An invitation, 22 September 2006

According to the invitation I receive on 22 September, the First Holodeck Convention will be held at FLACC in Genk from 2 up to and including 6 October 2006. It is a temporary collective, consisting of initiator Geert Goiris, Jean Bernard Koeman and HAP (Jens De Schutter, Piet Mertens and Wim Waelput). By analogy with Hamish Fulton’s statement that ‘an object cannot compete with an experience’, the Holodeck Convention starts from the premise that ‘an image cannot compete with an experience’. In other words, the main question that occupies the convention concerns the image as experience, independently from its meaning. How can the image in itself evoke an experience?

What connects these artists is their shared interest in science fiction, utopian and architectural projects, minimal and land art, scriptwriting and travel. In concrete terms, they aim to develop a space that will produce an overwhelming visual experience. They want to design a structure or a module that gives visitors a strong sense of submersion and contemplation and, if possible, build it. They also want to reflect on which images would be suitable for this space. This idea led the artists to use the word Holodeck in the name of their convention. It refers to the Enterprise-D from Star Trek, where the Holodeck is a closed cell in which persons and objects are holographically simulated.

There are quite a few historical forerunners of spaces in which visitors are submerged. A panorama is a wide view of a physical space. In 1792, Robert Barker presented his paintings of Edinburgh in a cylindrical arrangement to be viewed from inside. His example was widely followed in the nineteenth century, in which many of such cycloramas were produced. Soon, the paintings were replaced by panoramic photography, and a bit later by film. Usually, their goal was to provide entertainment. However, it could be stated that the desire for submersion in a total visual experience is at least a few centuries old.

A variation on the cyclorama was the cosmorama, which was very popular in nineteenth-century London.
The twentieth-century planetariums built on that tradition. The sixties of the last century were the era of multiscreen projections, of which Stan Vanderbeek’s Movie-drome is an exponent. The distinction between fiction and reality, between image and world and between spectator and performer became blurred and disappeared. Nowadays, we have the 360-Degree projections developed by Patrick Besenval and Futuroscope. Other examples are Euro Disney and Arromanches 360. We also have ‘bubble video’ now, full-motion digital 360¡ video.

Why I decide to attend, 27 September 2006

To hold a ‘convention’ of artists is an intriguing plan. I am aware that, in the literal sense, convenire does not mean more than ‘to come together’, but metaphorically, it implies more, i.e., ‘to agree’. In fact, the one often leads to the other. That is only logical. People meet with the intention of coming to an agreement on something. As a matter of fact, the rise of individualism seems to go hand in hand with a growing urge to forge new ties. Perhaps that urge is
strongest precisely at those times when individualism is most triumphant.

There are striking historical examples of this tendency. All our history books teach us that Renaissance man broke away from medieval collectivism and was the first instance of the individual placing himself in the centre of things. There is of course an element of truth in that. For example, it is expressed (still according to the same history books) in the ‘invention’ of central-linear perspective. By using a vanishing point, the artist also gives himself a place with regard to the world, as an autonomous subject. But we must not forget that the actual start of the same Renaissance was given in a meeting place in Florence. In 1459, Cosimo de Medici appointed Marsilio Ficino in Careggi and thereby founded the Platonic Academia. Artists were keen to share in the ideas developed here. It was the real laboratory of the Renaissance. The difference with this era is that these meetings revolved around a philosophy that can be taken as the prototype of monism, i.e., Neoplatonism. It is likely that the invention of perspective had more to do with the integration of the individual in the greater or infinite whole of the world than with the majestically unfolding Cartesian consciousness of the modern age. In that case, the ‘vanishing point’ acquires an entirely different meaning.

In that respect, the contrast with our age is sharp. These days, any form of monism is anathema. In philosophy, difference has become a dogma. Multiplicity and fragmentation are the order of the day. In the arts, this is expressed in the rejection of beauty as an aesthetic category. After all, beauty is intrinsically linked to unity. In its place, the sublime is demanding all the rights formerly enjoyed by beauty. With this emphasis on the denial of generality, the arts are deliberately fragmentary. Art has splintered into unconnected fragments. It is as if every work of art comes with its own private aesthetic. More than ever, the artist stands alone, in spite – or perhaps as a result – of the increasing number of ways of presenting his art, and the accompanying compulsion to stand out from others, if not to create a distinct profile for himself.

Inadvertently, I am also reminded of the role, which should not be underestimated, played by the Café Guerbois in the birth of Impressionism. The artists experimented in their studios, which happened to be clustered in the Batignolles district. In those revolutionary years before 1870, they would meet in the evenings at the Café Guerbois on grande rue des Batignolles and hold vehement discussions. The start of Impressionism was also the start of an important stage in the development of individualism. With the rise of private art galleries, the attention of the public shifted to the individual career of the artist, whereas in the Salons, the focus was still entirely on the separate painting. The dealer system is more suited to promoting individual careers. In the new institute of the gallery, the impressionists found a system that was conducive to innovation and originality, seeing that the market stimulates precisely these individual qualities. But of course, in those early days, the Impressionists already had at least one aspect in which they felt united: the fact of having a common enemy. They were the ones who were excluded from the established art circuit. Their common goals were to fight academism and undermine its dead conventions. A similar common cause is utterly lacking in this age. There is no longer an enemy on the art scene. Between 1970 and the present, contemporary art has developed from a marginal phenomenon into an established system.

And so there are sufficient reasons to wonder what it is that drives the artists of the Holodeck Convention to join forces. Do they believe the Genk FLACC is an antidote to today’s ruthless individualism, comparable, if only in minor ways, to the Academia in Careggi or the Café Guerbois in the Batignolles district?

Tuesday 3 October, afternoon, FLACC, Genk

The artists invited by Geert Goiris all arrive at FLACC on Monday 2 October for their five-day working session.
I join them in the afternoon of their second day to learn what they are discussing. They are still in the exploratory phase. The artists are trying to clarify their attitudes and viewpoints with regard to the contemporary culture of the image and the experience, and with regard to the world in general, before taking concrete steps. The discussion is confused, tentative and exciting.

My first question to them is: what position are they taking with their Holodeck programme statement?
After all, what is being explored here is people’s fundamental attitude with regard to the rise of virtual reality and its overriding passion for entertainment. The commercial virtual reality industry aims to develop a massive network for entertainment. This artists’ collective refers to the Holodeck and states that its aim is to create an ‘overwhelming visual experience’.
What stand does it take?

There is a statement, easily found on the Internet, which the artists like to quote so as to dispel every suspicion about technologies of virtual reality and submersion. It is quoted in the introductory memo of the Holodeck Convention. In 1927, Harry Warner himself laughed off the invention of talking movies with the words ‘Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?’ In other words, even the best and most informed people can act like idiots when confronted with revolutionary technologies! Obviously, they use it to point out that critics of the new forms of virtual reality should not make the same stupid mistake.

But isn’t that a highly debatable statement? First of all, because times have changed since 1927. Now, we live in a culture that is dedicated to entertainment. This situation demands reflection and resistance, more so than ever. Secondly, this technology represents something completely new. It blurs the boundaries between virtual and actual reality, and the metaphysical implications of this blurring certainly warrant consideration. And finally, a general objection: nothing has the right to simply consider itself above all criticism.

In our ‘Erlebnisgesellschaft’ (Gerhard Schulze), consumers are constantly seeking experiences. In the end, what they seek are experiences of bliss. Virtual reality enables our dreams to come true. That is the definition of paradise. But of course, it is a very artificial paradise. In the real world, pain, suffering, violence, death, mourning and worries will carry on as before. How will we respond to all these minor and major existential dramas, which are very real? Will we be able to cope? What’s more, virtual reality sells unlimited freedom as a consumable. In virtual reality, anyone can be anything. In the real world, by contrast, the old adage holds true: what’s done cannot be undone. Every choice I make in freedom implies relinquishing other possibilities. I cannot be everything.
Life has substantial, tragic aspects.

The Holodeck Convention confirms its intention to offer both an answer to and a strategy for counteracting the entertainment culture. How can artists venture into that same world of ‘experiences’ in such a way that diversion is taken out of people’s minds and replaced by contemplation? The value of art lies in its disquieting effect.

In the course of our conversation, the word ‘activist’ is dropped as a term to describe the artist’s position.
Activism refers to action taken with the aim of undermining the powers that be and achieving certain alternative social goals. It implies exerting force. But it also presumes careful consideration. That is also the intention of this week-long meeting. The first objective is to get the attitude connected with being an artist in sharper focus. FLACC is being used as a kind of mental sanctuary, a hiding place, a bit like a mountain cabin in a storm. The artists do not feel the need to prove themselves here by ‘leaving something behind’. Their main concern is the process of exchanging views and ideas. They are taking a week to give free rein to their thoughts and their imagination. Time will tell what comes out of it in a later stage. However, they have not given up on the original idea of building a panoramic dome with images. It remains a fascinating challenge to think about the images in which the visitors would or will be submerged.

As artists, they run into the following paradox: if they are to criticise visual pollution, they cannot help but create more images, thus adding to the surfeit. Perhaps taking something away would have a greater impact? That could be a way of introducing complexity to entertainment. Whoever wants to intervene in the relationship of people with the stereotyped forms of offering ‘experience’ must seek and find distilled, purified experiences. The Holodeck Convention does not intend to create some sort of paradise. However, the collective agrees that science fiction, as a genre, offers many possibilities for developing concepts. How do people project their dreams, hopes and expectations into the future? How to reconnect with the question as to ‘things as they ought to be’? First and foremost, all this presupposes an investigation of the inner self. It is important to find out who we are. In our age, there is a reawakening of the interest in the ‘memento mori’. That means that there is still an awareness of the vanity of life. In tranquillity, it is possible to compete with advancing cyberspace. At this point, surprisingly, an interest in minimal art turns up, as a form in which this detachment is expressed from time to time.

Later in the day, by way of conclusion, the artists agree that art should be disquieting and follow a strategy that runs counter to that of entertainment. At this point in the discussion, which is chaotic and unresolved, I leave the Holodeck Convention and the FLACC building. I am looking forward to what the week will bring.

24 October 2006, e-mail to Geert Goiris in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

I hope all is going well over there? In the meantime, it is important that we carry on communicating about Holodeck. The collaboration between these three (or actually, five) artists continues to intrigue me.

I had a first taste of it that Tuesday afternoon at FLACC. But I still have a few questions, both about what came before that moment and about what came after. I would also like to write a text about the project. The deadline for the FLACC Yearbook is 15 November. As that does not leave me much time, I will write it in the form of a report.

My first question is still about the idea underlying this joint project.What drove you to form a collective or assemble a convention of artists? The fact that you took the initiative seems remarkable to me in itself, in the sense that I associate your work with solitude. Do not take me wrong. I do not mean that as an unhappy experience. On the contrary, I consider this seclusion or homelessness and this naked standing face to face with the strangeness of the world to be a source of insight and wisdom. It is a self-reflection from which every distraction is courageously excluded, a return to the first and last metaphysical question, ‘who am I?’ That is simply the way I perceive your work, so do not take offence. But that is why I find it so intriguing that you, of all people, would initiate a joint project.

I have another question that is connected with the first. How to explain your collaboration with these particular artists? In my view, your work is very different from theirs. I would describe HAP’s work as principally extroverted, if I may say so. Its freshness or youthfulness is born from a kind of spontaneous, unsullied rebelliousness. And rebellion is always aimed against something. The way they manipulate social strategies so that they become counterproductive is an exponent of that. Whereas I consider your work to be predominantly introverted. As a photographer, of course, you aim your camera at the world. But it is mainly one’s own, human reality that reveals itself to the person who listens and stands still. The more inhospitable the world, the sharper the confrontation with one’s own inner reality. As I see it, you have little to do with the documentary photography that has been swamping the art market for several years now.

I also understand your work very differently from the way Dieter Roelstrate described it for Freestate (with all due respect, because it is a keenly penetrating text). Is it about the pure autonomy or self-sufficiency of the image? What I see in it is, rather, an opening to a profound experience of personal existence, that may rightfully be called a metaphysical experience. (By the way, is that not the antithesis and the only sensible response to the culture of entertainment and artificial bliss, the culture of experiences, the ‘Erlebnisgesellschaft’?). Then how can I reconcile your work with HAP’s, interior with exterior?

As regards Jean Bernard Koeman, I must confess that I am not very familiar with his more recent work. These days, I know him mainly as a curator. I did see work of his at Kunst & Zwalm and in CC Strombeek, but that was quite a while ago, in 1999 and 2002, respectively. Perhaps I should seek him out. For the time being, I see his installations mainly as a paradoxical combination of socio-critical and minimalist ‘sculpture’. He also makes extensive use of texts that replace or support the image. In his work, the message (whether social, existential, poetic…) often seems to be transmitted via this channel.

Am I right when I say that your Holodeck Convention came about mainly as a sequel to previous exchanges? The artists involved are people you get on well with (which undoubtedly presumes respect for their work). Incidentally, I believe it is more of a challenge to seek to cooperate with people whose positions are very different than to join forces with kindred spirits. (The results of the latter threaten to be predictable.)

Fortunately, we were able to spend a whole afternoon discussing the choice of the project’s theme. May I state that the first goal of your project was to have a more profound exchange with the other artists? That this consultation and collaboration was the heart of the matter, and that the choice of theme was initially only secondary, almost a pretext? That is why I thought the first project description rather superficial. (To be honest, I found it rather annoying). I found it hard to connect that description with your own work, that is so devoid of sensationalism, so detached, in fact. The way the project was formulated, it seemed to be set on creating the kind of ‘artificial experiences’ I tend to associate with entertainment. But we were able to clarify these matters in our discussion at FLACC. And that clarification will no doubt manifest itself in the further course of the project.

The further course, naturally, is what my main question is about. Where is your project heading now? I heard that you visited water towers that week. I can vaguely see why. It could well be an ‘all-inclusive experience’ of emptiness and therefore arouse the desired experience of unease. A form of the liberating discomfort you aim for. A naked submersion in the great Absence, a kind of rebirth. Are you going to do something with those water towers? Of course, we can talk about that when you get back from Tashkent.

Telephone conversation with Jean Bernard Koeman, 1 November, 11:30

Our conversation is brief, as Jean is due to go abroad soon for a long time. That means we will not be able to meet for the time being. My question is still what brings such different people together. And secondly, why they cherish their connection and what they want to do with it.

On the one hand, Jean confirms that personal ties play a role in it. They are the people he most enjoys working with. He refers to the show A temporary monument for David McComb at STUK in Leuven in 2004. In a sense, the origins of the convention can be traced back to this show (and even earlier). Then, it was Jean Bernard Koeman who took the initiative to collaborate, as the show’s curator. Among the other artists who took part in this event, besides Geert Goiris and HAP, were Freek Wambacq and Vaast Colson. The introductory text said: ‘In the arts, there is a need for systematic collaboration with “like-minded” organisations abroad’. At STUK, that collaboration centred on the concepts of astonishment, respect and unknown heroes (McComb was the leader of the Australian band The Triffids). On the other hand, there are deeper connections too. What the members of the Holodeck Convention have in common is their interest in moving in the area in between language and architecture. Jean Bernard Koeman has been taking photographs of empty landscapes for twenty years. Those pictures have served as source material for his installations. HAP’s work also contains references to industrial sites and architecture. But perhaps it is enough to love the same things. An important factor here is a shared interest in science fiction.

Conversation with Geert Goiris, Tuesday 14 November, 18:00, cafeteria of Centraal Station, Brussels

The first fact established by Geert and me is that he never received my e-mail of 14 October. We agree that I will resend it that same evening and that Geert will reply to it that same night, because the deadline for the text in the FLACC Yearbook is 15 November. In the meantime, of course, this meeting is already a perfect opportunity to get a few things straight. Geert reflects on the initial idea for the project, the week spent working on it with the other artists, and the possible future course of the Holodeck Convention.

‘The starting point was that I definitely wanted it to be a joint project. For once, I wanted to build a complex work as a group. Because it was our debut as coauthors, we spent a large part of that week on exploring mutual sensibilities. We took a very democratic approach to it. We spared each other’s feelings and were careful with suggestions. Before going our different ways again, we wanted to define a working area. Our efforts were not entirely successful. However, our objective throughout remained the construction of a module. In the second half of the week, Jean made a few drawings, HAP thought about the overall concept, the communicative framework and the material execution, and I made photographs. Now, we are all back in our own studios, and we are left with a sense of unfinished business. We do realise how difficult and ambitious our aims were. This doubt is positive in itself. We view that week as an instructive experience. It is also a token of appreciation for FLACC. FLACC authentically believes in the value of the process, in contrast to the many art events where “process” is an artificial way of avoiding the word “product”. Perhaps we would have been unable to do what we did anywhere else. It shows that this workplace really means what it says. Nevertheless, we think out next meeting needs to be more constructive.
We are still interested in a kind of “spectacle machine”, an environment in which visitors must enter in order to see something (and, in the best case, from which they emerge “changed”). That means we face several challenging problems. How to prepare the spectators? What is the best way for the image to work its effect on them? But especially: what image or which story are we going to offer them?

A typical characteristic of those historical dioramas is that they often illustrated power or glorified nationalist feelings. For instance, some represented a decisive battle. Their function was similar to that of world expositions, that served primarily to promote a country. Well, they were centres of enormous energy. Everyone flocked together there. Not just to see the wonders, but also to have been there and tell the story afterwards. In other words, they sought a experience that could “share”.

Meanwhile, modernism has paved the way for the authenticity of the artist. We make an image with an autonomous status, not an illustration of power. Current developments in cyberspace are no longer geared towards nationalism, of course. Their main purpose is to offer an enormous range of paradises. These artificial experiences of happiness are a new form of opium. A banal idea I had to turn this process against itself was the following: first, select all the visual paradise clichés from fifty (worldwide) TV channels. Show all the promises of happiness (material, family, interrelational...) made in commercials, but cut out the advertised products from the sequences. In advertising, paradise is everywhere: in the city, in the outdoors, in the living room... When all these stereotypes are jumbled together, they are exposed as ersatz. At the same time, collect images of brutal reality from fifty channels. The chasm between the promise and the reality, utopia and the sad facts of life, would then be enough to break the spell of mystification.

But that is not the heightened experience of seeing the Holodeck collective aims to achieve. What we are really interested in is creating a meditative space in which the spectators fall back on themselves. In Western culture, at this juncture, people are becoming more inward-looking, with good reason. People are more willing – or at least feel the need – to focus more on their inner life. Outward appearances are becoming less important. It’s what’s inside that counts. Take my show Inertia at Netwerk in Aalst, in 2002. Inertia was symbolised by the image of a locomotive engine with two identical ends. Because of its symmetry, it was unable to move either way, as it were.
Well, in the Holodeck, I want to stop time too. I want to reach a moment that is “full”.

I would define a “Holodeck” primarily as an environment that adapts itself to the desires of the interactor. Therefore, the Holodeck can also meet this desire for interiorisation. Consequently, I consider a 360° photograph of a deserted landscape as seen from a mountain top to be a Holodeck according to my definition. That is how we got the idea of visiting water towers. You climb up via a central column and emerge in the middle of a large, round, half-empty basin. The space is beautiful, awe-inspiring, austere. An incredible echo resounds in its semidarkness. The atmosphere is very unsettling, a simultaneous sense of uneasiness and gratitude for being allowed in, for being granted the experience. This is the kind of experience we want to hold onto and communicate. This indeterminable space can be the starting point of the Holodeck. We definitely intend to visit more water towers.

Suppose we actually build a diorama. In that case, every member of the group will be able to contribute his expertise and his attitude. Actually, HAP has made work that I would classify as transcendental. Their project Launchers at Netwerk in Aalst (2004) for instance. With the aid of a few volumes made of wood and tape, cardboard and plastic, they suggested a tremendous – invisible – volume that extended above the exhibition space. With their no-nonsense approach, HAP is capable of making a diorama highly narrative without resorting to high-tech solutions. Their do-it-yourself aesthetics puts things into perspective by immediately undermining all pretension.

In any case, we will have to have many more discussions on this project. For the time being, we do not have an set ideas about which images will be suitable for the Holodeck. In the next stage, we will come up with images and discuss them. We will all propose our ideas and then we can get to work. What we will have then is the experience of having been together and of our intense interaction, and that will make our next step more natural. The first concrete arrangement is that each of us will take a photograph on Tuesday 21 November at 15:17. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we will each make a picture. It is a shared moment, chosen at random, but by agreeing on this synchronicity of that specific point in time, we give it meaning, we charge it. Those pictures will be reproduced in the Yearbook.’

Geert and I are asked to leave the cafeteria because it’s closing time. In the station hall, I broach just one more subject, i.e., the of the Holodeck Convention members’ interest in science fiction. The Holodeck is inevitably linked with science fiction. What exactly is its attraction? There is an undeniable connection between science fiction and utopia. Utopia implies the assumption that the world could be different, read: better. It is a mental exercise that betrays a certain dissatisfaction with the world. What is possible besides or contrary to the world as it is, in its limitations or its imperfection? The virtual space designed by the Holodeck Convention will therefore be critical. Many utopias contain a critical component, e.g. Irritation with the foolishness of the real world. In that sense, science fiction can help to swim against the tide. Science- fiction writers not only anticipate and build on existing patterns of thought and technologies, they add a strong element of ideology as well.

E-mail from Geert Goiris, Wednesday 15 November 2006

As you indicate yourself, we are a quite heterogeneous gathering, and that is a better guarantee of meaningful communication than bringing together a clan of like-minded people. But in spite of our differences, I perceive a few parallels too.
Actually, I don’t know Wim, Piet and Jens all that well. (Jean and I bonded when we spent some time together in China.) And yet I feel we have much ground in common. I like the subversive nature of these gentlemen.
It is easily digestible, but that is precisely what makes it lucid. It’s not that emphatic sixties rebelliousness, that was actually just another precursor of today’s hyper-individualist society. Nor is it the absolute nihilism of the eighties punk brigades that were against everything on principle, but did not offer a real alternative. It is more a kind of tongue-in-cheek subversion that means well and is always willing to engage in confrontation and discussion. I really appreciate the attitude of the HAP men. I also feel that they are genuine “seekers”. Just as with Jean Bernard, I sense that, for them, art is a way of life, of being in touch with things, of dealing with reality, rather than a job or a role. Of course, we all have the ambition of developing our work in depth, showing it in interesting places, etc., but I get the feeling that every one of us would carry on being an artist out of an ‘inner compulsion’ even if it would not receive any recognition or respect from the outside world at all. I also believe that all the members of the Holodeck Convention are willing to take risks and unwilling to adapt themselves to a typecast that
the public can recognise.

That is also the reason why I deliberately wrote the invitation in such a childish, upbeat style: to undermine the seriousness from the start and suggest that this really is a refuge (unfortunately a term that is often used in vain!) and not a promo stunt, an opportunistic paragraph in a CV, a handy production budget or anything like that. Every participant in the Convention has his qualities, on which I could dwell at length, but I would rather do that in person. A few of the overlapping parameters are a sense of humour, craftsmanship, historical and political awareness, an interest in natural science and Wanderlust.

Jean, for instance, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of international art, film, music and literature, with a particular interest in the culture of the Low Countries. Wim unites (at least) two personae: the ordinary bloke whose passion for life is contagious and the introspective intellectual who questions everything in a way that is as infectious as his companionability. Piet and Jens are pure non-conformists. For me, they embody the utopian striving for an ‘other’ place, governed by a ‘different’ logic and run along ‘different’ rules. To me, they are cut out to be our scriptwriters for a meaningful view of the future.

The application was superficial and hastily thrown together, making sure to add a few interesting references.
As such, it was never meant for publication. Now, I realise that it was aiming too high to propose a real Holodeck, let alone build one, although the powers of the imagination are great. Still, I want to make one thing clear: I am not so much interested in ‘artificial experiences’, but rather in ‘transcendental experiences’. An experience (in this case, a viewing experience) that is capable of raising us out of our everyday reality (for a short while). This religious-spiritual component is certainly found in Jean Bernard’s work too.

It is a pretentious claim to state that we are going to produce a tangible work that will also be ‘exalting’.
And yet that remains our goal. The phantasm we are chasing has already become a little more pronounced and is gradually coming into sight. And so this ambition does certainly not seem more foolish to me than many other forms of self-delusion.