Interview with Angelo Vermeulen

Angelo-Vermeulen-foto.jpgIn December, Yves Bernard invited me to give a talk at Art+Game, a conference and exhibition about video games from an artistic point of view. After my usual little show, a guy came to me, his name was Angelo Vermeulen. He had curated a part of the exhibition with such talent and impeccable taste that i was all ears, i thought he’d want to talk about games. He didn’t. He wanted to give me a CD of his work. Man! Don’t you have a website like everyone? A CD! Something tangible that will meet the same end as all those business cards that people keep handing me: they end up in the bin of some hotel because they just clutter my handbag. I came late to digital data so now i stick to it, if i want to find you, i just google you and that’s it. Anyway, a few days later i was in one of those hotel rooms. There was no internet. I open Angelo’s CD and look at its content. The next thing i did when i finally managed to get online was to ask Angelo if i could interview him. Angelo doesn’t have a website (yet!), he’s way too cool for that.

He wrote part of the interview in NYc, part in Sint-Niklaas and then disappeared somewhere in Andalusia.

Originally trained as a biologist (PhD at the University of Leuven, Belgium), he also followed a photography training at the Art Academy of Leuven. Moved to London to work with Nick Waplington. Back in Belgium he took up post-graduate studies at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts (HISK) in Antwerp.

Blue-Shift-[LOG3.jpgAfter that traces of his activities appear online. Most notably, his installation Blue Shift [LOG. 1], introduced last Summer at Isea2006, aims to question the status of the utilitarian in art and science and push interactive installation art into Darwinian realms (detail of the installation on the right). A community of single-cell algae, water fleas, fish and water snails is set up in the exhibition space. Visitors induce a gradual microevolution of the – genetically determined – light-responsive behavior of the water fleas. When the system is in standby, yellow lights illuminate the aquaria from the top. The water fleas are attracted to this light and swim towards it. Whenever a visitor is detected in proximity of the installation, blue spotlights are activated. Water fleas, repelled by this color, flee downwards and pass through holes in a false bottom in the aquaria… where fish are waiting to wipe them out.

What can be considered to be a survival strategy in natural circumstances – blue light indicates clear open water and hence potential detection by fish – has quite a different meaning in this set-up: it is exactly those water fleas that do not swim away from the blue light that survive and reproduce. In this way their genes will become dominant in the water flea populations and a “contra-natural” selection will occur.

He has been working on “SKANNER�, a new media project on human fear in cooperation with Tamuraj, electronic musician and mathematics researcher. The audience is exposed to a frightening live montage of video images and sounds generated by the artists and an artificial intelligent computer system. Physical reactions of the audience such as heart rate and blood pressure are monitored. An artificial creative agent uses these data to decipher and simulate the relation between fear responses and sounds and images. The agent functions as a third “virtual� artist. Through the accumulation of empirical data and learning algorithms, SKANNER tries to evolve towards a real fear machine.

0labtestvideostills.jpgSkanner Labtest – Video stills

Angelo is currently busy writing a book on the relation between art, technology and spirituality in partnership with art philosopher Antoon Van den Braembussche. In collaboration with Quebec-based artist Louis Blackburn, he is also preparing several new media projects and a documentary on computer game culture. He and Etienne Van den Bergh, president of Contour Mechelen, will be touring Europe with a series of lectures on games (games & cinema, games & the body).

Angelo, you’re one of the few people who are both trained as a scientist (biology in your case) and fine artist. Do you make a clear distinction between your work as an artist and your scientific activities?

In the beginning of my life as an artist I was mainly focused on photography and I was convinced that my scientific background was something I had to get rid of in order to make good art. It was only a few years later that I discovered that combining these things would lead to much more powerful creations. Now I feel a lot of my work is a layered convergence of rationality, intuition and hyperesthesis. In the interactive cinema project ‘SKANNER’ (2002-2005) and the installation piece Blue Shift [LOG. 1] (2005) I explicitly combined both my art and my science background. Certain aspects of these projects were strictly scientific, while others were purely artistically motivated, and there is evidently a different mindset for each of the positions. Blue Shift [LOG. 1] was created with Luc De Meester, a former colleague of mine and a specialist in evolutionary biology. For this project I had to make a lot of choices about the setup of the piece in a larger art exhibition context. I choose a basement location because that gave the right kind of conditions and associations I wanted; a half-hidden and darkened laboratory with close proximity to a workshop where technicians were running in and out. Once the location was chosen the process started of building up the piece in relation to the space itself. These decisions were primarily artistically motivated: I wanted to create a 3D image that had an immediate and strong impact on the visitor. I have learned by now that such creative choices only can be rationally analyzed and (partly) understood after the piece is ready. When creating an installation I strongly rely on intuition to decide which specific materials to use, where to put things, how to set up the lighting etc. Of course there are also significant conceptual issues related to certain choices, it’s not just a formal process. However, with Blue Shift [LOG. 1] things became even more complex than that; whenever I made a creative choice I had to make sure it did not violate the scientific rationale behind the work. The idea of this piece was to create a work that functioned both as an interactive installation, and as a scientific experiment. A true hybrid work.
SKANNER-Labtest-Z33,-2004.jpgSkanner Labtest Z33

SKANNER was a collaboration with musician and mathematician Tamuraj. The goal was to create a live horror movie that would use images and sounds from a database in combination with a live-generated soundtrack. During the performance we monitored the public’s bodily responses as an indication of emotional state, such as heart rate and blood pressure. We then used these data to optimize the live montage of image and sound in two different ways. First, all the data were displayed in real time so that we could actively use the public’s emotional state as a directive for mixing sound and image. Second, Tamuraj programmed an artificial intelligence module that constantly compared output (the live movie) and input (the public’s emotional data). The software then automatically optimized the impact of the performance by making autonomous decisions about the sound sequencing for example. In this way, the soundtrack during our last performance was to a large extent created by the audience’s hearts. In an art project like this, the aim is to create a powerful audiovisual experience that at the same time uses systematic scientific analysis.

Did the art audience react to Blue Shift [LOG. 1] in the same way as the scientific audience?

Both audiences reacted strongly to the aesthetics of the piece; to its visual language and its setup in the space. But each audience also responded very specifically from within its own context; art audiences tended to be fascinated by the conceptual dual nature of the work, while scientists quickly started investigating the experimental design of the project. During the exhibition Luc De Meester invited an American colleague who was visiting Belgium. His colleague was extremely enthusiastic because he saw both a scientific and educational value in the project. We were provoking Darwinian evolution of the light responsive behavior of water fleas through exposure to predating goldfish. Our hypothesis was formed from related observations, and had never been tested before. The project was a way to bring specific research to a wider audience. The feeling that your daily practice gets a meaning for a broader public is very gratifying, but unfortunately, this happens hardly ever for scientists.

Blue-Shift-[LOG.jpgWater flea and Blue Shift [LOG. 1] installation view

What makes the art approach interesting in a regular scientific context? Can your artistic explorations be fed back to the scientific frame?

I am not sure that the art approach in general can have a major impact on scientific practice. The last decades it’s been very popular to stress the similarities between art and science. Artists and scientists are “creative and inspired�, the artist studio can be seen as a sort of laboratory, etc. Recently, at an exhibition opening in Los Angeles, an artist came up to me and stated that “scientists are artists�. I personally oppose this oversimplification. There are fundamental differences between both worlds that cannot be bridged. First, the idea that scientists have of the world is completely different than that of artists. According to science, the world is something to be fully understood and modeled and mathematics is regarded as its true underlying basis. Through a process of continuous refinement science is looking for the one universal model that will explain everything. This is a very Cartesian way of looking at the world still. As an artist you have the freedom to reject this, and personally I believe you have to reject the supremacy of such reductionist models to make truly engaging art. Art is about what escapes definition, there is a sort of spiritual element in good works of art that defies any analysis. Take poetry for example; a computer program using artificial intelligence could probably convincingly simulate a poetic style. However, true engaging poetry has an authenticity you cannot artificially create. This may seem like a very Romantic notion of art, but I believe ambiguity and ungraspability are crucial characteristics of art.

0thomskhhu.jpgA second important difference between science and art is the handling of tradition. In a more traditional view, science is a constant flow of historicide, while art production is a process of reiteration. Through the continuous creation of new subsequent models, science progresses towards a sort of utopian ultimate understanding of the world. Older models are replaced by new ones, hence the concept of historicide. In contrast, art would constantly build on the works of former generations. “Unlike art, science destroys its own past� Thomas Kuhn argued in his Comment on the Relations of Science and Art. I don’t fully agree with this. In the daily practice of science its history and traditions are continuously present. One of the most central aspects of scientific practice is its use of statistics, the universally adopted methodology to analyze data and present insights. If your insights do not comply with the norms of this standardized system, they won’t be considered valid. It’s quite a fascinating system in its own respect and works really well. However, for me this was a major difference when I started making art: in art there is no such inevitable standardized context to work in. Art works do not have to comply with a specific set of rules to be considered “valid�. On the contrary, in the avant-garde/modernist model we use today, art should be questioning, even annihilating predecessing art and should create more pertinent and visionary answers. This doesn’t mean that the contemporary art world is always so ‘refreshing’, quite the opposite. Contemporary art seems to suffer heavily from reiteration, and we see the same things over and over again such as conceptualism, minimalism, pop art etc.

Apart from similarities, both art and science have their individual specificity that you have to handle in their own respect. Like I said before there’s no need to throw away things; combining different attitudes is the most fascinating thing you can do. However, the desire to fuse everything into one ‘model’, into one singularity is a typically Western cultural attitude. This attitude not only has its roots in scientific thinking but has also been shaped by religion and economics. A religion in which everything is reduced to one singular deity, and an economic model – capitalism – which at the root is obsessed with efficiency and hence singularity.

So, because of fundamental differences between contemporary art and science, I don’t believe they will blend again into a sort of neo-Renaissance model. Moreover, in practice science is often only superficially interested in art. Scientists don’t have the need and, more importantly, don’t have the time to indulge in an art practice consistently. However, there are examples in which the scientific community truly shows interest in a complementary artistic approach. In the specific example of ‘Blue Shift [LOG. 1]’ there was effectual feedback to the scientific community on different levels. Luc De Meester was happy to see that his year-long laboratory work finally found a way to a broader public, and that the work resulted in actual data to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Personally, this is one of my favorite aspects of the whole project; publishing an art piece in the world of science through a sort of Trojan horse.

On the other side, a lot of contemporary art does happily embrace science and technology. ISEA2006 (International Symposium for Electronic Arts) in San Jose was a clear example of this. This symposium is organized every two years in a different city, and for the 2006 edition the organizers worked together with ZeroOne San Jose, a festival on digital culture. During a full week in August there were numerous artist presentations, lectures by media theorists and curators, panel debates, etc. All this in conjunction with an extensive showcase of art works and performances throughout the whole city. The art projects somehow always made use of recent technology, both in very simple and in very elaborate ways.

Now, this embrace of technology in art has its own problems. What particularly struck me during the symposium sessions in San Jose was the desire of many artists to drown their work in an academic jargon. It looked a bit like a desperate attempt to be taken seriously and make sure the audience realized there was a “deeper meaning� to the work. I think that by doing this so explicitly you basically ‘kill’ the work, you kill the potential for an open experience by your audience. And then again, don’t forget that clever rhetorics can be used to apply ‘deeper meaning’ to almost anything. Of course all this is a consequence of conceptualism and of the enormous influence of academic discourse in the shaping of art careers. Another way in which the importance of an art project was put forward was through stressing its technological innovation value. Most often this resulted in art project presentations that were basically nothing more than fancy tech demos. There’s more – or sometimes less – to art than impressing with a technological trick developed in collaboration with a prestigious university. It’s the sort of techno-fetishism that is rife in the new media art scene. A new creative technology is presented as an art piece but essentially lacks genuine layers of poetic meaning simply because the focus is on the technology itself, and not on what lies beyond. The medium has become the message; nothing new here.

Spiralundergroundisio.jpgSpiral & Underground Support System (Television)

You wrote that today (new media) artists are often under pressure to present their work as “research”. What are the pitfalls of such attitude?

I have no problem with research in the arts whatsoever. It’s an interesting evolution that artists don’t necessarily have to produce well-defined (collectible) objects. It’s the art practice as a whole that has come to the foreground; what artists stand for, how artists make their attitude come true in the world, how they communicate their ideas, what other experiments and side projects they’re involved in, etc. Such layered activity and exploration is also valued these days. However, there are some pitfalls in overtly stressing research in art practice.

First of all, research may become an end in itself; the artist’s work becomes interesting simply because it is research. As a consequence some artists start legitimizing their work through some sort of research concept hoping that it will make the work more relevant. Well, it’s up to the spectator to decide whether the research presented is actually meaningful or just a “marketing trick�. Sometimes research even becomes an excuse to avoid making a clear-cut artistic statement or finalized work. The work-in-progress-syndrome. I have nothing against work-in-progress tactics but they should be meaningful in view of a chosen strategy, not a pretext to procrastinate. In some cases artists fall victim to their own endless technical research. This is a phenomenon which you often encounter in the new media scene. People start up a technically complex project and keep struggling with it for years and years, continuously working on the technical and financial aspects of the work. Once again, this is not a necessarily bad strategy but in some cases the artist would be better off picking up some completely new ideas and a fresh new project. Experimentation and exploration seem essential for me.

I also believe there is a strong tendency nowadays to instrumentalize art, especially those art forms that do not sell well. This is of course a neoliberal vision on the art practice; art should somehow financially sustain itself within market forces. There’s a big cultural difference between this in Europe and the US. In Europe, art that has less or no commercial value can be funded by the government, much less so in the US. As a consequence, American artists tend to present their new media work more often as research with a utilitarian benefit for society: it has an academic value, it’s technologically innovative etc. I think this is not always a healthy situation. Art should reclaim its rights to be sometimes… well, not useful at all, not in a directly measurable way. I even think contemporary art should become more irrational. We badly need more “nonsense�.

Is Drumlander a way to, as you put it elsewhere, “reclaim the freedom to play”? How did you get into the game culture by the way?

Yes, Drumlander is exactly that. This doesn’t mean we approach our game-related projects in a casual manner; on the contrary, we are very focused on bringing quality in what we do. Computer games are something Louis Blackburn and I grew up with. I was playing a lot but never really thought of incorporating games into my art. All this changed when I visited Louis in Québec City in 2004. We started talking about games; about the beauty, strength and craftsmanship of our favorite games, links with other media, and above all, approaches to recycle this culture in a creative manner. And that’s how we decided to set up Drumlander. Drumlander was originally conceived as a DJ project with game music, but quickly evolved into a much broader platform to explore the creative potential of games. In the DJ set we mix original game tunes, game music remixes and chip music made with old game consoles. We have gathered a massive collection of game songs and sounds, and depending on the venue, things become more dancy or experimental. It’s undoubtedly a great new experience for me coming from a background of science and visual arts.

0angelovermeu.jpgDrumlander Art+Game montage

I really liked the games you curated for the exhibition Art+Game organized by IMAL in Brussels last December. It presented the most interesting aspects of video games today: activism, education and fun. Which criteria guided your selection?

Drumlander’s game arcade The Sweet and Violent Underbelly of Game Culture is a showcase of independent games, mostly freeware and open-source. The present-day game industry can be compared to the film industry, with a small group of massive studios creating the most lucrative games, and a widespread scene of independent artists and programmers. For the arcade we consistently look for computer games that show a level of artistic ingenuity. As a spectator, this may not always seem so obvious at a first glance; sometimes you really need to submerge yourself in the game to discover this. There are many different levels on which a game can excel in creativity: its concept, gameplay, graphics, music, etc. A crucial aspect of the arcade is that we are constantly around to introduce people to the games, to play with or against them, discuss the significance of games, etc. This results in a whole different experience for the audience. For many visitors, games transform from a previously misunderstood commodity to an exiting medium with loads of creative potential.

For our last installment of the arcade at Art+Game in Brussels, we also included a personal selection of political games. These are games that take current political and social issues as a central theme. Sometimes in truly activist sense, and sometimes more in an ironic way. Through their sheer subject matter these games possess a sort of documentary value; something I learned during a debate with Eddo Stern and Peter Brinson at Gamezone deSingel in Antwerp last year. I find this a very interesting new way of looking at games.

0drumandaluer.jpgDrumlander – DJ set in Quebec

I read about one of your upcoming projects that will star mad scientists. It is certainly an ironic idea coming from you. What motivated the choice of that character?

I have a strong interest in cultural icons like the zombie, the alchemist, and mad scientist because they represent a sort of underground science. Each icon has a specific and consistent logic of its own but at the same time clearly transgresses the boundaries of normalized rational thinking. They also reflect people’s fears; both about science and the unknown. The alchemist and mad scientist are figures that operate in an ethical no-man’s-land and use technology without constraints, thus provoking fear. On the other hand, the mysticism which is involved in alchemy and zombies reflects man’s inexhaustible fascination-repulsion for the unknown.

I am currently planning an audio piece using the in-game dialogues of mad scientists captured from a wide range of computer games. The piece will be a multichannel surround installation set up around a central video sculpture. My idea is to create a sort of incongruous conversation piece that in a way reflects the representation of science in popular game culture.

Can you already tell us a few words about the book you’re working on?

The book I am currently writing with art philosopher Antoon Van den Braembussche, is a series of dialogues on contemporary relations of art, science, and spirituality. We met some years ago at the HISK; a postgraduate art school in Antwerp where I was studying at the time. During our first meeting at his home we had a non-stop conversation of more than seven hours. Consequently we thought it might be a great idea to use such conversations as the basis for a book. We approach the rather wide spectrum of the book’s subject through ten different angles: art and science, the virtualization of contemporary culture, computer games and visual culture, spirituality in the digital age, etc. It’s an extremely “natural� project that flows wonderfully well. The discussions are almost always unprepared and lead to the most surprising insights. We also travel around for this project. We go to Spain quite often, to work in isolation in a small mountain village in Andalusia, and we’re also planning to make a trip through Asia to go and talk with local philosophers and Buddhist monks.

There’s already a big interest in our book; people keep on asking me when it will be finished. We plan to have the Dutch manuscript ready by the end of this year, and the book should be out in 2008. After the Dutch version we’ll start working on an English and French translation.

Now two silly questions that I think you deserve!
1. When will you have a website?

In February I will have a brand new web site. It will contain both an artist archive, a blog and a vault for all texts, ideas, scans, manuals that I think might be useful for the community. Until then you can check some of my work on the IBK Visual Arts Database.

2. Is there any talent that you don’t have?

Oh, one thing I am pretty bad at is orientation. I don’t know why but I have a harder time than anyone else to get a clear oversight of a city. In the end I usually get it, but it takes me like 15 times longer than a normal brain. However, in games I do pretty well…

Thanks Angelo!

All images courtesy of Angelo Vermeulen (except the portrait of Thomas Kuhn.)