Arie Altena

Poème Numerique and Baltan

Interview with Geert Mul, Marc Maurer, Gideon Kiers and Lucas van der Velden

Arie Altena

On 11 January 2011 a conversation took place in Telcosystems' studio in Rotterdam between the four members of Baltan's artistic board, Geert Mul, Marc Maurer, Gideon Kiers and Lucas van der Velden. With Arie Altena as moderator they discussed their roles in the first two years of the existence Baltan Laboratories. Their two-hour conversation focused on the Poème Numerique programme within which they developed their own works and collaborated with each other. This text is an abridged, rewritten and edited account of that conversation.

AA: Can you explain how you approached the Poème Numerique project during the two years at Baltan Laboratories? Of course, its name refers to the Poème Electronique that Varèse and Xenakis realised for the Philips Pavilion in 1958. All of you worked on the Poème Numerique project with the utopian idea that you can design an architectural space for media installations. I suppose that Marc approached the idea from the perspective of architecture, and Geert, Lucas and Gideon more from the perspective of art and the creation of a spatial installation or experience. Can you explain what the Poème Numerique project signifies for you?

GK: Poème Numerique originally started as a very concrete idea, namely that after a research period at Baltan a building was going to be designed for Eindhoven's new media lab. Especially in the beginning we sent each other loads of texts about what exactly the Poème Numerique should be.

LV: All sorts of ideas were put forward, from ultra-concrete to hyper-abstract, but always in response to the same question: if a new lab is built, what should it look like?

GM: Regarding the name: we looked for an overarching concept that would specify and delimit all of Baltan's activities, so that we could define an idea -- both for ourselves and for the public. But the term Poème Numerique has a duality about it because on the one hand it refers to the Poème Electronique and the history of the Philips Pavilion, while on the other it serves as a starting point. It wasn't our intention to duplicate the entire integrated approach of the Philips Pavilion or deploy it as a repeatable concept. The reference was meant as a springboard. At its core, Poème Numerique is all about integrating media and architecture. After all, it wouldn't have been a good idea to start off by saying to Marc, "Here's an installation, build something around it". Neither would it have been ideal if Marc were to construct a building and say, "Here, put something in this".

MM: I have nothing against making an architectural media installation, but architecture should not be in service to an installation. As an architect I'm not particularly interested in building something around an existing installation. It really only becomes interesting if you work from a place of parity.

LV: Marc looks from the perspective of architecture when trying to create an integrated approach; Telcosystems approaches it from the software angle. Each of us has our own point of departure, but we share a desire for an integrated approach. How that should happen exactly, is not something we agreed on. At most our interests converge when it comes to this kind of integrated approach, but the ways in which we work and think about it differ.

MM: If we did agree on it we could start a business together. Then you'd have a formula, be able to make products and sell them. The whole idea behind Baltan is to help artists develop themselves further. None of the three of us are good at making concessions. But we continually influence each other without actually working on collaborative projects. We needed a term to encapsulate what we did at Baltan, and I think Poème Numerique is a very beautiful one. It embraces the digital era and poetry. This is what connects us.

LV: You could also see Poème Numerique as a space to think, as a space that never has to be realised -- an iterative system where you can let loose your ideas and outlines. They're not objects or marketable things, not even a beautiful paragraph. This was also mentioned in our first working texts about Poème Numerique, which defined the maximum dimensions of Poème Numerique without ever specifying what it was. Poème Numerique is a cloud of ideas.

GM: Nevertheless, I wonder what would happen if an exhibition was mounted with 12_series, God’s Browser and Baltan House -- works that each of us developed individually within the Poème Numerique programme. These are fully formed projects, each of which arose from our own disciplines and differ from each other physically. But the three works support each other very well, and that intrigues me. Perhaps they're complementary. The question is if all three could be physically integrated in a single moment. We share an unfulfilled desire to define the line that links these three works.

AA: How did you work together in practice? Over the last few years many ideas have been formulated about collaborations in the arts, frequently inspired by an open source mentality. Are these ideas important for you?

LV: We started Baltan Laboratories because other labs are often riddled with dogmatic, ideological ideas about what should be made, why, and with which tools. At Telcosystems we're interested in large-scale, complex works, which demand a lot of time and energy: works that have a certain type of scale and which have ambitions on an international level. In our experience, there are simply no other labs in the Netherlands for works like this. We visited almost every other place in the Netherlands, but there's just no ambition to realise these major works because it soon gets too complicated and too expensive. That's the reason why we wanted to set up something ourselves. Baltan wasn't started to develop new forms of collaboration. Naturally, we tried and tested all sorts of things, but our starting point was and remains artistic practice, rather than a theoretical idea about collaboration or software development. We are connected by our shared interest in output, rather than input. A lab should focus on creating works that have quality and meaning. We always start from the question "What is interesting art?" This allows us to move on to ask how one can make it and how a lab can be realised where it can be done. It turns out differently each time. Baltan's underlying drive still comes from the question: how can a particular type of work be realised?

MM: For me the most important drive was to see how ideas can be realised. Collaboration for its own sake is never interesting. I suppose I'm old school in this regard. A rap crew gets good by continually battling, not by philosophising about it.

GK: The idea was that we should actually operate like such a crew, with permanent reflection from the outside. We would sit in an observatory developing a model of a lab that provides facilities to this crew.

LV: We came up with of a number of things beforehand that we thought could be interesting, things we couldn't realise by ourselves, but which a lab could provide.

AA: How did you experience the Baltan Sessions, the workshops and the master class, as a context relating to your own practice? Did they add something to it?

MM: The master class and the Baltan Sessions provided opportunities where we could invite people who would stimulate our thinking. At the [ed. Poeme Numerique] master class it was great to get others working on our mental leaps, and then see the results. It helped us to draw more conclusions. It was a great luxury. It was also a moment of reflection, a chance to find out where we were at.

GK: It was interesting for our own work and network. It facilitated a professional art practise. Baltan is actually an artist-run lab. Most people recoil from this idea because they imagine that such a lab could become a kind of squatter's bastion. That's not at all the case: artists aren't parasites who just do things without knowing what they're doing.

AA: Doesn't the model that you're outlining resemble academies for artistic research and some artist-in-residence programmes? But with the difference that at Baltan the artist defines the frame of reference?

LV: We've always been critical of labs and courses, and this played a role in the decision to start Baltan. It stems from our own practice -- the Telcosystems studio is also a small lab. We wanted to know what would happen if you allowed that to ‘explode’, if you say, "We're not going to do this with just two or three people anymore, we're going to work with a whole group", and link this with reflection and education. Of course we talked about Eindhoven not really being a cultural hotspot, but it could be seen as a transit hub. People come and go, and they find time and space while they're in Eindhoven to concentrate. That succeeded with the Baltan Sessions. We noticed at the sessions how lots of things 'resonated' in Eindhoven. Perhaps it's no hotspot, culturally speaking, but it's no backwater either. There's a history that people are keen to relate to: the city was home to the NatLab where Dick Raaijmakers and others worked, where the wider public came into contact with the latest technologies in the Evoluon. And there was also the Apollohuis with its extremely progressive art and music programming. Once you explain to people what Strijp-S is, they're immediately enthusiastic about the setting, the context, and the history. That was another a driving force: the idea of taking the history of Eindhoven as a starting point, revisiting it and doing something different with it.

AA: Marc, what motivated you personally to start with Baltan?

MM: I thought that it would be interesting for me to be close to developments in media technology, so that I could draw the proper conclusions for new architecture. But nothing has gone as planned over the past two years. Firstly, nobody is really building at the moment, and if they are, it's never a building that includes a role for technology. I have an extremely active company and I am continually bringing in clients and putting people to work. At Baltan I was able to devise twelve case studies and fantasise about 'the digital'. Baltan is a sanctuary where I can develop independent ideas. Several case studies were in fact transposed into practice. We made a 3D Mondriaan in China. We will realise the 3D-letters based on a design by Theo van Doesburg in Amsterdam. Without Baltan I wouldn't have been able to produce such well thought-out ideas. Things would have turned out differently if I'd received funding to conduct research from my office in Maastricht.

AA: Did you need the actual physical space at Baltan?

MM: No, not really, but we did benefit from the idea that there was a physical space.

GM: The physical space was necessary for the creation of mental space for research. It is after all a different space than your studio, and that makes a difference.

AA: Baltan House arose from your ongoing fascination for the question of how the media we use in our daily lives can be given a place in architecture?

MM: Baltan House is a series of five small modular buildings that can be digitally extended. They were designed with the idea that a house should have a zone dedicated to technology and media. In the architectural plan I incorporated this in the exterior walls, which resulted in them bulging outwards and creating a sculptural effect. I could also house a meter cupboard and a drainage pipe in a space like this. In this way a functional requirement is transformed into an aesthetic plus-point.

AA: How did you get started at Baltan, Geert?

GM: For me two things were important: the research periods and the lab-in-development where we could develop ourselves still further. The latter was a process in which we continually asked ourselves what it was we were doing. "What is our role, what is the labs' role, what do we want to achieve and what is the area that is relevant for questioning?" That was a process that we had to feel out ourselves and with the Baltan board and Angela. I can't remember exactly how things happened. The two research periods were much more concrete. I made clear decisions about this in the beginning. Just like Marc I had could have done the research anywhere, but I think that the discussions we had in the physical space itself were extremely valuable. They came from the physical space; they filled the physical space.
The first research period, when we developed the Baltan Tracker, was an experiment with developing a tool. In media art you're innovative in the development of your medium and in the development of your artwork. I've always been interested in how far the development of a medium can be separated from the development of an artwork. Can a medium that you develop for a given artwork be made generic, so that you can offer it to others? An experiment such as making the Baltan Tracker into a generic tool, for example, was certainly worth the trouble. But the conclusion was that this wasn't the way I wanted to conduct lab research. Most of all it made clear that the generic quality of a self-developed medium such as this is very limited unless you start a company that introduces the tool to the market and sells it. Then you're stepping away from the path of innovation and you end up in a process in which you are continually occupied with trying to make the tool smaller, faster, better or cheaper. The consequence is that you end up being a salesman.

AA: During the two years at Baltan you were the only one who experimented with the model of making software generic. It's a model that other labs have tried to follow. The question is: do you become a company? Or do you use open source and assume that the community will develop it further?

LV: The success of something like this also depends on local circumstances. If Baltan entered into a long-term alliance with the Technical University in Eindhoven, then you would have a completely different construction than if Baltan started working with Philips on further developing the Baltan Tracker. Where would the money come from? How would the development be structured?

GM: Making software generic is an enormous undertaking. For example, at a certain point almost all the staff at a company like AKZO-Nobel is involved in making it generic and marketing it. This shows how the overhead involved in genericising relate to innovation, to generating a new idea.

LV: You can bring it into an open-knowledge context and open it up and let it grow further thanks to a community of open source developers. You also see universities getting involved with software. I think that it usually makes more sense to do this kind of thing under the auspices of a university.

GM: The second research period, when I was working on God’s Browser, was radically different. From a content perspective it was much more satisfying. During this period I was entirely focused on my fascination with the idea that you can assemble an infinite collection of images in countless ways. In this way you can generate an infinite number of stories, which, if you arrange them in a good way, are worth engaging with. The idea behind God's Browser is simple, but its consequences are very complex. That's what makes it so charming. Film and animations are based on the principle of a sequence of images, whereby each successive image differs from the preceding one. It should therefore be possible to construct a film from the almost infinite database of frames on the Internet. After all, pretty much any image you can think of is available. If playing images off the Internet in a sequence creates a coherent moving image, then you as a viewer will give meaning to it. Entering the realm of fantasy for a moment, you could say that the frames of the ultimate Internet film have been scattered in a diaspora. The task is to return them to the original film. A computer that has access to all those images should be able to put the frames in the correct running order by analysing each image for their visual similarities. Of course, there are a lot of very good sequences and an almost infinite number of twists and turns. That's what I'm working on. The images are matched according to their visual similarity. It takes a few periods of research before it happens properly, partly because you can use different methods to analyse the images. The methods I've used so far are extremely generic, and I'd really like to work with a method that's more focused on form.
For example, I want to generate a film about perspective, about how space is represented on a two-dimensional surface by means of a lens. Lenses are based on pure mathematical principles that are not always immediately identifiable as a visualisation of a three-dimensional space, but which have come to be accepted as such in our culture and perception. You can work out from a photograph which lens was used to capture a particular space. There's a certain margin of error because you don't know if the space itself has been changed. But even that doesn't matter. In principle you should be able to make a film from found material in which you can navigate through all the spaces basing yourself only on the lines of convergence in the material that you analyse. You navigate through the cinematic space and each frame of the film originates in a different representation of a different space.

AA: Did you make the algorithm that analyses the images yourself?

GM: That was made by Carlo Prelz, with whom I have worked with for a long time. Many of the algorithms have already been developed; some are public domain. We don't get too involved with developing the algorithms ourselves -- even though that is an art in itself. Most of the work is in the implementation of the algorithms in a software environment.

AA: And Gideon and Lucas, how about you?

GK: Of the three of us, I think we've spent the most time working in the physical space at Baltan. We made the first version of the 12_series installation there. As a test case, we relocated our entire studio in Rotterdam to the Baltan premises and worked there on the Baltan Player and a 35mm film. We also worked on the second version of 12_series at Baltan, which was exhibited at the Flux-S Festival. We both enjoyed working in a larger space for once. We were able to permanently install 12_series and observe how long it continued working until it crashed, and show people what we were doing. At Baltan we could really concentrate on the creative process, we didn't have to take care of running the office. We'd take the train from Rotterdam to Eindhoven in the morning, spend the entire day working on our project, and go home in the evening. Striking a balance between creating and organising is an ongoing struggle. I think a lab is the ideal place for an artist to do what he does best: creating art. Then all the professional practices involved, like taking care of the administration, can be outsourced. We've tried to realise this lab model by trial and error.

LV: We also investigated how an open space such as Baltan can function. In an open space you always sit close to or next to each other, which leads to different functions overlapping. How does that work if you also introduce an audiovisual studio, with a spatial installation that's permanently running under test conditions?

AA: Did you also collaborate with each other within Poème Numerique? Did you inspire each other?

GK: In fact, the lab itself was our collaborative project. That's what we put most of our time into. We mostly thought and spoke about the lab, not about joint installations or artworks. Whenever we were together all we spoke about was what a lab should be, where it should be going, whether it was working or not. Together we developed a history and vocabulary for this. To be completely honest, despite everything we did and made at Baltan, we didn't really get to the point where we engaged with each other in a practical artistic collaboration. You have to have time and money to realise a project like Poème Numerique -- a design for a building for a media lab. Well, actually you need the money first, because it buys you time.

LV: When we met and decided to work on Baltan, Lehmann Brothers had just collapsed. That was in 2008. When I had my first discussion with Ton van Gool -- the person from the Eindhoven municipality who was directing the cultural developments at Strijp-S -- the sky was still the limit, certainly in the building industry. He approached the four of us with the idea of establishing a media lab. The entire Strijp-S site was supposed to be developed by 2015. Nobody anticipated any problems. It was only when we started having serious discussions that it got bogged down. In fact, we were invited to spend a few years experimenting, report back with ideas, make an impression on the surroundings, and then we would build our big media lab. But as it turned out Baltan was developed in much more constrained circumstances. Precisely how that occurred is an extremely interesting subject.

MM: Still, if someone were to ask us to set up a building for a media lab I think that thanks to the two years experience we've had at Baltan, we'd be able to do it fairly quickly.

AA: Because you place artistic work centre-stage the correct methodology is never an ideological question. You see the exchange of knowledge as defined by the context of the artistic work, is that correct?

LV: If I exchange knowhow, then I prefer to engage with someone who can do something I can't, or who thinks of things I don't think of. Then I can learn something. I thought it was interesting that we were offered a space for Baltan that looked like a depressing office building to me. But two months later when we opened it was a fantastic space. I may have thought about it for about five minutes, but Marc made a few simple interventions that made massive improvements to the space. That's an unknown world to me and I learned a lot from it.

GM: Because we know each other and each other's work, we didn't experience that many of those eye-opening moments. The consequences of our individual approaches took on a very well developed form, which made it possible for each of us to reflect on our practice. The strength of the exchange lies primarily in things not having to be said. If you organise the surroundings, and you're a part of them, then a number of things become even more self-evident. The degree to which you stop asking questions about what you're doing is a measure of the quality of a lab. In an environment like that it becomes natural to think about media in a fundamental way and to link consequences to it without some questions ever having to be broached.

AA: A practical question: what do you need in a lab, what do artists lack?

LV: We projected our own disciplines and fields of activity in the lab. If you want to make a particular kind of art then specific requirements will be attached to that. There was a continuous exchange of ideas about what the lab should include.

GK: If you ask artists to think about this, it naturally becomes a lab that fits with the artist's requirements. We also wondered about the necessity of a permanent space. How do you intend to function as an organisation? With as little overhead as possible? We don't have any definite answers to this. It's much more about what is possible in the given context.

AA: What can happen in that given context? What should a lab contain? I can imagine that other people who work in the same artistic territory as you would come to the conclusion that you need a place with a software developer, someone who is familiar with, for example, C++, MAX/MSP or Python. But you didn't reach that conclusion; it just fell away naturally because you've already organised that perfectly well for yourselves.

GK: I think that most artists take care of this sort of thing themselves. There's no point in thinking about a lab as a place of technology. Investing in hardware makes no sense: so much money is spent on technology that, just a few years later, can be put out with the garbage.

LV: If you ask me what I think a lab should include then it covers the entire range, from ideas to a platform. It's all about providing space for new art, a place where art can be devised, made and exhibited, where you can make weird and wonderful constructions that don't receive much support elsewhere.

GK: Our starting point was really that that we didn't want to create an institution straight away. But before we'd even got well and truly started, we already had a building. Battling against creating an institution would have taken too much time and energy. It's as if people aren't ready for these types of ideas. You always have to bear in mind that there have to be landmarks. Directors have to be able to say: "This is my building", and funding organisations are obsessed with visitor numbers. So it appears to be even more difficult than anticipated to continue protecting the idea of a place devoted to the development of art. It's a hard package to sell. People find it difficult to deal with the idea that no commercial products will be made.

GM: I thought that the way in which education was integrated in such a natural way, in cooperation with the Fontys Academy in Eindhoven, was surprisingly effective. Exchanging knowhow at that level was an extremely good experience. I think it would be worth the effort to further professionalise that in a lab, and even to generate income from it. So if there is a demand for a product, at least you can say that a very robust contribution is being made to education in general and art education in particular.

LV: But if you were to make an economic model out of it, the collaboration would cease immediately. If you add up all the hours that Angela and we have invested in the collaboration, it's more than the educational sector could afford. That money comes from somewhere else; it's we who decided to invest it in education. It is very difficult to define where a lab should get its funding from: is it related to visitor numbers, to your educational activities, or whether you're the cheapest path to ensuring that something is happening in the area we're involved in? The lab has been run on a shoestring budget and has been self-supporting for the last two years and I sometimes wonder if this is a sustainable model that can continue to grow in the next ten years.

MM: That's a gradual process. If a book was written about all the projects it would be possible to make it clear how much we've achieved.

AA: If I summarise everything all of you are saying then I understand that you are striving to create an open model. It all starts with art, the works themselves. So, the lab has to be able to encompass the entire process of conceptualisation, substantive reflection, practical developments -- including technological developments -- via construction and testing to exhibiting or presenting them.

LV: You can add distribution and documentation to that list.

AA: So you want to incorporate the whole process, such that the people working in the lab and the works being made there determine the nature of the practical approach?

LV: It's interesting to think from the perspective of adding functionalities instead of from the perspective an institution. If I look at the way things are organised at educational institutions, at labs and at exhibition spaces, then I sometimes get the idea that they're working in a retroactive way. It must be possible to do things better. That's why we tried ourselves. But even after two years I still don't have a clear answer as to exactly how that should occur.

GK: I think the way Arie formulated it summarises it very clearly.

LV: It's about versatility, and of being able to say at some point in the future, "We don't need that building anymore; we need an entirely different setup for the next project." This versatility and scalability have to be a part of that. They should be part of the normal process.

GK: The entire process Arie just described -- of going from conception to presenting works on a stage -- that should be the blueprint for a lab.

Conducted for and published in: Angela Plohman (red.), A Blueprint for a Lab of the Future. Eindhoven: Baltan Laboratories 2011.

some rights reserved
Arie Altena