STRP is one of the occassions I know and have heard about for quite a while, but which I have never actually visited. I thought it was time to do something about that, so Thursday, march 26, I travelled to Eindhoven to attend STRP’s ‘Conference for the Curious’ and have a look at the expo.
The 7th STRP Biennal is titled SCREEN ON | NO SCREEN. At the beginning of the conference moderator Tim Vermeulen immediately pointed out that screens would also be the central topic addressed by the speakers. The diversity of screens –portable, interactive, high density–, their omnipresence and the way this influences the behaviour of people, were presented as the main legitimations to inquire into the role of the screen in contemporary culture and society. Even the term ‘screen society’ was mentioned, which made me involuntarily think of Guy Debords Society of the Spectacle (of which I know, apart from the title, very little to be honest). The conference was divided into a morning program, mainly featuring ‘thinkers’ and an afternoon program, featuring ‘makers.’ The speakers were cultural critic and curator Francesca Gavin, game expert Jeroen van Mastrigt, festival curator Shane Walter, STRP curator Angelique Spaninks, and artists Rafaël Rozendaal, Jonathan Puckey and Kyle McDonald.
The first to speak was cultural critic and curator Francesca Gavin. At an inimitable high pace she presented a written essay, accompanied with image and video material.1 Because of the complexity of Francesca’s story, the only thing I was able to take from it so early in the day, was a list of some familiar and unfamiliar critics, theorists and artists. She mentioned, among others, Lanier, Crary, Turkle, Baudrilliard, McLuhan, Lunenfeld (the critics and theorists), Farraway, Pattison, Denny, Dullaart, Bartholl, Catala, Murphy, Rafman & Aiello (the artists). Her presentation progressed from the simple notion of the screen as a black square (painted on canvas) to the conclusion that screens are not so simple at all. The screen is a rather complex object, perhaps not even an object, but a thing we as people intimately relate to. Luckily, later that day, Gavins essay was also handed out in written form.
The clearness of Jeroen van Mastrigts next presentation was quite a relief after the density of Gavins talk. Mastrigt called for a paradigm shift, as he called it himself, from “Virtual Reality” (VR) to “Real Virtuality” (which can thus be abbreviated as RV I reckon). As a chairman of the Dutch Game Garden, Mastrigt comes from the world of games. The paradigm shift he’s advocating seems to be firmly rooted in the long running debate between narratologists and ludologists in game theory. In this debate ludologists argue that games should be approached in their own right, instead of with terms and ideas that come from older cultural forms, such as narratives. Mastrigt appropriates this argument, but substitutes narratives with VR. VR is an old idea, he states, that got popular in the video age. The future, however, has a different character. According to Mastrigt the screen will explode, disappear. Objects themseves will become our new screens, availlable for digital manipulation. ‘Reality’ will no longer be governed by the linearity and passivity of narratives, which can only be represented in books and movies –generating a virtual reality–, but by the rule based logic of (computer) games. Examples he gives are mainly about ‘real world’ interventions and augmented reality (he even uses the term ‘augmented humanity’ at some point), which make the real more virtual.
Concluding the morning program was Shane Walter, who mainly showcased his onedotzero festival and related projects. These were mainly interactive, projection based projects, alternating between the artistic and commercial domain.
I noticed in the morning program that although screens served as a central topic, they quickly became an entrance point for the reflection on wider concerns about developments in digital media and technology. Vermeulen steered the conversation into this direction with the recurring question whether the omnipresence of screens was something to celebrate or be critical about. But also in the talks of the different speakers, screens were sometimes discussed as being digital objects in general. This conflation of screens with ‘the digital’ blurred the focus on the peculiarity of screen based media itself.
The afternoon program moved away from reflections on screens and made room for the makers working with screens, as introduced by STRP curator Angelique Spaninks. Artists Rafaël Rozendaal, Jonathan Puckey and Kyle McDonald provided a creative perspective on screen experience by presenting their thoughts and creations. Their engagement with digital screens –again, being much broader than screens alone, but also relating to the internet, interaction devices (the mouse) and social media–, in my opinion, painted a much more dynamic picture of contemporary developments and concerns.
As the first speaker of the makers program, Rozendaal began by setting a light, humoristic and playful tone. His presentation moved back and forth between his screen based, online work and its translations into spatial installations. The emphasis, however, was on the openness of the internet, which allowed him, as artist, not only to create his simple, humoristic and purposeless pieces (‘interaction for the sake of interaction’), but also to make them immediately publicly available to a large audience. Therefore, Rozendaal approached the internet primarily as a space of new opportunities. This perspective was appropriately expressed while watching to the sunset at sinkslow.com, when he stated: “I think a lot of people are blaming their anxiety on the internet.”
The greatest contrast ot this perspective came from Kyle McDonald, who displayed a more critical engagement with digital media through his work. With projects like keytweeter, People Staring at Computers, Social Roulette and pplkpr he really looks up the boundaries of public and private spaces, identities and sociability. By imagining the possibilities of what could be achieved with creative coding in our social lifes, and most importantly also realizing these ideas, McDonald moves beyond speculation and touches upon social experimentation, providing different perspectives on what actually happens if not so comfortable ideas are put into practice.
This focus on the actual, instead of the hypothetical (threats and liberations of digital media), was also a thread which ran through Jonathan Puckeys presentation. By creating work that relies on user data and input, he showed a curiosity for how people relate to interactive works. Alltheminutes.com, a piece exhibited at the STRP expo, almost serves as an anhtropological investigation, giving inside into what people write about what they do at a specific time of the day.
The focus on the actual and an open attitude to the possible outcomes of our involvement with digital media, made the makers program stand out above the thinkers program. The conference both addressed some well trodden topics as well as some creative and inspiring perspective on digital culture. For a conference that is supposed to be about ‘the screen society’, however, the breadth and scope of the presentations were too general.