JURY REPORT - TANGIBLE TECHNOLOGY Nov. 2005
The 2005 Witteveen+Bos prize for Art+Technology has been awarded to Rotterdam artist Marnix de Nijs. The jury was unanimous in deciding that his work is of exceptional quality in terms of both technological and artistic merit. As an artist, De Nijs has shown how culture acts upon our senses, and he expresses this in a great variety of ways, making use of continually-changing technology. This has allowed him to emphasise a new role for the artist that seems to have been established by our developing culture of technology. De Nijs describes himself and his work as recognition of the dynamic collision of bodies, machines and other media.
In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of artists and intellectuals already recognised that rapid technological development in society could overstep its borders and affect the position of the artist. In 1936, Walter Benjamin, one of the first positive critics of new technology, published a revolutionary essay under the title “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. At that point art could, for the first time, be endlessly multiplied through printing and casting techniques. Benjamin asked himself: “Does the meaning of the individual work of art and the role of the artist change as a result?” According to Benjamin, the meaning of work that lends itself to mass production – such as photography and film – could no longer be reduced to romantic expressions such as ‘of eternal value’ or ‘genius’. So in what terms should it then be referred to? What will the task of the artist become in a highly-developed technological culture in which unique self-expression is under constant pressure from faster, better and more expansive technology?
Benjamin indicated that human perceptions – the way in which we see, hear, smell, taste and touch – have changed throughout history and are influenced by technology and equipment.
To quote one of his famous sentences: “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence”. In this new culture of technology, Benjamin attributed the ability to explore new forms of perception to artists, who are the prime exponents of perception. A lifetime has passed since he established this artistic programme, but it nevertheless appears that artists have not actually taken up the gauntlet until now. Marnix de Nijs is one of those artists who has demonstrated that this gauntlet is a perfect fit.
The interface between the body and technology forms an important basis for De Nijs’s work. Technology must literally merge, become absorbed into the body so that it becomes a co-determiner of perception. And here perception not only refers to how external stimuli are interpreted by the five senses, but also the feelings that come from within the body itself, the information that is derived from one’s own muscles and nerves (the technical term being proprioception). Because De Nijs’s work often involves the entire body of the observer, they therefore become less of an observer and more of a participator; someone who experiences the work. The techniques employed in the construction of his work mediate this experience.
One of the characteristics of a technological culture is that change is constant. Everyone who wants to keep pace is continually required to adjust; which does not happen automatically and can, in time lead to cultural-pathological anomalies. In this way, travellers had to get used to the first trains and aeroplanes. The introduction of such travel technology initially led to disorientation and required a new outlook. It is pre-eminently these cultural processes that are given artistic form by Marnix de Nijs, as can be demonstrated by the following three examples.
Panoramic Acceleration (1999) comprises a
rotating arm that sweeps around an axis. A seat is attached
to one end and a projection screen facing the seat is attached
to the other. Two video loops are projected onto the screen
at the same time, one of which rotates at the same speed as
the observer in the seat, and another which does not. Nonetheless,
the second loop can be synchronised using a joystick attached
to the seat. The observer sitting in the machine becomes completely
disoriented, to the point of feeling sick, until he learns
to coordinate his movements with those of the machine, and
thus merge with it.
Run Motherfucker Run (2001/2004) is also an interactive machine. Users run along a five by two metre treadmill through a virtual city, and the route they take is projected onto a large screen in front. By running faster or going left or right, the user is able to determine the speed and direction through which he travels through the city. But the machine also asserts its own will on the user. The runners accelerate against their will and because of their speed are thrown off the treadmill. The experience is something between a sports challenge and an unnerving situation in which one is being pursued by the machine. The sense of horror is further exacerbated by the dreary images of a port city at night, with various areas that are cordoned off by walls. This installation also explores the precarious balance between control and lack of control in the technology-laden environment of a modern-day metropolis. Push / Pull (2003) consists of two hovercrafts, each of which is operated by one person. This person is supposed to either push or pull the hovercraft with their full body weight. But the movement made by one operator is communicated to the other vehicle as well as to his own, and the second operator likewise doubles the movements of the first hovercraft. Each operator is therefore locked in a struggle with his opponent on the other hovercraft, who does not even have to be in the vicinity. The technology employed mediates a physical exchange at an arbitrary distance.
It is clear that Marnix de Nijs has given shape to Walter Benjamin’s programme in a way the latter could not have dreamt possible. Although he primarily demonstrates his machines at international fairs for digital media, they are full of nuts and bolts. They judder and hum and smell of petrol, and are not intended to demonstrate beauty, but rather their functionality. De Nijs is an exponent of engineering art and uses his unruly material to reintroduce the physical struggle, above all in the intangible digital domain. He confronts media society with the basic nature of his work.
De Nijs is a new type of artist, whose primary objective is not selfexpression, but artistic research into a technological culture of which he is glad to be a part. He does not set a theme for the alienation that technology can cause, but seeks new ways to employ and experience technology under the motto “if something’s indispensable to you – you’ve got to get good at it”. In this, he operates by holding a dialogue with a generation of technology-users who exchange ideas on a global level. And he uses the option of ‘technological reproducibility’ by sometimes duplicating several copies of his work, without making any concessions, in the form of aesthetics to a past artistic ideal. The jury is convinced that this artist’s work has pioneering value and therefore not only demands a cultural role, but also fulfils one. It is therefore a great honour for us to nominate Marnix de Nijs and his research into the dynamic collision of bodies, machines and other media as the fourth winner of the Witteveen+Bos prize for Art+Technology.
Petran Kockelkoren, chairman