Brussels-based artist and composer Bob Vanderbob explores the interaction of art, science and science fiction to conjure up Artificial Mythology, a modern mythscape conveying a poetic vision of the techno-human condition. His installations probe our longing for meaning and beauty in the context of ecological degradation, political turmoil and technological acceleration.
A: In Issue 92 of Aesthetica, we displayed a still image from Fecundity. Can you describe this multimedia installation and the process behind its creation?
BV: For Fecundity, I tried to project myself forward in time, beyond the present moment of turbulence and fragmentation, and imagine what value(s), if cherished collectively and wholeheartedly, could unite us human beings. Fecundity could be a strong contender, being defined as the ability of natural systems to cause or assist healthy growth, as well as the creative power of the mind and the imagination. We will need all of the above in abundance if we are to move confidently forward to a stage of fully-embraced, human-steered evolution.
The Fecundity installation stages a three-dimensional printed female figure onto which are projected images of life, energy, water, bacteria, sperm, ovules, as well as genetic and binary codes. In stark contrast, images of desert landscapes and of Venus, Earth’s barren sister planet, are projected behind her. The whole installation is enshrined in a large mirror box, reflecting the fecundity figure ad infinitum in all directions, in resonance with the four arrows of the Artificial Mythology logo.
A: The end of the trailer notes “To be continued…” Does this suggest a continuation of the story, the project or both?
BV: I made the Fecundity trailer using images of my first projection tests before presenting a beta version of the project at the Balance-Unbalance conference at Arizona State University in Tempe. I had just finished composing the music and putting the final touches to the video edit, but had not yet tested the mirror box. Hence it was “to be continued”.
This being said, I think of all my projects as works in progress. I usually spend one to two years developing the first version of an installation. For subsequent showings, I change or replace a video sequence when I feel it could be improved, or update the layout of the piece in situ, as I am often inspired by the geometry and space of a new location. I usually work with a scenographer, starting with a three-dimensional Sketchup model of the place. Also, some of my installations are scalable in size. I usually start with a smaller version and create bigger versions when the occasion arises.
A: Tell me about the use of symbols both modern and ancient – for example, the use of the power button symbol and a Stone Age symbol of a vulva found in modern-day Czech Republic.
BV: I am interested in using icons from the world of computing in my projects. They are the closest I can think of to a visual, universal, popular planetary vocabulary. When researching the theme of fertility deities for Fecundity, I was inspired by the work of the prehistorian Marija Gimbutas, who studied the symbols associated with fertility in the gynocentric culture of the Neolithic period, before the advent of the patriarchal system that supplanted it. I found a striking resemblance between ancient representations of the vulva, which Gimbutas inventoried in her book The Language of the Goddess, and the modern power symbol.
In the installation, the power button is projected onto the skull of the female fecundity character (itself inspired by a Harappa Bronze Age fertility figure found in the Indus valley). The icon thus evokes the power of the mind and ties in with the concept of a sustainable and healthy civilisation, brought about through collaborative technological, political and social ingenuity.
A: Fecundity is part of Artificial Mythology, which you have noted is “a modern mythscape conveying a poetic vision of the techno-human condition”. What inspired you to create and then continue this oeuvre?BV: I had been developing science and sci-fi inspired installations for a long while when, about twelve years ago, I started to look at my work through the framework of mythology. I was wondering what a modern mythology would feel/look/sound like and decided to work from first principles. What is a mythology? What is it not? What does it do? etc.
I was impressed by Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the four functions of mythology – metaphysical, cosmogonic, societal and psychological. It seemed obvious to me that the cosmogonic dimension – the creation story – is now no longer provided by shamans or prophets, but by science, a slow, incremental, ofttimes messy, but cumulative and powerful collective endeavour.
Science is very fragmented, with thousands of fields and sub-fields, each using their own exclusive jargon. Yet, taken as a whole, it is producing a story, one of cosmic proportions. It’s telling us that the universe is best thought of not as a place, but as a process. And it informs us of where we are – both in space and in time – in the unfolding of that process. It’s a radical new idea, in total opposition to the steady-state universe theory or to the “cosmic order” espoused by Eastern mythologies. There is no order, nothing is immobile, everything is ongoing. And we, with all our flaws and frustrations, are part of this process, both as a species and as individuals. We are an integral part of the ongoingness of all things, we have agency, our actions matter. This realisation touched a chord deep within me. It was a good mythological core on which to build.
As an artist, I use the language of metaphor to conjure up a “layer” of poetry – of augmented reality – on top of the foundational story that science gives us. I am gradually building a constellation of what Campbell called “mythological motifs”. Each of my installations can be seen as a landmark in a modern mythological landscape, a mythscape if you will. When juxtaposed in a large, darkened space, they resonate with each other, creating a continuous, immersive experience, in which the sound provides an aural bridge between the individual modules.
A: Is technology a positive or negative influence on your work?
BV: I come from the world of theatre and music. I love the freedom and autonomy digital tools give me. I started using computers in the Atari age as a composer and never looked back. But there have been pitfalls along the way. At a certain point, I became mesmerised by my own dexterity, not realising that I was indulging in the most instantly rewarding functions of my system.
The software had not only nudged me, it had taken over a good part of my creative process. I was working under the tyranny of a metronomic grid, no longer in charge of the emotional unfolding of the timeline, which is probably the most basic prerogative of a composer. In other words, I was no longer dreaming my music, my tools had subtly usurped my composition process.
My reaction, however, was not to reject the digital approach and rush back to my saxophone. I realised that by disabling the most basic, unquestioned functions of my system, namely loop recording and quantising, and banishing templates and preset sounds, I could regain control of my process. I became interested in sound spatialisation and soon started dreaming my music again. It is a lesson I never forgot.
I embrace tech, but I choose my tools and tailor them to my needs. For instance, I was an early adopter of 3D printing and drones, but am a total laggard when it comes to smartphones and social media.
I have little interest in creating technologically-mediated “interactive” art, which I tend to find frustratingly gimmicky compared with the interactive cognitive capabilities of the human mind. The technology will certainly improve, especially with the development of AI, so my attitude may change one day. But for now, I have plenty to explore by tapping into our natural abilities for interaction. With my installations, I try to do what any storyteller does: grab your attention, hijack your neural pathways and manipulate you along a timeline.
To this end, I use any technology I find useful. However, my intention is not to impose any particular message. The grammar I develop and the atmosphere I create are not directive as such. People make their own connections. I am often surprised by what they see in my work. They say it is science fiction. But it is they who make the connections.
A: Your works “probe our longing for meaning and beauty in a context of ecological degradation, political turmoil and technological acceleration.” To what extent do you view this longing as an observer of others? Or is it a more personal experience for you?
BV: For me, meaning and beauty are in a way interchangeable. In a materialistic, consumerist, short-termist culture, trapped in a perpetual state of present shock, as the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff puts it, where the words “ugly” and “broken” are everywhere, demanding meaning or beauty may seem to be a ridiculously naive invocation.
In the art world, beauty is largely perceived with suspicion or even outright contempt. Paradoxically, it has become a radical, almost subversive concept. I am not talking about bucolic, charming, or soothing, obviously. I certainly strive to make my installations “beautiful”. I think the experience of beauty can lead to a shift of perspective, a lifting of the spirit. Beauty is a mysterious thing.
I’m a believer in the potential for global metamorphosis, towards a sustainable and inclusive civilisation. I picture a caterpillar, painstakingly trundling over each little obstacle and crevice, unable to see further than the next hurdle. Yet this creature will soon morph into a winged beauty, flying elegantly over the landscape. We lucky humans are both caterpillar and butterfly: we traipse through the everyday stuff, but our thoughts can fly.
A: The multimedia installation Offspring deals with links between generations. Is your personal life the inspiration behind the work?
BV: When I became a parent, a lot of my existential angst disappeared. I had found my place as a link between my ancestors and my descendants. Later, on a more intellectual level, I was struck by Hans Moravec’s book Mind Children. It was the first time I was exposed to the idea of a post-human future that was not necessarily a cause for grief.
It inspired me to create a sound installation, Waiting Room 1.0, where four robots discuss various topics in the presence of a human audience. One of them despised humans as hopelessly dysfunctional, dirty and non-upgradable, but another maintained that humans deserved their respect, as they were their “parents”. It was interesting and fun to explore the mind children’s point of view.
When I embarked on the Artificial Mythology project, I returned to the idea that future generations may no longer be biological. It became the basis of the Offspring installation. I had a vision of cyborg babies, waist-deep in a lake, against a backdrop of rotating galaxies, dreaming of grass, birds and strange rituals, and remembering us, their ancestors. I talk about this in my documentary short Of Buddies, Offspring and Artificial Mythology.
A: With The Astronaut’s Poetic Handbook, you look beyond Earth – in what ways has this project differed (or perhaps not) from your other works?
BV: These last years have seen a feverish renewal of interest in space exploration, which I welcome wholeheartedly. But I’m wary of the growing commercial rationale for our presence in space, where space becomes just another resource to be exploited.
It brings to mind the reckless free-for-all which resulted in the ecological and cultural devastation of the American continent, or the “scramble for Africa” that had the same effect there. The idea of space still belongs to everyone; it is part of the commons. But how long will it be before space becomes commodified? Earth’s orbit is littered with trash. The moon and Mars are already scattered with debris. We need to tread very lightly, to preserve these ancient and pristine environments as much as we can.
The Astronaut’s Poetic Handbook is a call to collectively shape the course of human expansion into the solar system by suggesting ideas of “beautiful things to do out there”, anything that will inspire the pioneers, the first explorers, to set the right tone, to avoid the mistakes we made here on Earth. They will be heroes, examples that the following waves of “colonisation” will want to emulate. This handbook project is a way to jump-start a global conversation about space, at this moment in time when asteroid mining is whetting appetites and the USA is creating a military space force. Partnerships and suggestions are welcome. I would love to get some kids’ takes on this.
A: Sound is such an integral part of your art practice. As a composer, how do you approach each project from an aural perspective?
BV: Wherever I go, I always have a sound recorder on me. Field recording is an important element of my music. I usually then transform these sounds beyond recognition, but the energy of the original sound remains present.
When developing a piece, I work on the video imagery and the music side by side, simultaneously. The audio brings the video sequences to life. I fine-tune the video edit and the musical composition in parallel till the very last minute.
In my installations, it is the sound that makes the experience immersive and gives the emotional tonality of the project. The music is both soothing and unnerving, it intentionally keeps you on your toes, making you wonder what will come next. I push the volume pretty loud. The sound fills the whole space and makes your bones vibrate. It’s all about capturing your attention and not letting go.
A: Tell me about your logo and its significance within your art practice.
BV: The logo was the very start of the Artificial Mythology project. In a way, you could say it is the project. It is based on the icon present in the lower right corner of all media players, which means “enlarge to full screen”. I think of it as the big-picture logo.
The yellow dot represents the sun. Placed in the middle, it’s an acknowledgement that it and not the Earth is the centre of our little patch of the universe. The sun is our mother. We are the children of the solar system. The blue is the colour of the sky of our native planet: our cradle.
The four arrows are an invitation to expand our awareness and embrace the universe-as-process-of-which-we-are-part. They also represent our physical expansion outwards, into the solar system and beyond.
I would love to see this logo everywhere, especially on our rockets and future bases on the moon, on Mars and elsewhere, instead of – or at least side-by-side with – national flags or corporate logos. It represents not an organisation, company or country – it represents all of us. If any of your readers have the ear of Elon, Jeff, Richard, NASA or ESA, they know what to do to make me happy.
I have high hopes for us techno-apes. I don’t believe in destiny, a term with mystical overtones. Nothing is ineluctable. But I am a firm believer in (post?) human potential.
A: What projects do you have coming up this year?
BV: I have ideas for several new installations, which I’ll be developing. I am working on a film script for a sci-fi story that came to me fully formed when waking up one morning. I’m also co-writing a TV series.