Interview with Ermanno „Gomma” Guarneri, 10.04.2019

Gomma was an Italian hacker and cyberpunk who died in Milan in May 2020.

Interviewer: All right. So, ja. Again, thank you for the time, for the interview. Let’s begin with you telling us a little bit about the time you met the Van Gogh TV people. How did you get in touch with them? You were in Italy, they were in Germany, what was you know your common, the things you had in common? How did you meet?

Ermanno Guarneri: I think I remember I was introduced by this German guy called Klaus Maeck.

Interviewer: Okay.

Ermanno Guarneri: Who is from Hamburg. And I think I remember it was around 1989. I was a member of this group. We published a magazine in Italian titled Decoder. And Decoder was the name of this movie produced by Klaus Maeck and it was a movie on the possibility for the people to get in control of the communication systems. And those times was important because there was sort of a literary, science fiction literary movement called the Cyberpunk. And it was important for us because it constitute this factor of (imaginific? #00:02:01-6#) background of our social ideas. And in our magazine, we basically talk about alternative and creative use of technology.
So, during, I was, it was something like May 1989, I was in Hamburg and Klaus Mark introduce me some people from the Chaos Computer Club. And the people from Van Gogh TV. And with both, we were immediately in touch and had common feelings. And then the relationship started. And because we were involved in Italy in the squatting movement that is – it was quite different from German one in some way.
So, during, I was, it was something like May 1989, I was in Hamburg and Klaus Mark introduce me some people from the Chaos Computer Club. And the people from Van Gogh TV. And with both, we were immediately in touch and had common feelings. And then the relationship started. And because we were involved in Italy in the squatting movement that is – it was quite different from German one in some way.
During the middle ‘80s till the middle ‘90s, there were a lot of squatted buildings devoted to manage cultural activities. And it was the sort of laboratories for the, to experiment things. And those times, we used those placeple experimenting and you had not or these people that now for example monopolise the technologies, right? Not Facebook or Google or stuff like that. So, you was actually more free. It was more exciting and there were people like the Van Gogh TV that for the activity of experimenting was so fascinating for us. And I think we offered them the possibility to have a good structure in Italy, to be public. In fact, we made I think at least a couple of projects together. One based in a theatre, in a very important theatre festival in Italy, in Santarcangelo di Romagna. And we offered them the possibility to be very public but our point of view was –  mean basically politic because we really trust talking about our own activity that we could change in some way the world, create more, a more democratic approach.

Interviewer: Since you mentioned the theatre festival in Santa?

Ermanno Guarneri: Santarcangelo di Romagna.

Interviewer: Okay.

Ermanno Guarneri: It’s one of the most important theatre held in the streets.

Interviewer: Okay. (unclear #00:06:45-5). Go ahead.

Ermanno Guarneri: And we made the installations in squares. And one of our installation, now, I cannot remember actually if the Van Gogh was involved, was titled all technology to the people because we give for the first time, probably for the majority of the audience the possibility to touch a computer, keyboard and more to stay in touch with other people far from them. So, just a minute because my dog is barking. I have to open the door.

Interviewer: Okay (laughs).

Ermanno Guarneri: Excuse me.

Interviewer: Okay?

Ermanno Guarneri: Okay.

Interviewer: Now, I’m asking about the festival because is there at all a particular or is mentioned it as the occasion where they came up with the idea of calling it Piazza Virtuale because they saw the, you know the Piazzettas and the Piazzas in the city. Do you remember that or did that come you know, later?

Ermanno Guarneri: If I had the video in front of me, I could confirm better. I remember the ideas of Piazzettas and we held one of them, I think one in Santarcangelo di Romagna and one in Squat here in Milan. But I remember very well that the participation was – of the people was really huge. We had thousands of people. And because basically it was the first time that it was for everyone to understand that it was possible to communicate using networks. And this, it could be possible for everybody, for a cheaper price or for free like it happened. And then you also could see images. Like now for us, but this happened 20 years ago, more than 20 years ago.

Interviewer: Ja. I also want to ask, how did people communicate? It wasn’t just by chat. It was by – there was already streaming, video streaming?

Ermanno Guarneri: Yeah. Now, I cannot remember the technology we used but when we organised something connected with Documenta, I’m sure that with Van Gogh and with participation of a very famous avant-garde poet called the Nanni Balestrini. I’m sure that we streamed. Maybe we used – probably we used (unclear #00:10:26-8#) taking a television signal but I’m not sure. You have to ask Salvador. Now I cannot remember. I have to go back to the projects.

Interviewer: Ja. The way most people or most of the people in the Piazzettas connected with (unclear #00:10:50-0#) was via these Panasonic phones, these picture phones.

Ermanno Guarneri: Yes.

Interviewer: Did you have one of those?

Ermanno Guarneri: We had the phones. We had the phones. I have the pictures of the – you will see in the video that (there are? #00:11:08-2#) the people using the picture phones. That was, it is strange because you had the technology but there wasn’t the network able to use them in the proper ways.

Interviewer: Ja. In Germany, you had to have ISTN to be able to stream a live picture. You weren’t able to do that.

Ermanno Guarneri: ISTN, I think I remember that ISTN arrived later in Italy.

Interviewer: So…

Ermanno Guarneri: Anyway, I’m sure that we hadn’t ISTN when we made the installation.

Interviewer: Okay. So, anyway, you were invited by Van Gogh TV to create this Piazzetta, this Italian Piazzetta and where did this take place? Was there a specific studio or squatted house like you mentioned where what was the…

Ermanno Guarneri: It was only open spaces. That mean, I mean, it’s of course sort of a courtyard of the squatted place. And so, the installation was open air. And so, it was in Santarcangelo. They weren’t enclosed spaces. And our idea was that I think it was (unclear #00:12:54-1#) with the name of the group or the project Piazza Virtuale it means digital square. And the term that became so important later. I don’t know if it happens the same in Germany but in Italy, the term Piazza Virtuale, it is used already now by everyone when they have to define the virtual communities.
And the idea of Piazza, of square, that is particularly important in Italy because of the story of the squares themselves. And so, it, this idea, it is also enriched by symbolic and historical values. And when they proposed to us this project called Piazza, we and also in general the people accepted very positively because the idea to recreate a place where you can meet again the people was considered fundamental. I think I remember that those times, one of the main sociological theory of the point of meetings was the – how do you call them? I mean like I cannot remember now the name of the sociological term, sounds like no place. For example, supermarket or more (unclear #00:15:08-6#)

Interviewer: Most places, known places.

Ermanno Guarneri: Known places, all right. But we considered so strange and unhuman because it is so, I think it is a mistake to try to recreate socialisation in a place like a supermarket or in a mall where the main code is the – is to buy goods. And the idea of Piazza Virtuale was a new idea, revolutional idea to recreate communication amongst people for free, just for the pleasure to communicate.

Interviewer: And you say we, who was we? That was you and who else was involved in these activities?

Ermanno Guarneri: There was my leader group, the people of the magazine but we were strongly supported by an entire network of people. Those times the, we were connected using the BBS networks that was one using modems. I, we had not in the web yet because it was introduced in Italy in 1995. And so, to communicate we use the BBSs and like many people call in Germany. And our network, our computer network called Cybernet supported us a lot. And so did other squats in Italy for example people from Rome, from Florence, from Bologna, from Trento, from Turin. And because the idea of the virtual square was very strong and felt.

Interviewer: And can you tell, ja, can you tell us what you did for your participation for your Piazzetta in Piazza Virtuale, what were the activities that you did towards the show?

Ermanno Guarneri: Okay. I think I make a bit of a confusion between Piazza Virtuale and the other installation for Documenta. But basically we try to develop this idea that it is possible to create communication putting some technology between persons. So, we created different spaces with video cams and televisions connected. For example, one of the sector put in the middle of the road and this site could communicate with another video camera connected (#00:18:56-6#) to a television in a, into the squat. So, if a person could walk outside the place and coming in front of the screen, the video cam could communicate with the person inside. And there were a lot of these kind of installation.
And then there were the technology devoted to communicate using Piazza Virtuale. That was I think you know how it work using chat, you had the screen divided in several slices part with the sort of chat another part with (emojis? #00:19:51-1#) and then the sound I think coming from another source. The thing I remember now that the result was not so clear. I mean that the signal was quite dirty and the access was so big that you had a sort of a chaotic flux of communication. And you cannot understand actually anything of what happened. But this idea of chaos, sort of magmatic flux of communication, I think it was important from a sociological point of view.

Interviewer: So, you were not disappointed by the results?

Ermanno Guarneri: No, no. No, I was not disappointed. But if you see the video, you see two person far from them one in Italy, one in Germany for example, they were trying to talk to each other. And at a certain point, a third person came into this flux of communication creating a sort of disturb. But anyway, this was interesting because I think you can feel that there was something happening all around the world at the same time with the same spirit.

Interviewer: And people were also able to, I think part of what made it so chaotic was people were able to call in too. So, while you were doing your (transformation? #00:22:11-2#), which means there were always these callers from, mostly from Germany. Was there any interaction between you and them? Did you think that you know there was an actual interaction between the audience and what you were doing?

Ermanno Guarneri: But we created a double level of interaction. One, physical in the place and the other one using the technological instruments. And, so I think that one completed the other one because in the physical place, sometimes it is easier because you can see the people, the person in front of you to whom you want to communicate. But if you use the technology, you can communicate with another person of the, of topics that you, that could be common and the technology is the only way to create this relationship. And so, the element of disturb (unclear #00:23:39-4#)

Interviewer: And were people in Italy also able to see it? Was there an audience?

Ermanno Guarneri: I couldn’t understand the question. I’m sorry.

Interviewer: Were people able to see your program of Piazza Virtuale in general in Italy? Was it a live broadcast or…

Ermanno Guarneri: Yeah, yes. It was, it became very popular. Everyone talk about it. It has been a big thing in Italy.

Interviewer: But where were they able to see it? Via satellite or was it rebroadcast by a television station?

Ermanno Guarneri: It was – I mean there were some people connected. The majority, some of the people, because some televisions, we made a press conference before, we had a lot of television present that recorded part of the – of what happened. And so, the happening, I think it was sort of happening became popular.
And our idea was not to – was to launch an idea. And the idea was that through technologies you can communicate because it was not so easy to understand those times. Now, everyone knows it. But those times it was not so easy. And we tried and I think we succeeded to create a very low level of access. We didn’t want to make something for computer technicians or for (unclear #00:25:51-9#) or for nerds. We want to involve normal people. And the important thing was that it was that normal people played with the technology. So, even if we had some problems of chaos in the communication process, this was not a problem.

Interviewer: And if you think about it now, would you say that Piazza Virtuale was what today is called social medium or do you think you know it was before then?

Ermanno Guarneri: I think it was a social medium in the way I think a social medium should be. That means that you can communicate in a social way without to be control, or without the paranoias of the control or of the privacy or stuff like that like it happens now. It was something free. It was I mean a social medium, no doubt on it but it was better than the actual social medias.

Interviewer: Of today? Okay.

Ermanno Guarneri: I’m quite critical on the social media today.

Interviewer: I can tell, I noticed that a lot of people who were involved in Piazza Virtuale don’t like Facebook, and don’t like you know social media of today. So, that probably has to do with your experience.

Ermanno Guarneri: Yes. I think that in – from a certain point of view, we are losers. We lost a battle because we worked a lot and we, and we fought to create, I think a more democratic situation, to create for us the idea of the free access or sort of mission in which also art was involved. And it was from a certain point of view in my opinion, a sort of political act because using art you can demonstrate that you could liberate partially the people. And now the situation is not exactly the way we imagined.

Interviewer: Please don’t take that personal but I sometimes think that the people who allowed for this, for early you know access projects not just in Italy but also in the Netherlands and in Germany were also kind of useful idiots for the Facebooks of this world, you know they introduced people to this new medium and then somebody else took over and turned it into a business.

Ermanno Guarneri: Yes. Probably you’re right. But one of the mistake was – I mean in my opinion, I talk about my group and I don’t want to talk about other people. We didn’t be able to organise ourselves in having also a business objective. We weren’t able to create economic projects. So, we more or less, each of us found his own job working for others, working on technology, good jobs. But probably it was better to create something to guarantee for us a job anticipating the, what other companies did later. I have also to say that the proportions of the people that after a while came into the field was not comparable with us. I mean all the European scene. When you talk about Amazon or Google or Facebook or the big companies, you are nothing. And…

Interviewer: But if you talk about the long-term, what happened in the long run, I noticed that there still is a publishing house that’s called Shake. And…

Ermanno Guarneri: Yes.

Interviewer: Do you have anything to do with that? Did that turn into…

Ermanno Guarneri: Yeah.

Interviewer: …a viable business?

Ermanno Guarneri: This is for me, Shake is still running and it publishes books again. And (BACTA? 00:32:16-5#) or the people involved in it doesn’t take absolutely no money. So, we work for free, just because we like it and because this way we are more free to publish stuff that we cannot afford also to sell not so much on the market. But the majority of us work for other big publishing houses or in the technology companies.

Interviewer: I see. But you are still involved? So, this is a long-term?

Ermanno Guarneri: Yeah.

Interviewer: (unclear #00:33:03-8#) of this business.

Ermanno Guarneri: Yeah. I’m still involved. I’m still involved. I’m proud to be involved.

Interviewer: Other than that, could you say that there were any other long-term effects of Piazza Virtuale or was it just this one-off project?

Ermanno Guarneri: But do you mean for us or in Italy?

Interviewer: In Italy and for you.

Ermanno Guarneri: I mean that for a generation, Piazza Virtuale was sort of turning point. And in fact, I was just check a couple of days ago on Google, and I saw a lot of references on university thesis, on books, on what happened in Italy during the ‘90s. And Piazza Virtuale is quoted always. And for the people who participated, it’s something that you cannot forget.

Interviewer: And if you look at the list of the people responsible for the different Piazzettas internationally, for Italy it’s you and Sabine Reiff and since she has this German name, or because I didn’t come across her so far, could you tell us anything about her? What happened? What did she do in Italy? Why didn’t she get involved? What happened to her?

Ermanno Guarneri: I don’t know what she’s doing now. Sometimes, I meet her and, I don’t know now if quit technology but she was very involved in the first experiment of virtual reality, making art environments using the goggles for the VR, and she was very cool. I mean she was a good artist, a good person and wasn’t involved in this group of people called the (ITALIAN) this means like magnetic currents. And all of them is people that went on to create art in a very interesting way.

Interviewer: Okay. I think that’s pretty much my questions. One personal question if you don’t mind. What does Gomma mean?

Ermanno Guarneri: It’s just a nick-, it’s like rubber in English.

Interviewer: I see. So, why did you pick this name? Is there any significance to it?

Ermanno Guarneri: No. Absolutely nothing. Just, I liked it because it is funny. And I think the name, surnames are so serious. And my real name is Ermanno. I believe that is a too strong name for me. (unclear #00:36:37-2#) and so Gomma make it, it is better. I’m not a tough guy.

Interviewer: I see. And may I ask what you’re doing now since you seem to be very busy, and you can only do interviews at night?

Ermanno Guarneri: Because I work for this important publishing house in Italy called Feltrinelli.

Interviewer: Okay.

Ermanno Guarneri: And I manage the internet things. And now it is quite fashionable the – to stream events, to stream events for the book presentations. And this is important. I started to create my experience on streaming just from Piazza Virtuale. And one of the funny thing is that Facebook now uses old technologies. There is nothing new. In fact, I stopped to stream around sort of 15 years ago because it was not so fashionable on the web. And now, Facebook proposed again this technology and for me, it was quite easy to, to handle it again. I studied just a little, a couple of protocols and now using my old philosophy that it is impossible to create good results without spending a lot of money. I, and I apply this also on my work. I…

Interviewer: You can get good results or you cannot get good results without money?

Ermanno Guarneri: You can get good results even if you don’t invest so much money.

Interviewer: You just have to have innovative content like running a more (unclear #00:39:12-3#) and shooting 40 people that you need. You know not a big budget, people will watch you anyway and you’ll become an international hit. Ja, okay. All right. Thank you very much for this.

Ermanno Guarneri: Okay, thank you.

Interviewer: And I keep in touch with you and I tell you what’s going to happen with the material, I was telling you we were making film out of that. So, once there is something to see we will let you know. Ja?

Ermanno Guarneri: All right, okay.