From March 30 to April 7, the STRP festival of art & technology took over a former Philips factory in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Report from the 2019 edition, dedicated to exploring scenarios for a positive future.
We’re in the heart of Strijp, the neighborhood known as the “forbidden city” between 1920 and 2004, when it was occupied by Philips factories. Only people with an access badge were allowed inside this 27-hectare area entirely dedicated to the activities of the Dutch multinational. Philips moved out of Strijp in 2004, and today the district is flourishing anew as a creative zone, while its industrial heritage has been transformed into fablabs, skateparks and cool cafés. One of its iconic buildings, the Klokgebouw, served as the headquarters for the STRP festival of art & technology.
Between utopia and dystopia
This is the story told to us at STRP by the Uninvited Guests collective through their Augmented Reality Billenium Tour, an experience created in collaboration with sound artist Duncan Speakman. During this prospective visit, visitors discovered the mutations of the neighborhood on the horizon of 2094, where utopia and dystopia appeared in turn on smartphones that juxtaposed illustrated imaginary scenes on top of the actual landscape.
This artistic initiative was a good reflection of the festival’s more recent orientation in the last years, moving the programming cursor from exhibition to experience. Gieske Bienert, co-director, explains the evolution: “For a while, we produced big installations, projects around robotics with lots of hardware, monumental projections. These days, technology is much closer to us, to our bodies, and it’s through this more human experience and the connection with our own imaginations that something interesting can happen.”
Juliette Bibasse, independent guest curator of this year’s edition, shares this point of view: “People are no longer impressed by the tech side of the installations, which can no longer be the core of the art project. The mindset that I chose to explore, which is also one of the guiding themes of the festival, is this sensitive and poetic side, where we focus on human-scale formats that offer each visitor a personal and unique experience.”
“Proposing alternative scenarios to disaster”
This curatorial direction was evident as soon as we entered the exhibition space, through Salvador Breed and Nick Verstand’s installation Between Mind and Matter. Viewers were immersed in complete darkness, lit only by a laser connected to a 4D sound installation, which created a moving architecture and an enveloping audio-visual environment that was constantly evolving.
The rest of the works were deployed within two spaces, mixing visual or sound installations with more interactive ones. This year, STRP explored desirable futures, in reaction to a dystopian vision of the influence of technology on our lives. According to Bibasse, “We are taking a resolutely more positive approach, while maintaining a critical view. The idea is to propose alternative scenarios to the disaster scenarios we hear just about everywhere, to allow people to take ownership of them and break out of a kind of passivity in regards to technology.”
This was the case of Waking Agents, an installation by American artist Lauren McCarthy in which viewers engaged in a conversation with a smart pillow during a nap. Depending on the time and the interactions initiated by the viewer, the experience could take the form of dialogue with a bad chatbot or a more intimate, profound and funny exchange. McCarthy’s work focuses on the reappropriation and critique of smart objects, as in Lauren, where she incarnates a human version of Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant, or in Someone, where viewers monitor and control the devices of a “smart” home, while catering to the needs of its occupants. Waking Agents quickly raises suspicions: Is the artificial intelligence that is talking to us really smart?
STRP also highlighted immersive technologies in two projects that used virtual, augmented and mixed reality.
Eternal Return showcased the combined skills of Swedish duo Lundahl & Seitl, known for their immersive installations mixing dance, danse, technology, philosophy and visual arts, and creative studio ScanLab, specialized in large-scale 3D scans. Each visitor, wearing a VR headset and accompanied by a “guide”, could experience various narratives, based on the science-fiction novel The Memor, by the architect and researcher Malin Zimm. The artists enhanced this VR narrative journey with surround sound and scents to create a total experience, invoking our physical senses, our emotions, our imagination, our relationship to the space…
Atlas, by the artists Yann Deval and Marie-G. Losseau, offered a scenario deployed both in real space, in the form of wood models, and in virtual space. Equipped with AR glasses, a VR headset or a tablet, visitors wandered through this imaginary world, as they were encouraged to create new habitats themselves by “sowing seeds”. Each seed grew into a virtual house, which was constructed organically and adapted to its physical environment. This piece was created within the STARTS program of the European Commission, which aims to facilitate collaborations between artists, scientists and engineers on technological innovation projects. The mixed reality part was developed in collaboration with researchers from Oxford Brookes University during an art-technology residency.
Coming out of the festival, however, our vision of the future was not quite as positive as promised by STRP 2019. This seemed to also be the case of the hermit crabs in the installation Why not hand over a shelter to hermit crabs by the Japanese artist Aki Anomata. The crabs snubbed the 3D-printed glass shells (which were otherwise quite sublime) in favor of a natural refuge.
The fact that the majority of installations were meant to be explored and experienced alone made us question what kind of relationship with technology was favored by the festival, rather than the ways that technology can also connect individuals and bring people closer together.
But there was still hope in Ling Tan’s participatory performance Pollution Explorers. Wearing a smart raincoat equipped with sensors measuring air quality, visitors were encouraged to collectively reappropriate data on air pollution in our cities. A way of repositioning humans and the bigger social issues at the center of our desirable futures.