Frederik De Wilde. The Invisible Boundary Among Art & Science

From April 13 to 15 August Lille’s Gare Saint Saveur hosted the collective exhibition “Paranoïa”, with 29 installations mostly interactive, located at the intersection between art, science and technology. As the title suggests, the goal was to investigate the influence that certain technological suggestions have on the artistic imaginary, sometimes producing “paranoid” experiences regarding our living and perceptive experiences. When the scientific research meets the artistic practice the visions that emerge are delirious, that is, they are deformed by the perception of the modern world, in a futuristic, technological, ludic and frightening fashion.

Among the works presented EOD 02 (Electric Organ Discharge), by Frederik De Wilde particularly captured our attention. EOD 02 is an installation realized in collaboration with the LAb[au] in Bruxelles. It consists of four mirror aquariums located on pedestals with integrated audio. Each aquarium contains particular species of fish, mostly native of the South Americans and African seas, emitting electric signals. The project is based on the electric field tension caused by the electric charges emitted in water when fish perceive their environment and communicate among each other. The electric charges inside the aquariums are collected by antennae and into four speakers that translate the electric emissions into sound. Furthermore, underneath each aquarium there is a bulb that pulsates according to the intensity of the signals emitted: in this way the fish electric impulses become tangible, visible and listenable, in the form of light and sound.

What is being interrogated in this case is the relation between communication and technology, not only the one concerned with human kind, but also the one of nature. The work is located at the intersection between art, technology and science, exploring and conceptualizing this invisible and intangible territory. 



Frederick De Wilde is one of the most interesting artists in the contemporary panorama of digital arts, in particular in the experimentation that brings together the areas of robotics, generative art and the so-called Nano Art.

It is immediately noticeable how his works contain a constant allusion to the pictorial tradition and the figurative arts, not only because of the extraordinary aesthetic impact on his artworks, but also because of his philosophical approach to art as well as his capacity to deal aesthetically and creatively with science. This is exactly the same approach of the impressionists, the cubists, the futurists or other artists such as Yves Klein.

Looking at his more recent works, we become aware of this ability in robotics, with artworks such as UMWelt:VIRUtopia, a 2011 installation made in partnership with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. This project of swarm intelligence interacts with space, once again using sound and light to engage with the public. This system of swarm intelligence is not just autonomous, but also reaching out beyond its own delimited boundaries: the external reality where it locates itself and the other intelligent systems that perceive this system. The works of De Wilde always open infinite questions beyond the artwork itself, reaching the experiential perception of the spectator and the context into which the work is physically located. The latter is also composed of physical elements that acquire, in this way, an aesthetic value: light, sound, space, void.

Moving beyond the plastic dimension of robotics, De Wilde has also explored generative art with unique and impressive results. For instance, in the series NRS Z.space. As the artist asserts it in his statement, his intent is to “paint with data”, in order to unite generative art and traditional painting. The new landscape of the Twentieth century is made of visual abstract-non-figurative elements in a digital and informatics form. Artworks such as Vectors 4 [UN]Certainty or On Fire are perfect examples of this evocative and profound graphics.

The spectator is not only suspended between visual imaginaries futurists and pictorial, but also, here as in robotics, in a partially unknown territory born from the interactive encounter between art and science. Here determinism leaves space to creation, and technology becomes aesthetic and philosophical instrument.



Another extremely interesting topic explored by De Wilde is the one presented with the series Qu[Art]z, where we find the aesthetics of Nano art and time. This time, the work consists of a completely open exploration, that is, a challenge/possibility in the audio-visual translation of a natural phenomenon such as the physical modification and transformation of crystals, recorded and shot in its various phases.
In order to understand these topics, we have met the author.

Sivia Bertolotti: Your work EOD 02 was presented at the Paranoia collective, an exhibit exploring the collective imagination of science intersecting the arts. What do you think is the relationship between science and art? Is it more an interaction, a reciprocal influence or do you see a form of communication?

Frederik De Wilde:
It would be sufficient to review history, from the Renaissance to the Positivism, to the contemporary era, to see that the relationship between art and science has always been very intimate. I believe that the boundary that separates the two ambits is pretty labile, as it consists of different approaches to the natural world, and reality. Art certainly involves more the subconscious sphere, while science is characterized by the empirical observation of objective phenomena.

However, science is not that different from art, it’s just two different perspectives on things. In terms of the presence of science in a more artistic sphere, we have a series of examples in the course of history: think about Monet, to cite a known name, and think about how the impressionists interpreted light as a phenomenon and how they understood observation in general. Let me also mention the Bauhaus. In any case, what’s interesting is the type of approach to a natural phenomenon like light, and the way in which it is perceived and observed. I therefore think that the intersection between art and science is one still to be explored, beyond any Western dualism. Nano Art, for instance, is located right in the middle of this point of intersection and communicatin, often “invisible” to our eyes.



Sivia Bertolotti: Speaking of Nano Art, on your website you write: “The conceptual crux of his artistic praxis are the notions of the intangible, inaudible, invisible. “ This is then what you call Nano Art. Could you maybe tell us more about it and why this invisible point is at the intersection between art, science and technology?

Frederik De Wilde:
Nano Art is an attempt to make visible what is not. The crux here is once again the perception of a reality that is assumed invisible. On the contrary, it is only a matter of access to a new dimension of reality, invisible to the human eye, but not through the use of specific instruments. This concept can be found in the video Power of Ten by Charles and Eames, where he shows how nature is articulated in magnitudes, scales, size, degrees which we don’t know. There is a woel complexity out there , invisible, to which only technology and its means can gain access.

Sivia Bertolotti:
In your Nano Art works, especially in the Nano landscapes, you used tools like scanning electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes. In EOD 02 you used sensors and antennas. What is the role of technology in your artistic creations?

Frederik De Wilde:
As I mentioned before, technology is a means that gives access to a dimension different from the one we usually access daily with our five senses. Essentially, it is a tool of exploration. Sometimes I abuse of it, from a scientific perspective. For instance, I had created some home-made crystals which I then analyzed through a microscope and to which I added some other small particles, fragments of material, etc…This procedure is not scientifically rigorous at all, but my approach is mainly explorative. Without technology certain dimensions of reality would remain hidden both at the sensorial as well as visual perception levels.

Sivia Bertolotti:
What’s behind the paradox of making visible what is invisible?

Frederik De Wilde:
…The access to a dimension that surrounds us on a daily basis but that is however unknown. WE are surrounded by radio frequencies, signals, waves and all this is un-accessible even if it’s all constantly around us. The theme of invisibility was very present also during the Greek era: think about the gods Athena or Ade, who could hide themselves to the sight of human beings. From an artistic perspective there is a connection between all phenomena, also the one apparently distant or unperceived.



Sivia Bertolotti: What is the conceptual point you want to investigate and explore in the relationship between biology and technology?

Frederik De Wilde:
Biology is technology, as the latter is often found within biological or natural systems. Biotechnology does not constitute such a futuristic horizon. I am thinking of the electric fish I realized with EOD 02. They emit radiations and electric impulses in order to communicate. If I consider the audience of that work and its reception, I realize that for many this is a contemplative phenomenon, for others it is a moment of reflection, for others it’s just curiosity.

Sivia Bertolotti:
How do you usually work? What’s your creative process and from what the inspiration starts? And specifically for EODO2?

Frederik De Wilde:
there is no specific method of creation. Let’s say that I often start from an intuition, but it can be an exchange with an artist colleague, or a thought, or an observation. Then everything goes through a process of “incubation” , during which I re-elaborate all those intuitions. for me it is important to always maintain an open mind towards the outside world.

Sivia Bertolotti: One of the points of EODO2 is the communication in a wide sense. The fishes communicate through electrical signals exactly like the modern man does. Are the fishes predecessors of the man? What is the role of technology in the modern communication?

Frederik De Wilde:
Sure they are. Fish utilize the totality of their senses, their perceptive activity is complete. There are so many signals in the air, waves, radio frequencies, but then we only perceive a small part. The case of fish is interesting because they communicate through electrical impulses. But often the level of signals is different and in order to communicate they have to tune in at the same frequency. After this negotiation at the electrical level, only then, they are able to communicate. Each fish has its own identity defined through the number of signals it emits. Fish are able to identify each other and to acknowledge each other through their singularity. 



Sivia Bertolotti: Speaking about EOD 02, the use of sensors implies a decoding algorithm that is always a subjective interpretation of a natural phenomenon. How do you relate yourself to the interpretation of the phenomenon’s language?

Frederik De Wilde:
Heiddeger said “art is a project”. The artistic practice is a sort of filter that allows us to choose between the infinite possibilities of an open project. First selection, then amplification, as if we were inside a lab, surrounded by radio frequencies. The act of choice is always subjective in the first place.

Sivia Bertolotti:
The electrical discharges are finally converted in sounds. What is the nature of the sound in your opinion?

Frederik De Wilde:
Everything is sound in nature. Maybe this is an assertion that may sound “Eastern” in a philosophical sense, but at the end the frequency is a physical phenomenon constantly present. Sound is the manifestation of an invisible reality that surrounds us. It is turned into a visible aspect of an invisible reality. And this brings us back to Nano Art.

Sivia Bertolotti: In the Umwelt statement you wrote “All technologies are social technologies”. Could you please explain to us the meaning of this sentence? And in particular, how does the robotic interact, in your opinion, with external realities, both social and artistic?

Frederik De Wilde:
Yes, I know, it’s a bold statement and even a little provocative. Being an artist means also being able to open up discourse and raise fundamental questions. I am very much interested in how technologies can be rendered into social technologies and create a potential for change. Social innovations are much more difficult to realize than pure technical innovations. From that specific point of view (mine) there seems nothing wrong with the aforementioned statement. In general one could say that most of the technologies are meant to interact (communication, fabrication, production, et al.) or, on the contrary, hold the potential to pollute or even destroy things, which is the ‘other’ or ‘darker’ side of technology. But one could argue that even this category falls under social technology in some sort of way.



In the case of UMwelt-VIRUtopia, it’s clearly a manifestation of making social relations tangible, on the one hand you got the technological side represented the robot swarm as a medium for expression, on the other hand you have the audience and the artist. Something that might come closer to describe my vision is the “soft” exchange between form and content and the role of media on mankind and the environment. I am clearly referring to Marshal McLuhan as interpreted by Levinson. I see this exchange as something encapsulated in an ecology that describes a network of relations between (new) technologies, people and context.

This ecology is part of a sphere or several spheres. A good read on this particular theme is Peter Sloterdijks Spheres. Elements of these spheres are also factors of economic, social and cultural transformation, which are generators of a new environment for production, relationships and the construction of cultural ideals. Technology is just a tool and media interpreted as an environment or context that can illustrate, not in a pejorative way, how a media work of art can structure an experience. Here I connect the notion of a sphere, semiotics and art, whereby art can be seen or interpreted as an experience machine.

The experience on itself is the residue of a profound and sincere research, vision, content and form transformed into something that is more then the simple sum of its components. In general I am focused on artistic, scientific knowledge and expression in combination with critical theory and interdisciplinary reflection about relations between nature and technology. Specifically, I am interested in the notions of intangibility, immateriality, invisibility, the virtual or potential, and how they are often grounded in the interaction between complex systems, both biological and technological. Moreover, the indistinct, diffuse, “fuzzy” arena where the biological and the technological overlap and commingle is a productive and favored ground for my projects/ projections. It is a constant exploration of the liminal space.

questions this liminal space in a psychological fashion, moreover the psychology of borders. What is a border? How psychological is a border? What is security? Can the laser beams be perceived as some sort of kinetic cage? Can we change the architecture through interaction? Can we “break” the patterns as an audience? Does interaction becomes interesting when social conventions are changed or even ‘broken’. Are borders made to be crossed? Can we reprogram space?


Sivia Bertolotti: Speaking about Umwelt: VIRUtopia, you talk about “borders”. What is for you the border (or the challenge) that robotic has to cross nowadays?

There is a clear level of increase in using robotics in contemporary arts, whether it’s on art fairs, major festivals such as Ars Electronica, but one has to make a distinction between the different “roles” that robotics can play, more precisely 3 types can be observed and classified:

a) using a robot as a work of art (Panamarenko)

b) using a robot for an artistic performance (Tinguely)

c) implementing skills that evokes an experience (Natalie Jerimijenko)

We could even consider a fourth category, which incorporates robotics and the human, animal body. This hybrid category is becoming more natural as we evolve and Stellar is without no doubt a forerunner in this. The borders between our body and technology are crumbling, bit by bit. It’s a slow process but seemingly unavoidable. The future of robotics lies hence in ethics rather then in the technological innovation. By the way, the term ROBOT was first coined in 1920 by the theater group R.U.R. by the Czechoslovakian director Karel Capek. The simple plot of the piece positioned men radically against the machine.

The main character constructs a robot that gathers so much intelligence that it kills its creator. Currently we know that it won’t take off that fast. I guess it’s a natural thing for theater directors -and artists in general- to dramatize. No drama no story. But is that a bulletproof reasoning? I don’t know. On the other hand we can also observe the “Disney fiction” of robots. Good examples are Wall-E, I-Robot and al. Both aforementioned examples are 2 points of view from the other spectrum. It is clear that both are clichés that have colored our perception. The historical roots of this bi-polar situation can be found in the Dualism of Descartes and our anthropocentric nature.

The most exiting usability of robots is currently in space exploration. As a species we have to explore in order to survive, unfortunately we are very limited in our mobility due to our physical nature. I see a clear and distinctive role for robotics to help us out in exploring the vast unknown, space. This is key to understand where we are coming from, where are we going to and moreover where are we?



Frederik De Wilde: Swarm behavior can be found everywhere and it’s one of the most fascinating and compelling manifestations in nature and culture that can be observed. I find the formation of patterns, the uniformity of movement as a whole almost magical. Swarm behavior highlights and questions what is communication, how does it take shape, et al. It has been observed and analyzed that one bird in a flock, of let’s say 300 birds, communicates at least with 6 surrounding birds. How this communication happens is not precisely know but slow shutter video recordings have revealed that this is clearly the case. The old idea of a leader showing the trajectory seems to fade away. These observations have paved the way to think about the social dynamics that are now a standard in game development, social networks etc… A better understanding of our nature can enhance our society if we are willing to. I emphasize willing because it is terribly crucial in all the things we do.

Sivia Bertolotti:
What is the relationship between generative art and technology? Which is, on the other hand, the influence of the fine arts on it (generative art)? In both of the cases, they are more starting points or rather confrontation elements?

Frederik De Wilde:
Generative art and technology are definitely linked together but not always in a technological way. If you consider the conceptual art of the 60′s and 70′s then one can see clearly different strategies in the artistic practice dealing with rule based artworks, from the fine arts to the early computer-based arts in the 60′s.  What I want to point out is that it’s not per se bound to a specific style or medium.  One thing is key for sure, the execution of the artwork has to be (partially) made by something external to the artist.



Sivia Bertolotti: What is the genesis of generative artworks like Vectors 4 [UN]Certainty or Z space? Which elements and tools are used?

Frederik De Wilde: Most, but definitely not all, work from the [NRS] series is based upon some interaction in public space. In the case of Vectors 4 [UN]certainty, I was interested in how a space could be mapped and represented so I setup a camera on a slowly rotating platform, recorded every movement and sound. Once registered the full 360° panorama -radial path like a time clock-, I imported the video file into an object oriented programming environment called Max. I constructed a patch (read program) to interpret the data. In doing this you need to thoroughly reflect upon which things you want to use to do what.

The result was a parametric design that I can tweak on the fly but nevertheless runs on a specific set of rules and constraints. With the help of friend programmer we even found a way to create Hi Resolution images as an output. This was previously non-existing in this environment. The second thing I wanted to do is to materialize the digital file into something palpable, because I wanted the result to be shown in a Fine Arts context. In order to produce these self-acclaimed Data Paintings I kind of abused technology.

Let me explain; it took me a really long time of trial and error to find a material I liked. What I did was to paint the first layers (e.g. the ground layers), then I worked with a specific kind of printer to print the ground layers. The first results were promising but I was not satisfied yet, hence I continued my research. Finally, I made an agreement with the owner of the printing machine to print many layers on top of each other. This was great if work because you could see a topography in the “painting”, and it would become much more a three-dimensional work of art. I liked the idea but there was one drawback, namely the printing head could get stuck.

Now you should now that this specific part of the machine is rather expensive. Nevertheless, I took the risk and said that I would reimburse him if the head broke. Luckily it didn’t and hopefully it won’t for a long time. For the first time I was optimistic in the translation from a digital file to a physical object



Sivia Bertolotti: Considering works such as Qu[Art]z, could you please describe the interpretation process of transforming the crystals growth in a concrete audiovisual (and then artistic) object and why the crystals are so significant for an enquiry about the relationship between art and science?

Frederik De Wilde: The sonification of crystal growth is still work in progress and it looks easier then it is. One has to take in account that there are several ways to grow crystals and all of them are somewhat different.

The crystallization process can be very slow or very fast. Depending on the speed you have to have different gear and setup. To give you example; keeping demineralized  (impurities can act as catalyst seeds) water just a wee bit above 0°c, then you dip a circular ring into a mixture of soap and demineralized water. Dropping some seed crystals rapidly onto the film creates a catalyst moment whereby the crystallization process rapidly spreads. You could think of a crystal as a snowflake that needs some impurities to cluster around. That is fascinating. Impurities create beauty. Secondly I am very interested in the patterns that form, their direction, speed, transparency to opaqueness, et al.

I have always been interested in integrating -seemingly- random processes into my artistic practice, specifically the moment of critical mass, when things appear to be out of control but they are still evoking a radical beauty in its appearance.

I started this project with MaxMsp/Jitter guru Jean-Marc Pelletier and we are just at the beginning of this project. The idea is to register the growth process and analyze the video recording, which becomes the source material for creating a musical score in real time. The combination and tension between the natural sound –if there is any- and the synthetic sound is key. The crystal formations are tracked by software as they grow in different directions. Sometimes this relationship is just non-linear. So you could say or conclude that I am fascinated by signals turning into noise and to connect natural processes with technology in order to create an artistic output.



Sivia Bertolotti: You are Belgian and you live in Europe, but you’ve been involved in project based in US. What is for you the main difference between the two scenarios in the digital arts field?

Frederik De Wilde: There is a very vibrant scene in the United States, especially in terms of the availability of creative and technological tools (I am thinking about the MIT, to mention a famous example). The scenario there is very stimulating, maybe not in an aesthetic or artistic sense. In fact, I believe that in the USA the approach is more playful, geared towards entertainment, than in Europe, where there exists a certain type of historic awareness. What is missing in general is, however, a contact between the two scenes, the American and the European; they should be more connected and communicate. One should also consider that in this media and digital era we live in, thanks to the internet and other New Media, this distance is partially filled. We are more and more often creating an international scene where there is a certain communication and exchange among artists, a kind of rhizomatic exchange, that is, a network of relationships that are in turn generative by nature.

Sivia Bertolotti:
Any plans for the future? Are you currently working on new projects?

Frederik De Wilde:
Actually, in this moment I am working at different projects simultaneously. First, I am working at a project that involves public spaces. In addition, I am studying the spectral behavior of various materials (a continuation of Nano Art) in collaboration with an American university. There is also an idea for a book on Nano Art, and I am exploring Nano Painting and robotics with other types of programs. Finally, I am starting to evaluate various collaborations with the industry, as a test, for long-term projects.






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