Can tech construct a better you?

Teun Vonk believes that technology can help us to fully utilize our physical capabilities. Since getting there will take some time, he subjects his own body to all kinds of wild experiments. His latest artwork will be premiered at STRP Biennale 2019.

‘Empirical research, everything for art!’

In a short movie on his personal Facebook page, Teun Vonk (32) falls like a rock from the sky. He tries to keep his arms close to his body, both cheeks are pulled back by the violent airflow. Vonk has just stepped from a small airplane. One of his skydive instructors has a camera mounted on his helmet. ‘Empirical research, everything for art!’ Vonk wrote to introduce the movie clip.

A few days earlier, the artist is in his studio which is within walking distance of Rotterdam Central Station. His workspace is scattered with both small and large prototypes of his latest work of art, which revolves around gravity. Hoops, soda bottles with tubes sticking out, soft robotics, several big white plastic bags from which the air can be sucked out of. He has overhauled air pumps of various sizes with the help of a technician. A self-made flight suit hangs up on the wall.

Fotograaf: Florian Braakman

Flying high

In this high-windowed studio, with lots of light and a smooth floor, someone is working who has quite recently transformed from photographer to an inventor and expert in the field of technology and physical interactions. Although he is skeptical towards tech, he thinks that it can solve many of today’s societal problems. To Vonk, it also has lots of potential to enhance our daily lives.

Central to the artist’s work is restoring the bond between body and mind, and between body and technology. By adding tech Vonk thinks that we, as humans, will be able to achieve a lot more with our bodies than is currently the case. To push both our physical and mental boundaries. It turns out he is on a personal quest as well. ‘What I do isn’t based on extensive literature studies, but it’s purely a creative process. I make art using my own body.’ Machines play an important role. ‘They take away all human emotion. At the same time, they evoke something very human.’

Personal experiences

Much of what Vonk does, is derived from personal experiences and encounters. Like the feeling you get when flying a glider, something he did in his younger years. To be up in the air really is awesome, he says. ‘But in the cabin you are stuck. Pulled back in your chair by gravity, while holding a control stick. I want to create an experience that really shakes up your body. A wow-feeling similar to having sea legs after sailing a boat.’

According to Vonk – who operates by the name of Studio Tony Spark – many people are trapped by their own (lack of) imagination nowadays. It is the result of working behind a desk, looking endlessly at screens, moving way too little. ‘I strongly believe that in the near future we will reflect on this period in time and think: what on earth were we doing?’

The Physical Mind / Fotograaf: Luuks Smits

A firm hug

Sounds too abstract? Vonk recalls a incident from 2015. At the time, he spent several months in China. His stay was part of a residency at Shanghai Chronus Art Center, at the invitation of Rotterdam based V2_Lab. By then Vonk had spent three years working on photography and film but wanted a change. He wasn’t sure how and in which direction. This caused him to have a considerable amount of stress. Until that moment he got stuck between the two doors of a metro train. ‘It was a really stressful situation that lasted just a couple of seconds. But when I freed myself, I felt very relaxed. The pressure on both shoulders was amazing.’ Fascinated by this experience, Vonk decided he wanted to pass on the feeling he had. But how?

In retrospect, the Shanghai metro incident lead to a turning point in his career. ‘The annoying thing about audiovisual work is the constant creation of experiences that enter the brain. Your body is totally disconnected from this. That’s why we miss a whole lot.’

Subsequently, Vonk came up with The Physical Mind, which premiered in 2016 at Ars Electronica, a big international tech and media art event. His first immersive artwork consisted of a metal frame with two inflatable, white cushions attached. One person at a time lies flat on the bottom part. When both cushions are inflated, the body – not the face – is wedged in between. For many, this form of pressure generates a pleasant feeling, according to Vonk. He makes a comparison with the positive effect of a firm hug. Pressure can help to ease tension and process stimuli, he says. The artwork still travels around the world. It has just returned from the Maintenant Festival in Rennes, France. Previously it crossed Brazil for almost a year, including FILE in Belo Horizonte and festivals in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasília.

Focus on prototyping

Vonk has been approached several times by people that want to bring his artwork onto the market. The Physical Mind might offer a solution to healthcare problems, he believes. Vonk refers to autistic children who are sometimes being held to calm down, not necessarily in a gentle way. However, the time for him to work on a commercial product hasn’t come yet. ‘Passing on my ideas is fun, but I primarily consider my work as creating prototypes.’

He reserves plenty of time for that. Over the past year, Vonk has been working on A Sense of Gravity. The first prototype was presented in The Hague. Feedback from the audience helped him to further develop his concept. He also seeks support from various people including Joshua Klappe, a friend who specializes in research and development of inflatable structures. Vonk is also in contact with Delft University of Technology. ‘I would like to have a body fly in a wind tunnel. For example, an acrobat with artificial wings. Just to see if it is possible.’

He has received funding from CBK Rotterdam, the Centre for Visual Arts, and Mondriaan Fonds. V2, again, is involved. During STRP Biënnale 2019, held in Eindhoven on March 31th, A Sense of Gravity will be premiered.

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