Arie Altena

Research in Technological Art at V2_

Arie Altena

This text was published in A Critical History of Media Art in the Netherlands, edited by Sanneke Huisman and Marga van Mechelen, and published by Jap Sam Books in 2019. Translation by Aaron Bogart.

Technology, Art and Society

V2 (at that time without an underscore) was founded in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the early 1980s by a group of artists, amongst whom were the late Alex Adriaansens (director of V2_ until 2018) and Joke Brouwer (deputy director to date).[1] They painted, played in bands, made videos and films, did performances, and experimented with technological devices such as television monitors, radios and electric motors. At the time, both Brouwer and Adriaansens became fascinated with the possibilities that technology offered of bringing communication into a work of art and helping to shape the interaction between the work and the public. The impact of technology on society and technology as a designing principle for the world quickly became the core of their artistic interest. In those years, working with new technology was like a breath of fresh air for young artists. A world in which everything was still possible opened up to them. V2_ first became internationally renowned with its Manifest voor de Instabiele Media (Manifesto for the Unstable Media). The first version from 1986 was accompanied by the Manifesto[o] Exhibition (3 – 17 January 1987) in ‘s-Hertogenbosch with work by artists such as Annemie van Kerckhoven, G.X. Jupitter-Larsen and Vivenza, and performances by bands such as Selektion Optik and Die Tödliche Doris, amongst others. The second version of the Manifesto for Unstable Media from October 1987 states: 'WE STRIVE FOR CONSTANT CHANGE; FOR MOBILITY. WE MAKE USE OF THE UNSTABLE MEDIA, THAT IS, ALL MEDIA WHICH MAKE USE OF ELECTRONIC WAVES AND FREQUENCIES, SUCH AS ENGINES, SOUND, LIGHT, VIDEO, COMPUTERS, AND SO ON. INSTABILITY IS INHERENT TO THESE MEDIA.' The authors of the manifesto link the dynamics of unstable, electronic media to insights from quantum mechanics and set them off against the standstill of the art world. For V2_, the manifesto will remain in the following years the foundation for its reflection on the relationship between technology, art and society, and the starting point for the five Manifestations for the Unstable Media (1987–93), as well as a number of other manifestations such as the Manifestatie over extreme informatiestromen (Manifestation on Extreme Information Flows, 1987). These small festivals welcomed artists and thinkers who worked with technology in an innovative and critical way, such as Steina, Roy Ascott, Robert Adrian, Dick Raaijmakers, Jeffrey Shaw, Gustav Metzger, Stelarc, ORLAN and Gordon Monahan. Topics covered include the influence of technology on the body, information overload, telepresence, virtual reality and what was then referred to as telematics – the use of computer networks for remote communication. They are all themes in which a number of pioneers, including artists, were interested at the time, and which will later become of great importance for society.

Move to Rotterdam

With the fifth Manifestation for Unstable Media in 1993 and the publication of the much acclaimed Book for the Unstable Media, it became clear that V2_ had outgrown ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Moreover, with the advent and wider spread usage of the PC, the emergence of the CD-ROM (see the contribution in this volume by Sandra Fauconnier), and the (no longer exclusively academic) internet, the questions V2_ had been focussing on for years are brought to the centre of attention. Both the government and the business world started to realise that major changes were coming. V2_ moved to Rotterdam, where it found a suitable building and the municipality promised a nice subsidy. V2_ explicitly started to operate on an international level and became an interdisciplinary centre. Books, cassettes, LPs and CDs were sold. The line of Manifestations for Unstable Media is continued in the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF), whose first edition, Digital Nature, took place in 1994. Amongst other things on view were the VR work Perceptual Arena and the brainwave-controlled robot installation Terrain, both by Ulrike Gabriel.

With its exhibition, conference, small and large presentations, network meetings, concerts and workshops, DEAF became the place where the international network of V2_ would come together. The programme is thematic and bundles the agenda and research work of V2_. DEAF96 Digital Territories, for instance, dealt with the interaction between city and computer networks as a social, cultural, economic and political space. In 2000, the central theme in Machine Times was time, and Data Knitting of 2003 turned the focus on data while exploring the artistic and political implications of digital data clustering. One of the recurring motifs in the themes approached in the DEAF events was interactivity; sometimes it even appeared in the title, as is the case in the 2007 Interact or Die! presentation. The programmes often sought to connect with insights from biology and thinking about evolution.[2]

In response to the increasing requests from artists for technical assistance, the V2_Lab was set up in 1997. This was largely made possible by the fact that the government aimed to make internationalisation a key priority and was similarly prepared to make the necessary funds available. In the V2_Lab, led by Anne Nigten, international artists worked together with software and hardware developers to technically realise artistic ideas. The lab offered technical facilities and could boast a staff of 'technicians' – amongst whom were Stock, Simon de Bakker and Artem Baguinski. Nigten introduced the term aRt&D: Research and Development in Art to define this kind of artistic development. In her eponymous book (2005), Nigten also points out that electronic art did not fit well within the existing art institutions and the existing art discourse, which gave rise to the emergence of separate initiatives and institutions and a distinct discourse on art and technology. One particular problem this art had to contend with was the fact that the development processes – the research and development of specific software, for example – often took a long time, and therefore required different financing models. In addition, much electronic art is process-oriented. She states that, with the advent of the computer, not only have other forms of art emerged, but also the way in which art is developed has changed. In that same period, Arjen Mulder – who was often closely involved in the development of ideas for the DEAF events – compiled, together with Maaike Post, The Book for Electronic Art (2000), which provided insight into both the development of V2_ and the history of an art in which experimentation with technology is a key element.

Although cooperation with the world of science and technology was certainly not shunned, the starting point for V2_, as it was for Sonic Acts and STEIM for example, was always the practice of research and development by artists. When research methods in art were discussed – such as for instance in the publication Making Art of Databases (2003) – then it was almost always in the context of the development of artistic concepts and the related development of technological tools. The V2_Lab engaged with large development projects, whose results are generally presented, tested and discussed at DEAF. Examples are the game for the large Jeroen Bosch exhibition of 2001, software for archiving media art (Capturing Unstable Media), and the DataWolk Hoeksche Waard (1998) – an early example of working with large amounts of data. Further examples include GATC/Life (2005/06), an immersive VR installation with surround sound inspired by the human genome, which Edwin van der Heide and the Italian artist Sonia Cillari realise for the VR environment of the Erasmus MC. Other developments include interactive installations such as Thecla Schiphorst's Whisper (2003), an installation that explores interaction with the data of one's own body. It uses portable micro-controllers and a wireless network that processes physiological data (heartbeat, breath). A visualisation was projected onto the floor, and users could share data through the specially designed clothing they wore. A long-term collaboration that has continued to date was set up with Rotterdam artist Marnix de Nijs. V2_ became involved as a partner in the development of various large-scale installations of his, including Run Motherfucker Run (2001–04), in which visitors get to run on a treadmill in front of projected videos of a nightly city (see the contribution by Anne Nigten), and Exploded Views (2011), which has viewers navigate through a 3-D visualization of a city. Over the course of twenty years there have been hundreds of artists – both renowned and starting – who have developed a larger or smaller project at V2_.

During these years, the programmes of the V2_Lab were usually oriented towards a specific technology, such as augmented reality or 'wearables'. Better Than Reality (2008 – supported by the Mondriaan Foundation, amongst others) was part of artistic research into 'augmented reality'. It focused on the practical development of systems for augmented reality in order to give more intellectual depth to technology, investigate its social implications and identify alternative possibilities. It also ensured that the software and hardware for augmented reality are made available to artists. In Better than Reality, for example, a tracking system was developed that can be used for interactive installations in which the position of the public is a key factor. Another typical example of the work of the V2_Lab is Artem Baguinski’s development of a tool that matches the facial features of visitors with facial features in a database. It is used in Marnix de Nijs’ installation Physiognomic Scrutinizer (2008) in which the face of the visitor is scanned and matched with that of one of 150 notorious people.


Although V2_ was able to grow at the start of the twenty-first century thanks to a generous governmental subsidy, the financing of artistic development projects for electronic art remains problematic. On the one hand, this has to do with the long development periods and process-oriented character of a lot of these works. On the other hand, it has to do with an uncomfortable relationship with other fields of art as well as with the rapid commercial developments in technology.[3] For a while now the field of technological art has been pushing the term e-culture in the hope of gaining more access to financing. The strategy has worked and a separate arrangement for e-culture has worked out. Initially, this was very positive: institutions such as V2_, De Waag, STEIM and Mediamatic were funded in part through this arrangement (see also the Introduction). However, in the context of the prevailing ideology that states that technological innovation is the engine for economic growth, it fostered the expectation that the results of artistic research in e-culture will yield definite economic gain. This will play a major role after the e-culture institutions are grouped under the heading of the creative industry. What may apply to the gaming world and commercially operating design agencies – the flagships of the creative industry – does not automatically apply to technological art (see also the chapter on Government Policy).

At the time, the danger of linking technological innovation too closely with economic expectation was duly signalled. Already much earlier, in 2000, Alex Adriaansens reported that basically everyone, including the government, supposed that V2_ could best work closely with the business world, i.e. operate commercially to ensure financial security. Despite the 1998 dotcom crash, technological innovation was seen to hold enormous economic potential. However, V2_ prefered not to get involved in commerce, but rather to use public funds to focus on issues that were (and are) in the interest of society. In an interview from 2017,Adriaansens reiterates this retrospectively[4] and  regrets that the substantive questions that concern technology seem to be addressed by the government only in economic terms.[5]

Large and International Projects

In the twenty-first century, augmented reality and wearable technology are the spearheads of V2_, yet subjects such as interactivity and biotechnology are also regularly addressed. Later stars such as Daan Roosegaarde and Anouk Wipprecht developed concepts, prototypes and new work in collaboration with the V2_Lab. At the start of his career Daan Roosegaarde presented new interactive installations at V2_, and experimented with new materials, such as a stiff film that would become transparent when current is run through it (called Intimacy). Seeking to delve into the possibilities of wearables, Anouk Wipprecht joined V2_ for a short Summer Sessions residency – at that time V2_ is one of the few places with a lot of knowledge, both technically and conceptually, on the subject. Her project unexpectedly attracted the attention of the band Black Eyed Peas, who asked her to design a dress for their performance at the Super Bowl. This marks the start of her international career.

As is characteristic of a development site – because that is what V2_ truly is – these artists often largely disappear from view of V2_. Other talents come in their place, some continue to grow, while others do not. V2_ also curated major exhibitions in China and Taiwan, with work by Dutch makers. These attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. The international activities of V2_, however, remain largely invisible in the Netherlands, even if they constitute a large proportion of Chinese media art in the DEAF exhibitions and facilitate a number of long-term collaborations with Chinese institutions.

The focus on research takes shape in the Test Lab series, public events that present 'artistic research and development' in an informal setting. Initiated in 2007, they focus on a specific topic and promote exchange of views on work-in-progress and public testing of prototypes. In 2010, V2_ initiated the aforementioned Summer Sessions, an international network of labs and institutions similar to V2_ that offer young emerging artists the opportunity to develop and present new work during a short residency. This resulted in many interesting projects that were also later presented internationally. Examples are Anouk Wipprecht's Pseudomorphs, a dress with wearable technology, able to change colours interactively; Cecilia Jonsson's award-winning Iron Ring (2013), a study into how to extract iron from grass growing in heavily polluted areas and subsequently forge it into a ring; and Philip Vermeulen's Physical Rhythm Machine (2016), an impressive installation that bounces tennis balls – rhythmically and at a rapid pace – through the exhibition space.

By this time, however, V2_ had already undergone a complete restructuring. The cultural cuts of 2012 forced V2_, amongst other things, to dismiss all of the software and hardware developers from the V2_Lab. From then on, V2_ contracts all its technical support externally. With a few exceptions, this brought the large and complex development projects almost to an end. Running developments were not cancelled, but rather diminished. There were more short-term trajectories, and the existing ones – such as the development of software for spatial sound –were only taken on occasionally. Artists of the new generation also have more technical skills, while tools have become cheaper and more accessible. At the same time, the technological art field has become enormously diverse, and it is no longer obvious, as it was in the past, that specific technologies or technological applications such as VR, the internet, AR, biotechnology or wearable technology could be used to focus developments in technological art on. Content-related issues that can be worked out in a technological manner have become the central issue in many artistic practices. Yet the question remains whether collaborations with software and hardware developers could not have led to much more interesting artistic and substantive results.

Aside from the Test Labs and the Summer Sessions, research at V2_ now also forms part of informal meet ups and workshops in which most local artists and developers from the V2_ network come together to exchange knowledge about, for example, the artistic application of AI. At a later stage, all of these activities can lead to new work that may be presented at V2_, or internationally, as happened with various Summer Sessions projects. Smaller community events, moreover, reach a new audience of young artists, designers and makers, and every year there are exhibitions, such as Data in the 21st Century for instance, presented in 2015–16. Books that shape the discussion on technological art are published on a regular basis, various smaller and larger presentations are held and new works are created with the support of V2_. As Alex Adriaansens already stated in 2017: 'For the most part, we still work autonomously and continue to stubbornly try to invent ourselves. We continue to try to create space for our own activities. In our eyes, that is the most successful.'[6]


[1] Almost all information in this text has been sourced from the V2_ website, which contains an archive with descriptions of all events since 1981, a large number of texts, festival brochures. See Other literature includes Arjen Mulder and Maaike Post, The Book for Electronic Art (Amsterdam: V2_/de Balie, 2000; Anne Nigten. aRt&D: Research and Development in Art (Rotterdam: V2_, 2005); Arjen Mulder and Joke Brouwer, Interact or Die! (Rotterdam: nai010 Publishers, 2007).

[2] Accompanied by the eponymous book Interact or Die!, Arjen Mulder and Joke Brouwer, eds. (Rotterdam: nai010 Publishers, 2007.)

[3] In 2007, Alex Adriaansens wrote: 'In the past ten years, the arts, together with other sectors of society, have seen an increasingly more interdisciplinary practice; as such, the specialisms respond to crucial social processes in which rapidly changing social, cultural, political and economic relationships are central issues. The exchange and combination of knowledge areas leads to cross-overs and partnerships that give new impetus to a partially clogged practice and are characterized by openness, risk and research.' And he continues: 'The limited resources with which the artists have worked in recent decades came in part from the national funds and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, where people often did not know how to deal with this development because it did not fit within the structure of the funds and governments, in part because of the fact that it was no longer possible to separate the different fields of expertise.' See Alex Adriaansens, ‘Inerdisciplinaire media, introverte fondsen’, in Second Opinion: Over beeldende kunstsubsidies in Nederland (Rotterdam: nai010 Publishers, 2007), p. 220.

[4] Adriaansens : ‘We see ourselves as a laboratory, in a literal sense, as a workshop for empirical-scientific and/or technical research and experiment. And this not for the sake of experiment but in order to initiate processes and present these to an audience or rather: to make the audience part of these processes.’ See

[5] In an unpublished interview with Arie Altena, Adriaansens said: 'This was evidenced in the shift from art to creative industry. The art institutions that fall under the creative industry regulation - and V2_ falls under creative industry – are expected to think in terms of solutions and come up with solutions. The role now assigned to us is an applied one, not an autonomous one. It is actually a confirmation of the development of V2_, but in the end it started to work against us. ... We can create connections with the creative industry, that is not the problem, but it is not our basis.'

[6] From an unpublished interview with Arie Altena in 2017.

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