Executive Editor | Pocono Zhao Yu
"the core things haven't changed. V2_ continues to ask serious questions about the cultural and social impact of technology. The themes change, and the technology changes, but the way of thinking about the issue has stayed the same, as has V2_'s idea that an art project is the result of a research process. Today, it’s more necessary than ever to think about these questions, because technology is so interwoven with our lives now that it’s become almost invisible."
V2_ started 35 years ago as an artists initiative in Den Bosch. Now it's a 'Lab for Unstable Media' in Rotterdam. A sketch of 35 years V2_ based on an interview with Alex Adriaansens and Joke Brouwer.
V2_ was founded in the Dutch city of Den Bosch three and a half decades ago. Today, it’s known as V2_Lab for the Unstable Media and located off Witte de Withstraat in Rotterdam. In the early 1980s, V2_ was a group of young artists who saw no place for their work in the conservative fine art world, which they perceived as having fallen asleep. The group also included Alex Adriaansens and Joke Brouwer, who still lead the organization today. In the early days, V2_ had a studio in the Willem II factory in Den Bosch.There, its members not only occupied themselves with painting and sculpture but also played in bands, made films and staged performances. Art institutions and academies didn’t know what to make of them. So they held ‘aktionist nights’ at Café Kaketoe as a way of presenting their work. ‘It started there,’ says Adriaansens. ‘There was no venue where we could show people all the things we were doing – music, film, painting, performance.’ ‘So we created one ourselves,’ says Brouwer. They squatted a building on Vughterstraat in Den Bosch, where they continued their activities. ‘Vughterstraat 234’ was soon shortened to ‘V2.’
There were plenty of young artists in Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin who played music as well as making paintings and performances and set up their own venues to show their work. V2_ soon forged ties with places like the W139 gallery in Amsterdam and with projects in Berlin. The groups were united by a shared attitude to life and a DIY mentality. The V2_ artists’ main aim was to create a space where they could find their voices and express their artistic ideas. As they saw it, everything in society was already too packaged and framed. In the early years, they tried everything, experimenting with abandon. There were enormous paintings, installations, video presentations, shows by experimental musicians and punk bands. In retrospect, 1985 was the highlight of this early period, with performances by bands including Einstürzende Neubauten, Sonic Youth, Test Department, Laibach and Die Tödliche Doris. Not long after, in 1989, noise giant Merzbow made its international debut at V2_. Recordings of many shows were released on cassette.
From 1986, V2_ increasingly focused on technology. Adriaansens and Brouwer were becoming more interested in its impact on society and its status as an organizing principle in the world. At the time, interest in technology was rare in art and philosophy, and still rarer in art theory. It was the age of the Atari computer, the Commodore, and the Amiga. The computer was becoming a tool for making art – no longer a remote mainframe at an institute but a machine you could have on your work table.
From the beginning, V2_ was fascinated by the communicative opportunities computers afforded for works of art, and the way they allowed artists to design interaction between a work and its viewers. Adriaansens and Brouwer recall with enthusiasm that one could make a work that wasn’t fixed, a work that was open, unstable, and could keep changing. It meant that contact with the audience and the world beyond the artwork was suddenly possible. Technology was a magic box. V2_ bought an Amiga, mainly for the input ports that allowed the user to use it to control external devices. The artists at V2_ lacked the technical knowhow to fully realize their artistic plans, so they looked for techies and programmers who could help. In doing so, they took the first steps in the adventure of interactivity and dialogue with the audience.
An interest in the new possibilities technology affords for art and an ensuing practical collaboration between artists and programmers have been a recurring motif throughout V2_’s 35-year history. At least as important has been the realization that new technologies are changing society in profound ways and that art can help us to reflect on that fact. Art can show us possibilities and the potential consequences of technological advancements. New technologies bring about changes in society and create new experiences. Artists try to communicate these new experiences and reflect on technological and social changes in their work. Art, meanwhile, is continuously changing through its dialogue with technology. For young artists in the early years of V2_, working with new technologies was a breath of fresh air; it freed them from existing vocabularies and from established patterns and ways of working. It opened up a world where anything was possible. The explosion of new technologies brought a feeling of freedom and infinite potential in art – at least for artists who concerned themselves with those technologies. In the early years, V2_ invited artists but also academics and engineers to weigh in on subjects such as the relationship between humans and machines and that between art and machines. They envisioned new hopeful worlds as well as sketching darker scenarios – the topic of surveillance and technological invasions of privacy had already featured at V2_ by the early 1990s. V2_’s reflection on the relationship between technology and society began with the Manifesto for the Unstable Media, published in 1987. ‘We strive for constant change; for mobility. We make use of the unstable media, that is, all media which make use of electronic waves and frequencies, such as engines, sound, light, video, computers, and so on. Instability is inherent to these media.’ The manifesto linked the dynamism of unstable media to insights from quantum mechanics and contrasted it with the ‘standstill’ of the art world ‘which reaches us through the publicity media.’ It ends with the statement ‘Art must be destructive and constructive.’
The manifesto – which was published in the daily newspaper De Volkskrant and widely distributed in big Dutch cities – led to a series of ‘manifestations.’ Five Manifestations for the Unstable Media took place between 1987 and 1993, along with a number of similar events, such as the Manifestation on Extreme Information Flows (1987). These mini-festivals hosted artists and thinkers working with technology in innovative and critical ways; they included Steina Vasulka, Roy Ascott, Robert Adrian, Dick Raaymakers, Jeffrey Shaw and Gordon Monahan. V2_ was, in any case, a place that attracted artists in those days. In 1992, Gustav Metzger appeared on the doorstep unannounced. ‘Is this V2_?’ he said. ‘People tell me I should come here.’ He stayed in the building for a week and gave a lecture-performance on auto-destructive art later that year.
Over the years, V2_ worked in an increasingly thematic way, with the aim of focusing public attention on specific aspects of technology and its role in society. For instance, the fifth Manifestation for the Unstable Media, which took place in 1993 and was entitled The Body in Ruin, examined different aspects of technology’s impact on the human body. To what extent could it be used to alter the body? What was the state of human-machine interfaces and cyborgs? How did technology discipline the body? Stelarc, Orlan and Erik Hobijn were among the artists who showed work at the event.
Not long before, V2_ had published its first book, Book for the Unstable Media; contributors included Paul Virilio and Peter Weibel. Published bilingually, in English and Dutch, it was the first in a lengthy series of works on electronic art and theory. The books’ primary purpose was to foster up-to-the-minute discussion of technology and art. One thorny issue was the status of interactive art: since it wasn’t stable, traditional art criticism didn’t regard it as entirely legitimate, at least back then.
With the fifth Manifestation for the Unstable Media and the book’s publication – which met with a substantial response – it became clear that V2_ had grown too large for a temporary building in a medium-sized provincial town. Moreover, with the rise of the CD-ROM, the PC and the (no longer exclusively academic) Internet, and later the mobile phone, the questions V2_ had been posing for years were becoming central in society. V2_ had become an interdisciplinary center that could really only function properly in a city where a range of disciplines and specialties were represented. And so it was that V2_ moved to Rotterdam, into a building on Eendrachtstraat, off Witte de Withstraat, then a run-down street with a high vacancy rate.V2_ got off to a flying start in Rotterdam. New people joined the organization; they included Andreas Broeckmann, a writer, theorist and curator, and Anne Nigten, who became head of the new V2_Lab. The center sold books, cassettes, LPs and CDs. V2_ wasted no time putting on two large exhibitions: 220v Klankpark, for which sound installations were placed in Museumpark, and 220v Electroclips. The tradition of the Manifestations for the Unstable Media continued in the form of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF); the first edition, Digital Nature, took place in 1994 and featured a large symposium, an exhibition and concerts. Projects on view included the VR work Perceptual Arena and the brainwave-controlled robot installation Terrain, both by Ulrike Gabriel.
V2_’s program tracks converged at DEAF, which was held roughly every two years from 1994 to 2012. DEAF96, Digital Territories, looked at interaction between cities and computer networks as a social, cultural, economic and political space. DEAF98 investigated The Art of the Accident. In 2000, the central theme was time – specifically, Machine Times. In 2003, Data Knitting explored the artistic and political implications of data clustering, a full decade before big data became a household word. Interactivity was part of many a DEAF theme, sometimes making its way into the name of the event, as with 2007’s Interact or Die! The event often explored links between its subject matter and insights from biology and evolutionary thought. DEAF was an important meeting place for the by then flourishing international network of artists and theorists occupying themselves with electronic media and new technology. The last two editions took place in 2012 and 2014: The Power of Things looked at ‘the causal power of nonliving matter,’ and The Progress Trap cast a critical eye on innovation thinking.
Along with DEAF, V2_ staged event series, often monthly, some in cooperation with partner organizations. Wiretap (1995–2001) investigated the artistic possibilities and social and cultural implications of new technologies. Dot.nu (2001–2002) gave a young generation of audiovisual artists a place to present their work. Many were students who took part in workshops at V2_ before performing there and went on to break through nationally or internationally years later; they included Telcosystems and Martijn van Boven.
The V2_Lab was established because more and more artists were approaching V2_ to request technical assistance. The Dutch government sought to prioritize internationalization, and so it agreed to fund the lab. There, an international group of artists worked with V2_’s software and hardware developers to realize technology-based works. They included big developmental projects: a game for a major Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in 2001, software for archiving media art, and the DataCloud Hoeksche Waard (1998), an experimental website on landscape design and an early example of working with data. The lab also developed interactive installations, such as Thecla Schiphorst’s Whisper (2002) and a series of works by Marnix de Nijs, including Run Motherfucker Run (2001–2004) and Exploded Views (2011).
During this period, V2_ grew into an institute and became a fixture in the cultural field that in the 21st century came to be known as ‘electronic culture,’ and then as part of ‘the creative industries.’ V2_ primarily saw an autonomous role for itself, with a focus on art that used new technology to reflect independently on developments in society. Its position did not always chime with what was expected of the ‘creative industries’ – namely, devising clever solutions for existing, often design-related problems.
V2_ also published books that reflected on contemporary culture. The series of interdisciplinary works, initially linked to DEAF, continued after the festival’s demise. A recent volume is The War of Appearances (2016). Best-known are perhaps Book for the Electronic Arts (2000); Lars Spuybroek’s The Sympathy of Things (2011), which sold out quickly; and, of course, the hefty monograph devoted to the work of Dutch electronic-music and music-theater pioneer Dick Raaymakers (2007). In the 21st century, V2_ shifted its attention to artistic research into augmented reality and wearable technology. Future stars such as Daan Roosegaarde (Intimacy, (2010)) and Anouk Wipprecht developed concepts, prototypes and new works in partnership with the V2_Lab.
In 2006, V2_ launched the Test_Labs, a series of events where ‘artistic research and development’ is presented to the public in an informal setting. The Test_Labs continue to showcase the most exciting new work by emerging artists and designers several times a year. In 2010, V2_ initiated the Summer Sessions, brief residencies at a network of institutions in various countries where newly graduated artists develop and present new work. The Summer Sessions have resulted in a number of interesting projects that have been exhibited internationally, such as Cecilia Johnson’s award-winning Iron Ring (2013) and Philip Vermeulen’s Physical Rhythm Machine (2016).
In 2012, cuts to the Dutch national arts budget compelled V2_ to severely reduce its scope and partly reinvent itself. Though public events like the Test_Labs and Summer Sessions have continued, V2_ provides much less technical support to artists than it used to, and the development of large-scale projects has ceased. Through its smaller community events, V2_ has succeeded in reaching a new audience of young artists, designers and makers, and it organizes exhibitions every year, such as Data in the 21st Century in 2015–16. The Dutch edition of Ruben Jacobs’ Everyone Is an Artist, the first in a series of critical books on contemporary art and the creative industries, sold out and was reprinted and translated into English.
On the subject of V2_’s relevance in 2018 compared to 30 years ago, or 15, when the organization was at its largest, Adriaansens and Brouwer state that at the core things haven't changed. V2_ continues to ask serious questions about the cultural and social impact of technology. The themes change, and the technology changes, but the way of thinking about the issue has stayed the same, as has V2_'s idea that an art project is the result of a research process. Today, it’s more necessary than ever to think about these questions, because technology is so interwoven with our lives now that it’s become almost invisible.。
Based on a long interview with Alex Adriaansens and Joke Brouwer, September 2017.
The programs and the success of V2_ has only been possible thanks to the dedicated and passionate efforts of all its employees and volunteers throughout the years.
Photo: exhibition geen behang maar vloerbedekking with a.o. Alex Adriaansens and Joke Brouwer at the bookshop Dekker van de Vegt in Nijmegen, 1982.