Angelo Vermeulen (Artist, BE) Interviewed by Dr. Katherine Milton (Aesthetic Technologies Lab Director, US)

Angelo Vermeulen is a visual artist, filmmaker, author, activist, biologist, DJ and avid gamer. His research in ecology, environmental pollution and teratology informs his art, which includes bio installations, experimental setups incorporating living organisms and sci-fi references. Biomodd, his worldwide series of cross-cultural, symbiotic installations fusing game culture, ecology and social interaction was nominated for the Ars Electronica Hybrid Art Prix in 2008.

DR. KATHERINE MILTON: How did you come up with the term “Biomodd?”

ANGELO VERMEULEN: The project is basically inspired by the case modding scene, a subculture in which people heavily modify and customize their computer cases. The title “Biomodd” came up spontaneously as a working title. But very rapidly everybody got used to it and it naturally became the project’s final title. The case modding scene is a very active and creative subculture, something that operates way beyond the boundaries of contemporary art. I find it wonderfully interesting to explore such subcultures from an artistic point of view, to get inspired by the codes and methods that make up such cultural practices. Essentially, I want to approach the idea of case modding as a form of expanded sculpture. In this sculptural approach we don’t even have to use a “functional” form factor; we can create a computer case that is completely out of normal scale. It’s about building a structure that is both sculpture and a functioning computer. Then I started thinking about the heat that computers generate, and recycling the heat by building an ecosystem inside the structure living along with the electronics. That kick-started a whole train of thought that simply continued to what the project is now. “Biomodd” is also explicitly a collaborative effort. This collaborative nature is situated on two levels. On a first level I want to work with a team of people and empower every individual within the group to add something substantial to the work. So that’s why, when I came here, I had no designs or blueprints, just the concept. On a second level I’m going to try to make this work in different places with different people. And each time, whenever I’m in a new place, I will start from scratch. So instead of trying to work toward a product that is improved and completed by accumulated funding, I want to start from zero each time I am setting up a new version. Of course, it will actually never be completely like starting from zero because I will have absorbed all the experiences from the former projects.

KM: Absolutely.

AV: The more the project travels through different places in the world, the more it will absorb all the different people who have been involved with the project. I really like the idea that the work is growing through all these experiences. And at the same time you release fixation to a specific final art object; the work becomes a fluid entity with ever-shifting meaning. There is an interesting paradox at play here. On one hand, the piece that is temporarily created is very important for me as a material object with its own physicality and aesthetic power. I am an installation artist and hence I am very responsive to matter and objects and how they work together as an image in space. But on the other hand, I want to set myself free from dragging a dead artefact all around the world and showcasing it in different art venues. I’m focusing on an experience with a group of people. That’s very essential for me.

KM: Last week, you and I had talked about my observation of how you’re using algae being very much like the way that Mathew Barney was using petroleum in his works. Would you talk about that and how algae has transited through a lot of your work?

AV: Algae are a recurrent and very meaningful medium for me. The fact I started using this is because as a medium, algae are technologically very uncomplicated. When I made my move from science to art, one of the expectations was that I would start making high-end biotech art. There is this whole field of people doing this, collaborating with biochemists and geneticists, using expensive professional equipment to make artworks that are imbedded within high-tech scientific research. When I started using algae, this was a move in a completely opposite direction. As a medium, algae are extremely accessible; anyone can play around with it. I have a bit of a different attitude towards high-end biotech art. Very often I find that these works remain very much at a first degree level. They end up as an artistic illustration of an exotic and mystified technological domain. Some of them try to cover that up by implementing a so-called political or techno-critical agenda to the work. However, many of these projects lack credibility precisely because they were made within the institutional logic they pretend to criticize. For me it’s a little different because I’ve been using this kind of technology and I am not that mesmerized by a research lab. I want to go back to a more fundamental fascination for nature, ecology and life. The algae have a very strong and almost ancient poetic quality. It’s almost like alchemy. Out of humidity and light, matter is autonomously generated. I find that extremely beautiful. It’s the core of my fascination for life, and probably of everybody’s deeper fascination for life. Moreover, from an evolutionary point of view, these algae are very old organisms. They are among the first organisms of the planet and they basically helped create the oxygen-rich atmosphere we’re breathing right now. Early earth didn’t have any oxygen in its atmosphere. As such, the algae are like a giant seed that generated the world we’re living in now.

The last work I made with algae was “RMX2” in 2004; so, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been working with that. It was also a socially inspired piece, an interactive living audio piece in the heart of Brussels. Since then the algae have been dormant in my studio and I haven’t been using them. I took a sample over here to the @LAB, and I’m currently reviving them. In this way, the algae become like a liquid medium that flows through different art pieces. After being used in three subsequent art pieces, they’re being revived and used in a new piece on a different continent.

KM: Gail Wight is an artist who uses slime mould and she also uses rodents in some of the works she does. She calls them her “collaborators.” I notice that you’re using the term “medium.” So, do you view the algae as a collaborative element, as a “collaborator” – that is as an element that has its own agency?

AV: Yeah, absolutely. I’m talking about the algae in two different ways, different but related ways. One way is talking about it as a medium. But I also understand Gayle’s take on her organisms as collaborators. Microscopic green algae look like a green coloured liquid. It’s quite difficult to identify collaborators in that. But at the same time, when I’m talking about my work, I’m also talking about the autonomy of the work. My installations often have two core components. One component is the machine; my installations are also partly machines because they have a mechanical quality. Electronics can also be a part of that, but not necessarily. It can be a constellation of water circulation systems, lighting systems and stuff like that. The second component is the core of consciousness I inject in the work by incorporating life forms. Of course you can debate whether algae have an actual consciousness, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s like the artwork contains a self-developing plot. And while I’m building a limited framework for them to operate in, they basically decide how they will respond. So, it’s like a dialogue between me and these organisms, whatever organisms they are. They can be algae, but I’ve been using other organisms as well. So in this way, I’m looking at life forms as collaborative agents.

KM: I’m interested in the variable of unpredictability of working with “live” elements. When we’re talking about traditional forms like painting, the artist has been working with their tools long enough to be able to say that, “Okay I’m going to mix this colour and this colour and I’m going to get this particular hue.” But – when we’re working with things that are alive, we have no idea which direction they’re going to go. So, how do you plan out a project when you can’t predict the outcome?

AV: Which is very much the case because what I’m doing here, on many different levels, is very new for me. One of the new aspects of the work is its social, collaborative embedding. And I think that for this project, the social and the ecological aspects work interestingly together. They make the work even more unpredictable than just using biological living parameters. Exploration is my main drive to make art. Every artwork for me is a form of exploration, and a form of experimentation. I’m not too fond of using the word “experiment” because then we get easily into a clichéd discourse of the relationship of scientific research and art research. Maybe what I am currently doing is even more related to play. It’s like when you’re in a virtual world – a computer game – and you try things out; you just try to figure out the consequences of different constellations. It’s a bit similar when I make artworks. Every time I’m making an artwork, it has to be something that I haven’t experienced before. That’s really important for me. I just can’t do the same thing over again which is, from an art career point-of-view, not a very smart move. I’m not interested in repeating something that I’ve explored before. The starting conditions are always a new configuration and I’m always extremely curious what’s going to happen in the exhibition or during the creative process. And I think this is something the audience feels as well. If you communicate this well, the audience gets equally excited about it. My installations demand a lot of attention and I have to be there often to take care of them. As such, I get in touch with a lot of the visitors that see my work and I get into discussions with them. We’re almost on the same level – all of us – like we have no clear idea where it’s going to. And that’s what seems to work with the people looking at the piece. This doesn’t imply that I’m doing things randomly. I’m using aesthetics and like I said before, I have a very sculptural feel about building installations. So it’s this paradox of creating a specific framework in which things can happen freely. It’s a continuous curiosity that drives my work.

Aesthetic Technologies Lab, Athens, Ohio October 8, 2007

The first version, Biomodd [ATH1], was created by Angelo Vermeulen during an artist residency at The Aesthetic Technologies Lab at Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts in Athens, Ohio between September 2007 and January 2008. From 2008 until 2009, Angelo enrolled a second project Biomodd [LBA2] with Diego Maranan in the Philippines. Subsequent versions are planned for Singapore and Brazil.