Over 50 years ago, Philips commissioned Le Corbusier to create their pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Designed to showcase the company's engineering prowess, the pavilion was a cluster of nine hyperbolic paraboloid in which music was spatialized by sound projectionists using telephone dials. Edgard Varèse composed a piece of electronic music, the Poème Electronique, and drew up a detailed spatialization scheme for the entire piece.

Neither Varèse nor Le Corbusier were Dutch but Varèse's composition was developed with the engineers at Philips' NatLab, in Eindhoven. This experimental laboratory gave light to many inventions such as the radio tube, short wave transmitter, videodisc and compact disc. The NatLab was located at the Klokgebouw, a 1928 industrial hall which in November was housing the STRP festival for the fifth time.

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Mark Bain, Disco for N/One, 2001

STRP was in great shape this year. It's a real pleasure to follow a festival that gets from strength to strength in such a fast and steady way. The symposium was impeccable, the night programme as edgy and spectacular as ever. At least that's what i was told. At night i either sleep or blog but as you can see the crowd was clearly satisfied:

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STRP Festival 2011. Photo: Willie Kerkhof

The organizers and curators also had the excellent idea of setting up an exhibition that brought the spotlight on the history of Dutch art and technology. The show was both a celebration of the talent of media artists in The Netherlands but also a gesture of support towards the Dutch new media institutes (namely V2_, Waag Society, STEIM, Mediamatic, WORM, Submarine Channel, NIMk) whose survival is threatened by drastic (and short-sighted) governmental cuts.

Regarded by some as the first "multimedia work of art" and developed at the very location of the STRP festival, the Poème Electronique was the best opener to the exhibition timeline of past and present media art works in The Netherlands. The exhibition was a captivating journey that brought me from old favourite such as Spatial Sounds....

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Marnix de Nijs and Edwin van der Heide, Spatial Sounds (2000) at STRP 2011. Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann

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Marnix de Nijs and Edwin van der Heide, Spatial Sound (2000) at STRP 2011. Photo: Mick Visser

To classics of Dutch media art (many of which i was only discovering) and world premiere of installations developed by young Dutch artists. Here's a quick selection:

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Dick Raaijmakers, Graphic Method Bicycle @ TodaysArt collab with Dag in de Branding. Photo by TodaysArt

The video of the re-enactment of Dick Raaijmakers' 1979 excruciatingly slow performance. In Graphic Method Bicycle, a naked cyclist covers a distance of 10 metres in 30 minutes. The bicycle is pulled forwards by a motorized winch and steel cable. Lifted up off the saddle by one of the pedals extremely slowly, the cyclist is forced to dismount. It's like a slow-motion video in flesh and bone. The performance requires considerable strength, concentration and balance and one can hear his pulse, breath and see his muscles quivering.

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Edwin van der Heide, DSLE 2 (2011) at STRP 2011. Photo courtesy Studio Edwin van der Heide

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Edwin van der Heide, DSLE 2 (2011) at STRP 2011. Photo courtesy Studio Edwin van der Heide

Perhaps my favourite work in the exhibition, Edwin van der Heide's DSLE -2- plays with light and sound to throw off spatial perception. The immersive environment uses octophonic loudspeakers and a surround installation made of LED panels that light up a screen.

Moments where sound and light appear to interrelate with each other are complemented with moments where the spatial perception of sound and light contradict with each other and lead to distinct ambivalences in our perception of space.

STRP had also toured the country's art academies to find some of the most promising artists. One of them is Jeffrey Van Oers whose Ambisonic Flightcase is a dark box for one person that encloses you into 3-D surround sound. At a time when every single work is multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary, it's fantastic to be offered the opportunity to focus on hearing only:

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Marnix de Nijs, Exploded Views 2.0 at STRP 2011

Marnix de Nijs gave a world wide update to his installation Exploded Views. The immersive piece invites visitors to physically navigate 3D models of some of the world's most photographed sites constructed from images uploaded on Flickr. The amount of detail in the 3-D model corresponds to the amount of photos of a given location. The 2.0. suffix is thus still very much in vogue in the NL.

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Domnitch and Gelfand, Hydrogeny (2010) at STRP 2011. Photo: Jean Pierre Reijnen

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Domnitch and Gelfand, Hydrogeny, 2010

Evelina Domnitch and Dmtry Gelfand's Hydrogeny is a tank of ultra-pure water scanned by a laser sheet.

Electrodes at the bottom of the tank split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas which form bubbles that slowly make their way to the surface. The water is further disturbed by sound and as the sonic frequency and amplitude rises, the hydrogen bubbles start to coalesce with one another while a white laser sheet scans and illuminates their movements.

Beyond macroscopically observable bubbles, an expanse of nanobubbles hides within the water's internal architecture. Some researchers presume that these nanobubbles of dissolved gas are the carriers of water's magnetic 'memory', enabling electromagnetic fields to saturate its innards for hours and even days after their initial appearance. In the seas and oceans, the lingering presence of electromagnetic fields photonically imparted by sunlight, triggers the electrolysis responsible for most of the Earth's hydrogen. An essential form of photosynthesis, solar water splitting is the cleanest and most efficient means imaginable for generating and storing energy.

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Bert Schutter, Mill X (1982) at STRP 2011. Photo: Mick Visser

Bert Schutter's windmill is best enjoyed with sound and movement:

And here's Floris Kaayk's Metalosis Maligna because i find it as good as when i first saw it back in 2006.

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Daan Roosegaarde, Intimacy 2.0

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Gerrit Van Bakel, Tarim Machine, 1982

More images in STRP's flickr set and on mine.
Previously: Delusions of Self-Immolation.

Sponsored by:





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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

A week ago i was in Eindhoven for an of the STRP festival that surpassed all my expectations. The curators and directors of the event had the brilliant (and timely) idea of dedicating the whole exhibition to the history of new media art in The Netherlands. I'll come back with a report or two about the show as soon as i've collected all the pictures and texts i need. But i found that one of the pieces exhibited, Delusions of Self-Immolation, is so powerful and disturbing it deserved its own post.

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STRP 2011 Expo hall. Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann

Delusions of Self-Immolation, aka 'the suicide machine', was a built by Erik Hobijn in the 1990s to set members of the public on fire. Literally.

The person would stand on a platform covered in a flame-resistant gel. A flame-thrower would then burn their body for less then half a second. The platform then turns on itself so that the extinguisher situated on the opposite side of the machine can extinguish the person immediately.

In an interview with Derek Holzer, Hobijn explained: There are three states on the machine which I call "rare", "medium", and "well done". "Rare" means you survive without any wounds. "Medium" is more for, say, the SM session or for people who like pain to understand parts of life, or to have this experience of pain. The third possibility is death. It is possible to die in this machine; I just have to change the liquid, and I have to change the timing.

Some 30 people have tested it at the time, many of whom were women.

The machine was shown at STRP along with a video. The artist also made demonstrations. I doubt it would be possible to have it function nowadays. We've all caught the Health and Safety bug in Europe.

Obviously, there is something physical in the Self-Immolation experience but what goes on inside the mind of the people before, during and after the burning alive experience must be even more intense and fascinating.

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation, demonstration. Photo © Jan Sprij 1993

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

If you speak dutch, i would recommend the book SKG: kunst, muziek & terreur 1978-1981 by Martijn Haas that reconstruct the 'night of terrorism' orchestrated by Hobijn in the Summer of 1980 in Amsterdam.

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Ariel Schlesinger, Untitled (Gas Loop), 2011

A quote from John Cage, 'art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living', gave its title to the exhibition that opened a few days ago at Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón, Spain. Estación experimental [Experimental Station] (see the first part of my report over here) presents the work of artists who see in scientific research a path for artistic methodology and inspiration. Whether the relationship they have developed with science is akin to formal research, pataphysics, science-fiction or investigates paranormal events, these artists play with our expectations and question our current knowledge without necessarily looking for a definite answer. The works selected are often low-tech, they are made using plastic flowers, old school turntables, magnets, music boxes or butane gas cylinder. The way they function is sometimes even laid before the visitor's eyes. No mystery, no magic trick but poetry, irony and inquisitiveness.

The exhibition is divided into 4 sections that sometimes intertwine and overlap. I've already explored the chapter about artists in the laboratory. Here's my notes on the artists who leave the lab to explore nature and on those who are looking for alternative uses of existing technology.

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View of the exhibition space. Photo Marcos Morilla

The Fieldwork section, dedicated to artists who get out of the labs to collect data or formulate theories that combine art, science and nature, contained two of my favourite works.

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Alberto Baraya, Herbario de plantas artificiales, 2002-2011

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The first is Herbarium of Artificial Plants for which Alberto Baraya took the role of a botanical explorer and collected, catalogued and displayed artificial plants from some of the earth's most fertile places, starting with Colombia, his own native country and one of the world's most biodiverse countries. Made out of plastic or fabric, the samples are dissected and exhibited inside botanical slides that rigorously detail the false plant parts and their characteristics.

Baraya's concern is representation, not ecological critique. "A lot of people need a relationship with nature, the good feeling of nature, but they sometimes get it through artificial plants. We need the representation of nature more than the reality" (via.)

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Faivovich & Goldberg, En búsqueda del Mesón del Fierro, 2011

4,000 years ago, a shower of meteorites crashed into Campo del Cielo, Argentina, a rare event that turned the area into natural research laboratory. Since 2006, Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg have been investigated the cultural impact of the Campo del Cielo meteorites.

One of the meteorites, named El Taco, weighed 1998 kg. It is older than Earth itself, and comes from the Asteroid Belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Discovered in 1962 by a farmer, the meteorite was shipped to the Max Planck Institute in Germany and divided in two halves through a cutting procedure that took more than a year. Since then, one part has been located at Washington's Smithsonian Institution, the other one in Buenos Aires's Planetarium. In 2010, a Faivovich & Goldberg exhibition held at Portikus, Frankfurt, reunited the two main masses of El Taco, after almost forty-five years of being apart.

The artists have now embarked on a research for a second specimen that seems to have mysteriously vanished into thin air. The Mesón de Fierro was a meteorite venerated by the area's original inhabitants since it crashed there thousands of years ago. It was last recorded in 1783 by lieutenant commander Miguel Rubín de Celis, who led one of the first scientific expeditions in South America. Despite its weight of 15 to 20 tonnes, the Meson del Fierro is now lost, no one has the slightest idea on its whereabouts.

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O Grivo (Marcos Moreira and Nelson Soares), Turntables, 2011. Photo by Marcos Morilla

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O Grivo (Marcos Moreira and Nelson Soares), Turntables, 2011

The artists in the Artefacts and Mechanisms section are mostly interested in subverting existing technology. Interestingly, most of them were sound artefacts and their cohabitation in the same space leads to a surprisingly pleasing 'soundscape.' O Grivo's turntables proved to be the perfect companions for the tired and delicate sound of Alberto Tadiello's Eprom. I'll never get tired of seeing this installation (or any other of Tadiello's work), strangely enough, i have the feeling i might have blogged this one a thousand times but can't find the post anywhere.

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O Grivo, Turntable, 2011

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O Grivo build musical instruments using waste or cheap materials. From old turntables to bits of cables or wood. Activated by mechanical and electrical systems, the instruments might look like accidental contraptions but pay closer attention and you will realize that their sound is as delightful as their visual appearance.

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Julio Adán, Ecografía (no tocar, por favor), 2011. Photo by Marcos Morilla

Julio Adán's Ecografía (no tocar, por favor) had a whole room to itself. Adán uses musical instruments for drawing using magnetic dust. The result is unpredictable and often fairly loud. The motors and sensors are activated by the presence of visitors.

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Guillem Bayo, Serie Misfits, 2011 Robot and hose. Photo by Marcos Morilla

Guillem Bayo gives life to banal objects in his Misfits Series. The emergency fire hose got out of its box and snakes around the room but the fire extinguisher hasn't quite found a way to escape and repeatedly knocks on the door to be able to exit.

The idea is simple and perhaps not particularly original but its realization was charming and the artist somehow managed to give a 'soul' and a real intent to the rebellious objects.

Estación experimental [Experimental Station] remains open through April 9, 2012 at Laboral Centre of Art and Industrial Creation in Gijón, Spain.
Previously: Experimental Station - Part 1, In the Laboratory, Experimental Station - Caleb Charland.

Estación experimental [Experimental Station], an exhibition that just opened at Laboral Centre of Art and Industrial Creation, presents the work of artists who are inspired by scientific research. Whether the relationship they have developed with science is akin to formal research, pataphysics, science-fiction or investigates paranormal events, these artists play with our expectations and question our current knowledge without necessarily looking for a clear answer. What matters in their work is not the end result, but the process, the experiment, the long journey of trial and error.

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View of the exhibition space

The exhibition is at time playful and amusing and at time leading to more contemplative moments. I was particularly glad that Estación experimental gave me the opportunity to discover so many young Spanish artists. I hope i'll get to see more of their work in the coming years.

The first chapter of the exhibition gives a general overview of the concept behind the show. In the Laboratory brings together the artists who use their studio or an exhibition space as a place for experimentation. I've already mentioned Caleb Charland and the homemade experiments he photographs in his garage.

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Alistair McClymont, The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty, 2010

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Alistair McClymont, The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty (detail), 2010

Another artist who makes jaw-dropping experiments with physical phenomena is Alistair McClymont who recreated a tornado inside one of the exhibition rooms. The mechanics that activate the rotating column of air are not hidden from visitor's view: fans, scaffolding, black tubes and a humidifier.

The sculpture uses mundane materials to recreate a rare meteorological phenomenon that can have devastating effects. In the gallery however, visitors are free to step into the whirlwind of air and vapor and experience its physical presence without any danger.

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Ben Woodeson, Health & Safety Violation #15 - Spiral twist hazard

Danger, or rather the perception of it, is at the core of Ben Woodeson's work. The sculpture he's showing in Laboral bears the tongue-in-cheek name Health & Safety Violation #15 - Spiral twist hazard. I'm all for poking fun at the over-regulations that dominate cultural spaces (especially in England, a country never afraid of reaching new heights of ridicule in that matter.) Spiral Twist Hazard is a black cable that hangs from the ceiling and twists, untwists, whips and moves as if it had a life of its own.

Because the title warns you of the cable 'purpose', the threat becomes appealing, it puts visitor to the test: will you dare go nearer or will you retreat safely?

Spiral Twist Hazard is one of the exercises in a long series of "Health and Safety Violations" that the artist began in 2009. I'm quite fond of the aggressive shoe brush (video might take a few moments to load but well worth the wait), the pump that suffocates you by vacuuming air away from the gallery space, the beads thrown on the floor, etc. I like them all. I should interview him one day. Right?

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Rubén Ramos Balsa and Oumar Haidara Fall, Fall Machine, 2003-2011

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Rubén Ramos Balsa and Oumar Haidara Fall, Fall Machine, 2003-2011 (detail of the autonomous mechanical multiplier)

Artist Rubén Ramos Balsa worked at the service of engineer Oumar Haidara Fall to help him communicate his physics theory. The video and mock-up on show illustrate in a tangible way the Senegalese scientist's work on the mechanical disruption of symmetry.

I'm not sure i understood the theory quite clearly but from what i managed to gather, the research questions the laws of gravity inherited from Newton and tests the possibility of increasing mass in the same trajectory.

The project page explains that The work carried out jointly by the engineer and the artist explores and tests the validity of the Autonomous Mechanical Multiplier as a principle that can prove the theory of the evolutionary conservation of the unity of multiple dimensions.

I'll come back later on this week with more posts about the exhibition but don't wait for me to check out the catalogue of the show, it's available as a PDF on Laboral's website. And here's a few pitiful photos i made while visiting the show.

Estación experimental [Experimental Station] remains open through April 9, 2012 at Laboral Centre of Art and Industrial Creation in Gijón, Spain.
Previously: Experimental Station - Caleb Charland.

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NET at Z33, 2011. Image Numen / For Use

There is only one week left for you to run to the House for Contemporary Art Z33 in Hasselt and bounce around the amazing work that Numen / For Use has created especially for the art center.

This is the second time this year that i've encountered the work of the design collective. I discovered their work in Spring when i was attending a press conference at CCCS - Strozzina in Florence. Sven Jonke, Christoph Katzler and Nikola Radeljkovic had wrapped transparent tape all over the courtyard of the venerable Palazzo Strozzi to shape a self-supporting cocoon for people to crawl inside. For Z33, they've left the gaffer tape in Vienna and Zagreb (where they are based) and used nets to turn the whole exhibition space into a giant playground that can be explored horizontally as well as vertically. The idea might look incredibly simple but the result evokes floating architecture and flexible, aerial "landscape" as much as jungle gym.

I was beyond happy when Nikola and Christoph accepted to discuss their work with me. The interview focuses mostly on the Net at Z33 and on the Tape walk-in installation i saw in Florence but the Numen/ For Use website will, i'm sure, give you many more reasons to admire their work.

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

Sorry if i'm going to start on a very trivial note but one of the first questions that popped into my mind was "how about security?" I'm sure your installations are perfectly safe and sound but is 'health and safety' ever an issue? Are there any special measure you have to comply with and did they ever get in the way of your creativity?

Christoph: Security and safety is always the thing we fight with. Since we are educated as applied artists and since we do a lot of set design in theatre we are aware of all the problems concerning statics and security.

It is part of every daily reality. Especially when you make something in public space you have to fight with a lot of law issues. But often they are rather idiotic issues. It is bizarre to see how different countries and different organizers are putting weight and importance concerning law on totally different things and how they ignore others totally. But it is also interesting that in art institutions law is very often not seen so super strict like in other fields. This is one reason why I like to work there.

Up to now it was like this that either the ideas went without bigger problems into realization or they stopped very early due to some legal regulations.

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NET at Z33, 2011. Image courtesy of Numen / For Use

How did you get to create The Net for Z33? Did they give you carte blanche or did you work on the idea together with the curator?

Christoph: We said, "we want to try something new." They said, "okay but we need the idea within two weeks", which was rather a short period for us to find something we really like. But the idea came actually easy and fast, which is rather rare, and we all were rather satisfied from the beginning.


Artist talk with Numen / For Use about NET | Z33

In the video interview that you did for Z33, you explain that The Net is a testbed for a public version that could be installed between houses. Have you found a location already? Would you see it as a permanent structure or a nomadic one?

Christoph: YES, we are searching for a nice location in public to realize it there! In the opposite to our other walk-in installation (called Tape) it is much harder to find a location in the public space. Many of my friends would love to have it in there backyard to open the window and to jump inside for a sun-bath or whatever. But I do guess it would be difficult to find a location where all neighbors would give there permission to have "strangers" hanging around in front of there windows.

Another possibility would be to use one of those football-cages where kids are playing and to implant it there. It would be a different situation, but I think it still would work.
Probably it has to be temporary due to the law and safety regulations ; - )

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

When i saw the Tape installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, it was morning, there was a press conference, and none of the journalists was climbing inside the structure. Actually, i had no idea anyone was allowed to or even that anyone would think of doing it. The public is usually not supposed to climb into sculptures/installations. But somehow, i found the work fascinating enough. What is most important to you, that the public will want to engage physically with your work or that they are visually compelling?

Christoph: For us it is 100% important that the public can go inside and experience these works. Nowadays we write it in our contracts that the public has to be able to go inside during normal opening hours. When people see the installations most of them are curious, they want to go inside. But since you have to take your shoes off and crawl an all four it makes the social borders falling. They are starting to enjoy it together in a very communicative way although they often do not even know each other. This is nice! That's why we like to see it in the public. Maybe it is somehow like in a different world and some rules do not count anymore for a while.

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

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Numen / For Use, Tape Florence, 30.04.2011 - 20.05.2011. View of installation in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze. Photo: Martino Margheri

The Tape shapes are very organic (at least to me.) How do they form? Do you have to work on computer models first to explore the sturdiness and elegance? Or is there rather much space for improvisation?

Christoph: We make just a simple model to test somehow the basic shapes not to be totally wrong and the rest we do on spot rather following our intuition. So there is no computer involved at all! We also do not draw or design a lot. It is basically just working, working working, because what ever you do it will always shrink into forms which are geometrically perfect! On spot it is a real rush and chaos, everybody is doing something. So in the beginning we often think we made some mistakes. But now we know that it is just the usual phase. We just go on and it is fine at the end.

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NET at Z33, 2011. Image courtesy of Numen / For Use

You trained as industrial designers, but what you do now seems to be miles away from industrial design. Would you agree with that statement? Or do you feel that your practice evolved in a logical way and that, no matter what you are doing today, you are still true to your roots as industrial designers?

Nikola: It seems but it is not. Industrial design implies a certain awareness of the needs and wishes of the user and we consider the visitors of our installations in that way. Designers are constantly trying to personalize products and production, to humanize mass produced items. On the other hand, we are at the moment seriously working on industrializing our installations, in the sense that we are developing a walk-in installation which can be set over and over again. Our working process and professional ethos are still strongly influenced by our design roots and I find it stimulating to exchange influences and experiences from one field to another. The strict border between art and design is, in my opinion, totally artificial and absurd. Both fields are about visual communication of abstract values, about media and society, both use creative potentials to articulate spatial relations and both constantly refer to one another. It was like this even before pop art and after...

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Numen / For Use - NET, 2011, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium (photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33)

Does For Use still find time to design chairs and other pieces of furniture or have the more artistic projects completely taken over your time and energy?

Christoph: I am at the moment mostly into the experimental projects because I feel much more freedom and I see much more joyful feedback from the audience. But we still deal with design and I do guess we will approach different to that profession in the future and open up our borders.

Nikola: Since Christoph is avoiding design completely, I am probably dealing with design more that ever!-)

Thanks Christoph and Nikola!


Making of NET - Numen / For Use

You have until October 2nd to jump in the NET at the House for Contemporary Art Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.
This interview is going to be part of a catalogue i'm currently working on with the Z33 team. The book should be out in early 2012 and Z33 has allowed me to publish on the blog a couple of the interviews i had with the artists, architect and designers they have been working with over the past few months.

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The Killifish lives in puddles, sometimes in the middle of a road, where trucks drive through. These habitats provide little competition for food, and are disregarded by predators, especially since water is brown and unclear. The obvious disadvantage is that puddles are highly unstable habitats. One of the strategies killifishes have developed to cope with this is to jump out of the puddle, maybe landing in a new one. Many don't make it.

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Jump technique composite

Because puddles are different, the populations evolve into new species rather quickly. The kamikaze behaviour and the multitude of subspecies have triggered the interest of a community of killifish collectors, who travel to puddles in the tropics, collect live specimens and bring them home where they will breed the fish with a self imposed ethic: the killifish must stay exactly as they were found in the puddle, and not change between generations.

For artist Mateusz Herczka, the killifish behaviour and culture reveal a new relationship between nature and people, as if the killifish have infiltrated culture, and are now part of the cultural evolution rather than the biological. He followed the example of the killifish and infiltrated the killifish keepers community, learning, exchanging information and tactics.

Because the way killifish jumps from one puddle to another remained to be properly documented, Herczka flooded his studio and captured this spontaneous jumping in HD video. The video material shows jumps under various conditions and still frames have been composited to show the jumping technique and the trajectory. The fish always jump in the middle of the night when nobody is around.

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Reconstructing the puddle at the Verbeke Foundation

To understand how fish can survive in a puddle with trucks driving through it, the artist set up a digital simulation using software which simulates liquid, and rolled a virtual tire through a virtual puddle. Finally, an ambitious reconstruction of the puddle is being built at the Verbeke Foundation, to be completed in the next coming months. Unsurprisingly, recreating a South American puddle in an unheated Belgian space was quite a technical challenge. The huge cube of glass and metal contains a reconstruction of a puddle found in the middle of a road in Guyana, with a truck wheel rolling through it.

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The Verbeke Foundation isn't easy to reach if you don't own a car but the result of Mateusz Herczka's research is documented and presented with plenty of visual material and also aquariums containing fish, worms, artemia and springtails in the exhibition Puddle Drive-Through Simulation currently open at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE).

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Diving under the puddle platform at the Verbeke Foundation

I hope to be able to visit the show when i'm in Belgium next month. In the meantime, i asked Mateusz to answer my many questions:

How did you first encounter the Killifish? But even more importantly, what made you want to spend more than 3 years working with them?

There is a two-floor basement near my studio in Stockholm. The upper floor was a club for mini-z model car racing. A steel door leading to the lower floor says "Södermalms Akvarieaffär, kom in och titta", (South-side's aquarium shop, come in and have a look). One day I needed glass and thought maybe they could sell me some. Upon entering, I realized this is not a regular aquarium shop. The atmosphere was somewhere in between a laboratory, and a computer club I belonged to as a teenager. Passing a few normal looking aquariums and some merchandise, I turned a corner and saw rows of murky aquariums with carefully written labels showing Latin names and some kind of codes. The fish didn't look like any I had seen in other shops. Homemade devices, bubbling liquids in plastic bottles, cultures of little worms and jumping things.

I was approached by a guy who said "Amazing, isn't it? Janne only works with nature forms." He indicated the owner, Jan Wester, who turned out to be an architect devoting his life to killifish, a warm and friendly guy who loves to talk about killifish and keeping techniques. His strict ethic of fish origin and his refusal to stock more popular "plastic fish" turns a lot of customers away. The shop is his "fishroom". I visited him several times and listened to his stories. Later, I met other killi keepers around Europe, and found a rich scene on the internet.

What intrigued me was the complexity and level of involvement with what appears to be an insignificant fish species. Then I found the Jim's Basement Floor anecdote, and started to remember fragments of literature I read. A story by Polish SciFi writer Stanislaw Lem, describing a planet where the government decided that the fish was the most noble state of being, so the water level is raised a little every year. Or various books where someone travels to the jungle, it starts to rain, and "suddenly there are fish on the ground".

I started to wonder if these fish are quietly infiltrating culture - on a grassroots level in people's basements, in stories suggesting a merging of people/fish habitats. This links to the discussion of a possible end of biological evolution - the new evolution being cultural, the new fitness parameter being adaptability in culture. I was wondering if I, an artist, could bring something new to the killifish scene, but also infiltrate the killifish scene into the art community, to push the killifish even further into the realms of culture, using strategies from both science and art.

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Composite from video stills to show the jump trajectory

I was also intrigued by the existence of a killikeeper community. Who are they? Is there anything that sets them apart from other fish hobbyists? Did they give you any feedback about your Killifish art projects?

The people I met are all professionals in different fields. They are spread around the globe, communicate via internet, send eggs to each other via airmail, and sometimes meet at conventions. Some of them make field trips to the tropics, looking for fish in puddles, ditches, etc. Specimens are brought home for breeding and preservation in the fishroom. This requires dedication and ingenuity - the fish are quirky, jump out of the aquarium, some subspecies are very short-lived and lay eggs that need to be dried and re-hydrated several times. The community is bristling with clever technical DIY solutions that enables maintenance of a large aquarium count, live food culture in the everyday home environment, ecological "balanced" aquaria, automation, etc. A major contrast to domesticated species from the aquarium shop.

After speaking to several killifish keepers, and observing their interaction with the fish, I get an impression of a special kind of relationship with nature. Not keeping animals as pets, decoration, utility or food, but bringing content and meaning to your free time by actively interacting with an animal population, shunning commercial products in lieu of Do It Yourself methodology. It is especially interesting to note their killifish breeding ethic, to preserve the population as close as possible to the nature form, the exact look and behaviour of the original fish in the puddle. The community arranges regular contests where keepers show fish which are judged specifically on the nature form criteria. In the case of some subspecies, the original habitats are gone. The preservation ethic allows such populations to continue their existence in somebody's fishroom.

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Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, 2009

I have received a lot of help and feedback from the killi community. When showing Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, local killi keepers helped to arrange fish and care for them, and the installation became something of a meeting place. Many are intrigued by my video films showing the killifish jumping behavior, which was common knowledge but never properly documented. These films attract attention from the art community, but also bring something new to the killi keepers.

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

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The Verbeke Foundation

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

The introductory text of the catalogue, written by Simon Delobel, explains that you gave your aquariums and fish to a shop because "keeping killifishes at home or in his studio would have meant losing the artistic aspect of his creative activity." Can you tell us the reason for that?

When working with a project, my artistic strategies are based on theoretical research, but most importantly to "walk the walk and talk the talk". In this case, I had to learn the methods of killikeeping by maintaining some populations in my studio, their way. I discovered that it was extremely interesting, and found myself wanting to try some new killifish species, different methods, contacting some guy i Canada to get eggs from a rare Rivulus type...

After about a year, my studio was filling up with aquariums - I was "bitten by the bug". This is very relevant to the whole story - the killifish seem to combine just the right elements of complexity and accessibility to create and maintain interest with almost anybody. After an exhibition in Spain, I heard that one of the personnel had started to keep killifish. So one side effect of this project has been to promote a specific and positive model of interaction between people and nature. But as an artist I need to retain objectivity, and so I gave all my killifish away.

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Like some of your other works, this installation navigates between art and science. You asked for the advice of experts in various disciplines, read numerous articles and watched scientific videos in order to make your own as scientific as possible. Nowadays many people see art and science as two radically different fields. But what do they have in common for you? Why do you find that they can be intertwined? What does this intimate flirting with science (or amateur science) brings to your art practice?

There are many answers, not always coherent. In art school, I learned how to make things look like art, and art theory as an analysis tool for the work - there were no new media or art/science programs at the time. But artistic practice for me has always kept one leg in the process of discovery, both digital and wetware. In the 90's I participated in the generative graphics scene, which consisted of people publishing strange quicktime videos on the budding internet, projecting live graphics from laptops in artsy clubs, hacking video games to crash in an interesting way etc. This was very exciting and relevant stuff but the art world had no idea what to do with it, there were no proper contexts, and most of the material is gone today, the computers outdated, the operating systems deprecated.

I decided to abandon art theory as an anaysis tool for my work, and started to look for alternative artistic strategies. Having studied with conceptual artist Dick Raaijmakers in Den Haag, I started formulating projects that provided some kind of answer to questions. This in contrast to the common saying that "science provides answers, art provides questions". To provide answers, you have to look for them, which means genuinely trying to understand certain literature, formulating and recreating experiments, careful documentation and so on. And when embarking on a research journey, the mind has to be open for what comes out - the semiotics of the work don't always look like art.

Another strong component is Do It Yourself - I know scientists as discussion partners, but I prefer to work in such a way that I can do most of the initial work myself. This is one reason for plugging into communities, which often accumulate large bodies of informal knowledge of very high quality. Lately, I'm looking for ways to bring the DIY aspect to the audience as well. I'm increasingly considering the DIY aspect to be crucial to survival not only of art, but of the post-technological society, because it breaks down peoples dissociation with nature, science and technology, and connects them to the artistic experience.

For example, my Open Out Of Body Experience project uses recent science to let people experience an artificially induced OOBE, video game style, in a DIY format. The discussions that come from these sessions show an urgent need for problematization of the avatar concept, which recently cemented itself in our culture but whose morality has never really been discussed at street level. Or to take the point even further - if there was a DIY nuclear plant, Fukushima would have looked different today.

The art & science moniker is a buzzword that goes around right now, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I am an artist who tries to understand things going on right now in the real world, using methods which can also be found in the scientific tradition. The process of understanding leaves a trail of images, objects, videos and ideas, which I call art. I get the question all the time: is your work art or science? Good question, but I don't have a good answer without engaging into a long discussion about semiotics....

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A group of visitors checking out the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation

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Does this project mark the end of your artistic relationship with killifishes or do you think you haven't quite finished exploring their world?

Returning to the nature form preservation concept of the killifish community, there is a tendency of aquarium bred species to become more beautiful. Not because of selective breeding by keeper (actually the keepers are very selective to prevent this). It's a principle in any species that relies on display for sexual selection - the more beautiful, the more visible for predators - which increases overall fitness. I'm planning a project inspired by the citizen science model which documents such change over several generations. Interestingly, a specific population from one subspecies of killifish seems to have abandoned display selection for another principle - forced copulation. Basically a rapist killifish. Further research is necessary to fully ascertain what's going on. But it's not certain if the research will lead me elsewhere. We'll see.

Thanks Mateusz!

PDF of the catalogue. More images of the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation.

You can see Puddle Drive-Through Simulation at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE) until 20th October 2011.

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