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<nettime> 50 years of Dutch Media Art, a retrospective
Cindy Iseli on Tue, 1 Nov 2011 09:01:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 50 years of Dutch Media Art, a retrospective

50 years of electronic art

A naked bicyclist takes 30 minutes to travel 10 metres. A ?suicide machine?
roasts a person like a steak: rare, medium or well done. Driven by the
wind, creatures made of PVC piping roam a beach. A million Flickr photos
light up, and a little further down computer code dances across the wall.
An electric ceiling discharges above your head, crackling so loudly that it
gives you goose flesh. And then there is the smallest piece of furniture in
the world: invisible, a nano chair.

The annual art, music and technology festival STRP is entering its fifth
edition. STRP is named after the Philips site that borders downtown
Eindhoven: Strijp-S. With its Design Academy, Technical University, the
Philips group and dozens of IT companies, Eindhoven is the perfect city to
experience what happens when art and technology enter into a pact. To
celebrate the fifth anniversary, the highlights of technological art from
the past 50 years will be on display.
    The location, the Klokgebouw, is not a white box with a strict
hands-off policy; instead, it is an impressive industrial hall. Philips?
NatLab was once housed here. The NatLab was a physics laboratory where the
best and the brightest were free to experiment as they please, and an ample
budget to fund it all. In addition to acoustic experiments, this was the
birthplace of many inventions including the radio tube, short wave
transmitter, videodisc and compact disc.
     Roaming through this imposing factory building, a visitor encounters
an extremely diverse array of art: some of the works date back more than 20
years, while others are more recent. The artists are connected by the
desire to experiment: to see what is possible with technology ? and the joy
is positively palpable.

The renowned video presentation Po?me Electronique has been referred to as
the first ?multimedia work of art.? For the 1958 World?s Fair, Philips
approached the architect Le Corbusier. His assignment was to show what
technological advancement had to offer humankind. The result was a
gesamtkunstwerk, a sound poem in which architecture, sound and sight merge.
Imagine a specially designed room filled with electronic music by Var?se
(very modern at the time) issuing from 400 speakers, accompanied by giant
slide projections of everything from birth, death, destruction and the
miracles of technology. It was said that the music seemed to ?drip down the
    Var?se spent over six months crafting the composition with engineers
from Philips' NatLab, where artist Dick Raaijmakers worked between 1954 and
1960. Using the pseudonym Kid Baltan, an anagram for ?Dik Natlab,? he was
involved in electronic music, too. But Raaijmakers cannot be pigeonholed.
He experimented to his heart?s content with installations, performances,
?instructive pieces? for string ensembles and ?graphic methods? for tractor
and bicycle.
    In Raaijmakers' Method Bicycle we see a documentation of a
?re-enactment?: a nude bicyclist covers a distance of 10 metres very
slowly, and dismounts. The endeavour takes a total of 30 minutes to
complete. As the bicycle is pulled by a motorised winch and steel cable,
the cyclist is lifted up off the saddle in slow motion, his leg moves back
and he dismounts the bicycle at extremely low speed. The silence created by
the concentration of the nude performer causes the viewer to acutely hear
his heartbeat and breathing. You see his muscles quivering. The simple act
of ?dismounting a bicycle? becomes breathtakingly thrilling.
    Another pioneer presented by STRP is Gerrit van Bakel. He, too,
experimented with slowness: he built machines that advance by mere
centimetres over the course of millions of years. Agonisingly slow.

Punk and social criticism
The machine art of the Eighties was an extension of the squatters? movement
and punk, the ?DIY? culture. Fire artist Erik Hobijn is one of its
exponents. He built a massive installation that he named Delusions of
Self-Immolation, a suicide machine. Covered with flame retardant gel, the
subject stands on a revolving platform between a flamethrower and a water
hose. The flame comes from behind. The user is exposed to the flamethrower
for approximately ? second and automatically rotated towards the
extinguisher, which immediately puts out the flames. The actual time during
which subjects are actually on fire is extremely brief ? approximately 0.4
- 0.8 seconds -- to prevent them from actually burning. Hobijn and his work
are illustrative of the way in which technology was used with a
post-apocalyptic aesthetic during the punk and squatter era.
The work contained an unmistakable element of social criticism without
being pedantic. It was rebellious, energetic. The same could also be said
about Jodi.org: Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, Internet and game
pioneers. In the Nineties, they made art that manipulated the computer?s
operating system and the user?s fear of computer viruses. JODI uses
computer iconography the way that a painter uses paint: you click and error
messages, pop-up windows and arrows tumble across the screen. The effect is
a confusing graphic spectacle. At the time, it sowed panic among many
people, who mistakenly believed that this ?weird sort of art? had ?broken?
their computer.
    Technological art acquires added value when you look at it in terms of
time and context. The interactive installation The Legible City by Jeffrey
Shaw was shown for the first time in 1989. Astride a stationery bike, you
cycle your way through huge coloured letters that form words, streets and
sentences: a city. The landscape of letters is based on the map of New
York. You cycle through excerpts from stories and condensed urban histories
projected on the wall in front of you.
    The installation Spatial Sounds by Marnix de Nijs and Edwin van der
Heide takes your breath away in an entirely different manner. The work has
a savage beauty to it. The violent installation dates back to 2000, a
little over a decade after Shaw?s more subdued work. The audience is
startled by a speaker, which spins through the air with brute force like a
washing machine gone haywire. As soon as someone approaches, the box emits
loud, pulsating sounds.

>From net.art to Augmented Reality
Today?s generation of technical artists is represented, too, of course.
There has been a perceptible shift from machine and installation art (via
net.art) to robotics, mobile telephones, augmented reality, ?intelligent?
fashion, and nano and game technology.
    Augmented Reality was made popular by the smartphone. A screen (or pair
of glasses) is used to add another layer over reality. Originally
unsolicited, artist Sander Veenhof?s telephone application for the Museum
of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York allows you to see art that is not
officially part of the collection hanging on the museum?s walls: these are
three-dimensional virtual objects. For STRP, he came up with something new:
a real live rabbit named Tibb, who lives in a cage with a webcam aimed at
it. The cage has blue screen walls, which are similar to those in a
television news studio. Using their smartphone screen or iPad, festival
visitors can take the live rabbit with them and let the virtual version hop
around freely at home in real time. Tibb AR -Rabbitt reads the same
backward as forward, which is reminiscent of the Kid Baltan - Dik Natlab
Some AR artists call themselves ?cyber activists? who ?squat? official
spaces (art museum or otherwise).  After all, using GPS coordinates you can
leave virtual objects everywhere, whether it is a sculpture inside the
Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam, or flowers on a grave.
    Another new generation artist and designer, Daan Roosegaarde, made a
name for himself with playful interactive installations such as Dune. As
visitors walk down a long corridor of artificial beach grass, the sounds
made by visitors (for example by coughing, singing, or shouting) cause the
tips of the blades to light up. They react to sounds and produce a wave of
light. It is as if you are walking through sand reeds, traversing a dune
landscape that shifts with your movements.
    During the past few years, Roosegaarde has been focusing on fashion,
too. The exhibition includes a woman wearing a dress that Roosegaarde
created in cooperation with a pair of fashion designers. When you approach
the model in her high tech outfit, the material covering her body slowly
becomes transparent: Intimacy 2.0.

Mature art form
The exhibition presents an overview of the developments in the Netherlands.
Technology has made significant advances during the past 50 years but the
artists? inspiration has remained more or less the same. Some use
technology to express social criticism; others play around with the
possibilities. The combined result is a journey filled with associations: a
fascinating timeline of 50 years? worth of art and technology. Bringing so
many works together allows you to see parallels, and the historic context
adds relevance to the installations.
STRP makes it clear that the combination of technology and art is reaching
the stage of maturity: there is a canon of experimental artists worthy of
respect. Where technology was only sparsely available in the past, now
there is an arsenal of opportunities and an international community that is
stronger than ever thanks to network technology.

Ine Poppe, 2011

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