn’t the aim of the project. We wanted to subvert the relationship between the machine and its user by adding a third figure, the observer, and focusing attention on the new object. Concentrate the interest of the observer on the machine. Through doing so, taking the picture became a secondary action, or it gained appeal through being taken inside that particular machine. In the end, the result was the same as all of the other thousands of photo booths in Italy: a strip with four photos. It’s a Surrealist time sequence, like an Escher drawing that develops over time and space: the observer, who assumedly takes a picture with their smartphone at the photo booth, waiting to enter, while the photo booth itself is taking a picture of a subject who, just moments before, took a picture outside of the photo booth. You can imagine how this could repeat, over and over, ad infinitum. In this endless cycle, a series of questions are asked: Who or what is being photographed? Who or what is wanting to be photographed? Who or what is taking the picture? Or, to go back to your question, who or what is the voyeur and who or what is the exhibitionist?
Nick: This reminds me of the way Jean Baudrillard describes seduction as a play of appearances, as the function of the cut, or the reveal in fashion. Perhaps we can focus on this question of materials and expectations. Some of what you do reminds me of the early Arte Povera work and the material context within which the movement came into being. I’m thinking in particular of Piero Gilardi’s Nature Carpets (1967), done in collaboration with the synthetic materials manufacturer Gufram, which were made to look as real, as natural as possible. I’m sure there’s a scientific term for this, when you approach something expecting that it’s one thing only to find out it’s another. It’s a bit like macro-gastronomy, or spaghetti ice cream that looks and tastes like spaghetti but has the temperature and texture of ice cream. The way you use different synthetic foams have registered in that capacity for me. Your designs and use of materials have compelled me to relate to the objects in a much more intimate way. I’m thinking of the mountains you created for the Terraforma Playground (2017), the ones that looked like rock, this black-and-white speckle, but were actually polystyrene foam. They were still hard, but not a rock-like texture. You also use this grey foam quite a lot, like styrofoam, which gives the appearance of granite, but once you get up close, you realise it’s very different.
Luca: We started to work with these types of materials when we were working on the question of what nature, or a natural material, means today. At the same time, we were looking into synthetic materials and how they can produce seemingly ‘natural’ sensations. Some of our first experiments were made with polyurethane spray foam. Polyurethane foam is hugely polluting and is quite disgusting, but at the same time, it’s quite sweet – you want to touch it, you want to squeeze it. It looks like ice cream. We made a lamp called The desert, the net, and the bones (2016), where we attempted to reproduce a rock using this polyurethane foam, and lodged a plant and fluorescent light within it. We were wondering what kind of affect you get if you mix natural materials with these very synthetic materials. That was the starting point, and ever since we’ve tried to work with materials and use them as pedagogical instruments. In the project Vita nei Boschi (Life in the Woods, 2016), we created a children’s playground, and by building it out of these types of materials, we were able to shed more insight on transforming our environment and our understanding of reality. We’ve also worked with fake marble in Carrara.
Nick: And of course, let us not forget that the wooden walls of the Palace of Versailles and how they are painted to look like marble! The creation of ‘faux’ materials used to be a delicate craft that took apprenticeship just like any other, which at a certain point was more highly esteemed than the actual reference material.
Luca: Sometimes I think that the manual skills to make this kind of ‘faux,’ as you were mentioning, is what can add more value to these artefacts. There’s something really interesting for us in the way in which nature is represented and is part of our anthropised reality. This is extremely visible, for example, in the market of mass-produced furniture; if you can’t afford a real marble kitchen you can still purchase one made of cheap wood and plastic. This speaks to the relationship between what you can afford and the possibilities of these materials.
Nick: The architecture theorist Mark Wigley makes the claim that the original function of design is ornament, which is completely antithetical to modernist understandings of function, if not design as well. At a certain point though, it’s more important what something does than what it is. It’s use that matters, after all, not the perception of utility, and we have yet to understand the range of uses there are for objects. It seems like a good amount of your work is dedicated to creating spaces for the forgetting, rediscovery and reinterpretation of things. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that a number of your projects appear in heterotopic spaces: temporary spaces like festivals where there are, if any at all, other rules at play. What I find interesting in these projects is that throughout, you deploy a number of different devices that reappear in different configurations and situations. You seem to have this performative kit of parts or props: tents, rocks, mountains, fluorescent tubes, IKEA plants, industrial straps, bones, exercise balls…
Luca: This kit of parts is both the result of our aesthetic tastes and our economical possibilities. Much of the time, these works are made for independent and small productions, with of course quite limited budgets. We have always seen this condition as a possibility to experiment with unusual materials and elements rather than as a restriction of expression. For sure, the idea of forgetting, rediscovering and reinterpreting things is fundamental to our projects. We use this recurring series of elements in order to create cosmologies or constellations that are only developed across short spans of time. They change, evolve and overlap each other in a different way each time, thus always creating new results, in relationship with the environments in which they take place. Hence, the landscapes we try to create are always different; they work as scenography for the lives of the users that inhabit them. We took this concept of scenography to the extreme with our project for the Young Architects Pavilion at MAXXI, Rome, in 2016. We were looking at architecture as scenography, as a frame of action that gives us the possibility to think about and enact new possible realities.
Stefano: It’s really important for us to not just create a single object. We always create environments, which for us means spaces where you can break rules or develop new ones. The props you mentioned are what we use to position people inside another kind of reality. In doing so, we like to share a singular idea of everyday life, so these moments of escape can help to differentiate the real from another point of view. This is what we perceive to be the role of the architect or designer: to create environments where people have the tools to imagine a different world, or to modify the one they live in.
Eugenio: We believe in these properties of architecture and the opportunities they provide to create worlds. Archigram’s projects Tuned Suburbs (1968) and Tuning London (1972) are an inspiration for us here, in the way they represent entire neighbourhoods with the same facade, but beyond which there are infinite worlds. Although these projects were just documentary drawings, you can still envision what was actually happening in cities.
Nick: This reminds me of Dan Graham’s Alterations to a Suburban House (1978), where he simply removed their facades to expose their interiors. But even if you’re looking at private, domestic spaces for inspiration, your work doesn’t feel private or domestic. There is an interiority to it, almost like a boundary, within which one can experiment, can be free.
Luca: We view private environments as islands, where you can build your own world and your own reality. But we always mix the idea of the island with the idea of the desert – the desert in a theological sense, as a space where one can analyse themselves.
Nick: Do you see the production of these environments as creating a space for primitivity, these desert islands?
Stefano: These spaces are not nostalgic; it’s not like you revert back to the primitive within them. Rather, it’s about giving the sensation of being in a new environment, about acting within a new cosmological space. If anything, these spaces ask what it means to be primitive today, with all the tools we have at our disposal.
Nick: This is connected quite seamlessly to the idea of architectural space as tabula rasa: that there is an inherent act of radical creation sui generis whenever you create a project and with which there is no necessary starting point. However, I’m curious, if there is a primordial nature to these environments. What are some of the most primitive, or most surprising things that you’ve seen take place in them?
Luca: People had sex inside the Terraforma Playground, but this is perhaps more to do with the fact that it was at a festival in the forest than anything else! Life in the Woods was interesting because we gave simple materials to kids and asked them to build some kind of structure, shelter, architecture. They started to fight over a piece of wood, like in Lord of the Flies. Yet pretty quickly, they understood that they were too many and their materials not enough. They started to make groups and said okay, let’s make two groups and see who builds the best shelter.
Eugenio: Rather than being individual survivors on an island, they gathered into a sort of community. They understood the necessity to work together. They said, ‘I cannot work alone. I cannot move this log alone, I need my schoolmates.’ As a generation of digital natives – and with regards to their contact with natural elements, their confrontation with their own physicality and the need to satisfy a primordial necessity – I cannot help but think of a drawing made by Antonio Averlino (Filarete), in which a naked and shocked Adam, banished from Paradise, confronts the violence of nature and gestures towards the creation of shelter. It was quite amazing, too, how this all took place within one of the highest examples of Italian Renaissance architecture, Leon Battista Alberti’s church of San Sebastiano in Mantua.
Nick: It’s interesting how in these stories, there are characteristics one might naively associate with a different kind of nature than the one we were talking about before; not nature as in the landscape, but human nature. I think this idea of artifice and nature is something that runs throughout your work in very interesting ways, but ultimately, the way you use architecture and design is just a means towards a different life. Your design has the capacity to familiarise us with other sensations, other affects, other ways of encountering and relating to objects and bodies, to time and space.
Luca: We hope that our objects and spatial configurations can help activate at least temporary experimental moments of relation. But the question then, is how to make it last?