241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

All of our digital media leaves behind traces. But these are hidden traces that are present as invisible abstractions. These traces exist as digital binary structures of code that represent digital pictures, video, texts, three dimensional objects and more.

We leave behind cookies on our computers, we store most of our data in a cloud, but we also leave traces on each device that contains digital memory on its hard disk or flash memory. But these traces are invisible: we cannot perceive them as they are, we cannot perceive them directly.

The code’s structure does not readily yield the subject of what it represents. We can’t even perceive the structure unmediated, because we need a visualisation device. We might be able to directly perceive the physical presence of a small disc or a chip from our digital media device. But in the end the digital empire is only about what it represents: the functionalities, the images, the characters and combinations that form a coded language that, in turn, create the language we are able to understand.

Once I had the problem that I deleted the majority of my pictures, in a state of fatigue, from my hard drive. The first thing I did was google if I could somehow recover this data from my hard disk, despite having deleted it. I learned that a hard disk doesn’t actually physically delete your data, but reassigns the specific space that was used for the data, to be free to be overwritten.

This meant that the data was still there, but that the doors that lead to the used space on my hard disk where the images were housed had a little note on them saying that they were free to be taken up by new data. So, there’s a time between the reassignment of the digital space and the replacement with new data, which is a kind of no man’s land.


We are living in a less direct material world and a more digitalised one, where traces themselves seem to be a disappearing thing. Where we easily replace the old in order to maintain the clean and the new. The moment we throw something away, we also throw its trace away.

Maybe it’s time to become more materialised again. To be attuned to a greater sense of the things around us that we like to touch, feel and smell, in addition to the digital form of matter we indulge ourselves in. This must not be seen as a critique on our contemporary digital information- and imagery systems, but more as an essay to think about the value of the things we can see with our naked eyes, with our bare hands, our open nostrils, and our own ears.


Imagine, you live in the 14th century, and somebody tells you the printing press will be a catalyst in a scientific revolution. You would probably think this person is exaggerating. You do understand the principle of reproduction and distribution of thought, that's not the problem. However, you can't imagine that such a simple thing as a change in medium can have such a profound impact.

The inability to understand the transition to a newer medium can have severe consequences. From the moment the printing press made its first appearance a new group of disadvantaged became apparent, the illiterate. This group was unable to read, spell and write and could therefore not interpret the new medium. For them the world became more and more a place they could not understand.

In the 21st century not only the illiterate are the ones that are unable to understand the new current medium. A new group is created, those who cannot understand an ever changing medium. With the arrival of the internet it becomes relevant to ask if a human being and the graphic designer can really cope with an ever such changing medium.

The modern illiterate

There is a new group of disadvantaged because of the nature of a developing or established medium. This, in essence, is what happens with every new medium, as it asks of its user to undergo a process of unlearning and learning. Besides vocal language, people had to learn how to interpret written language, they had to unlearn to write the same as they spoke, not to mention any refinements that were expected along the way .
What happens if a new medium is introduced that is not only different from its predecessor but also constantly changing? The process of learning and unlearning becomes a constant state. Alvin Toffler wrote the following about this:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

If we take a look at which medium might be the biggest change for the printed word, the internet is likely to be picked. Our environment is more and more designed for quick communication in which we are hardly limited to geographical location; our social relations are maintained by platforms and applications, and the amount of people that use smartphones, tablets and laptops is growing exponentially. All developments largely dependent on the internet.

With our daily and sometimes even uninterrupted use we’d like to think that we also understand. We use a smartphone so we "are" on the internet, we use google so we use the internet. But do we truly understand what internet is? Is using applications that are on the internet the same as understanding? Maybe we are fooling ourselves, and maybe we are the new generation that does not understand its environment. And perhaps worse: we aren't even noticing it.

From solid to liquid

An important cause of if we do or do not understand the internet is most likely the wrong interpretation of its nature. Up until we had internet all our media was invariable, as soon as they were produced. A book, newspaper, flyer or poster: as soon as they are produced they are solid. The internet on the other hand is not solid at all. For example news-websites can add and change content at any moment of the day. If you look at a news website you merely see a snapshot of an ever changing image. But if internet knows no solid state which state does it have then? Maybe liquid?

In core the difference between solid and liquid is easily described, however it is very clearly defined by Zygmunt Bauman “[...] in simple language [...] liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily hold their shape. Fluids, so to speak, neither fix space nor bind time. While solids have clear spatial dimensions but neutralize the impact, and thus downgrade the significance, of time (effectively resist its flow or render it irrelevant), fluids do not keep to any shape for long and are constantly ready (and prone) to change it; and so for them it is the flow of time that counts, more than the space they happen to occupy: that space, after all, they fill but ‘for a moment’.”

Not only the visual qualities but also time plays an indispensable role. A picture of a liquid form needs a time indication, because when the picture is taken, the liquid form has already changed. A solid shape however is hardly affected by time. As easy as liquid shapes change they manoeuvre around solid shapes and hardly feel impact. They can 'flow', 'spill', 'run out', 'splash', 'pour over', 'leak', 'flood', 'spray', 'drip', 'seep' and 'ooze'. Even better, just as it takes energy to hold a liquid form stationary, it takes energy to make a solid form move.

The comparison between solid and liquid is highly relevant when we are talking about internet. The internet doesn't know the solidness as we have known in media up to now. The internet does not feel any friction when being moved: it flows from one side of the world towards the other in a fraction of a second. Images can be duplicated with a friction that is almost negligible. News-reports don't have a specific moment in time: they are only snapshots of a liquid form.

Liquid Design

The underestimation of changes and their impact, and the wrong interpretation of the nature of the internet, can have profound effects, as Toffler indicated: the rise of a new generation that can't interpret the media around itself. Especially because of these factors it is very important to address a group that is extremely dependent on the medium of this time and its interpretation: the graphic designer.

The printing press was on its own nothing more than a technique; it was the human who by a (specific) implementation gave value to it. He duplicated documents, made books, made posters, flyers and derivatives. From this development the graphic designer evolved, a person who has the task to visualise a message in the media of its time.
Here arises a paradox: the graphic designer is rooted in history of solid forms, but it's his task to use the medium of nowadays which is mainly liquid. Because the medium is so different, omnipresent and growing, it is the graphic designer who should critically review himself. The graphic designer must go from solid (static) design towards liquid design. We shouldn't learn to write and read differently in order not to become subordinated; we need to learn a skill to handle the constantly changing state of our new media. This is not a simple task for a graphic designer, because he is inclined to think in terms of solidity, rules and grids. It is almost an inhumane transition. It is in our nature to think in heuristics in order to make our daily life manageable: who are and are not our friends, what I do and do not like, etc.

Maybe the transition to liquid design is still ungraspable and we should take a step back and realise that we underestimated the internet, it's nature and impact. Even language limits us.
Comprehending, grasping, materialising are conceivable descriptions of a change in thinking in which statements are still made in terms of solidity.

Factors like these make it an excellent task for a graphic designer to rove the internet in a visual way. By not only understanding it and holding it down but also by letting it 'flow', 'drip' and 'ooze'.

Liquid Design resulted out of his graduation project The New Public Space where he researches the interesting interaction between the rapidly changing media and graphic design which depends so heavily on it. The text is researched by Gilles and written together with Ruben Verkuylen.

Alvin Toffler, Rethinking the Future, London, 2008

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, 2000

Molnar Structures de Quadrilateres

Cubic Limit, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1977

P148, "inschrift", plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1973

P-133, "cluster phobia", plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

144 Trapèzes (16 variations), plotter drawing, ink on paper, 20x25 cm, 1974

P91, 1971, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 50 x 50 cm

P-122, "scratch code", plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

P-71, "serielle zeichenreihung", plotter drawing ink on paper, 40cm x 50cm, 1970

T.V.C. 20 68179 71, 1971.

Quadrate, 1969/1970.

Plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1965

51/80 Scratch Code, 1970-1975.

P-050/R, "a formal language", Ink/paper/wood, 1970, 100cm x 100cm

Molnar Structures de Quadrilateres

During the fifties and sixties of the last century, the first pioneers in digital art used computers to realize their visual experiments to create algorithmic art. They would write computer programs, otherwise known as algorithms, to generate images, usually by using advanced programming language such as COBOL or Fortran, but also by using machine language. They would often work in the dead of night, whenever a university or research institute would grant them a few hours to make calculations on their expensive IBM-mainframes. These computers were built for computing punch cards, which meant that using them to make visual art became an abstract and mathematical procedure that called for the formulation of rules to determine the construction of an image. The computer carries out the algorithm after which the output is made visible on a plotter (a drawing machine) connected to the computer.

Cubic Limit, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1977

Artists in this field of visual computer art, such as Ben Lapofsky, Lilian Schwartz, Frieder Nake, Manfred Mohr, Edward Zajec and Vera Molna, were strongly influenced by cybernetics and closely linked to the informational aesthetics developing during that time. It became evident that composing algorithms that performed repeatedly to produce the same image was not particularly artistically interesting, however valuable this development would appear for the later advancement of computer graphics. Much more interesting are the algorithms that, when repeated, produce different results. Although the first generation of computer artists created an output of unique plotter drawings, their main artistic interest lies in fundamental research into composition. They also touch upon complex questions concerning the essence of the artistic practice, by often bluntly addressing the question of authorship with computer generated plotter drawings. The question, what is art, is approached conceptually through an algorithm that automatically spits out one unique drawing after another, as though produced on a factory assembly line. Generally, the question was answered by assigning authorship and artistry to the actual formulation of the algorithms. The construction of algorithms for artistic purposes was seen as a scientific form of visual research that opened up a new stage for the development of art.

P148, "inschrift", plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1973


The works made by these pioneering computer artists is closely linked to the avant-garde movements of the sixties (like GRAV, de Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel), and conceptual art. After all, Joseph Kosuth and Sol Lewitt likewise made works that consisted of formulations. Indeed, the end of the sixties saw a short-lived convergence between computer art and conceptual art. The computer artist's attitude towards technology was incomprehensible to those involved in conceptual art and classical art criticism, and was to some even suspect. Nevertheless, many computer artists (like Frieder Nake) were even more radical in their rejection of the bourgeois art system than the conceptual artists, who were operating within the galleries and museums.

P-133, "cluster phobia", plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

The innovations made by the first generation of computer artists are simple when compared to what’s possible now, fifty years later. But their experiments laid the foundation that makes the prefab box of tricks possible. What's more important - for art, that is - is that the computer artists also pioneered in the exploration of conceptual questions that still remain fundamental for computer art.

144 Trapèzes (16 variations), plotter drawing, ink on paper, 20x25 cm, 1974

P91, 1971, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 50 x 50 cm

P-122, "scratch code", plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

P-71, "serielle zeichenreihung", plotter drawing ink on paper, 40cm x 50cm, 1970

T.V.C. 20 68179 71, 1971.

Quadrate, 1969/1970.

Plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1965

51/80 Scratch Code, 1970-1975.

P-050/R, "a formal language", Ink/paper/wood, 1970, 100cm x 100cm

The tape-recorder, photograph and hard-drive are typical metaphors used to describe our memory. Devices of direct repetition; a flawless copy of a saved memory. What characterizes our contemporary age is this external storage. Not only of personal memories, but more importantly of information. The World Wide Web has become our primary source of information, our modern library. Information has become so accessible, that we now add more value to remembering how to locate it, rather than actually taking the time to possess knowledge of it.

The vital difference between the human brain and the artificial ‘brains’ mentioned before is it’s reliability. Our own memory is unfortunately (?) not flawless, most often we only remember bits and pieces, and we’re left to reconstruct the rest of the information. Our minds tend to get a general idea of a situation and not necessarily pay attention to details, subconsciously filling these gaps with what we would expect that detail to be. A hard-drive on the other hand, can reproduce the exact same information as when it was received.

Although this mechanical accuracy is so appealing, our own memories may actually not be so unfortunate - for the exact reproduction of items is also the machine's downfall. All information absorbed by a hard-drive acquires the same value. In other words, it enters. That is all. It sits there waiting to be retrieved, exactly as it was before. What makes our natural memories so strong is the hierarchy we appoint to it. A certain quality is given to each (natural) memory depending on what happens after it has entered the mind. The human mind still processes information long after we receive it, making connections to prior knowledge. We are constantly re-evaluating for ourselves and are capable of putting thoughts and ideas into perspective with other related information. In a way, we rate the information we receive, we are able to decide what kind of information sticks by deciding which to focus on more.

Some might say ‘we must leave room in our minds’ to think, - and consciously leave the task of remembering to external devices - however, this statement would suggest that there is a capacity to our long-term memory. On the contrary, we do not need to make space to be able to further our thinking processes. We are able to take in an endless amount of information and thus construct our personal network of memories. A strong basis of knowledge enables us to contemplate, review and be critical - which eventually results in a strengthened mind.

The World Wide Web contains an immense amount of connections. The fact that eg. Wikipedia (hyper)links to just about every concept known to man, does not mean that the machine itself can make ground-breaking discoveries because of all the ‘knowledge’ it contains. These connections are man-made and not understood by the computer itself. This lack of understanding prevents the machine of being able to make conclusions for itself. Computers are merely capable of accomplishing tasks with human direction, seeing as eg. webpages are designed to be read by people, not machines.

When we use the internet as a substitute for our memory, we lose the strong basis we require to accumulate more knowledge and sacrifice the wealth of connections in our mind. Because however much we want, we will never be able to call the innumerous amount of connections on the web our own. We seem to be “conceited in the idea of wisdom”, as we don’t possess the basal content to work with, denying ourselves the ability to reflect and contemplate. The internet remains a tool of reminder, and therefore information cannot make the translation to knowledge. We would expect from the information/knowledge age that we are knowing more, but we are actually knowing less.

Excerpt of “A Research on (Spatial) Memory from a ‘Graphic Design’ Perspective” including parts on spatial synesthesia, the importance of spatial orientation & cartography, underlying relations and structures, graphic design as a vessel for memorization, etc.

Carr, N. The Shallows. New York, 2010

Clapman, M. History of Technology vol 3. from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, c. 1500 - c.1750. London, 1957

Foer, J. Moonwalking with Einstein. New York, 2011

Lievers, M.Mens Machine. New York, 2008

Sagan, C. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: Pt. 11 The Persistence of Memory, 1980

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift

I was born in 1985. The rise of the Internet is something that occurred as I was maturing into adolescence. Unlike my brother, seven years younger than myself, I remember a time before the Internet and remember vividly experiencing that pivotal point.

In the early nineties, my family was already in possession of a modem that accessed a Bulletin Board System (BBS). The BBS was limited to a network of local users who each stared at their black screens waiting in anticipation for the green text to light up. And text was all it was; even the ‘adventure game’ consisted of pure text, yet this was an entirely unknown world of excitement for me, a malleable world where interaction with other living, breathing beings was possible.

There are moments in life when you’re confronted with new technology and you’re immediately hinted at its significance. In-ter-net. It must have been ’96 or ’97. Despite my venture into the world of BBS, I had absolutely no conception of what this new world would offer. At this point, the only person I knew with an Internet connection was my techno-geek uncle. I remember my first encounter with the Internet at my uncle’s house and looking over my sister’s shoulder, who was patiently waiting for the excruciating slowness of the modem to yield her a full colour image on a Marilyn Manson fan page. The virtual world then unfolded itself to me in the form of ICQ messenger, Hotmail, Angelfire personal web pages, LiveJournal; and the rest, as they say, is history.

On a side note, the first time I ever heard of Hotmail, I was quite convinced that this would be a homoerotic website of sorts. I’ve always wondered if this was a shared first association or just my hormonal teen mind speaking.

A few other first encounters in technological history that I can clearly remember include: Facebook, Google, my first SMS, the first smartphone, etcetera. But let’s fast-forward to my latest, and possibly the most mind-blowing: the Oculus Rift. The idea of virtual reality has been around for ages. The Lawnmower Man, after all, came out in 1992. Computer technology has only recently caught up to the possibilities of virtual reality as an every-day household appliance. Although not yet widely available, (amateur) game developers are fanatically toying, experimenting, and creating new worlds through a premature version of the equipment as I write this article.

I’m at a birthday party at a friend’s house who happens to be a game developer. A group of excited partygoers is ushered down to his study where the promise of virtual reality lies in a pair of goggles, otherwise known as the Oculus Rift. I sit down and don the apparatus that covers my entire vision with two LCD screens that together form a complete image. I am suddenly in rural Tuscany. The sky above is filled with clouds, dust particles and fluttering butterflies. In the distance, rolling hills are covered with cypresses. The trees around me softly rustle their leaves with the blowing wind. I turn my head, and the world turns with me. I look over the balustrade of a balcony and the towering heights cause a twinge of a fear to course through my body. I pass my hands before my eyes and see nothing – ah, this must be what it feels like to be a ghost!

The eyes quickly adjust to the substandard pixelated screen of this prototype Oculus Rift, as though the brain wants to accept the total immersion in a digital world as truth. And that, of course, is where the crux of the ‘danger’ of this new technology lies: how will life change when the virtual world and the physical world are indiscernible? Will we never have to leave the house again? Will we prefer the virtual world over the real world? How will this affect the relationships we have with one another?

There is one major glitch to the Oculus Rift. Turning your head within the game is accepted and understood by the body. However, travelling and walking back and forth within virtual reality is not. The effect is similar to carsickness: the static body cannot cope with the travelling mind and thus, nausea ensues.

As I make my way back to the party, trying to cope with my turning stomach, I become more aware than ever of my movements and of how my body, mind, and vision are in unison once again. The discord had been lifted. But as I sit down on the couch and look throughout the room a creeping sensation comes over me: what if the discord is always here, and I’ve merely grown accustomed to it? What if what I was seeing every day was nothing more than a film covering reality? What if life was just a virtual reality of another nature? Of course, these thoughts are nothing new, but I had never before felt the possibility of the falseness of reality as intensely, as concretely, and as convincingly as before my foray into the world of the Oculus Rift.