The award-winning media artist Geert Mul (the Netherlands, 1965) has been making computer-based artworks for over twenty-five years. A large portion of his oeuvre, and his more recent work in particular relies heavily on existing images, often sourced online. With the help of image analysis software, Mul reworks the pictures into new combinations, attracted by the unexpected results that algorithmic operations produce, and the revelatory potential they hold. The artist refers to this work as ‘data-based art’ – a term revealing not only of his own process as a maker, but also of his take on how people today engage with the world around them and make sense of it. At the conclusion of a large-scale retrospective of his work, Eef Masson spoke with him about some of the key ingredients of his visual practice and the inextricable relations between them: information, databases and collections; randomness and rules; and crucially, makers and audiences or users. In the course of the conversation, Mul also reflected on how his work ties in with much older traditions of play, in artistic practice, with data and the rules for their recombination.
KEYWORDS: Data art; generative art; databases; image analysis; data visualization
In the online publicity for a retrospective, last Summer in Dortmund, Germany, the Dutch media artist Geert Mul is described as a builder of so-called Findemaschinen, or ‘discovery engines’ (a pun on the more familiar Suchmaschinen, or ‘search engines’). In recent years in particular, Mul has been attracted by the unexpected results that algorithmic operations produce, and the revelatory potential they hold. The exhibit’s curators, therefore, characterize his work as Rechen-Kunst, or ‘calculation art’. Mul’s images, because of their dependency on mathematical operations, are marked by randomness. Such randomness, however, does not entail arbitrariness, as the results of the calculations can always be traced back to very precise statistical procedures, programmed into the above-mentioned ‘machines’. Importantly, Rechen-Kunst also results in a sum that is much ‘more than its parts’.2 For the artist, it is here – in this sum – that meaning emerges.
Geert Mul and Eef Masson
Mul has produced computer-based art throughout his career, which now spans more than twenty-five years. His work comes in different shapes: printed, but also sculptural; installed and performed; self-contained and interactive. His pieces of the past fifteen years in particu- lar also share a key feature: very often, they make use of existing images, reworked into new combinations. Since the early 2000s, the artist has been compiling databases of pictures; first his own, but later also repurposed ones, and increasingly sourced online. Today, he con- siders those compilations so central to his practice even, that he no longer thinks of the computer but rather of the database as his main medium. He uses the amassed images as starting points for a process involving what he calls ‘pixel statistics’: a form of advanced image search that allows him to select and (re)combine pictures on the basis of visual resemblance.
In February of last year, Mul and I took part in an expert meeting organized by Utrecht University (the Netherlands) on artistic and creative forms of data visualization. On this occasion, we engaged in a public exchange on the role of collections and databases in his visual art practice over the years and on his approach to data visualization generally. The talk coincided with the conclusion of a large-scale retrospective of his work, entitled Match Maker, at the municipal museum in Schiedam (also in the Netherlands). The exhibit established the historical significance of this work, demonstrating how over time, it transformed along with the technological developments that it also responded to. Taken together, the works presented attested to a persistent fascination with the possibilities of (visual) recombination – specifically in a for- malized, rule-based manner. The text below is an adapted version of our Utrecht conversation, reflecting on, and integrating fragments from, some of Mul’s work of the past one and a half decade. In the second half of the interview, we also reflect on the connections between this work and other, historical practices of artistic data exploration and recombination and the bending of ‘rules’ they involve.
– Eef Masson