Should a wedding dress outshine the bride? Is a fountain really a fountain if the only stream of water is a video image? Get ready for La Digital Vita. These are just two of the questions that remain after a recent blizzard of Italian techno-creativity.
A collection of bridal gowns by a Milanese designer actually glows with fiber optics, the same technology that is lighting up costumes in the current Washington Opera production of "Aida." The fountain, installed last week in the atrium of the Inter-American Development Bank, consists of seven tons of marble enlivened with 40 Philips television monitors, on which the River Tiber flows.
Italian Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo takes the onslaught in stride. It's "the image of modern-day Italy," he says, "the marriage of advanced technology and art."
Leonardo's ghost would surely be impressed.
The fiber-optic fashions debuted at an embassy reception three weeks ago. Waiters paraded in luminescent green jackets, while bartenders served wine on a table cloaked in light-emitting cloth. Dancers from the "Aida" troupe were dressed for a battery-powered wedding, in layers and folds of sparkling white lights, which could be seen only in the dark. A model recommended candlelight ceremonies.
The trademarked textile comes from an Italian company called Luminex. Fiber-optic tubes are woven into the fabric, an innovation the company believes is unique.
"We are used to fabric that reflects light," Salleo said. "For the first time, we have fabric that is light."
The glow is powered by 3.6-volt batteries, which should last six to eight hours before recharging is required. The technology is still experimental, and so far, prototypes have been developed to show off decorative uses, such as fashion, theater and interior design. Colors have been limited to white, green, blue and red, although development of a computer chip would expand the range to 256 hues. Prices are said to range from $50 to several hundred dollars a yard.
The Luminex company (www.luminex.it), which evolved from a collaboration involving nuclear physicists as well as textile experts, looks forward to more serious applications. So does Andrew Dent, director of the library of 3,000-plus innovative materials at Material ConneXion, an industry resource. He has a Luminex sample in the archive in New York. But he points out that the real value of fiber optics is not in the transmission of light but in the transmission of data.
"I'm waiting for somebody to do something intelligent," he says, "for somebody to take that ability to weave fiber optics and get past the 'wow' factor."
Fiber optics are particularly good at detecting structural stresses and strains at extreme temperatures, he points out, suggesting the potential for architectural and military applications. Transmitting digital information through clothing is certainly possible. But, Dent says, "no one has actually yet needed it."
A Luminex spokeswoman, Christina Bini, carried a prototype handbag made of Luminex fabric to the embassy reception. She hinted that glowing fashions would appear on Paris catwalks before year's end. She declared the purse, which was illuminated inside and out, to be "very useful" when one is searching for keys in the dark.
Digital Italy The Inter-American Development Bank's exhibition, called "digITALYart," opened last week. Italy's best-known video artist, Fabrizio Plessi, installed a celebrated fountain called "Roma II" in the atrium. The work dates from 1988 and has been promised to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The materials, like Plessi's concepts, are as ancient as the Druids and as advanced as the computer age. Travertine marble slabs are assembled in a circle and bounded by screens.
High tech meets Stonehenge.
Water is heard and seen but cannot be felt. The roiling Tiber, filmed and recorded by an assistant, has been reduced to an eerie, flickering video stream. The marble is loose. A piece breaks while being moved. The installation begins to look like the ruins of some failed civilization.
"My work is always contaminated with classical art," the artist says.
Felix Angel, director of the IDB Cultural Center, brought "Roma II" to Washington for the exhibition, which honors Italy as the host of next month's annual bank meeting in Milan. Works by two other Italian digital artists, Celestino Soddu and Adriano Abbado, are also on display.
Plessi, who turned 60 with the coming of the new millennium, dismisses New Age labels. His goal, he points out through an interpreter, is the "humanization of technology" through nature.
The vision can be fiery. For the holiday season just past, he filled the high-profile windows of Calvin Klein's Madison Avenue store with a simulated fireside blaze. Five logs were suspended from the ceiling. Each was embedded on both ends with television monitors, which replayed endless images of flames. Smaller versions appeared in stores in Paris and Dallas.
In April, Plessi will concoct an apparition in Milan for the world's largest design event, the International Furniture Fair. Plessi and two American superstars of the avant-garde, theater director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, are preparing a theatrical tribute to Prometheus. Plessi is contributing a fleet of overturned boats, which are to be suspended overhead and fitted with monitors to create the illusion of a burning shipwreck.
Water has long been a favored element in Plessi's work. A celebrated installation from 1992 still exists in a Sardinian hotel, the Atelier sul Mare (www.ateliersulmare.it). One of 14 artists invited to design rooms at the hotel, Plessi covered over windows and paneled walls with discarded farmhouse doors. Near the ceiling, he installed a border of television monitors playing a video of the waves crashing just outside the boarded-up windows.
"The advantage," Plessi says, "is that at night, you can actually see the ocean."
digITALYart, through April 25 at the IDB Cultural Center, 1300 New York Ave. NW. Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Call 202-623-3774.