What seems evident by looking at the work of artist Jeroen Van Loon is that he is not interested in judging if marketing-driven algorithms are good or bad, if handheld devices are creating comfortable bubbles designed to keep one always entertained or if social media foster toxic strategies of self-presentation. Instead, the Dutch looks at new and older developments in digital culture to point out the interstices between the most debated themes in the so-called disruptive digital art. Sure, we find works about the pervasiveness of the internet in the everyday life of everyone, the role played by Moholy-Nagy-esque New Vision of machines in the way we human beings experience reality and the influence of invisible superstructures in the design of cities; what makes the difference is the respect he proves to have for the viewer and the individuals that got involved in his projects. Another point of his practice is in fact the meta-discussion around how artists want to make, show and delete their works in a digitally woven world.
Van Loon’s work has been displayed in solo exhibitions and international group shows and has earned him a European Youth Award and a KF Hein art grant. He regularly gives presentations on his artistic explorations of technology, both in the art world and through institutions that promote innovation, such as TEDx. Van Loon holds a bachelor’s degree in digital media design and a master’s in European media. He is currently based in Utrecht, the Netherlands.
Filippo Lorenzin: Most of your works revolve around the influence of the internet in the everyday life. You take in account not just the individuals who actively use it but the ones who don’t do it as well. For example, in the series Life Needs Internet (2012-) you asked eight people from all over the world to write letters about how they felt about using the internet, including individuals who didn’t even know what it is.
Jeroen van Loon: To ask people how the internet influences their daily life is a very open and broad question: it doesn’t focus on any topic specific within digital culture. I think that is very important in Life Needs Internet. I want the people who write these letters to feel free to write about anything, I think only then will people tell you interesting, personal and original stories. In the beginning of Life Needs Internet the letters from people who didn’t use the internet or didn’t even knew what the internet was were very important to me because I felt you cannot say something about the influence of the internet without those who don’t use it. When I started the project, I wanted to show letters from those who have 0% access all the way up to those who have 100% access to the internet. I think all the other stories come across stronger if you include the perspectives of those who either don’t know how, can’t afford or have no possibilities in using internet in their daily life, because that’s also a part of the influence of the internet.
If you cannot drive a car, you’re still influenced by it because others can and others also design your city, because cars are used. Over the last years I think the perspectives of those who are digitally excluded are not viewed as “minority-perspectives” anymore but more as post-online perspectives, meaning that we’re witnessing a global trend to do less things digital, connect less, spend less time on social media, disconnect more. That’s funny to me, because I feel like all of that is already there in these older perspectives, only then it wasn’t a choice, but today these stories are perhaps more relevant than ever.
Currently however, I’m interested in the digitally excluded from a different perspective. For a new project called Read The Fucking Manual I will focus on those who are digitally excluded within our own society, think of people with disabilities or seniors. I’m visiting these senior computer courses to get a sense of what its like not being able to do the (for me) simplest tasks online, such as downloading a photo or sending an email. I think this is interesting because in perhaps 40 years I will have the same problems.
Filippo Lorenzin: It seems to me your interest in digitally excluded individuals and cultures is not only about interaction design. If one of the main characteristics of online art is its transversality, its potential availability to anyone with an internet connection and a device, what happens when artists make projects that work only with cutting edge technology or a very fast internet connection? What makes these projects different from the very same elitist traditional art that net.art despised in first place?
Jeroen van Loon: This is a very interesting question. I think working with (very) new technology can be interesting, but there is a danger that the technology is too new, meaning that the general public doesn’t yet understand why it is interesting to see this new technology used in an artistic way. You almost automatically created a barrier between you and the audience. I think using technology that is a little less new is often more interesting since it has already had some impact on society which you then can show/criticise/question or visualise. Sometimes new is just too new and then the art becomes some sort of prototype without any meaning.
At the same time, when talking about transversality and availability, I think the opposite is becoming more and more interesting. This was also a big part of my work Ephemeral Data. I believe that there is an ongoing change within how we access and value online information. We don’t care anymore about the fact that online data is available 24/7 worldwide. We’re moving more towards a digital culture where digital information is limited, short, unique, temporary and perhaps even local. You can already see this in how teenagers use internet. They grew up with the idea that what you post online will only be there for 24 hours, think of SnapChat or Instagram Stories.
Filippo Lorenzin: What You See is What You Get (2014) shows CT scan pictures of your computer combined with the audio of the heartbeat of your son. You highlight a sentimental, almost physical connection between ourselves and our devices. This symbiosis makes us experience the world through never-seen-before lens by combining our human perception with artificial senses.
Jeroen van Loon: To be honest, this is something I’ve never thought about. What You See is What You Get was a work that I created very in the moment without much idea about its meaning. I remember having the idea of using the CT scan imagery as a sort of Rorschach paintings and including the heartbeat to add something human to these technological images. For me it was a mix of how we humanise technology and how we want to see what we want to see in technology, hence its title. Do machines or software add anything to our experience of the world or does it limit it? I think both at the same time. It’s amazing that with Google Maps I can go anywhere I want, I immediately know which local busses to take to get where I want to be in a foreign country.
But at the same time, I feel completely lost without it the app. I think it’s an area that keeps on shifting, the centre keeps moving. We keep getting new possibilities and experiences but at the same time others vanish and every once in a while we realise what has happened and try to move the centre either backwards or even faster forward. I find it difficult to give a very concrete answer to such a question since it differs so much with each technology.
Filippo Lorenzin: Your interest in translating digital information into analogue way of thinking is evident in works as Analogue Blog (2010), a project that led you to curate and make a diary with analogue means, and Connecting the Dots (2018), for which you asked toddlers to draw 279 connecting-the-dots puzzles visualising the individual submarine internet cables.
Jeroen van Loon: I recently had a conversation with someone who visited Ephemeral Data, we talked about that work and others and she also mentioned this theme in my work. She didn’t call it a bridge between old and new, but told me a lot of my projects deal with the passing of time and the question of what to pass on from this current digital culture to the next. I found it really interesting because it’s really there in a work such as Ephemeral Data, but also in Cellout.me. The same goes for Life Needs Internet and perhaps also Connecting The Dots. Now that I think of it, it’s also presents in Read The Fucking Manual. I think it’s not something I’m activity looking for, but it’s more an underlying perspective within all the different themes I’m interested in. I find it interesting to think about the impact of digital culture in a large timescale than to only focus on the now, the present and the here.
Filippo Lorenzin: In 2016, you sold your DNA data for the project Cellout.me. If it can be seen as the ultimate self-portrait as you suggest, how artists can push this boundary to represent themselves in a way that goes beyond the collection of genetic information?
Jeroen van Loon: I think context is the answer. It doesn’t really matter if you choose to represent yourself by ways of genetic information or any other medium. Everything becomes more interesting if you can show the context of the medium and ask questions about why or what is interesting about picking this medium to represent yourself within that very specific context. I think genetic information in itself is not very interesting or spectacular, but how others deal with this information, what can be done with it or what it’s worth then the medium (and the content) becomes more interesting. So, there are bound to be new types of media that artists can use and each of these media are imbedded within a specific part of society with its own rules, values and codes, so there will always be new ways for artists to represent themselves.
Filippo Lorenzin: Your last work, Ephemeral Data (2019), was a performance that played with the concepts of materiality and structure. Performers created a sand mandala of 12 by 9 meters representing Utrecht’s complete digital infrastructure, visualising each telecom cable and cell tower.
Jeroen van Loon: It was a completely new way of making an artwork. I never created performance before but I knew that this work, the message that I wanted to get across, demanded for the medium of performance. At the time I didn’t realise what would be the difference between creating an installation and a performance. Of course, one of the biggest differences was the fact that you’re working with people and not only with materials and computers. So casting all the performers, rehearsing and working together with them was a very new and positive experience. It also made me think more about how you want to present your work in space.
If the actions the performers are doing is the artwork, what do you want to show, how, why, when and where? I don’t consider myself a performance artist from now on, just this work was meant to be a performance. I do however think that digital culture can learn a lot from the characteristics and qualities of performance art. The fact that it’s in the moment, it’s only there when the audience sees it, is performed on location and you can miss it. You don’t watch a performance on youtube, you have to be there. All these aspects will become more important in our future digital culture.
Filippo Lorenzin: If mandalas are cosmic diagrams showing our relation to the infinite, I see you wanted to point out the almost spiritual relationship between internet users and the very structure sustaining their augmented experienced of the world.
Jeroen van Loon: That’s not entirely what I was going for, the main reason why I used the practice of creating a sand mandala was because of the fact that after finishing it will be deleted within a manner of seconds. With Ephemeral Data I wanted to create an artwork that speaks about ephemeral data, ephemerality within the digital, but I wanted the artwork itself also to be ephemeral. That’s why there is no documentation of the 444 hour long performance, apart from a photo made just before the performance began and a photo just after the sand mandala was erased (the public was also prohibited to make any photos).
Everything in between could only be experience on location, during the performance, and now it’s all gone. I think most of the meaning of the work resides within this action, as also the public and performers I’ve interviewed talk about. But it’s interesting to hear your thoughts about the work, a lot of people had very different ideas about the meaning of the work. I think this was possible because it was so visually simple. There were six performers creating a sand mandala with three colours that showed Utrecht’s entire digital infrastructure. Nothing else, and that for 10 days, 8 hours a day. It made people think about all sorts of things.
Filippo Lorenzin: Can you tell more about The Fucking Manual?
Jeroen van Loon: It will be about digital exclusion and the question if this will still exist in the future when we will have even more, better, faster and intrusive technologies and interfaces. I’m also working the idea to have a 10-year anniversary of some sorts for my Life Needs Internet archive. The idea is to do something with all the received letters and different versions of the video installation. I would like to be able to hand over the entire archive to other professionals, e.g. an anthropologist or sociologist, and ask them to interpret the letters. Perhaps a publication or an exhibition, I’m not sure yet.