Remco Volmer & Artengine: imagining a more sustainable, creative and generous world

A gorgeous spring day, coffee in a historic courtyard, and a mind-bending inspirational conversation. I am excited to share with you the highlights of my chat with Remco Volmer, the Managing Director of Artengine. The expansion of the Arts Court will bring with it a new era for the organization and further explorations at the fringes of art, technology and society.

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Remco Volmer – taken at the bio-art exhibit “Playing Life”. The piece is called “Transience Mirror” where the silver layer has been allowed to rapidly oxidize in various stages to create the patterns.

You are Dutch…
Yes, I worked at the Dutch Embassy here in Canada for quite a while. The work itself was very interesting – we had a small cultural department and it allowed me to get to know the Canadian arts and culture field quite extensively because we worked across Canada on projects involving Dutch artists. I was able to work together with a lot of different organizations and cultural places here in Canada through all kinds of disciplines. In the end I didn’t have the right temperament for what was still mainly deskwork – I felt the need to be more actively involved in Ottawa’s cultural life.

What’s your academic background?
My degree is in Creative Media from the Utrecht University for the Arts – that’s a very broad catchall for anything tied to arts and technology including interaction design and audio-visual media. At the time, the move from analog to digital technologies had only just begun, and the school’s focus on that change and its impact on cultural production was considered pretty radical.

How did you get involved with Artengine?
I had been involved with Artengine for quite a while. First on the Board when there wasn’t even staff, and then later on as a coordinator for the Electric Fields media arts festival that Artengine produced and from there it actually grew to steady and greater involvement to the point where it was ‘well it makes far more sense that I start working here than just being involved on the side the whole time’.

What attracted you to Artengine in particular?
Artengine in particular has always had a future-forward view on art and technology and society. As an organization it is always in motion. By not settling on any one discipline specifically but more on the broader intersection of art, technology and society, it can move with the times – it’s inherently unstable in that sense – but it makes for really interesting experimental and provocative works that come out of it. It’s always exciting.

necropolis layout oulines3.indd

How would you describe Artengine’s core mandate?
The way I currently describe it is that we look at the impact of new and transformative technologies on society through the lens of art and design. With technology it is often the corporate narrative that gets told, but we are more interested in the social and aesthetic dimensions. If you look at science fiction literature, there were big ideas there and really aspirational ideas. Those stories were trying to clarify the now, the present, through speculative designs of the future – and I think Artengine is more in that space. We are trying to move toward this combination of design and what-ifs to imagine possible worlds. There is a very aspirational quality to what we are trying to do and to share that sense of imagination and wonder with others. It is meant to be a very realistic and concrete thing, to look at the social impact of our tools and technologies and from that create poetic experiences, new measures of meaning. Through these projects we try to imagine a more sustainable, creative, generous world around us. At least that is what we are aiming for.

What’s next for Artengine?
What’s exciting right now is the redevelopment of Arts Court, which will benefit Artengine as well as SAW Video and SAW Gallery. We will triple in size from our current square footage into a large open space within Arts Court. We are transforming this new space into a lab of sorts – a workshop for creative thinking and critical making. The activities will take place across three complementary platforms.

  • First there is the lab as a place for creative experimentation. Makers can use our workshop to collaborate and combine vastly different disciplines such as architecture, biology, fashion, art, design, media technology, engineering, sociology, gaming, and robotics in new and exciting ways. The lab will be activated through commissions, artist-in-residence programs and self-directed projects. But it will also serve as a presentation space where the results of these investigations can connect to the public to enjoy and interact with.
  • The second component is to go a bit more into knowledge sharing, connecting and spreading these ideas through open studios, workshops, small symposia which would also take place in that space. The idea is that this space becomes a dynamic interdisciplinary environment. Very modular, adaptable to the needs of the projects, all of these functions are fluidly flowing into each other.
  • The third pillar is the large public presentation of these ideas and projects, for instance through festivals. Currently, Maker Faire is our major platform for that but we can totally see that evolving over the years. It will still be another year before the space is active but I’m really excited about the possibilities.

What do you see on the horizon in this intersection of technology, society and art?
Right now, we’re looking at things like a virtual reality, food and technology, synthetic biology, new materials – new materials in the sense of circuitry woven into fibers from which clothing can be made for instance – there are so many developments right now. One of the quotes we try to live by is from William Blake that ‘the true method of knowledge is experiment’ so we try to keep an open mind and explore. For instance what are the technologies shaping the future of food? We want to work on projects that involve chefs and scientists looking at what we eat and how we make it. So things like lab-grown meat and 3D printed candy but also objects for sensory enhancement.

Art is inherently social, it’s a means of communication, and technology is inherently political, who has access to it and how is it used.

The more we look at the possible projects, the more we realize that these things are not separate elements. Art is inherently social, it’s a means of communication, and technology is inherently political, who has access to it and how is it used. So one thing we see on the horizon is an opening up to a more diverse way of making, allowing a wider range of perspectives to shape these developments. There is some talk in education to go from STEM – science tech engineering and math – to STEAM by throwing arts in there, but that’s not enough. Hands-on skills are of course important but what we need is a new type of thinking for the new techno-social environment that we find ourselves in, and that also involves philosophy, and social sciences and design thinking – skills that are critical and speculative.

feeding

feeding

We had one art piece last year at the Maker Faire, a feeding robot. It was a robotic arm with face recognition software. It was mounted on table. It had a couple of spoons with a glob of unidentifiable foodstuff on it. Next to it was a person who was referred to as the slave who wasn’t allowed to say anything to anybody and a fridge with more spoons with foodstuffs. The person would stand in front of the robot; it would recognize it as a face would go down and pick up one of the spoons with a magnet and would bring it the face to feed the person in front of it. Once it had done so it would drop the spoon of the hands of the slave who would then replace the spoon from the fridge. That was the activity. Of course, the face recognition software is not perfect so the spoon would sort of go in the general direction of someone’s face and every time the person would adapt to the robot so would move towards where the robot was bringing the spoon. People conforming themselves to what the machine wants them to do. Maybe that’s what we’re trying to counter a bit, and instead imagine and maybe realize more habitable futures.

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