Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen are a couple of digital artists based in Amsterdam. They are active since 1990 and their works have been presented not only in the Netherlands but also abroad. They took part, for instance, in exhibitions, conferences and festivals all around the world, namely in Europe, Australia and United States.

The main focus of their artistic research is on generative art and in particular on image generated processes. Their working elements are softwares and machines, but also objects, as great importance is given to “nature” as process and element itself. Part of their work is devoted to the study and observation of natural systems (we mention here the series Morphotèques, for example) as self-organized environments, but also organic transition forms. Nature at this point becomes a perfect organic model of an auto-generated system.

But Driessen & Verstappen also conceived artificial systems created through softwares or computers (in works like Ima Traveler or E-volver) where the aim is to unveil internal and invisible structures and laws of artificially developed generative programs. This apparently direct and concrete approach to the (art) object is actually filtered and mediated by a deep and strong interest in complexity. We call “complex” a system where chaos and order converge in a self-organized structure and it is theoretically different from the simple idea of harmony.

As indeed the two artists state, “The harmony needed has been replaced in our case by the conviction that chance, self-organization and evolution order and transform reality”.

Among their main and recent works, focusing in particular on natural objects and generative systems, we might mention Sandbox (2009) presented at the last edition of the DEAF Festival in Rotterdam. This work is a diorama made of “wind and sand”, placed just inside a wooden box. This is a perfect example of a generative system composed by two simple natural elements, sand and wind, constantly creating new visual and constitutive modes.

The same kind of research is also conducted on the possibilities of generative computer algorithms especially on a visual level. The work Ima-Traveler (2006) is an interactive computer software enabling us to explore infinite universes within its artificial environment.

Close to that, Evolved Cultures (2005) is another computer made system created through a software. An artificial landscape is continuously growing in real time; within this environment abstract patterns and pixel-animations suggest connections with geological and natural processes and formations. Natural and artificial generated systems are not so far.

The two artists are currently participating in several group exhibitions, among which: Vanishing Point at the Young Projects Gallery in Los Angles, Art and Artificial Life, Vida 1999-2012 in Madrid, A matter of feeling at the Meta.Morf2012 biennal in Norway.

They are also taking part, in the urban space and environmental awareness manifestation Yes naturally. How art saves the world in The Hague and Urban Outisders in Amsterdam.

We contacted Maria Verstappen and Erwin Driessen in order to discuss with them the main points and features of their artistic research.

Silvia Bertolotti: Could you explain to us what is your approach to infinity, in particular in I’m Traveller, one of your last works presented also at the Young Projects Gallery in LA for the exhibition Vanishing Point?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: The work is in fact titled Ima Traveller in which “Ima” refers to “Imagination”. Now I see that the gallery made a mistake with “I’m a Traveller”, but it is funny in a way.

The infinity of the work is a logical result of the process. The process has a starting point: one single pixel in the center of the screen. From there on the colorful universe unfolds by a multiplication process of the pixels (cellular automata), that continues as long as the program runs. We like to make artworks that can create visual results by themselves and – like in nature – always unpredictable, always changing and never stopping. The software is interactive in the sense that the viewer can not influence the visual structures directly, but they can make their personal travel by steering through the expanding pixel universe. The fact that it is infinite also means that there are always new vistas that are being created in real time. This is fundamentally different to video or film, because recorded images are always limited in time and, when looped, the same images are repeated over and over again.

Silvia Bertolotti: As a couple, how does the synergy act on a creative level?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: It’s hard for us to rationalize this synergy. We are also partners and art and life are intertwined on all levels. Already for more then 20 years it seems to work for us and we can’t imagine another way of working. Our work is formed around the passions that we share and for us our work has always been a means to communicate with each other and to stay tuned with the world around us. All our projects are the result of cooperation, which is not a fixed division of tasks but a dynamic process in itself. The concept is always developed in a dialogue, often evolving into a form that we could not have envisioned individually. The balance in production depends on which skills are needed to execute the piece, and can be very asymmetrical. 

Silvia Bertolotti: One of your works has been presented at the exhibition in The Hague How arts save the world. Do you think arts can really save the world and how? What is the relationship, in your opinion, between artistic creation and engagement, in particular within the environmental issues context?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: This exhibition is planned for 2013. The title is not our invention, but I think you should not take it too explicitly. The works are chosen around a specific theme, art that tells something about the current relationship between nature and culture. Art as such can’t save the world, but it can make a difference. Through visual experience, art can cause little shifts in our way of observing, in our way of interpretating, in our way thinking, and finally in our way of doing.

In general our work is about the relationship between result (object) and process of creation. This is something that often is neglected or consciously disconnected in our consumption society. Environmental and social change can only take place if we produce durable goods. A durable economy can only be realised when there is an awareness of the relationship between product and process. Also our conception of technology needs to be changed: not opposed to nature, but inspired by nature. Artworks are able to communicate these issues on the level of the senses, and not so much on the level of language.

Silvia Bertolotti: Considering the relationship between arts and nature, a theme often present in your works, on your website you quoted J. Arp by saying that art can “produce” nature. How exactly and with which means?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: Arp said that artists should not copy nature but produce “as” nature. This means that art should not produce pictures of nature (representations of trees or landscapes), but instead produce artifacts by itself, like fruits that grow from a tree. He wrote this in a time when abstract art was not commonly accepted and representation was still the main focus.

In our time his thoughts are again useful. Nowadays the computer can become more than just a new artistic medium, if we shift our minds away from only using it for representation. The real new possibilities of the computer are enshrined in the procedural character of this machine: it’s a processor! It can generate! This opens up a complete new approach towards nature research, also in the domain of the arts. We can now research process through computation, which never was possible in this way before.

Silvia Bertolotti: What is the role of the artist in front of nature? Should he only “observe and record” or should he intervene somehow?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: In general: before we intervene, we should observe and try to learn from that. So many mistakes have already been made by man intervening without understanding nature. Maybe we will never understand nature completely, but at least we should accept (and even embrace) that it is fundamentally unpredictable. Therefore we should be humble in intervening, because a small change in a system can sometimes lead to dramatic transformations.

As artists we are more free to experiment, because we can make something that is more or less autonomous, something with a “nature in its own”.  At least, we can be inspired by nature and create something that mimics this creative power. That is for us the reason why we observe nature and record it, or collect and copy the forms it produces. Intervening is difficult: once we placed an old tree in a new park in Rotterdam, but the tree died after 2 years…. Next time we will think twice before working with living materials.

Silvia Bertolotti:
Let’s talk about your work Sandbox, presented also at the DEAF Festival in Rotterdam. In this case the generative system is given by the material itself. What is the role of materials in your art? The Sandbox diorama could remind the cinema experience… Is that correct? What is, then, the meaning of the “image” in the perceptual experience?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: Each material has specific qualities. Most of them are transformable by specific physical or chemical forces. In Sandbox we use a physical force (wind) to transform the configurations of sand particles. It is important that an enclosed, autonomous system is built to create the ongoing transformations. The viewer is in the position of an outsider, as he is placed in a kind of  “romantic” viewpoint (only one individual can watch at a time). The climate inside the box is therefore experienced as “wild” in the sense of not being touched by Men. This sense  of wildness is paradoxical: the 50 internal fans are switched on and off by a microcontroller that gives rise to an unpredictable choreography of changing winds, without human intervention, but at the same time one realizes that the construction of the sandbox and the control algorithms that operate it are man-made, making the diorama a conditioned technological artifact as well. 

We don’t know what you exactly mean with “cinema experience” but, in my thought, cinema is a collective experience as every person is watching the same film. Also, as I mentioned before, in many of our works the real time generation of images leads to a highly individual experience. You are aware of the fact that what you see was never seen before, although the kind of visual structures might look more or less the same. This is also the reason why people like to watch landscapes and make pictures of it (like we do in our landscape films). You are witnessing a unique moment in time, of a place that is always in transition. In the diorama there is only one material and one force involved. In interaction these two ingredients create a vivid and very detailed “landscape”. There isn’t one optimal image, but it’s the ongoing process of transformation itself, with a mixture of duller and more interesting moments, that represents the work.

Silvia Bertolotti: What do you think are the new possibilities, in terms of aesthetics experience, that technology allows? How can art, technology and nature interact together?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: For the first time, artists can use a machine to work with abstractions of processes that the artist invents and describes in a formal system. We are able to experiment with chance, self-organization and evolution, on a procedural level. The aesthetics of process is a relatively new experience in art that is fuelled by this new technology. Especially since technology allows for the real time generation of images, a whole new universe of conceptual and visual approaches is opened up, and each approach leads to different experiences.

The artist Jon McCormack introduced the term “the computational sublime” during the Second Iteration conference in Melbourne in 2001. It is an important concept in relation to our work. He states that an important aspect of the sublime is the tension between pleasure and fear. Here, the pleasure is that we can be conscious of that which we cannot experience; the fear is that things exist that are too great and too powerful for us to experience. In the dynamic sublime it is about the incomprehensible power of nature, in the computational sublime such feelings are aroused by an uncontrollable process taking place in the computer. The underlying generative process is not directly comprehensible but we are in fact able to experience it through the machine. By real time generating and visualizing of the internal processes, the spectator can become overwhelmed by a sense of losing control, and at the same time enjoy the spectacle of this artificial nature. What romantic painting in the nineteenth century could only arouse via figurative representation can now, in fact, be generated and experienced live with Artificial Life art.

Besides this software approach (abstract worlds), it is now possible to control natural processes by developing systems that are equipped with microcontrollers to generate real time changes and transformations (like in our dioramas). Currently, computers and most of the technological machines and electronics, are available and affordable for anyone, and not only for technicians that work at big companies. Although programming is still a special skill, it is much more accessible and easier nowadays than one or two decades ago.

Silvia Bertolotti: How do automatism and chaos/complexity principles interact in computer generative art? What is the main difference compared to a natural system? Do physical and computer based algorithms follow the same principles?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: The theme that underpins our work is the concept of emergence. Emergence describes the appearance of novel behavior from the coherent actions of many small components. It isn’t a trick in which an essential secret remains hidden. Despite the viewer having full information about the underlying interactions that govern a system’s behavior, emergent phenomena arise that aren’t obviously implied by the superposition of these interactions. The term emergence is widely and usefully applied in Artificial Life research, a field specifically focused on such phenomena. Part of our work involving projects concerned with an analytical approach to complex behavior is connected with this research. But whereas a-life science emphasizes knowing and understanding of life as we know it, we are more interested in making and being, that is being –  and becoming – other, becoming-unknown.

In our generative systems, chaos and complexity principles are implemented on a highly abstract level. For us it is important that there is an iterative feedback mechanism that works bottom up (like the process of evolution for example). In such a system, small changes on a local scale can give rise to global coherent transformations. Chance is only used as a starting point or to explore new possibilities that are enshrined in the system. The work which unfolds is the result of a series of changes. This is analogous to a phenotype being the result of the physical and chemical interactions which govern its development from a genotype.

We think that many natural systems basically work like this, only the medium is totally different than a digital one. That’s why we do not want to simulate existing systems but directly work with the typical characteristics of the machine, pixels and programming language (as in “cellular automata” for example).

Silvia Bertolotti: What is, in your opinion, the main challenge of generative arts nowadays?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: The big challenge is to create an elegant system that shows real emergent behavior able to evolve and change in many unexpected and unpredictable ways, without human intervention. Until now, each system is limited in its expressions, or somehow depends on human interaction to renew itself.

Another challenge is how to inform the viewer about the system/process. To be able to appreciate the results, one has to have at least a bit of understanding of how the process works. Especially the digital processes are difficult to communicate, since they are abstract and hidden inside the machine.

Silvia Bertolotti: Could you tell us something about your projects for the future?

Erwin Driessen and Maria Verstappen: Our future is a bit unpredictable too, and we like to keep it as open as possible… Usually we tend to keep on developing ideas that we touched on before, developing them further, investigating side paths, combining things:  in short, an ever continuing feedback loop. We have projects going where we focus on the expression of materials, very physical experiments like growing artificial stalagmites by letting computer controlled machines drip fluid beeswax (now at view at the Centraal Museum Utrecht). We have projects going on where we focus on similar “accretion” processes, but set up as an abstract process taking place in a computer. It is fascinating to be able to produce physical artifacts nowadays, using 3D printing techniques: artifacts that make a viewer wonder “What is this, where does it come from?” Recently we produced the first results with this new software Accretor (see our website: We are going to explore this concept further because there is a lot of potential to expand the system, to make it more emergent and expressive.