Lorenzo de Rita is not only the Director of The Soon Institute – a research and development centre that tests solutions for tomorrow’s society – he is also a teacher of Idea Engineering at the Politecnico di Torino; he publishes art books (or “difficult books” as he calls them); and works in parallel botany and castles in the air (his upcoming project is to open a hardware store that only sells tools for fantasy building). His kit was made up of five boxes, each containing a “thing”. Five small items, none of them remotely pretentious, almost insignificant, but at the same time priceless, in that each represents a key moment in his story and offers in some way a glimpse into his personality.
Something similar / The space bar
The first object I’ve brought is this: the space bar from my mother’s typewriter. I don’t think there is any object that can better convey my most private self. I really identify with this key that doesn’t print a letter on the page, but creates a blank space between two letters. It is, in essence, not a thing, but a break between two things. Since I was a little boy I have always been really weird about things that are clear, defined, unequivocal. I had a soft spot for ambiguity, things that are “twisted”, indefinite, things that you can’t figure out straight away. And I am especially keen on ambivalent things that can hold many different meanings, if you choose to look for them. Over time I realized that this attraction was due to a resemblance between those kind of things and me. I was like them: always torn between this and that, busy with a thousand different things and many versions of myself. I was never just one Lorenzo, but one of two Lorenzos. That “between”, the state of being in the middle, of not knowing how to be just one thing, is a recurring feature in my life. I am the fifth of eight children. In the middle, a place where I feel comfortable. I have never been obsessed with coming first, nor am I scared of being last. When I was twelve they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and without even thinking I said: “a bishop, or if I can’t do that, a carpenter”. And in a way I have ended up as a kind of bishop and carpenter. I’ve gradually developed a spiritual side that thinks about things and a practical side that carries them out. It’s no coincidence that I now work in research and development, or rather that I think about things and then develop them into concrete prototypes. I’ve been living in Amsterdam, a city that shouldn’t exist, for the last twenty years. It was nothing but a great huge puddle and those Dutch geniuses went and pulled a whole country out of it. With all those bridges taking you from one side of the canal to the other, it just had to be the adopted city for someone who identifies with a space bar.
Something less simple / a lock
This is the lock of the cellar door at the house where I grew up. Including brothers, sisters and parents, there were ten of us in the house, and that number doubled if you consider relatives and friends. The house was beautiful, but really small: less than 100 m2. We had a lot of fun, but there was no way to get any space to yourself, never a moment to be alone with your thoughts. That’s how I got into the habit of spending whole afternoons down in the cellar. I gradually emptied out all the mess in there and turned it into my very own super private study, off limits to everyone. That’s where I learnt to delve into who I was, to venture deep inside myself in search of the person I hadn’t yet become. I started writing (terrible) poetry, experimenting and messing about with colours and materials, and above all, building ridiculous machines inspired by Bruno Munari’s pointless machines. That cellar was the womb that gave birth to and developed the Lorenzo that I am today. It’s a place that raised me, protected me and taught me a lot. I love it and will always be grateful to it, for one thing above everything else. The door. Let me explain. The cellar was below ground level and was incredibly damp, so damp that the door used to swell up and shrink down depending on whatever unhealthy microclimate was going on down there. Obviously, the door never gave any warning as to when it was going to swell or shrink, and if it wasn’t that it would be the faulty lock playing up. Long story short: I often ended up stuck in there for hours on end with no way out. I would wrack by brains, trying everything I could think of to get that damn door to open. I hated that door, I’d give it a right kicking. But I realized much later that I should have been thanking it rather than giving it a beating. I figured it out after reading a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein. It went something like this: “A man is a prisoner in a room if the the door isn’t barred and opens from within, but it doesn’t occur to him that he might need to push instead of pull…” So you could say that the cellar door taught me that I “might need to push instead of pull”; it taught me the passion for seeking solutions and that I mustn’t give up at the first hurdle, I have to force myself to think outside the box. The foundations of my first castles in the air are firmly planted in that cellar.
Something you figure out later/ A fluorescent Madonna
This little fluorescent Madonna figurine was given to me by Mother Carla, the mother superior at my primary school. My class was going to have our first communion that day, so she left one of the Madonna figurines on each of our desks, along with a recommendation, if you can call it that: “you must promise to keep this for the rest of your life, never lose it…”. I don’t know about my classmates, but that sentence terrified me. When I got home I immediately put it in a box and hid it in a safe place. Every now and then I would check to make sure it was still there. And it’s still there. I think it must be the only promise I’ve ever kept and I’m still not sure why. What I do know is that this little figurine has always been with me, not just in its box, but in my head, in my way of being. I slowly realized that, just like the figurine, my mind is fluorescent, and I recently wrote an essay entitled “Fluorescent thinking”. This is more natural than the “incandescent” thinking used in marketing, which demands everything straightaway and dazzles us with its artificial light, but doesn’t shed any light. Fluorescence takes time. First there’s the absorption phase to store up energy, and only much later when it’s pitch black and you’re losing all hope of a solution, the solution turns out to be within us, held in that faint, magical light. On the Idea Engineering course that I teach at the Politecnico di Torino I do various exercises in “fluorescent thinking” with my students. One of these is to write a “Curriculum Futurae Vitae”, a CV that goes in the opposite direction from the standard one which starts from the present and goes back into the past. This one starts in the present and goes into the future, detailing all the things you’d like to do. It’s a way of imagining a possible you. The results and the reactions of the students are incredible. Sometimes they start crying from the emotion or the fear of realizing that they actually want to be someone different from what they had always thought. Sometimes they’re ecstatic to finally discover what they want to do in life, and sometimes they dream up a life for themselves that they would never have thought possible. When we’re born we know who we are, but sometimes we don’t have the patience to wait for who we are to be revealed inside us. Sadly, not everyone has a Mother Carla to give them fluorescence.
Something kind of delicate / A safety pin
For about fifteen years I worked in the creative departments of advertising agencies. I entered that world, where I never felt comfortable, when I was really young, and the whole time I was there all I could think about was how to get out. I liked practically nothing about it, and, bizarrely, the less I liked it, the better I did, and so it got increasingly difficult to leave. I experienced first hand that when you don’t like something you tend to try to get out of it, and when you can’t get out of it you try, at least, to do it differently. So there you have it, my success in advertising was, paradoxically, down to my hatred for advertising. The fact that I didn’t like it forced me to think of other ways to approach it and to approach it with originality. A bit like when I had to deal with that cellar door. But, just as with the door, I feel that I owe advertising some recognition. It allowed me to travel, make money, and, most importantly, meet a lot of interesting people. The director Spike Jonze is definitely one of them. One of the few people with whom I’ve had a much deeper relationship than the kind you usually have with work colleagues. Whether or not he’s a friend, he is definitely someone that I am very attached to. A few years ago Spike made a film called HER. I don’t know if you remember it. The film is set in a not-too-distant future where people’s lives are run by devices and operating systems based on artificial intelligence. The protagonist, Theodore (Joaquim Phoenix), is drawn to an advert that he sees on the street, and he buys one of those portable voice devices that adapt to the needs of the user. The device has a female voice, that of Samantha, the HER of the title. The film tells the story of their relationship. I think that one of the most beautiful things about that film is something apparently insignificant: the safety pin that Theodore puts on the pocket of his coat so that the Samantha device’s videocamera doesn’t slip down inside and she can see the city during Theodore’s walks. I feel like that safety pin represents something that is disappearing from our relationships, our ideas and our lives: sensitivity. So, one day I called my friend KK, Spike Jonze’s set designer, and I asked him if he could send me one of the safety pins from the set. I’ve put it on my pocket as well – not to let an AI device see the world around me, but to remind me and anyone who asks me about it of the amazing and rare thing that is sensitivity.
Something from the other world / Two beautiful words
I’ve always been fascinated by people who collect things. It’s not about the collections as such, but more about the collectors. They’re pretty odd if you think about it. I’ve tried collecting things – foreign coins, bottle tops, letterhead paper from hotels – but I don’t have a collector’s mentality. I would start, but then I’d always stop before it managed to become something interesting that was worth pursuing. I’ve only hung onto two collections: one that’s called “words I like” and another of “hugs given and received”. I’ve brought two words from my collection of words I like: “deuteroscopy” and “hyperuranion”. Deuteroscopy, or second view. A kind of second look at things. A capacity that is wasting away in our society. We don’t give anything a second look anymore, we don’t have time, there’s so much to see. And so we end up seeing nothing, or only seeing what things are and not what they might be. Or – and this is even more serious – we only see what can be seen. We don’t pay enough attention to the invisible things. The other word is Hyperuranion. It’s not a physical place, but rather a metaphysical or spiritual realm, a place beyond the celestial vault and therefore beyond the sky. According to Plato it was there that ideas are found in their perfect form, and our souls exist before we are born. The task souls have is to contemplate ideas that – depending on the time and depth of the contemplation – will become, in turn, either beautiful or horrible people in the earthly realm.
One last thing / A second
For a number of years now I’ve had the habit of giving my friends and family a present for New Year. One year I gave them a notecard with “one second” written on it. In the envelope, alongside the notecard, there was a sheet of instructions. They read something along the lines of: take this second and cut it in half. Now you have two seconds. Cut them again, and again and again, until you have a second that lasts forever. Now give it to someone. And that was the last second of this chat.