With a degree in digital media design and a relatively short career which began no later than 2010, Jeroen Van Loon has shortly become one of the most interesting media artist internationally. His research is able to surprisingly and ironically integrate a critical approach to the use of technological tools – in particular the Internet, with a solid theoretical and conceptual framework. Such an approach results in the production of objects and installations that enter the exhibition space with disarming immediacy.
Reflecting on the impact that technologies and networks have on the society we live in, from an artistic stance, is not simple today. In fact, in recent years, much has already been said and reported in the context of media art. At the same time, technologies are constantly being celebrated by mainstream media for their growing potential for social and political spheres. Also, they are being used in an ever less conscious way in creative environments, for the production of artifacts and increasingly immersive experiences that put contemporary man in an apparent privileged position: namely, the one that leads him withdrawing from the world and its problems, from its most dysfunctional dynamics, from the impact that technologies have on life, and from what follows in terms of a broader system of values.
Fortunately for us, there is still a small number of artists who help foster a satisfactory process of awareness about the positive and negative potential of technology and of the Internet. They problematize the invasive presence of technology in our lives, its ability to shape not only the environment around us but also the way we relate to it, and how it tends to turn biological beings into virtual data producers.
Among these artists, Jeroen Van Loon acts as a real antidote, a powerful and effective mixture which forces us to wake up from the dream and deal with reality. A reality that can take the form of a large black monolith allowing the highest bidder to acquire all of 380Gb artist genomic sequence (Cellout.me, 2015), of a system of transparent tubes which reproduce Internet glass fibre cables stretching across the ocean floor (An Internet, 2015), on show at the last edition of transmediale as part of Alien Matter, the exhibition curated by Inke Arns, as well as that of panel full of heart shaped LCD displays showing young and cute girls images togheter with their cruelest and most hateful tweets to the world (Kill your darlings, 2014).
Marco Mancuso: Can you describe the An Internet project for us? You’re back from transmediale: how was it presented within the exhibition space? Which feedbacks did you get from the audience? Did the audience understand the project? Do you think it works intellectually and from the point of view of installation?
Jeroen Van Loon: I started working on An Internet because I wanted to create a work that would touch several aspects in which I was interested at the time, mainly locality & temporality concerning data and history context of the internet as a physical medium and real world infrastructure. I remember joking at the time that I wanted to create the anti-internet. I wanted to place the internet in a historical context. It can be difficult to see the internet in this perspective, I mean, it’s everywhere, always. It’s becoming harder and harder to imagine a world without the internet or even a future with something that surpasses it. Of course this will happen, eventually, in the same way we don’t use a telegraph anymore.
The local and temporal aspects purely revolved around data, I wanted to envision a type of data that had the most temporal behaviour you could think of. Eventually this became smoke signals which fitted nicely in my historical interest of the internet. But it did take me a while to figure out how exactly I wanted to portray these smoke signals. Looking back now, the infrastructure, the cables, without the continents, was something in the very very beginning of my research. It’s funny that this eventually became more or less the core of the work.
Transmediale was great! I feel really honoured that Inke Arns selected An Internet to be in the Alien Matter show. Besides that the work is placed on a very good location, right besides it lays Evan Roth’s Burial Ceremony (2 km of LWL direct bury fiber-optic cable) and in the same area Susanne Treister and Addie Wagenknecht that also show work revolving around the physicality of the internet as an infrastructure. So the show really has a ‘infrastructure’ corner. Besides that the show offers the possibility to view An Internet from above, which was a amazing idea of Inke, you now can really get a ‘world map view’ of the entire work.
I always find it difficult to know what the audience thinks about the work. I’ve seen a lot of photo’s and short clips online by visitors but I didn’t talk to the audience at the opening, I just watched them watch the work. Of course I hope that the work communicates more than ‘I’m just a nice collection of glass tubes and some smoke’, but I think it does, especially given the position of the work in the show as I just explained.
Marco Mancuso: Worldwide, Internet is considered as an ephemeral medium, not visible both on its physical nature and the virtual data it conveys. Both Internet Landscapes by Evan Roth and An Internet projects work on a similar idea: while the first one photographs remote places where Internet terrestrial local networks connect with submarine global infrastructures, An Internet shows these physical networks with an incredible glass structure. While Internet Landscapes reframes these borderlands by relating to the natural element, you seem more interested in the abstract visualization of this structure. A more conceptual and intellectual attitude. Have you seen this possible parallel vision and why did you decide to work with an installation, with a physical object in the exhibition space?
Jeroen Van Loon: It did occur to me in 2015 when I was working on An Internet that the general idea of internet being more than a WIFI signal was something that popped up more and more in the media. I think for artist like myself the internet was always more than just a wireless signal, the fact that there was this enormous gap between how artist or technicians experience the internet and ‘the general public’ was one of the things that motivated me to do more research about this physical infrastructure.
I never framed it as nature vs conceptual, but I do think the fact that I was trying to communicate something about the historical context of the internet while at the same time wanting to portray a future internet based on ephemeral data was the reason why the work is more conceptual instead of being more real or natural such as Evan Roth’s Internet Landscapes.
I cannot really answer the question: why an installation. It was never a deliberate choice, it came with my research. But now I think of it, it was important to me that the work did something. Meaning, that it really worked, that it wasn’t only an concept. The cable names are really converted into binary code and then puffed as smoke signals.
Marco Mancuso: I’m very interested in the idea you have with An Internet about a future network able to produce data that are as ephemeral as the net itself: not just data to be archived somewhere in the cloud, but something that will vanish and spread as the smoke in your glass tubes. Is this a possible speculation about the future, when Internet will become something obsolete used by a decreasing number of people worldwide? Which are the possible visions you have about it: about archiving artworks on the Internet, about collective memory systems that are more and more relocating on the Internet, as well as about all the narrative processes that are happening on the Internet, through the Internet today?
Jeroen Van Loon: I truly believe that a more ephemeral internet is not as crazy as it sounds. On a bigger scale, the whole digital revolution is an very ephemeral one. Who can use a Zip drive or floppy disk today? What happens to all the servers that store our data in the future? Maybe in a year we won’t use an USB port anymore, a little later we stop using the TCP/IP protocol. I believe Vincent Cerf stated that we’re living in a new dark age, mainly because we don’t have a good archiving system for all the data we’r creating. We can still look at a clay tablet but can we still access our data in 500/1000 years?
On a smaller scale it might be different, something I put online today will still be there in a few years, hence the often heard argument ‘be careful what you put online, it could haunt you forever…’. Still that could be naive, think about the Internet Archive’s announcement moving a copy of their data to Canada, feeling the threat of Trump’s administration. But on a even smaller scale everything is not so ephemeral. If you have the right hardware a .jpg will still show an image, a .txt will still show texts and so on. So the files themselves aren’t very temporary. The data itself isn’t very temporary, the hardware or software might, but if all that is working I can still open a floppy disk to view the files.
That’s what I wanted to make ephemeral, the data itself. When I say the work An Internet is a future vision of the internet, that’s exactly what I mean. When I look around and see what and how the younger generations are using digital media, it’s almost all temporary. They don’t want to have or own data/hardware/software, they want the access and the experience. Snapchat, live streaming video’s, services like younow.com and even Kanye West show a tendency towards the temporary, the momentum, the uniqueness, the experience. West’s pop-up stores are a great example, also is Wu-Tangs’s latest album, of which they only sold the master copy to the highest bider or software that runs on blockchain technology which seems to be a very good way to create unique and limited digital objects, see the Left Gallery, (produces and sells downloadable objects) by Harm van Dorpel for a great example. They are temporary, unique or/and local, everything the internet isn’t.
After an information explosion, it’s natural to start critically deciding which information gets through to you and which doesn’t. I think it’s a very logical next step for the internet, becoming more ephemeral, more an experience, more unique, something that you experienced with other people. If you weren’t there, you missed it, too bad. Something else will happen sometime else.
I think this is the potential of an ephemeral internet. The present internet is an always on, 24/7, never down, documentation machine (of course with some political exceptions). This is highly functional and it’s what made the internet flourish, it’s what made this global network a worldwide succes. All you have to have is access and you’re there with more or less everybody else (if you are lucky to have access). But from a cultural or artistic point of view it’s boring. Why do any effort to see something in Amsterdam on 09:30 (+0 GMT) or in Singapore (+8 GMT) when you can watch it tomorrow when ever you want, online.
Internet killed the momentum, not the videostar, tv, music or whatever. So when I speculate about a future internet with a more ephemeral infrastructure, I think the internet could behave more like a concert. You go to a concert, which means: you have to buy a ticket, the tickets could be sold out. You have to go to a specific location, the concert venue. The concert starts and ends at a specific time. A certain amount of people fit in the concert venue. If you manage to meet all these criteria, you will have the opportunity to experience a concert. If you didn’t, too bad, better luck next time. You can buy a ticket for the same artist, at the same venue, but it won’t be the same as the one you missed. These are all things I’m really fascinated about and I’m planning to tackle the problems and figure out the opportunities in my new works.
Marco Mancuso: Even cellout.me seems to work on the same research line: the idea to make invisible networks visible, to look deep inside the representation of our identities. Again, with cellout.me you move a step beyond. The identity network you’re interested in is a direct translation of ourselves, of the most hidden part of ourselves, even the most distinctive: our genomic system, as a map of what we are from a biological point of view. With cellout.me you play with the idea that our identity will be sold, traded, shown: that is something that both disturbs and calls to reflection. Ethics, privacy, property are all at stake here. What is the fascinating idea behind your vision: the speculation about a possible future or do you think this is something that could really happen?
Jeroen Van Loon: I made celllout.me in the same period as a I was working on An Internet. cellout.me is the counterpart of An Internet, a work where data is to be everything, instead of nothing. Both works we’re presented in a show called Beyond Data in the Central Museum in The Netherlands. I wanted to stretch the concept of data by showing these two works together.
The idea of selling my DNA actually came to me out of frustration and a joke. It took me a very long time to think of something interesting that I could do with DNA data. Around 2013 I wanted to work with DNA data because I believed that after the information revolution we will have the bio-information revolution, but I couldn’t find a way to deal with DNA data that was interesting enough to transcend the technological. I started reading on patenting DNA material but that led to nothing. I remember saying to my girlfriend ‘well, then I’ll just sell my DNA and see what happens’, and immediately her eyes widened of enthusiasm.
I believe that what makes the work so interesting is the fact that selling my DNA data is such a small action but it asks such fundamental questions about topics as privacy, ethics, authorship and especially on data. All the questions we now have with our data usage are minor compared to the selling of human DNA data. That’s what DNA data makes so interesting, it’s not only my data, it’s also partly the data of my son, my sisters my parents, my grandma and so on.
Of course DNA data can be sold, and I imagine this might happen in the future for a number of reasons. DNA is data, data is money and money is power. A quote of Neelie Kroes “Big Data is the new gold” really sums it up: the believe that everything can be captured in data is a very accepted one. If you have enough data, the problem will be fixed. But to be honest, the work is more about asking new questions about the use of data then it is about a future in which selling DNA data will be a widely practised one. The reasons normal people would sell their DNA remains unclear, however we all give our data away for free to companies such as Facebook or Google, in return we get functional services, so what would stop people from doing the same with their DNA data?
Maybe the only thing stopping this is the fact that people cannot (at least not yet) very easily and cheaply sequence their DNA. When this will be accepted, I don’t see why we would not handover our DNA data so we will get a new gadget or online service “for free”. 23andme.com is making the first steps.
Marco Mancuso: Kill your Darlings highlights an idiosyncrasy about the identity narrative process on the Internet. I’m interested in the data collecting process here: did you find any kind of pattern? I mean, does an Internet corruption “method” exist maybe? Like a virus infecting the system, “transforming” clean and gentle teenager profiles into a bunchof insults and “sick” aggressive reactions?
Jeroen Van Loon: When I was collecting these tweets and profile pictures I had a software tool which would automatically grab all the tweets and picture and saved them in the way they are portrayed in the installation. But that doesn’t meant I just used everything I grabbed from Twitter. I had a selection process: the tweets needed to be real, not re-tweets or advertisements; the profile pictures needed to show a person, not a picture of spongebob or something else; and all the persons needed to be teenage girls, since I believed the work made a stronger impact this way. The contrast between the authors and their harsh message was the strongest with the often cute teenage girls. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t any teenage boys, young adults, parents or even grandparents, all were doing the exact same thing.
The funny thing is that I didn’t start out the create a work about online abuse or social media bulling. I started collecting the tweets because I found the contrast between their behaviour and mine on Twitter fascinating. I use Twitter as my own personal PR machine. I tweet about my work, I follow other artists, museums of art institutions, so I don’t use Twitter to tell my followers what I have eaten or what I’m going to do this afternoon. This was not at all the way teenagers used Twitter. They used the medium in a far more open and personal way.
I grew up in the ‘90s so before I used Twitter I went through a number of online communication tools such as IRC, ICQ, MSN, Hotmail, various local Dutch forums or chat-boxes and eventually Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and so on. All these tools have their own rules and netiquette. The way teenagers used Twitter was more as a chatbox or a IRC channel where you don’t know who is really watching and it has a higher reply-answer rate. The big difference with Twitter is of course that an IRC channel or a online chatbox doesn’t document and save all your messages. That is the funny thing, all these tweets about who goes where, what time they are in school, who said what about who, etc. are all archived. It’s the old schoolyard becoming digital and far less ephemeral. Earlier gossip on a schoolyard was just vibrated sound waves disappearing into thin air. Now it’s tweets which can be read by anybody, not only the person who followed the author. But, this whole point i’m making could just as easily be me talking as a old guy. Apparently there is a huge generation gap between how I use Twitter and how younger people use Twitter (if the even uses Twitter at all nowadays).
Another interesting thing about the tweets you see in the work is the questions on how do I need to interpret these messages? Is there a difference saying the same stuff face-to-face, if so, why? Does it matter that some of these messages are just brain-farts, only now archived publicly online. Can you actually judge someone for a tweets? In normal conversations you won’t pick just one sentence of someone’s whole conversations and completely focus on that one sentence. I think Twitter can show us something about how we behave online but we have to be careful not to put every tweets on a pedestal and perceive it as a 100% objective meaningful fact or truth.
Marco Mancuso: What you See is What you Get works on the visualization of the inner (hidden) part of a computer: it’s a CT scan of its “organs”, of its “vital” parts. Also in Analogue Blog the digital private narrative shifts at a physical, paper level. Both these early artworks activate a possible dialogue between the physical and the digital, the external and the internal, the public and the private. How have these aspects evolved during your career? Also, how do they evolve in the society we live in today?
Jeroen Van Loon: You draw some interesting conclusions and contrasts from my work. In my earlier work I was more focussed on present digital culture and more precise the way the internet adjusted or shaped my daily life. What You See Is What You Get offers the conclusion that if my computer is so important in my life that I cannot live without it, then I want to see it in the same way I would see my organs, also things I cannot live without.
You are right that in my earlier work there’s a contrast between the physical and the digital and even more between the digital and the analogue. I think the later dichotomy was my first attempt to make sense of the digital in my life and also corresponds with my age at the time (26) and the beginning of my art practise in 2010. I grew up just right after the computer and the internet were introduced to consumers. I had experienced a little bit of a world where there were no computers or internet, but early on in my childhood I spend all my time behind computers up to my graduation. So when I stopped using a computer and internet for my graduation project the first thing I examined was the difference between my digital self and analogue self. The www.lifeneedsinternet.com project still continues to document these differences, now on a more global scale.
Today I’m not really interested in the difference between digital and analogue or online and offline. I’m not saying there isn’t a difference anymore like a lot of people nowadays think – there’s surely a big difference hence the up-coming trends like digital-detox and offline-hotels, you can clearly see it still matters. But for me as an artist i’m more interested in the way the internet as architecture influences societal trends instead of personal behaviour, besides that I’ve become more and more interested into future scenario’s. I went from present digital culture to future digital culture with an emphasise on how the physical architecture of the digital plays a rol in ephemerality, temporality and locality because I thing this will be the potential of future digital culture.