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27.09.2019 | Words by: Mathis Neuhaus

The Hague-based artist Philip Vermeulen likes to have fun with it. In his artistic practice, he bends, stretches and accelerates materials and temporarily redefines what these materials can be. Elastics morph into organic forms that threaten to snap; tennis balls become projectiles that lay the groundwork for a funky composition. His works, that have been shown during CTM Festival in Berlin or Ars Electronica in Linz, evoke a strong urge for experimentation, to uncover the hidden characteristics of any given material and to alter the viewing habits of its viewers.

During De School’s marathon party in October, Philip Vermeulen will show different works in different places of the club. Before setting up, Mathis Neuhaus caught up with him to talk about his artistic approach, his own willingness to get surprised and if failure and success are valid terms for thinking about art.

Q: I want to start out with a question that some artists find notoriously difficult to answer, but some others don’t: could you define the main interests of your artistic practice?

A: I like material and I like to play with it. If you take elastics as an example, it is really fun to throw them around, like a cowboy throws a lasso, and manipulate them. Not only the appearance changes, but they also start to create sounds. If you try and accelerate them with the help of machines and move them as fast as possible and the material starts or at least threatens to break, interesting things can happen. By doing that in my works, I try to create a tension field of danger and attraction. The viewers can be scared and feel elevated at the same time. I try to suspend their analytic systems for a brief moment and alter their states of reception. In a way, both the material and the viewer change their characters and that is what I am interested in.

Q: It definitely feels like there is a playful element to your work.

A: I always try to do my research in a very playful method. Certain characteristics of certain materials will usually come up in this process and then I try to isolate them. Most of the time this happens by using some kind of kinetic instrument to make the materials move.

Q: I get the impression that your process does not always lead you on a clear path from A to B?

A: Oh no, not at all. There is always a moment when the material is the boss and makes me dependent of its needs. It is like an ongoing tug-of-war. Most of the time, the material wins in the beginning and that is when the fun starts. Because it shows its different characteristics and characters. And by isolating these characteristics, I can try to become their master. But, often, the material fights back and still wins.

Q: What kind of materials are you drawn to; do they have to be humble, in a way?

A: They are everyday materials like elastics, textiles, LEDs. Whatever comes my way, basically. My process is, to a certain degree, defined by serendipity. For example, last year, we were building up an exhibition and I was programming an art piece of a friend that made use of a lot of dimmers. In the ceiling of the exhibition space, old fluorescent lights were installed and of course I was interested in seeing what would happen if you put a fluorescent light in a dimmer. The results were great, the flickering looked uniquely amazing and it made a beautiful sound. Then time went on and I forgot about the thing. But at some point, I saw a video of it on my phone and was reminded of its uncanny beauty. I immediately went and bought twelve of these lights and started playing with them. It was like an orchestra that did not want to have a conductor. I have almost no control over it and that I find beautiful. These days, I have 500 of those fluorescent lights.

Q: Sound seems to be another very important element in your work.

A: Yes, I like to manipulate the material not only for visual reasons, but also because the sound it creates can function as a starting point for a composition. When the material makes sounds, it moves into a different trajectory; it’s not only placed in the visual realm anymore, but also becomes sound art. And of course, there is a whole different history of sound art that allows me to work with different strategies and approaches.
Basically, the sound is another layer of the material that can be isolated, amplified and manipulated. And therefore, the material becomes alive

Q: Are you concerned with accessibility in your artistic practice? Sometimes, art can give off the feeling of mostly being a self-serving system.

A: I have to like it myself in the first place. When I am in the process of realizing an artwork, I try not to think too much about art history, philosophy or traditions. Usually, that comes at a later stage. When thinking about it some more and writing about it. I think that you can experience my works without having any knowledge about art in general or kinetic art, the Zero movement or expanded cinema. But if you are aware of these traditions, you can discover the references, too. But that is not for everybody to see and I like it that way. The layers underneath it can be discovered, but they do not have to be. I make use of primary phenomena a lot, like lights and movement. And I guess everybody is affected by that.

Q: What makes an artwork for you, for lack of a better term, successful?

A: It is strange to say that an artwork succeeded or failed. Most of the time, there is a point in the process where I get extremely enthusiastic about it and that is usually a sign that I know it is going to be good. I made an artwork that is called “Int / Ext”, which was shown for the first time during TodaysArt last year: you enter a cabin which is completely dark for 15 minutes so your eyes can adjust to the darkness. Then an extremely small amount of light gets projected as a grid and that is the only thing you see. It is like a small and blue-ish blur. When that fades away, it is like the darkness is grasping your eyeball. There is some research on this phenomenon, it is called brain lights. When I showed that piece, five people did not see anything, so for them it did not work at all. And three people really got it, so I guess it succeeded and failed at the same time. And then again, in experimentation there cannot really be failure, because something not working out as planned can serendipitously trigger new things and ideas.

Q: In your practice, how does the process and the outcome relate to each other for you?

A: I get bored easily, so I try to always evolve and change things. Even in artworks that I showed already. “Slue”, which is going to be presented in De School and I made together with my friend Mischa Daams, could be described as the sister or brother of “10 Meters of Sound”, which is similar, but also different. The underlying concept is the same, but I realized that by using different light sources, the piece changes completely and becomes an entity on its own with its own characteristics. It is like an evolution.

Q: How do you think about the space your works are shown in?

A: The installation attracts the space it needs. One of my works, “Boem BOem”, was shown at Berghain during CTM Festival. And at first, I was very excited about that: mainly, because I got booked at Berghain before a few of my DJ-friends. But then on second thought it got tricky, because if you have ever been at Berghain or also at Halle at Berghain you know that this space is extremely demanding. The work “Boem BOem” is very big and monumental and forceful, but the architecture of the space is even more so. So, the only thing I could think of was to turn off the lights and use strobes in the composition, to make the space less overwhelming and to amplify the impact of the flying tennis balls that “Boem BOem” shoots out. Finding the right way of setting up in any given space is always like solving a puzzle.


During Het Weekend 18.10 – 21.10 Philip Vermeulen's work will be on show in Het Kunstlokaal(in collaboration with Mischa Daams), our smoking room, entrance and a smaller hidden room.
Circus Family shows their work in the entrance and De Cinema.
De Aula opens for Leeza Pritychenko & upsammy's audiovisual installation, they will be doing a concert on Saturday evening from 22:00 until 23:00. 
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