Are we turning into databases?

For the past 25 years Geert Mul has been using databases, image analysis and self-invented software to compose art. He stands for technological progress, but is critical of developments that have no logical reason. ‘Smart cars make stupid cities.’

In a way, a visit to Geert Mul’s (53) studio is a journey through time. His workspace, situated in the Liskwartier, is packed with tv and computer screens of all ages and sizes. Piles of floppy discs lie next to piles with magnetic tape and hard drives. Wheeled storage boxes house state-of-the-art media projectors, others contain old video mixers.

Mul is a media artist. Or, as he’d rather calls himself, a database artist. He combines his fascination with databases with that for visual images. Mul began experimenting with this medium in the late eighties while studying at the Arnhem Academy of Visual Arts. Over the past 25 years he has built up a tremendous track record. From pioneering in the mid 90s as VJ along with techno producer and DJ Speedy J to a visual installation that covered the entire Amsterdam EYE Filmmuseum. In 2016, thirty of his artworks were shown at Stedelijk Museum Schiedam.

‘How content is created through organization and editing has always been very interesting to me’, Mul says. ‘A database enables you to quickly create complex structures and configurations that do not necessarily come up beforehand. By tweaking it you can influence the final outcome.’ In that sense, Mul had created something that was able to produce art for him.

Thinking as a database

Mul moved to Rotterdam in the mid-nineties after finishing his studies in computer animation and video. And after spending some time in Tokyo and Amsterdam. ‘The city was an unexplored, modern entity. In terms of studio space, but also mentally. Everything seemed possible and had yet to be done.’ At the same time electronic music was being invented at lightning speed. Every couple of months clubbers danced to something new: techno, drum ‘n bass, jungle. In 1995 Mul started as a VJ at Nighttown. He mixed video and images he had previously recorded, live on stage. This was something that hadn’t been seen before.

Although databases and algorithms – which are nothing more than a series of assignments – have been around for decades, it’s new that they are present in the fabric of our culture, the artist states. While nibbling on a piece of very dark chocolate, Mul refers to Lev Manovich. Nearly twenty years ago this Russian media theorist published a book on new media. ‘One of the most cited statements is him arguing that the database is our new cultural form.’ Manovich noticed we no longer tell stories as a narrative, the previously dominant form. His foresight was proven right. ‘We nowadays think and function more and more as databases. It’s being reflected in the way we collect information, organize using algorithms and then choose to display it.’

Human intervention

These developments evoke a series of fundamental questions. Mul gives an example based on Match of the Day, an updated version of his earlier artwork Match Maker (2005), which he is currently working on. It consists of randomly selected stills, captured from sixty satellite television channels. After being stored in a database, an algorithm Mul devised himself compares the many thousands of images by parameters such as color and shape. Images that look-alike are ranked. Mul then personally selects which he finds interesting and then proceeds to publication.

The artist is convinced the algorithm itself will never be able to determine what is distinctive, provocative or fun and consequently take over the artist’s role. ‘By means of feedback I can increase the system’s intelligence, so it can make an ever increasing amount of choices on my behalf. At a given moment the question arises whether you want it to be able to operate autonomously. Or do you find this step fundamentally wrong?’ Mul is convinced that a human being must always be able to intervene and be held accountable. To him, intelligence is strongly related to empathy, sensitivity and sustainability. All features that he does not attribute to an algorithm. That’s why he still manually choses the matches his software finds. Even if this means throwing away 999 of 1000 pictures

Self-driving cars

Mul draws a parallel with the smart city concept. He believes in technological progress, but is against the repressive use of technology; just as he is critically opposed to the choices behind so-called evolution. For example, he is skeptical of the self-driving car, which by many is being positioned as the biggest smart city ideal of them all. ‘The technical rat race behind it is in fact a political choice from which all empathy has disappeared’, he argues. ‘It has to appear as if such a development doesn’t cost society anything. As if no considerations are made. But who takes responsibility when a child is run over by a car that has slowed down too late?’

According to Mul, no AI will ever be smart enough to eliminate all risks. It is one of the reasons why the artist is convinced that there will never be a successful launch of the self-driving car. ‘The only way to have them safely drive within a city’s limits, is to fully block off the road with concrete blocks.’ That’s why smart cars make stupid cities, says Mul. It removes all spontaneity. ‘The fact that so many think the self-driving car will succeed, is very effective marketing of large companies like Google. They pretend that there is no way back.’

Old oak tree

Prominent in Mul’s workspace – an old and high-windowed class room – stands a small version of Natureally (2016), the installation he made in commission for Medisch Spectrum Twente, a hospital in Enschede. Mul photographed a 500 year old oak tree in two seasons. Each photo consists of about 250 high-resolution images, glued together digitally. Due to the shifting intensity of a pattern of LEDs behind it, it seems as if seasons are slowly changing.

The artwork took him two years to create. The basis was a hospital briefing centered on the concept of a ‘healing environment’. He used the first year to determine his direction. Deciding which technology to use, is always a critical step and takes place before he knows what the final work will look like. For his location research, he went camping in Twente region. ‘For a week I was exploring the hospital surroundings by car. All efforts seemed to be in vain. Until, on the last day, I read an article in a local rag about the Kroezeboom, one of our nation’s oldest oak trees. Then I knew.’ Natureally measures 4.5 by 8 meters and is permanently placed near the hospital entrance. Some of his other works have been purchased by museums and are part of corporate art collections.