A Matter of Feeling.
By Alex Adriaansens, director V2_, Rotterdam.

Advertising has made us chasing cars and clothes, we have working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Tyler Durden in “The Fight Club”

The social welfare state is falling apart, pension funds are drying up, wages are getting down (if one can keep his job at all), and a general feeling of alienation has got a grip on us. The feeling of being betrayed, mislead and trapped is something we can hear all around us nowadays when scanning media. The promising and once inspiring modernistic experiment of the last century seems to end in a scenario we never expected to be so radical. All of this has not been unnotified by artists. In one of his always provocative interviews the Belgium artist Wim Delvoye stated that everything in modern life is pointless. The most useless object he could create was a machine called Cloaca  that serves no purpose at all, besides the reduction of food to waste. Cloaca in fact is a large installation that turns food into shit, allowing Delvoye to explore the digestive process. The food begins at a long, transparent mouth, travels through a number of machine-like assembly stations, and ends in hard matter, which is separated from liquid through a cylinder. Delvoye collects and sells the realistically smelling output, suspended in small jars of resin at his Ghent studio. And they sold pretty well over the years.

We are at a moment in time where we see ourselves confronted with an increase of radical problems questioning our modernistic societies and the life style it generated.

We are overwhelmed by it because we thought we had it all under control. Our modern dream and consumptive life style seemed without an end, and all of a sudden we are confronted with the limits of our modern human centric Life style.

One thing is clear; we underestimated how vulnerable we as humans are as being part of a larger eco system based on interdependencies. And what has also become painfully clear is that Life itself cannot be reduced to smaller units like the atom, and object or subjects. All things exist within a network of relations. Understanding and researching Ecologies is one of the main objectives of Protei initiated by Cesar Harada, it is a platform technology to transport scientific payload and clean-up equipment at sea, developed by a global community of artists, scientists, engineers, designers, makers and sailors. It is a Shape Shifting, Open Hardware, Sailing robot to sense and clean the oceans.

It is dedicated to collecting spilled oil at sea, but being an open source project, other versions may be designed in the future for other purposes: Protei for the North Pacific Plastic garbage patch, heavy metals in coastal areas, toxic substances in urbanized waterways.

If successful, Protei could go well beyond oil spills. “We have several hundreds of millions of tons of plastic in the ocean to collect. We need distributed surface instrumentation to study disappearing corals reefs, monitor shrinking fisheries, measure radioactivity leaks and much more,” Harada says.

Art, biology, physical and social sciences and the humanities are currently finding common ground in their renewed interest in Vitalism – the philosophical tradition that sought to identify the ’cause of all phenomena of Life in the human body’ – and material sciences (1). This philosophy takes us away from a mechanical conception of Life. The machines to which the old mechanistic thinking compared living creatures have completely changed. They are no longer mechanical contraptions of cogwheels, chains and oil but electronic inventions made up of microchips, electromagnetic radiation, LCD displays and digital coding. Also, the realization that life is finite not only on individual level but also on that of the biosphere, leads to an urgent need for a revaluation of what life is and how we should treat it. One way or another we have to overcome the disdain for life that speaks from the idea that matter is dead and inert and that life can be reduced to the connections between lifeless molecules and structures. The question on the emergence of Life and what constitutes Life is back again in the center of debates that reflect our contemporary technological culture.

The work Hylozoic Filter Layer of Philip Beesley shows an immersive, interactive environment that moves and breathes around its viewers, creating an environment that can ‘feel’ and ‘care’. It has been expanded and refined by researchers, engineers and designers from around the world. Beesley creates spaces that dissolve into forest-like hovering fields. His responsive environments offer bodily immersion and wide-flung perception. The quasi-plants – all synthetic – come to life in the space, retracting, contracting, slackening and opening as we pass, creating in us a sense of both wonderment and anxiety. They trigger an emotional response from visitors, prompting them to “question the boundaries between nature and artifice and examine their own organic condition as they interact with technology.”

Guto Nobrega on the other hand  – with his work Breathing – is based on a hybrid creature made of a living organism (a plant) and an artificial system. The creature responds to its environment through movement, light and the noise of its mechanical parts. This work is the result of an investigation of plants as sensitive agents for the creation of art. Breathing is a small step towards an art form in which subtle processes and interactions of organic and non-organic life offers us basic ways to communicate with plants or to get a new insight in the Life of plants.

Objects, social relations, politics, consumer behavior are all outcomes of what one can call ‘relational design’ and each design is different and unique. Coming from an age of industrial mass production, where standardization is the core concept, the need for variation and diversity has become a major topic dealing with social, cultural, political and environmental urgencies of our time. The urge for diversity is not different from the world of ecology where everything is understood as being relational: plants affect animals, and animals affect each other. Every relational system operates on affect, or, as we more often call it, feelings (2)

The Prosthetic Head by Stelarc is playing with affect as a strong strategy for building up a relation with the audience. PH is an automated, animated and reasonably informed artificial head that speaks to the person who interrogates it which is you the audience.  Within a very short time one starts to doubt with whom one is actually talking to, is it the artist, or a clever designed artificial system that behaves very human like. And one probably starts to like or dislike this ‘person’ in the dialogue one has. The Prosthetic Head project is a 3D avatar head, somewhat resembling the artist. The project is not an illustration of a disembodied intelligence. Rather, notions of awareness, identity, agency and embodiment become problematic when encountering this avatar head. Just as a physical body can be exposed as being inadequate, empty and involuntary, so simultaneously the avatar becomes seductive with its uncanny simulation of real-time recognition and response. One can ask oneself whether The Prosthetic Head is a pathological, philosophical or simply a flirting head. A problem would arise though when The Prosthetic Head increases its database, becoming more autonomous in its responses. In that case the artist would then no longer be able to take full responsibility for what his head says and neither would Meta.Morf be responsible, but we are not that far yet.

The work of Markus KisonPulse – takes a different approach; it is a live-visualization of emotional expressions written on private weblog communities like wordpress.com. Weblog entries are compared to a list of emotions, which refers to Robert Plutchik’s seminal book Psycho evolutionary Theory of Emotion published in 1980. Plutchik describes eight basic human emotions in his book: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. He developed a diagram in which these eight emotions, together with their weakened and amplified counterparts, form a three dimensional cone, consisting of 24 areas. The cone is the basic form of the artwork Pulse, which can enlarge in the 24 directions of the different emotions. Each time an emotion tag, or a synonym of it, is found in a recent blog entry, the shape-shifting object transforms itself in such a way that the new volume represents a piece of the overall current emotional condition of surfers on the Internet.

One can state that all relations are felt relations; we see therefore we feel, and because we feel we act. Everything in the world, all objects (living and non-living) build networks by interacting with their environment, these interactions strengthen and weaken the connections in a network, which thus structure themselves. From this process ‘Form’ emerges (whether social, cultural, technological, material or cultural forms) and becomes part of our tangible world.

This standpoint takes us away from a classical, romantic view on Nature as being pure in itself; it moves the concept of Nature to the broader concept of Life, Life seen as vital matter. When we talk about vital matter we are aiming at the performative character of Life including technology as being part of Life. Within this context ‘our whole lives – all our decisions, all our concerns – can be understood as ‘a matter of relational design’.

Peter Flemming;’s work is based on the concept that all things have a natural resonant frequency. This intriguing idea suggests a baseline connection between just about everything. For example his old car would vibrate intensely when reaching certain speeds. Our bodies have resonant frequencies. As does the stapler on my desk, as do skyscrapers, bridges, tectonic plates.

Instrumentation is an electro-mechanical sound installation inspired by resonance. The gallery installation preserves a sense of the makeshift, having evolved from studio experiments, using a limited palette of tools and readily available materials. Spanning two separate but connected spaces, different aspects of the work are presented in each.

Meta.Morf is presenting contemporary artists and designers whose work is based on sympathies and affinities with Life forms. Life forms understood as being technological as well as biological.

The work of Zimoun is probably the most literal expression of this. In this work we can hear woodworms tunneling themselves through a piece of wood even though we don’t see them. This simple but strong imaginative work is only one side of how the affinity with Life Forms is expressed within the Meta.Morf exhibition.

In general one can state that all artworks in the exhibition are about designing relations, this can be on a social or cultural level as well as on a material or technological level.

E-volved Cultures (2005-2011) by Driessens&Verstappen is a software presentation in which an artificial landscape grows in real time. Virtual agents that leave visual traces in interaction with their environment generate the dynamic pixel-landscape. The colorful abstract animations arouse associations with landscapes, geological processes, cloud formations, fungal growth, organ tissues or satellite photos, but ultimately they still avoid any definitive identification.

In the Meta.Morf exhibition one can see a diversity of approaches that artists take in developing and using ‘smart materials’, materials that behave like a living system that can change and adapt. This is a strong research domain nowadays in architecture; fashion and the arts, looking at the social and environmental context and dynamics these practices are embedded in.

Or you can see how artists address the performative character of technology and materials, which shows us that technology and non-living matter is not ‘dead matter’ but in fact is an active agent shaping a.o. our social life for good and for worse.

Jessica de Boer her work Solid Void shows the carving of ice during a thermodynamic process. In a room at 20˚C hangs in mid-air a glass-cube container filled with water. The process starts when an octahedron of ice is placed in the glass container, fitting exactly and airtight. The scale of this system makes it possible to observe two separate phenomena. During the melting process, heat is exchanged between the ice, the water and the environment. This “carves” the shape of the ice from an octahedron into a beautiful diamond. The molecules melt at 0 ˚ C and stream to the surface. When the molecules heat they become heavier and sink to the bottom where the temperature is 4 ˚C. It is this circulation of water that “carves” the ice in the shape of a diamond.  

Xandra van Eijk with her work Momentum shows the process of decay and the human incapability to overcome it. Because of certain ingredients in the mixture, the pigment can spread, but not mix. It has to push the other pigments away, as it is forced to drip for two hours in the center of one spot. Therefore the colors have to fight for their place, causing it to change continuously. Doing so, the material finds its boundaries – and starts to ‘break’. After seven spots, the tub is full and needs to be emptied to be able to proceed. This is done by putting a 4m long heavy cotton paper on top of the surface, allowing the pigments to sink in to it. After a few minutes, the paper is pulled of and put to dry, like a snap shot photograph, a memory of what once was. The glass pipes are cleaned and refilled, and the whole process starts over again. After seven full tubs and seven four meter prints, the water has fully decayed and will no longer allow the pigment-mixture to spread on the surface and the performance/installation has ended. All times and changes are being noted through out the entire 4 days and all full four-day sessions are being numbered, as well as the prints. What remains is a printed timeline showing the decay of a chemical process; in one print, but also gradually deteriorating over all seven.

The work of Antony Hall – Perpetual Puddle Vortex is another work that is based on the performative character of materials. A seemingly incidental spillage reveals a spiralling vortex at its centre. The puddle appears to be constantly pulled into a void though it never reduces. Over the day the puddle produces a continual array of ever changing patterns, in foam, or a thin layer of floating oil. The work changes according to temperature and moisture levels and light.

Meta.Morf 2012 is presenting contemporary artists and designers whose work is based on sympathies and affinities with Life forms. Life forms understood as being technological as well as biological.

If there is one statement that identifies Meta.Morf it is that our entanglement with technology creates a world in which we should fundamentally rethink how we should design our environment, our objects and our lives and how one day we might invent a politics of Beauty, a politics that is appropriated for the 21st century. This last remark about Beauty is taken from V2_’s book publication called Vital Beauty

Ralf Baecker’sIrrational Computing in this respect investigates material, aesthetics and the potential of digital processes. The basic raw materials of our information technology are semiconductor crystals such as silicon, quartz or silicon carbide, which, thanks to today’s advanced micro technology and extremely sophisticated procedures, are processed into transistors or integrated circuits (IC), with the materiality of modern microprocessors having long since ceased to be graspable. The extreme miniaturization and the black-box set-up elude visual interpretation. The Installations circuit runs counter to the developments in information technology, representing the system in a dimension that is enlarged many times over. The project thus corresponds to an extreme zooming-in on the smallest “physical” units of digital processes.

Digital systems, in their function, are conceived logically and rationally. The lowest physical or electro-technical level (crystals with semiconductor properties) is based, however, on quantum mechanical, i.e. statistical or unpredictable processes. Modern computer technology has thus tamed and domesticated the chaotic, so to speak. In his work, Ralf Baecker comments on this paradox by examining the aesthetics of the materials from which has developed a global digital network. “Irrational Computing” is not supposed to “function” – its aim is to search for the poetic elements on the border between “accuracy” and “chaos.”

Meta.Morf is a biennial highlight. It brings together an international community of professionals and young talents that present their research and projects, and to exchange ideas, concepts and the outcome of different creative practices. Meta.Morf wants to fuel the collaboration between art and science.

The artists and theoreticians participating in Meta.Morf are addressing and reflecting radical questions about Life within the context of our technological culture, and its consequences for designing our lives and environment.  This generation is not hold back by borders, rules or by being political correct. The Sky is the limit but always with a serious reality check.

Kianoosh MotallebiTerrestrial Ball is a basic and conceptual project in the Meta.Morf exhibition; one can state that it contains all materials used by the other works in the exhibition. The artwork is a small, spherical object made of the 94 elements that occur naturally on earth. It is at once a tangible look at the world we live in, a memento of our home and an object that relates in an elementary way to every other object and substance that has ever been made.

Alex Adriaansens / Director V2_ /  Rotterdam

(1) Chris Salter, Concordia university, 2011. This debate has found amongst other new ground  with publications like Vital Matter by Jane Bennet and Molecular vitalism by Kirschner, and The Sympathy of Things by Lars Spuybroek.

(2) Lars Spuybroek in The Sympathy of Things (NAi publisher, 2012).


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