From April 13 to 15 August Lille’s Gare Saint Saveur presented the collective exhibition “Paranoïa”, including 29 mostly interactive installations, 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 life and perceptive experiences. When the scientific research meets the artistic practice, the emerging visions are delirious, that is, they are deformed by the perception of the modern world, in a futuristic, technological, ludic and frightening way.
Among the presented works EOD 02 (Electric Organ Discharge) by Frederik De Wilde particularly captured our attention. The EOD 02 installation is realized in collaboration with the Bruxelles-based LAb[au]. It consists of four mirror fish-tanks, located on pedestals with an integrated audio system. Each tank contains particular species of fishes, 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 tanks are collected by antennae directly linked to four speakers, that translate the electric emissions into sound. Furthermore, underneath each tank there is a pulsating light bulb, according to the intensity of the signals emitted: in this way the electric impulses from fishes become tangible, visible and listenable, in the form of light and sound.
The question concerns in this case the relation between communication and technology, not only for humans but also in the 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 landscape of digital arts, in particular in that experimentation bringing together the areas of robotics, generative art and the so-called Nano Art.
It immediately stands out how De Wilde’s work contains 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 Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists or other artists such as Yves Klein.
And along his most recent works, we realize all these elements. First of all we become aware of this ability in robotics, for example looking at some works such as the UMWelt:VIRUtopia, the 2011 installation made in partnership with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. This swarm intelligence project can interact with space, engaging with the public through sound and light. This swarm intelligence system 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 perceiving this system. The De Wilde’s projects always open infinite questions beyond the artwork itself, reaching the experiential perception of the audience and the context where the work is physically located. The latter is also composed of physical elements acquiring, in this way, an aesthetic value: light, sound, space, emptiness.
Moving out from the plastic dimension of robotics, De Wilde has also explored the 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 bring together 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 model. Artworks such as Vectors 4 [UN]Certainty or On Fire are perfect examples of this evocative and profound graphics.
The audience 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, where determinism gives way to creation, and technology becomes an 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 again the aesthetics of Nano art and its central time vision. But here the work is a completely open exploration, a sort of challenge/possibility to make 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 is the relationship between science and art? Do you think it’s 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 fields 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 kind 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 communication, 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, showing how nature is articulated in magnitudes, scales, size, degrees which we don’t know. There is a whole complexity out there , invisible, to which only technology and its means can gain access.
Sivia Bertolotti: In your Nano art projects, especially in the Nano landscapes, you employed tools like scanning electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes. In EOD 02 there are 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 that then I 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 entrance to a dimension that surrounds us every day but that remains 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 where do you find inspiration? And specifically, what has been your starting point for EOD O2?
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 maintain always an open mind towards the outside world.
Sivia Bertolotti: One of the points of EOD O2 is communication in a wide sense. The fish communicate through electrical signals exactly like the modern men does. Are fish predecessors of men? 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 among the unlimited 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 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 my specific point of view it seems there’s nothing wrong with that 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 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 describing 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 detrimental 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 total 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, it is a productive and favored ground for my projects/ projections. It is a constant exploration of the liminal space.
Umwelt-VIRUtopia 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 re-program space?
Sivia Bertolotti: Speaking about Umwelt:VIRUtopia, you talk about “borders”. What kind of border (or challenge) does robotics have to cross nowadays?
Frederik De Wilde: There is a clear increasing in employing robotics in contemporary art, 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, incorporating 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, gradually. 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 gathering so much intelligence to get to kill 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 others. 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 we are.
Silvia Bertolotti: What is the most important thing we can learn from the swarm intelligence behaviour? We can read it just from a biological and naturalistic point of view?
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 we can observe. I find the formation of patterns, the uniformity of movement as a whole almost magical. Swarm behavior highlights and questions what communication is, how it takes shape and so on. 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 known 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 always 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 generative art? In both of the cases, are they just starting points or 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 say is that generative art is not tied to a specific style or medium. The key element is certainly that the artwork execution should be (in part) accomplished through 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 employed?
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 a friend programmer we even found a way to create hi-res 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 could be great if worked 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 are the crystals 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 reach 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 and so on.
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 the 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. In your opinion, what is 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). That environment 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 is a certain type of historic awareness. What is missing in general is, however, a contact between the two scenes, the American one and the European one ; they should be more connected and communicate. We should also consider that in our media and digital era, 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 are a certain communication and an 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 on different projects simultaneously. First, I am working on a project that involves public spaces. In addition, I am studying the spectral behaviour of various materials (a prosecution of Nano Art) in collaboration with an American university. There is also the idea of 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.