‘Stretching reality’

Interview with media pioneers Polymorf

, Elja Looijestijn

The world is changing and the media is changing with it. Makers are using new technology and strategies to communicate their stories to the public. VPRO is a sponsor of this progress, which can most keenly be felt in the fields of technology, media and storytelling. This progress also creates new professions. VPRO Gids presents the forerunners of modern media in a series of interviews.

The fourth portrait in this series is of Mark Meeuwenoord en Wander Eikelboom  who are both part of collective Polymorf, an interdisciplinaire designagency. VPRO Gids spoke to them at VPRO Medialab’s Conference for the Curious at STRP Biënnale in Eindhoven, where they were two of the speakers.

What do you call yourselves?

Mark Meeuwenoord (44): ‘I am a media maker, designer and software developer, with a background in philosophy and music. With Wander, Frederik Duerinck, Marcel van Brakel, Peter Boonstra we form a collective called Polymorf. We call ourselves an interdisciplinary design agency.’

Wander Eikelboom (44): ‘I am a theoretician and have an academic background. Polymorf brings together people with different backgrounds: we have a filmmaker, theatre maker, audio designer and so also a philosopher and thinker. Together we develop special media experiences.’

You were speakers at Conference for the Curious by VPRO Medialab in Eindhoven. Which developments do you currently see in the media?

Wander: ‘In the industry there are clear developments in the field of virtual reality, which is getting bigger. As a design studio we want to use the whole body as medium. We don’t design only for the eyes or ears, but also use the other senses to create a more immersive experience. We want to carry people along and emotionally involve them with the story. When a film is good, you forget you are watching a film and become completely immersed in the story. With virtual reality you find yourself in the space where the story is taking place. And what we are trying to do is to feel and experience what the main character actually experiences.’

Mark: ‘With the emergence of virtual reality, the visual element has become even more dominant and the body is forgotten. When you are in virtual reality, you see and hear everything, but you don't feel anything, you miss something. We want to give perception a place, we think this is the next step in new media. We have tried this with smell, for example. In our installation Famous Deaths you lie in a refrigerated box, like in a mortuary. You experience the last moments of deceased celebrities, such as Whitney Houston and J.F. Kennedy. You hear the story and also smell the odours that go with that story. In this way we want to emphasise the physical and emotional aspects of the story.’

What do you think the public needs now?

Wander: ‘A kind of authenticity. We both teach at the Avans Hogeschool. I have noticed that my students are looking for true experiences in order to discover who thy are within them.’

Mark: ‘You can reach your audience by giving them something they can really experience. We receive an enormous amount of information very day via a small screen. I don't think we should bombard people with even more information, but that a clear choice should be made in the stories that you tell and the media you choose for this.’

Wander: ‘People are deeply impressed when they leave Famous Deaths, because they have truly experienced something. Another of our pieces is The Entangled Body. Here we project the emotional state of the visitor using ultrasound. You can’t see it, you can only feel it by tentatively trying it. We hereby hope to offer an experience that is more than just another gimmick; look what technology can do. It should also say something about the relationship we have with ourselves.’

Many installations are not linear narrations. What role does the story play then?

Wander: ‘There is a story in Famous Deaths, it just doesn’t end well. But smells are very personal. We have researched which smells go with the story. Whitney Houston died in her bath. She bathed in olive oil, because it was good for her skin. And so that is what you smell, but I have a different relationship with olive oil than you do. In this sense, the story is much more about your perception of the story. We actually design a framework within which you can place your own story.’

Many such experiences are very individual. Isn't that a shame?

Mark: ‘I think we see a lot of hyper-individual installations on the one hand, and at the same time a kind of up-scaling of experiences. Mass media is also back. Nowadays, technology has become available that makes it possible to do things with people on a very large scale. For example, you can use the mobile telephone to carry out a social experiment at a festival with lots of people.’

What do you see in next generation media makers?

Wander: ‘The media will become very accessible, as will learning how to use it. Young people are keen to learn as they go and express themselves through all forms of media available to them. Exchanging knowledge and trying it out, that is what distinguishes this generation. When teaching we tell our students: even if you don’t know what the outcome will be, start investigating things as you make them. This generates a lot of new insights.’

'When teaching we tell our students: even if you don’t know what the outcome will be, start investigating things as you make them. This generates a lot of new insights.'

Wander Eikelboom

What kind of barriers do you encounter?

Wander: ‘The stumbling blocks are both technological and financial. The technology we use is very advanced and new. The funding for such pioneering work is difficult.’

Mark: ‘Everything is focused on traditional media, with a whole network around it of subsidies and knowledge. If you start working with smell, touch or taste, like we have, it just doesn’t fit anymore. So you have to figure it out for yourself and are completely dependant on universities, for example, but these only focus on research, not it’s applications. We have to set up new networks for every project. This is great fun, but also very complicated.’

Wander: ‘The great thing is that we can push boundaries. As a designer it is also your strength to be able to predict the future. We want to make something that streches reality.'