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Can digital culture institutes work together across national borders, and should they? How might they collaborate in ways that further their own, often highly specific, goals, while raising awareness of the field as a whole? And how can locally grounded organizations expand their audience and influence into new territories?

These were some of the questions that the recent Expert Meeting on Digital Culture, organized by the Nieuwe Instituut, sought to address – or rather, sought to begin to address, since the event represented a very new initiative. Digital culture representatives from three neighbouring countries, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, came together – for only the second time – in Eindhoven, the Netherlands to explore possibilities for future synergies.

The meeting was part of the Nieuwe Instituut’s International Visitors’ Programme, which enables international professionals to get acquainted with – and deepen their knowledge of – Dutch architecture, design, fashion and digital culture networks. It is financially supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Vote of confidence

The meeting set out to establish whether or not the institutes present found it a profitable idea to share knowledge and combine resources. The goal, according to moderator Koen Snoeckx, was to establish “Confidence – confidence that there is a mutual demand for collaboration.” If this were the case, he added, there would then be further exchanges in all three countries.

The meeting began with an introduction round, during which the 22 participants introduced themselves. It quickly became apparent that as well as three different countries, several different fields and positions were represented. The artistic fields represented varied widely, from sound to film to performance. Some institutes took a somewhat critical or discursive stance towards technology, with a focus on analysing its impact on life and culture, while others were aesthetically driven. Some saw themselves as representing the artist, while others tapped into the popular, non-professional aspect of digital creativity.

Networks and connections

The expert meeting coincided with the Eindhoven’s STRP Biennale, the maker-driven event for creative technology. Its theme, Sense and Sensors, was all about perception – a topic which is also key for each of the institutes, however different their orientation. Connection is a major concern: most representatives are occupied with improving their connections with audiences, local communities, the business world and the general public, as well as with artists (whom many participants saw themselves as representing) and maker groups. Above all, there was an almost unanimous desire for cooperation with other institutes, including international ones, in order to add breadth to event reach, depth to programming and to benefit from both knowledge exchange and possible funding and revenue opportunities.

After the brief introductions by each participant, there were five presentations from individual institutes and /or artists, which were intended as starting points for the context of exchange between the three countries. These formed an intriguing cross-section of digital culture activity in each country, and each was followed by considerable feedback from the other participants – quick-fire suggestions of potential partners and artists, comparable initiatives and possible new directions that could be explored in the future. Jotted down on post-its, the suggestions were gathered up for later reference.

Content and its perception

The first presentation, by Tasja Lagenbach, was devoted to Vidonale e.V., the festival for contemporary video art in Bonn, Germany, of which she is artistic director. The core of the festival remains single channel, she explained, while the role of the festival architecture and site is also important, grounding film culture in the real world. “Participation and immersion are two major topics for us,” she explained. “We try to address how new forms of working with moving images change how the audience participates and is immersed in the experience, and how this affects the perception of content.” In an effort to “broaden the conception of what a moving image can be” the biennale collaborates with “lots of institutions”. Lagenbach stressed that she would like to “cooperate with more internationally – coproduction is a big theme. For example, we could do a summer school on methodology. I miss the discussion at moving image festivals.”

The second presentation was by Ilya Van Autreve, who is coordinator of the Media Lab at KOPERGIETERY children’s arts centre in Ghent, Belgium, which attracts audiences of 25,000 each year. Artist residences at the centre are viewed as collaborations with the kids, who are seen as creators, rather than as young minds to be educated. The new Media Lab, opened last year, adds digital capabilities to the mix. It currently consists of two 84-inch touch screens – the “media table” – which children can use to make their own creations. More digital media is planned, with one prototype activity featuring kids relying instructions remotely to an actor in Glasgow. While other participants were quick to highlight the educational possibilities of the technology, Van Autreve said that in this case that is not the point. “There are five or six institutes in Ghent that have an educative role regarding the internet and so on, so we decided not to do that,” he said.

Filter bubbles and fake news

His institute’s position in regarding children as artists was picked up on by Marloes de Vries, who has an interest in non-official art. De Vries, who sets the programme at MAMA in Rotterdam, is interested in “stuff not legitimized as art” including cosplay, which is encouraged by informal online learning communities. “People don’t need an expensive arts education,” she said. “So my question is, how do you find collaborators? How do you make programming inclusive? And do non-official artists need us to legitimize them?” Again, it was a question that immediately garnered feedback in the form of suggestions for later exploration, as the moderator moved the meeting swiftly on.

Arjon Dunnewind of Impakt Festival (Utrecht, the Netherlands) gave the next presentation, on recent events he has organized that examine “how the internet creates identity, and the internet as a space for self-realization and identity.” One example, Filter Bubbles and Fake News, was a panel discussion on how filter bubbles influenced the American presidential election, and which also considered what possible models there might be for responsible internet journalism.

“Most people focus on technological installations. I am interested in visual language and new dynamics on the internet, in particular new political dynamics like fake news,” said Dunnewind. “I want to make people aware of how the internet functions.” He argued that it is important for institutions to recognize the internet’s dangerous aspects: “Public debate is polarized and people only reinforce their own prejudices through filter bubbles,” he said. He introduced the work of artist Donna Verheijden, who made a film for his event All the World’s a Stage, exploring “how people are influenced by social and mass media and their underlying power structures.” Visually lush, her work highlighted the seductiveness of digital media.

Engaging audiences

The final presentation came from artist Mischa Kuball from Dusseldorf, Germany, whose work explores what he terms “the role of art in a changing idea of what we used to call public space.” The starting point, he said, was “the agora – the Greek model of exchanging ideas.” Dressing volunteer participants in black and white to imitate a painting by Malevich, and turning a tram into a sculpture moving through the environs of Auschwitz, his work seeks to challenges stale concepts of public art. A simple vase in the rundown town of Mal invited local people to place flowers and messages in it – “les fleurs du mal.” The initiative led to distributing copies of Baudelaire’s classic to people who would probably never have considered reading it before.  “There is no substitute for physical presentation, but you can use the media to augment physical presentation,” he said.

With the event rapidly drawing to a close, Heide Hagebölling-Eisenbis, of Cologne’s Academy of Arts, noted that for all arts practitioners “the key is finding new ways to produce content to engage audiences.” Collaboration can prove vital in this, from knowledge sharing to co-production and co-distribution. Moreover, as Dirk de Wit, one of the initiators of the event from the Kunstenpunt Brussels, noted, “the idea is exchange not only for collaboration, but also for matching funds.” With resources for art shrinking, joint initiatives look more promising than ever. Moreover, in the relatively small world of digital culture institutions, knowledge sharing can offer fresh insights and new takes on programming.

While the event was too brief to do more than suggest some parameters for future exploration, the foundation would seem to be there. The participants ended by reiterating their desire to explore international collaborations. In between the presentations, they had repeatedly invited ideas for proposals and ideas relating to exhibitions and other events. There had certainly been a vote of confidence – “confidence that there is a mutual demand for collaboration.” What happens next should be interesting indeed.

Participants expert meeting

  1. Yannick Antoine, Project and IT manager at iMAL, Brussels
  2. Philippe Franck, Art historian and critic, interdisciplinary artist, essayist and Founder of Transcultures, Belgium
  3. Marie du Chastel, Coordinator and Curator at Kikk Festival, Brussels
  4. Ischa Tallieu, Founder of Tallieu Art Office, Brussels
  5. Kurt d’Haeseleer, Artistic Director at Werktank, Leuven
  6. Ilja Van Autreve, Coordinator of Media Lab, Gent
  7. Heide Hagebölling-Eisenbeis, co-founder and emeritus of the Academy of Media Arts (KHM), Cologne
  8. Tasja Langenbach, Artistic Director at Videonal e.V., Bonn
  9. Mischa Kuball, Artist at Mischa Kuball Studio, Düsseldorf
  10. Arjon Dunnewind, Founder and Managing Director of Impakt Festival
  11. Donna Verheijden, Artist
  12. Marloes de Vries, Programme Maker and Curator at Showroom MAMA
  13. Caetano, Designer
  14. Floor van Spaendonck, General Director at Cinekid
  15. Viola van Alphen, curator and co-organizer of Manifestations, former director of GOGBOT Festival.
  16. Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, expert in Digital Culture, R&D at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  17. Frederike Manders, Hyperspace Collective and VR expert
  18. Jorge Alves Lino, Business Leader STRP, Eindhoven
  19. Dirk de Wit, Head International Relations and Visual Arts, Kunstenpunt Brussels
  20. Anne Huybrechts, Attaché at Fédération Wallonia-Bruxelles
  21. Joyce Hanssen, Project Leader Agency of Architecture, Design and Digital Culture at Het Nieuwe Instituut

Moderator: Koen Snoeckx

Report by Jane Szita