Many artists traverse the grey zone between artist and science but few cover as much terrain as Frederik De Wilde. Working across sculpture, computer graphics, installation, and even material science, De Wilde engages a wide range of artistic influences including Kazimir Malevich and Auguste Rodin—reinterpreting and reconciling their aesthetic interests with the weird idiosyncrasies of the twenty-first century.
Based in Belgium De Wilde has exhibited at ZKM, Ars Electronica, Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, BOZAR, Carnegie Arts Museum, the 2017 Venice Biennial, and many other venues. He has collaborated with scientists worldwide including the KIT micro- and collective robotics lab in Karlsruhe, and researchers at the University of Leuven, Hasselt University, Wyoming University, ESTEC, and others.
To mark the release of Architectons in Space #2 - Vehicles of Utopia, a new edition available through Sedition, we’ve engaged De Wilde in a detailed conversation about many of his preoccupations—from blackest-black to quantum foam—and the current state of his practice.
NANOblck-Sqr#1, air/carbon nanotube blackest-black artwork
Your piece for Sedition are inspired by the Suprematist aesthetics of Kazimir Malevich and Zaha Hadid. Could you situate how your dynamic animations draw on and respond to the utopian aesthetics of those vital and enduring figures?
Frederik De Wilde: Data from European Space Agency and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory captured the dynamic movement of the Sun’s atmosphere, from solar flares to coronal mass ejections, for more than two decades. This includes its natural vibration, waves, loops and eruptions—captured as sound, detecting what can’t be observed with the naked eye. The resulting simple low pulsing hum is a probe for what happens inside the star; I used that sound to drive the animation in different ways, using a parametric setup.
The solar sounds are generated from 40 days of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s Michelson Doppler Imager data and processed by A. Kosovichev. To generate these sounds he started with doppler velocity data, averaged over the solar disk, so that only modes of low angular degree remained. Subsequent processing removed the spacecraft motion effects, instrument tuning, and some spurious points. Then Kosovichev filtered the data at about 3 mHz to select clean up the sound waves (filtering out supergranulation and instrumental noise). Finally, he interpolated to address missing data and adjusted its scale—speeding it up by a factor 42,000 to bring it into the audible human-hearing range.
Architectons in Space #2 - Vehicles of Utopia is a tribute to the bright light of electricity, pulsing kinetic energy, warm glow of ultraviolet and the destructive power of gamma rays, the invisible anti-gravitational space. The Sun is the source of the overwhelming majority of light, heat, and energy on Earth's surface, and is powered by nuclear fusion. Recreating the inner workings of the Sun is the holy grail to unlimited and green energy for the Earth's growing population as well as in outer space. The Sun is also in the opening shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey, by the way. It seems like Kubrick wanted to tell us that in each instance of human evolution and technological progression humanity’s dependence on the Sun diminishes. First we see the sun sink into the Monolith, in the void, and by the end of the film we see a starchild and the Sun is completely gone—humans have finally freed themselves from it.
My inspiration was drawn from the Architectons by Malevich, the paintings of Zaha Hadid and the spaceship waltz in 2001. This brilliant triumvirate was fascinated by weightlessness, anti-gravity and energy in different ways, with different interpretations and expressed through different mediums. Malevich described Suprematism in 1919 as “the missile launched by the human spirit into non-being” and embodied a new perception of reality, and a spiritual system which would transfigure the world whilst blazing a path into the future.” Suprematism is a system constituted in time and space, independently of any aesthetic consideration of beauty, experience or mood, but rather as a philosophical colour system and a pathway into the fourth dimension or higher intuition.
The Black Square was Malevich’s transcendental icon for the new age of non-representational art, drawing a line under 500 years of mimetic art produced since the Renaissance, but moreover tried to dismiss the sensation of gravity. He considered his paintings to have neither top nor bottom, nor left or right. They could be hung in any orientation; often the most simple ideas can be the most radical. One can notice a contradiction between his rational—the rejection of reason—and his intuitive almost mystical Utopian approach revealing a rebellious pose expressing an aesthetic of Anarchy. Zaha Hadid is somehow an anarchist in her own right, as Kubrick. In a traditionally male dominated profession she pushed through. Deeply inspired by Malevich’s Tektonik she developed her own unique signature and shared the ambition to apply radical new ideas to regenerate society. Studying Malevich allowed her to develop abstraction as an investigative principle. Malevich’s Dissolution of a Plane (1917) represents an important moment. It is here he began to move beyond the planar, towards forces and energies—using space to increase dynamism. Hadid further explored these ideas through compositional strategies including explosion, fragmentation, warping, and bundling. Her later mastery of ‘floating’ and ‘fluidity’ all stem from this research. Even if it’s not a square, Stanley Kubrick’s monolith carries a an unsettling presence, just like the Black Square. It’s the fact that man can’t explain it that makes it interesting, as well as how it unlocks—just like in a game—our imagination and potentialities as a consequence of forcing us to face the unknown.
Deep Neural Paintings (2015)
Neural nets, 3D printing, data-based practice—scrolling through your folio reveals you’re prolific in tackling new technologies and modes of practices. While you certainly work and re-work certain aesthetic or conceptual tropes, how you execute those projects seems to be constantly evolving. When conceiving a new project do you think about concept or medium first, and how do they inform one another, once you’ve started down a path?
FDW: Curiosity and fascinations lead to ideas and concepts; what then follows is reflection upon the content and what I want say with the idea or concept, asking: how does it align with previous work? What’s the context and can I create new semantic connections? And so on. After that phase, as a starting point, I research what’s already been done and where there is potential to build upon plausible precursors. Then I start to write, draw or 3D model whilst thinking about the materiality of the concept, addressing how to execute it, and if it can be done alone or if it requires third party assistance.
From your more recent AI paintings to exquisite 3D sculptural forms, perhaps the one constant across your works is that a great many of them are derived computationally. At what point in your life did your relationship with code begin, and how has it evolved through your practice?
FDW: I always have been fascinated by how simple rules can lead to complexity and complex shapes. Applying growth algorithms and integrating them into my workflow was not only an intuitive choice but also a conscience one; mining nature seemed so industrial, editing and growing nature sounded more like a contemporary approach of dealing with, or engaging the world around us. When i was a fine arts student I used to model in clay and asked myself this question often. I introduced and applied regularly simple—sometimes banal—rules like use only your thumbs. You could see and feel its growth into complexity directly. Later on, during my studies in art, media and design I improved my coding skill in MaxMsp/Jitter for instance, but, in fact, I am not so interested in coding itself (I sometimes enlist peers that are coders), but rather in its creative and artistic potential and societal impact. We are entering into an era where the code, algorithms, and software that interact with us are so hidden and decentralised that we fail to understand these entities behaviour and their complex ecology. We’re in a black box and the only way to regain a grip is study them as we might examine micro-organisms or animals in the wild.
So, code is for me is essentially a language and a tool. While we still need code to launch a rocket into space, in a possible future we might use it to edit ‘reality’ and teleport us elsewhere in the universe. Then, we will look at rocket launches as something prehistoric. This said, I critically question how much we should rely on, and believe in, the technologies we create—including so called ‘objective’ data. From this perspective I think we live in a time of ‘Big Postmodernism,’ meaning that we believe that we’re able to create new meaning and meaningful ideas from the fragments and metanarratives of Postmodernism with big data and AI.
NeuroThinker #1_”Re-Wire-Culture” (detail), work-in-progress
Building on the earlier conversation about influences, I notice Auguste Rodin’s nineteenth century sculpture The Thinker, seems to be a bit of a preoccupation in your practice—it informs multiple projects. How did it become such a central muse for you?
FDW: I always had a profound interest in Rodin's iconic sculpture that portrays a nude male figure in deep contemplation. Just like Malevich’s Black Square and Kubrick’s Monolith it confronts us with a visual enigma. When looking at Rodin’s masterpiece we ask: about what is The Thinker thinking? The panels on the bronze doors of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, beneath it depict the Last Judgment as envisioned by Dante in his classic work, The Divine Comedy. The doors, entitled “The Gates of Hell”, vividly portray the horror and desperation on the faces of those lost souls who were falling into the Inferno of Hell. Dante presents his version of the void. Therefore, The Thinker contemplates the emptiness and hopelessness of life lived inside the void, a theme and research I hold dear. For Rodin, The Thinker ponders the ultimate destiny of humankind apart from its divine source. It was only after the metro bombings in Brussels that I became obsessed with The Thinker and how a twenty-first century Thinker could look, feel, think, smell—what he/she/x would think about? The general liquid shape of my Thinker sculpture is intentionally hovering between form and void, growth and decay, networked and disconnected, male/female/x and looks like it’s made from the last barrel of crude oil. When I was asked by curator Philippe Riss-Schmidt to participate in the Venice Biennial 2017 things accelerated.
The Council—at Arsenale Nord during the 2017 Venice Biennale
FDW: During my research I discovered a little known fact concerning The Thinker, namely that the Cleveland’s Thinker was victim of a terrorist attack—which seems to mark our time—on March 24, 1970. Unidentified bombers strapped what is suspected to have been three sticks of dynamite to its base. The explosion blew off the sculpture’s feet and irreparably damaged the legs. It is still on exhibit, though it has not been restored. I integrated the lost leg in my Thinker almost by algorithmic accident, hence making a subtle reference to this particular terrorist attack from a historical perspective and as a contemporary reference, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage (ISIL, Daesh). They have plundered and destroyed at least 28 historical religious building and numerous artefacts in Iraq, the inheritance of humanity and the Iraqi people. It has to be noted that some of the destroyed artefacts were plaster replicas. This made me wonder if such actions are limited to the physical and globalised world, or if they could also be of digital nature? And what is the nature of the radical shift that hyperconnectivity impose on the human condition? The latter question gave rise to the Hyperthinker series. The Thinker as presented in the Venice Biennial 2017 is surrounded by, and connected to, a networked decentralised artificial brains (i.e. 38 Raspberry Pi’s and screens branching out in space running custom code) connected to the World Wide Web, Deep Web, and Darknet. The Thinker presents us a glimpse of its ‘private,’ yet hyperconnected, metaphysical musings, corrupted memories, digital ruins, uncertain spaces and vectors of thought by the means of image and sound (i.e. Google and Facebook server room field-recordings are swarming around The Thinker using Perlin noise. The server sound is very soothing, and similar to white noise which is know to provoke contemplation and deep thoughts). The installation runs custom pixel sorting algorithms, exposing the nature of digital images and how easily we can manipulate them. The mesh networked Raspberry pi’s run custom code for data mining the internet for post-contemporary ruins like for instance e-waste mountains. The mined videos and pictures are rapidly deconstructed and glitched. Glitches occur in our identity (de/re)constructions; instabilities and errors in digitized financial markets (i.e. flash crashes); hacking, cracking, and tactical glitches; Dirty New Media Art approaches and the non-neutrality of technological systems. As much as The Council is an odyssey through the World Wide Web, Deep Web or a descend into the heart of Darknet, it is primarily created as an access point, hub and hotspot for the viewers minds, feelings and thoughts. The key element to ‘unlock’ my Thinker is the spectator.
You have a pair of shows going on in Singapore right now: “Minimalism: Space Light Object”, jointly produced by National Gallery Singapore and ArtScience Museum and “All Possible Paths: Richard Feynman’s Curious Life,” a show responding to the legacy of Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Could we hear a bit about the works featured in each of those exhibitions?
FDW: Horizontal Depth3—“This In Not the Place We Go to Die. It’s Where We Are Born,” 2018 is featured in “Minimalism: Space Light Object,” a landmark exhibition because it’s the first minimalist art exhibit in Southeast Asia. Importantly, my artwork is considered by a team of top international curators (including the Tate) as one of the 30 most important iconic Minimalist artworks. That’s incredibly flattering, and a powerful signal to the art world that recognises my pioneering blackest-black artworks, realised long before Anish Kapoor, as well as the recognition of the pioneering scientists of Rice University and NASA scientists I had the honour to collaborate with to bring the artistic concept to life.
The artwork itself is a wall mounted dish in high polished stainless steel of 175 kg with on the inside a blacker-than-black nano engineered coating containing synthesised carbon nanotubes to create a void-like visual abyss. When you look at the artwork you basically look at nothing because it contains 99.9% air and 0.1% carbon, so a funny paradox comes into play here; having to add a minimum of something to see nothing(ness). I am not going to explain the work any further but it essentially ties my interest in the human condition with quantum physics, cosmology, computation, philosophy and phenomenology, and societal and ecological challenges we are currently faced with.
The new Quantum Foam piece is around 50 cm diameter and the shape is generated by real quantum data measurements provided by the National University of Australia’s quantum communication, teleportation and encryption lab in a collaboration with Dr. Thomas Seymul. By setting up a groundbreaking tabletop experiment we tapped into the quantum vacuum and rendered the vacuum noise, generated by a table top experiment with entangled lasers, into true random numbers. These true random numbers were piped into custom made 3D modelling software to create the unique shapes, artistic visualisation of the invisible universe and its lowest energy state. You could argue that these artworks are the world's first quantum encrypted sculptures that emerged out of the quantum sea of potentiality.