Arie Altena

Fashion, Transparancy, Intimacy

An interview with Daan Roosegaarde about Intimacy

This is a second edit of my 2009 interview with Daan Roosegaarde. A first edit was published in the Sonic Acts book The Poetics of Space. This text focuses on the project "Intimacy" that Roosegaarde developed together with Maartje Dijkstra and V2_Lab. The text was published on the website of V2_:

On a late summer's day, I go to visit Daan Roosegaarde’s studio, a warehouse on an industrial site just outside Waddinxveen. In the last two years, Roosegaarde's career has taken off like a shot; ten people now work in his studio on the development and realization of his projects. Full of energy and infectious enthusiasm, he shows me around the warehouse. They store ready-made modules for his interactive installations here, work on prototypes, and test innovative materials. Daan Roosegaarde's work is exhibited all over the world; he flies regularly to the United States and Asia. He has become a true artist-entrepreneur because of his way of working. The artistic concepts he seeks to realize require such dedication. I have come to interview him and ask about the fashion project Intimacy, which he is developing in collaboration with V2_.

Arie Altena: Can you explain what Intimacy is about? You're developing it with V2_, and the plan is to work with a new material that becomes transparent when you electrify it slightly.

Daan Roosegaarde: As the title indicates, Intimacy is a project about intimacy and technology. Technology is getting closer and closer to the skin. In the 1980s you already had films about cyborgs, like Terminator, which were about the fusion of the body with technology, but there was always a horror aspect. You also see that uncanniness in the work of Stelarc and Steve Mann from the same time. Intimacy doesn't have that; it's really a fashion project. Fashion is a topic neither V2_ nor I have much experience with; I see that as a challenge. We were forced to embrace an idiom neither of us immediately felt comfortable with; and this has led to quality. For me, V2_ is kind of the usual suspect to do business with if you're a new media artist. V2_ is more of a technological, artistic and academic lab, and I’m more of an entrepreneurial artist. I hope we'll make something both of us can learn something from, that we’ll learn from the process. On a meta level, the project is also about two labs entering into a dialogue with each other and going in search of added value.

AA: How did it start?

DR: One day I was in a lab where they develop flexible screens. I saw something lying in a corner. I asked, "What’s that?" “Nothing really,” they answered. “All it does is turn from white to transparent.” It was material that was 1 millimeter thick. I was immediately enthusiastic about it. They let me take it with me. Then we continued to develop it with the manufacturer to make it more flexible and UV-proof. Now we can dim it, too – at first it could only be on or off, transparent or white. Intimacy started with the idea of using the concept of hiding and showing. I always talk about sensual technologies, extensions of your skin, and I thought, now let's use it in a really extreme way; let's use it in fashion. Fashion, after all, is very much about the tension between hiding and showing. I think we’re developing toward a world in which local intelligences will “talk” to each other through wireless connections; they could be objects or your cell phone. In this world of information, in which everything talks to everything else, there is a great transparency. It's really becoming an issue. But sometimes you want to hide things, and only show them later. What would happen if we used the concept of material becoming transparent and then opaque again, of showing and hiding, in fashion? Intimacy is a dress you can wear, which is white (or black, depending), and based on a certain interaction, such as how close you get, it becomes transparent. It's also about the idea that you have an energetic body, which is palpable – after all, you always feel it when someone gets too close. It's about presence. The idea is to really make that physical, rather than expressing it with LEDs on a screen or something like that. We’re doing tests now – for instance, the closer someone gets, the more transparent the material becomes. Or it becomes transparent when a camera flashes. I think Intimacy is about making that energetic body palpable and about the difference between public and personal intimacy.

AA: What do you mean by the difference between public and personal intimacy?

DR: With all our technology, we’re showing more and more things about ourselves to the outside world. How this is experienced differs from culture to culture. When we showed my interactive installation DUNE in Slovenia, people felt like their privacy was being violated because the work was reacting to them. For them, it brought back memories of the old regime; they felt like their privacy was being violated, and that was something they didn't want to happen anymore. When we showed DUNE in Los Angeles, people just wanted more: they regarded the fact that the work was reacting to their behavior as an extension of their ego, and they saw this as a way to make it known to the outside world. The same interactive artwork, different culture, totally different experience. It was interesting. I hope Intimacy will be about compelling respect by exposing yourself. The dress is, of course, very “me, myself and I”; it's about reflecting on yourself and showing that to others. I want to make a dress that’s about intimacy in one way or another but that can also compel intimacy by means of technology – a dress that makes the relational between people visual, and does it in a calm poetic way that’s still in your face. And it's fine if that produces uncomfortable feelings – a feeling in the viewer of “Whoa, do I want to see this?”

AA: What do you think about the developments in wearable technology? It's a very lively scene right now.

DR: A lot is happening in the wearable world, but often it's very D.I.Y. I would really like to make something that’s quite “slick,” in a good way. I think wearables have enormous potential, but we have to take it to a higher level – for example, by showing that you can use technology to compel intimacy. I really want to add value to electronic culture by bringing it inside other cultural circuits. Of course, we could present Intimacy at STRP or NIMK, but it's not actually about that. More interesting is to make a nice case for Intimacy, and ship the dress to the head of Louis Vuitton.  We’re looking for a dialogue with fashion. I want to integrate it into the world, plug it in and see what happens. The work should circulate! When you make something, you never know if it’s what you meant to make. I want to use the projects I realize in different contexts, because I want to know what’ll happen, what kinds of meanings will arise. That helps me sharpen my idiom, too.

AA: It's tremendously important for you that the work not be about technology. It needs to work perfectly.

DR: It needs to work perfectly, because it needs to be about the question of what it generates, what it stirs up – it has to transcend media. My work has aesthetic value because that way I can lure people in; the users have to be unconsciously seduced. Once they're inside, I can enter into a dialogue with them, manipulate them, make a point, make them conscious of something, make them do things they would never otherwise do, but that they experience as natural. “Making the audience conscious of something” is too generic, though; it's about the story you want a work of art to tell. Technology is so important now because it's such an important part of who we are, because it has so many mediating qualities, and I also find it exciting because you can make things that are never finished, and that encourage interaction. 

I’m more interested in bringing the future into the present and pushing it a centimeter further. I’m not so interested in futurism, the what-if question. I've already been there; I've already experienced the future, in a manner of speaking; I've played with it. I'm interested in the poetry of it. I want to make it tangible; I want people to touch it. Why? Because it's about how our reality is changing dramatically, and no one is really asking questions about that, except ones based on a fear scenario. The way we look at black-and-white television now is the way we’ll look in the future at “dead” objects, objects that don’t have any sensors and don’t react to outside input. Augmented reality is very concerned with that. But the key question is, who's going to make it, and who has the control over it, the agency? Look at how people use their iPhones. It's so completely a part of our social identity. Technology is going to speak our language; it's gotten more and more simple. I’d like to see a real merging; I’d like to see it become so accessible and understandable that people can play with it themselves. I believe in co-control.

AA: Because the question is: How do I want to design my own environment? How will people experience their reality with all these technological changes: in a poetic, sensual way?

DR: Yes, and how will they be able to be part of it as individual persons.

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Arie Altena