Arie Altena

Interview with Telcosystems
(Lucas van der Velden, David Kiers and Gideon Kiers)

Arie Altena

Tag Gallery, The Hague, Friday April 13th 2007

Friday the 13th, the opening day of Meta_Epics II; A new work by Telcosystems, exhibited at the <>Tag gallery space in The Hague. I met up with Lucas van der Velden and the brothers David and Gideon Kiers in the small courtyard behind the exhibition space and, while enjoying the beautiful sunny day, we discuss -- their work, their thoughts on computer art and their new installation piece. I have gotten to know Lucas and Gideon considerably well through the work I have done for the Sonic Acts Festival, a festival they have been organizing for the last years.

AA: Meta_Epics II is a generative installation; does this mean that the software generates both the image and the sound in real time? Could you explain how this works exactly?

DK: Meta_Epics II is a never-ending cinematographic story in which four chapters continuously present themselves in new variations, until the machines are shut down.

Each chapter is a distinctive investigation of 'objects' in time and space and their reciprocal behavior. Avoiding complication and technicalities you could say we formulate rules for behavior in image and sound. One chapter could be based on rules that position the image and sound in time while another chapter could be based on rules where the sound-frequencies fully control the image.

GK: If you are searching for a common denominator you could say that these modules are dealing with spatial qualities of image and sound.

AA: How is the relationship in the spatialization of sound and image defined?

GK: The connections we make between the image and sound cover a broad spectrum. On one end of the spectrum there's the direct, one-to-one relationship. Here we could for instance connect the spatial qualities of the sound to the various spatial parameters of objects in a three dimensional visual space. On the other end there can be very loose, almost random relationships between the sound's behavior and visual narrative.

AA: Could you give a short characterization of each of the four chapters that make up the Meta_Epics II installation? What were the four research topics?

LvdV: The first chapter is the result of a direct connection between the sound spectrum and a 3D image matrix. In the second chapter we coupled the dynamics of the sound to influence the image matrix, on which we map a texture created by feedback and controlled by sound. The third chapter concerns the spatial positioning of image and sound objects based on a direct one-to-one relation between the image and the sound. A 5.1, (surround sound) sequencer rotates sound patterns through the speakers, simultaneously controlling the image objects in 3D space. The final chapter deals with the relationship between the texture of the image and that of the sound, where the image texture is the ruling factor. This creates an outcome in which the connection between image and sound is the least direct and visible.

AA: When you create such a chapter, how can you tell whether something 'works'? When do you think 'this is looking good', 'this is what we'll pursue'? When is it good enough to exhibit?

LvdV: Before we start with a new chapter we lay out some general directions, but we don't define a research topic in an absolute sense. The end result is not predefined by the research question. We start working based on the general directions, but while designing the software, all kinds of surprises and problems occur, both technical and conceptual. This takes us on alternative paths and to unforeseen endpoints. In this way the building process itself becomes the actual research. Because everything we build runs in real-time, we can instantaneously see and here hear the outcome and decide whether or not it is what we are looking for.

AA: So while you are programming, you evaluate in real-time, you alter something in the design of the software, and see how this works out...?

DK: When you're working with your own software you develop sensitivity for tweaking the parameters in such a way that they produce behavior that touches your artistic desires and that you want to explore further.

LvdV: In programming you actually start from scratch only once. With everything we create we build and expand our vocabulary of rules, of small systems and subroutines. Some routines are scrapped from our vocabulary, others are added. Over time, our vocabulary becomes more refined and articulated. So we don't work from a predefined idea about the end result, but rather from a set of technical or conceptual principles, often very simple. From that starting point we build, tune and tweak as long as it takes until we find something interesting.

AA: When is it interesting?

LvdV: That is a hard question. It's like asking: 'when is art interesting?'. As soon as you come up with a definition for interesting art, you will find equally interesting works that don't fit the definition. Nevertheless, there is indeed again and again a moment where we think 'this is it, this is interesting'. Usually this occurs during improvisational sessions. In the process of building and tuning we eventually arrive at a point where we think 'yes, this is about right'. This doesn't happen because we determine in advance what it is we're going to do, nor because we are working towards a specific outcome; it happens because we trust each other's abilities. Each of us puts in his own skills and after a while our collective efforts produce an interesting result.

GK: For us, a work is actually never really finished; most of our works remain in constant development. That's why we present so many versions of the same project. Older versions still have their value, but we have moved on. Our work is more precise now, more articulate.

AA: In the Meta_Epics II installation each chapter starts with the indication of the current date and time. If I understand it correctly I'll see something else when I come back at a later moment, even though I am effectively seeing the same chapter?

GK: Because it is a generative installation, by definition you'll get to see different versions each time you watch a chapter. But the difference is not that huge. The variations will always stay within a limited range and the chapters are definitely recognizable.

AA: Are these variations achieved by working with random number generators?

GK: We use a wide variety of generators, including random number generators, but only where they serve a purpose. The application of random values is not a goal in itself. Our aim is to make interesting work, something that we are satisfied with ourselves. When you use random generators, you inevitably get quite a lot of silence or an empty screen, and that is not what we want to show our audience. It is interesting as a concept, but not necessarily as a piece of art -- unless if that is what your work is about. Our work is not about randomness. Our work is about a dialogue with machines, where there is a large amount of freedom for us to improvise and react to the machines, and a limited amount of freedom for the machines to react to each other and to us. It does happen that we sit and watch the monitor or projection and say to each other: ‘this is a good run', or ‘the machines were really doing their best'. The quality of the machine's improvisation varies within the given limits. In that sense there is life inside a computer -- at least I believe you can qualify it as such.

AA: Are you talking then about the computer improvising based on the algorithms you have created and the boundaries you have set, the extend of freedom you have defined for the computer?

GK: I'm talking about the dialogue with the machines and the surprises they give back. We strongly believe that the computers haves their own dynamics and therefore intervene in the creative process. This is partially because we use the machines for real-time tasks and also because we push them to their limits with these tasks. The result is that the computer will execute certain tasks too late, or stop halfway through the execution, sometimes completely fail to execute or the computer's responsiveness decreases for short periods of time. There are often logical explanations for particular behaviors, but because of the system's complexity they are hard to trace. This results in a feeling of 'individuality' and of 'being connected' to the machines, on top of the programmed behaviors. So the improvisational qualities of the machines do not depend solely on the algorithms we created, but also on the before mentioned 'individuality' of the system. This is where the quality of the work comes from. Besides that, a dialogue with the machine strikes us as something very natural since we work with them on a daily basis.

AA: You design that dialogue in code and then try to invite or even provoke the computer to do something with it?

GK: In general, computers are made to execute very simple and dumb tasks. Most computers are equipped with a monitor, two small speakers, a keyboard and a mouse, all meant for very restricted use. As a result of this, a rather one-dimensional image of the computer has been established. However, it was us humans who defined this limited image and restricted functionality of the computer. So actually, man imposes firm restrictions on the machine. There is a considerable freedom inside the machines that should be allowed to come out more. That's also part of what our work is about.

AA: Would you say your work is characterized by computer aesthetics?

LvdV: There is actually no such thing as computer aesthetics. If you would want to program a Monet-like work, it is possible; the same goes for an abstract Mondriaan or Sol LeWitt. You can also work without a monitor and you wouldn't have to talk about pixels. You can also attach a hundred speakers, or a thousand light bulbs, or whatever you want. The output, and with that the aesthetic of the computer, is actually not defined at all. A computer with a keyboard, mouse and monitor, as Gideon just said, was made for a specific set of tasks, like bookkeeping, emailing and such. We, on the other hand, use the computer to make experience-spaces and experience-machines. At the present moment, this is what determines for us what a computer is. Perhaps for our next project we'll make something only with sound or do a project with only lights. . The computer doesn't define what the artist makes, the artist does. It's remarkable how people usually have very strong opinions about computers and computer aesthetics. For me, that is like having very strong opinions about a forest. Of course, you can have all kinds of opinions about it, but that's not the purpose of a forest. The same goes for the computer.

DK: The idea with the computer is that you convert your ideas into code, after which you take a step back and think, ‘that is beautiful', or ‘I hadn't expected that'. The essence of the computer is code. You have this box, you insert some rules, the rules are executed and result in a certain output, whatever that output may be. Perhaps you could say that the 'computer aesthetics' is mainly found in the processing aspect of the work.

GK: I also somehow see the work we make as a computer's private holiday photo album. There is a reason that we named one of our performance series ‘Postcards from the Processor': it's about the life inside. If you want to talk about aesthetics, then for me it should be about what goes on inside the processor; the conversion from ones and zeros into experiences that touch us.

LvdV: With a computer you are free to express nothing. There is no ultimate signifier. Maybe that's the essence of computer art and code. What makes it really interesting is the absence of a norm. It's about nothing; the output has no reference to significant matters outside of the computer.

AA: Is that also why you end up making experience-machines? [Meta_Epics II presents a dark space where, surrounded by sound, you are sucked into the image and into another world.]

LvdV: Yes, our work is about the space, about the physical presence in an intense constellation of image and sound. Until now we have worked mostly with high-resolution video projectors and speakers; we are now working on an installation using only lights and speakers. There are so many more ways in which you can define a space. We attach great importance to the physicality of such a space, more than the usage of a certain type of image or sound. It's more about the physical impact of the installation and less about how it sounds or what the images looks like.

AA: Don't you determine that by selecting a specific sound and a specific non-referential image?

LvdV: Not so much because we choose for non-referentiality; it's the result of working with computers. Especially because the output lacks a fixed form identity and because there are few conventions for the way it should look or sound. Also with regard to the narrative nothing is fixed. Most people, when they hear a classical instrument like a violin, automatically see a violin. Non-referential computer sound is far less connected to a computer. One person hears a computer, the other a monkey or a train, and yet another hears a 'non-sound'.

AA: But there must be a vocabulary of electronic music that you match to closely? There must be traditions that your work is related to?

GK: Of course our work is related to the vocabulary of electronic music and experimental cinema, just as there are connections to contemporary computer art. However, this is mostly caused by the fact that our present methods of expression are similar to those art forms. I would say our work is closely related to the tradition of 'image and sound art', which deals with the development of new 'languages' for image and sound. We compose using a computer and the result is only limited by the technology we use for outputting. Our work deals with the creation of and research into a new audiovisual vocabulary and context. With our current work we have positioned ourselves on the intersection of visual arts, film and performing arts. And to this day, in none of these worlds is the presentation of our work straightforward. In a gallery with white walls and a lot of daylight we build a black box screening room, in a club we install chairs and a surround sound speaker setup and in a movie theater we create a film in real time. So part of our daily job is also reorganizing the world a bit and preparing it for the future.

LvdV: To a certain degree this is the liberation of the computer as well. By overturning all those mostly space related - conventions, these places are slowly becoming a bit more multidisciplinary. But still there exist only a handful of places that are truly multidisciplinary, meaning spatially as well as 'mentally'. So many assumptions are still made based on standards that are not from the present era.

AA: Except in sound art perhaps?

LvdV: There are hardly any suitable locations for sound art either. In the one place the staff goes mad when the sound has been playing for an hour, in the other the loose ceiling throbs along or the neighbor upstairs comes down to complain. But it is a comforting thought that when working with computers, in the end you don't need to do anything with them really. Even without space or output, they just keep on working. You can hear the hard disks rattling gently, you can hear the ventilators rotating and see the network lights blinking. These computers don't need us at all to continue working.

Dutch version published in Tag Magazine, 2007
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Arie Altena & Telcosystems