An Interview with Angelo Vermeulen

An Interview (2013) with Angelo Vermeulen by Michelle Kasprzak. Published in Blowup Reader 7 Outer Space as Extreme Scenario.

An Interview with Angelo Vermeulen

Angelo Vermeulen and Simon Engler test driving a CSA Juno rover in Montreal during the 2013 HI-SEAS mission. Photo by Yajaira Sierra-Sastre.

Michelle Kasprzak: Could you tell me about the turning point moments in your career?

Angelo Vermeulen: The first turning point was meeting British photographer Nick Waplington back in the 90’s during a workshop in Hasselt, Belgium. This was at the time when I was wrapping up my PhD and also my photography studies. I really was inspired by his work and I actually wrote to him after “I want to make a transition from science to arts. Could I come over to London? I'm just interested to hang out for a while, and learn.” He said, “Yeah, sure. Come over.” He allowed me to use his darkroom, his equipment, and he gave me feedback, too. Nick also introduced me to the London art scene back in ’99, and I ended up staying there for a year. This was very formative for me, as it gave me a very good sense of being critical towards the art world and avoiding the pitfalls of the art market, while focusing on developing yourself in a much deeper sense. Obviously, in places like New York and London, there is this huge pressure of the art market to try and fit in with existing paradigms. Nick was somebody who always pushed me to think beyond existing paradigms. That was a very first crucial turning point.

When I went back to Belgium, the second very important turning point were my studies at HISK, the Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In my application I proposed to make a transition from photography and video (which I was exploring intensively back in that time) towards installation art. And that's what I did. In two and a half years at HISK, I received personal feedback, and the opportunity to develop my art installations there. Basically, what I'm known for now is what I was developing there, but with the regular feedback of visiting artists, lecturers, and critics.

During my time at HISK I met another influential person, Antoon van den Braembussche, an art philosopher, famous in the Netherlands and Belgium through his book Thinking Art. We clicked very well during his guest professor visit at HISK. We stayed in touch, and the first time I visited him at his home, we had a memorable five hour conversation. It was very intense, and we both thought, “we need to do something with this.” Later we made a book, Baudelaire in Cyberspace, a collection of ten dialogs on the relation between arts, science and digital culture. That was really a huge turning point in my artistic development.

Another crucial turning point was in 2008, when Professor Max Mergeay, who was working for the European Space Agency, discovered my work during a talk. We were both giving presentations in Brussels the same afternoon. He told me, “You know, it would be interesting if you could come over to our collaborators from the European Space Agency and give a presentation about your work. I think there is some synergy going on here between your work and our MELiSSA research project. You’re a professional biologist but you’re also an artist and designer. We could probably work together.”

He and a colleague invented the MELiSSA system, a regenerative ecosystem for future long-term space flight. MELiSSA is an artificial ecosystem that transforms all the molecules that come out of the human body into nutrients for plants. At the same time, the plants produce oxygen and purify water. It’s a full circle, ‘closed’ system.

This became the start of what I'm doing now; it became my entry into the world of space exploration. I ended up applying for the NASA-funded HI-SEAS mission (see postscript for mission description), which I completed almost four months ago. I became the crew commander of this Mars simulation in Hawaii. While entering the world of space exploration, I decided to start a new PhD at TU Delft, in the Participatory Systems research group.The guidance of my two advisors Prof. Frances Brazier and Dr Caroline Nevejan; being exposed to their advanced ideas has had a tremendous impact these past two years. They are really challenging me in my current work.

If you summarize it, it's very much about looking for personal growth, being open to and seeking mentorship. And during that whole process, constantly building communities and transmitting what I pick up – I'm transmitting it to global communities all over the world. That's really how I see myself as an artist. As much as I'm an explorer, I'm also really a connector – somebody who transmits information between layers of society.

MK: It sounds like it's also about not being afraid of change.

AV: Yes, I do need change. Sometimes I say to myself, “Why am I making my life so complicated? Why can't I just invent an artistic ‘signature’ and keep doing that for the next four decades?” But depending on the moment I'm operating more like a designer, an artist, or a scientist, and it's never pure. It's not that on occasions I'm only a scientist, and on others only an artist. It's a continuous movement of focus within a mixed field of specialties. During the HI-SEAS mission, I performed scientific research: data measurements, statistical analysis, etc. But there is no way around the fact that my artistic sensibility is influencing the choice of things to investigate, and how I'm investigating them. You can't separate that.

MK: We've been doing a research project at V2_ about innovation in extreme scenarios. What we're finding interesting is when we interview people, one thing that keeps coming up is a push-pull between the ideas of creativity and innovation. People often put creativity with artists and innovation with scientists. How do you place it? What do you think the difference between creativity and innovation is, if there is one?

AV: Innovation is all about progress, while creativity can be about progress but doesn't necessarily have to be about progress. That's how I simply define it. For me, innovation is situated under the umbrella of creativity. Also, it’s a very specific cultural idea that we have to look for progress. You could embrace a life where you don’t really embrace progress on a technological and material level. If you fully embrace Buddhism, for example, the main progress you would envision is a sort of inner growth. You’re not going to develop all kinds of disruptive technological systems for the sake of disruption. But the Western world is all about relentless progress on a material level – though Chinese and Arab cultures have this innovation drive as well.

You know, sometimes I really wonder if it is innate in humans to be innovative, or if there are cultures that aren't motivated to innovate on a material, technological level. It's quite interesting to see where that comes from, these two world views. Do we have to move the world forward in a material sense, or do we focus on something entirely different? Do we invent, or do we simply accept what we have, the traditions that we have?

The model we're commonly using around innovation is based on the Industrial Revolution and a specific interpretation of what an artist should be, the ‘avant-garde’. Mass production needs mass consumption, and innovation has proven to be the most effective strategy to keep that flow going. But then there’s also the idea of the avant-garde – artists at the forefront of cultural expression. It’s a concept that is still at the heart of contemporary art, but also a driving force in popular culture such as pop music. This also keeps people longing for ‘progress’.

MK: You could also say that today maybe we're trapped a little bit. We're in a progress trap. It's progress for the sake of progress.

AV: Which is driven by consumer society, which relates back to my point on the Industrial Revolution.

MK: Should we be focusing on fixing Earth before we explore space? How do those of us who work on things that are definitely about progress feel about progress?

AV: It's very ambiguous for me. First of all, I'm a futurist, and my idea of futurism comes from being a biologist and having embraced the idea of evolution. For me, futurism and evolution are deeply related. It's a natural interest of mine to boost things forward.

There's also discourse about ‘the end of art’. It's actually an old discussion that has been going on for a few centuries, starting with Hegel. Art has reached a point where it has become something else, it no longer satisfies by itself alone, the deepest needs of the spirit. As Danto stated, we have outgrown art. To be meaningful, we should look at art as an object of intellectual consideration. As an artist, I don’t totally believe this.

I'm not against conceptual art, but I don’t believe we're at the end of art where it has gotten entirely disconnected from spiritual needs. I think it's a very narrow-minded way of looking at the potential of art. It's simply a fact that every human has a unique psychocultural configuration – every single human is a unique combination of things. And then, every single day is an example of a day which has progressed somehow. If you bring those two together, it's impossible not to make art which is progressing. So when people tell me “everything has been done”, that's going to be really hard to prove. I don’t believe that. And it’s precisely within this potential to reach out to the ever-changing future one can find a spiritual quality, a meta-perspective. I’m not creating futuristic art works merely because I’m interested in science fiction, but because I’m fascinated by the mystery of human evolution on a much larger scale.

Why would we go to space if we haven’t fixed Earth? First of all, I don’t think it's an either/or question. I think we can definitely go to space and at the same time, fix Earth.

One thing we need to fix is to spend way less money on developing weapons to kill people all over the world. The genius, creativity, innovation, energy, and passion that is put into developing systems to kill people is just insane. If even a fraction of that would be redirected to other causes, the whole world would be better off. Space exploration doesn't even come close to the resources being poured into the war industry.

Also, I don’t look at space exploration as an apocalyptic scenario. The Seeker art project that I'm currently developing in Ljubljana is the fourth version of the project. We're building a community-designed starship – it's social design. With a group of people, both local and international, we envision what a starship could be like. We approach this by integrating people, technology and ecology. I always make it clear when we start that this is not an ‘ark’. We're not escaping some apocalyptic scenario and trying to find our way out. We're placing ourselves outside of Earth because that is a unique position where you can take a distance from specific traditions and paradigms. You can radically rethink things. And once you figure out solutions, you can bring them back to Earth and use them to travel deeper into space – because we're a species of explorers after all.

MK: Tell us a bit more about the project you're doing there in Ljubljana, and who’s building it with you.

AV: The project was originally conceived for the Witteveen+Bos Art+Technology Award last year. I was asked to create an exhibition accompanying the award ceremony, and I said: “One of the reasons you gave me this award was because of my co-creation efforts. I 'd like to make an artwork with your company since you're giving me the award.” They were interested, and so I came up with the idea of building a spaceship. We also opened the project up to the entire city of Deventer where Witteveen+Bos is based. Consequently a mix of artists and engineers worked on it for months, trying to figure out how to build a spaceship that is not just a prop for a science fiction movie, but is an actual system and representation of how ecology, people and technology could be blended into interesting configurations.

We ended up with a huge prototype. And then I was invited to exhibit the project at Z33 in Hasselt. We decided to keep the architecture but to strip the entire interior and rethink it. Now, for this version here at the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, we’re using part of the original components. We're keeping the base and some of the actual raw materials. But we’ve also been re-imagining the entire outside architecture. It's really almost like a biologically growing, artwork that evolves over time in different places, driven by the people that I’m collaborating with.

The people that I work with are usually multidisciplinary just as in Biomodd, which is my previous community-driven project. It's usually a mix of people with either some background in design, arts and architecture, hackers, gamers, horticulturists. We have scientists joining in as well and so it's really art and science mixed together, with the scientists and engineers learning about installation art, and the artists learning all kinds of things about science by being involved.

This is a much more inclusive way of working with people. For me, it's as much an exploration of shaping an idea as it is for them. This is a very different position than a traditional artist who just needs labour to have his/her or idea come to life. One of the important things that I started doing from the second version on was running isolation missions within Seeker. I started running isolation missions based on my experience with HI-SEAS. This proved to be very interesting. I locked myself up inside the artwork with five fellow artists at Z33. We didn't come out for a few days. However, we had our own sanitation system, water and food supply. We cooked, and we could sleep there. We had discussions, and we continued building.

This proved to be an incredible eye-opener. Of course it's different than a scientific mission, but the human connection you build by being isolated like this – even if it's just for a few days – generates outputs and discussions that are very rich. In the future, I want to start using those missions for moments of cultural production: getting together in isolation and produce things, ideas, videos, texts, whatever we can generate.

MK: How did your art practice influence how you led the HI-SEAS mission?

AV: My community art projects had a huge impact on how I developed my leadership during the HI-SEAS mission. Of course, you could also argue that I have a specific personality that drives me to doing things like community art projects and HI-SEAS. The experience that I built up during my community art projects was very valuable. It made me more at ease with groups and provided me with a very inclusive type of leadership. I was not the kind of crew commander that would wake up in the morning and then shout orders to the crew about what needs to be done. This is very military style, which some of my friends actually advised me to use. But I absolutely refused to develop a style like that.

One of the things that is typical for space exploration is working with highly qualified people, usually leaders in their own fields. You have to approach leading differently and look at it as a collaborative effort. There's two things that I focused on as the commander of the HI-SEAS mission: the first was maximizing individual potential, putting myself in service of the potential of my crew. I observed the capacities of each crew member which are relevant for the whole group and mission. As soon as an obstacle to using those capacities arose, I helped them out to clearly identify the obstacle, and try to remove it.

The second focus point was crew cohesion. This was something I was focusing on all the time, building a sense of community, which of course comes out of Biomodd and Seeker. Obviously, if you see something which might lead to conflict in the group, you try to eliminate it as fast as possible instead of letting it fester. Also, and this is really my personal style, I was consciously keeping all communication lines open all the time. It started with the morning briefing where I would invite every single person to speak up instead of ‘whoever wants to talk’.

During HI-SEAS I developed a culture of sharing very consciously. I invited everyone to spend time in the shared workspace every day. It didn't have to be long, but I didn't want crew isolating themselves in their rooms, which is very tempting because it's easier to focus that way. In the long run, it balances out and is even better because there's more harmony in the group. What happens if you work in a shared workspace: you talk, you help each other out. That's extremely important in these intense psychological experiments.

Another interesting point is my ‘commander experiment’, which is an example of how I'm interested in social engineering and evolution. I woke up one morning with an idea. After breakfast, I told my crew, “Listen, I have this new idea. I want to give my role to you. I want to give you the opportunity to experience my position, to expand your experience so when you come out of here, you have more experience than just being a regular crew member. Who’s interested to take over this place?” Then, four out of my five crew members showed interest.

During subsequent weeks, different people in my crew took over the commander role and I took a step back. Of course, they changed the rules. This proved to be a very valuable experience. On the one hand, it was not easy because, implicitly, there’s criticism within the changes. On the other hand, every now and then you see that some strategies work better, and you have to acknowledge that.

I ended up absorbing the successful strategies of my crew in my own leadership style. By the end of the mission, I had a true hybrid style – my own preferences, mixed with things that I discovered through my crew. Some of my crew members told me when they were the commander, “Now I realize what you're going through every day.” There was a much better understanding of being a leader. The experiment worked in many interesting ways, and I think I could only create these kind of social experiments with the artistic background that I have.

This experiment also relates to my PhD at Delft University of Technology, wherein I'm developing new concepts for starships. It's quite a speculative, conceptual PhD, but I'm also building prototypes and running computer models so it's not utter science fiction.

One of my main rationales for this rethinking of starship design is applying biological concepts in engineering. I'm interested in building holistic systems that integrate people, biology and technology. Instead of having a spaceship which looks more like architecture with some people dropped in, I think more deeply about the role of people within that architecture and the relationship between the architecture (or the technology) and the people.

A third participant is biology, which should not be confined to one room where there's some ecosystem growth. You can actually embed biology throughout the whole starship. I'm interested in designing space systems that can evolve. I'm not talking about a starship that can just architecturally evolve, but also the internal biology and social structures can adapt and evolve. My commander experiment is an example of social evolvability. In this way, I'm hoping we can radically rethink space architectures.

MK: What would be your ideal scenario for space exploration of the future? Is it a starship that orbits, or creating new social systems on a different planet?

AV: My interest is not so much settling on a different planet. I'm very much interested in ongoing exploration, the voyage. The starship I’m envisioning is a system that is adaptable and it keeps on journeying. It might encounter places but the journey never ends. That's basically my dream. It might dock, it might visit, but it keeps going, we keep penetrating deeper and deeper, expanding experience and knowledge.

MK: The colonization fantasies can be a bit dark, inevitably.

AV: Yes, it can be dystopian, but the again, exploration is always a form of colonization. There's no way around it, even if you don’t build a settlement, we’re still talking about an artifact of human culture that is penetrating into deep space. Just like ongoing radio and TV signals leaving Earth at the speed of light. In a way, that's also a sort of colonization.

MK: Could you talk a little bit about success, failure and risk. For example, has one of your projects ever been an outright failure or a “successful failure”?

AV: I don’t think I've had any Biomodd or Seeker project which I would consider a failure. Of course, some of them are more intense or intricate than other ones, and that's inevitable. It depends on the time, the resources, the money, and especially the number and type of people that show up. When I was developing Biomodd in New Zealand, we did not have a specific moment to properly share it. We had a low-key reception at the end of the workshop, but no real context of an exhibition. And it's simply hard to get a whole team behind a big idea if there's no moment to bring it into the world. And it's not just the opening event that is important. If you know that your collaborative effort is going to be visible for at least some time, and is going to be part of a larger discussion, you can really motivate a whole group of people because they know they're going to change things. It energizes an entire group and creates a sense of pride, a sense of expectation. It creates social dynamics because people start inviting their personal social groups to join in, and to come and visit. It's absolutely crucial. These projects, as much as they are about the process, are also about the final statements and provocations that we make.

Failure is mostly perceived in retrospect. You think: ”I should have communicated with that person in a different way. I should have managed that group dynamic a little differently.” For me, failures in these projects can be traced back to not being open to the actual potential that’s there. In order to be open to this, you have to let go of your preconceptions and expectations, which is truly hard.

Secondly, it demands a lot of trust. If you don’t have trust in the group, you will become controlling and start dominating the entire project. You want to make sure your reputation as an artist won't go down. But that's not going to work. You have to trust it all. You have to trust the future, the people.

If you have a well-tuned group, you don’t even need to tell every individual person what needs to be done. People automatically self-organize, they know what needs to be done to make the work powerful. It's an amazing thing that happens, and it's all about keeping communication open.

MK: A well-tuned group is the Holy Grail. On a process note, how do you get people involved? Do you select people?

AV: No, I don't select the group, everyone is welcome. Also, I try to treat everyone very equally. There's no hierarchy concerning experience, age, degrees you have. When I was working on the first Seeker, for Witteveen+Bos, they said, “Your model is actually very interesting for our company because you treat everyone extremely equally.” There are no persistent power games within the group because people don’t feel entitled to take a higher position as everyone is consistently being treated very equally.

Because of this treatment of the group as a whole, creativity is boosted. If you don’t do that, people will start building counter-productive power relationships within the group. People will say things like, “This project is about space exploration and I have the most experience with this …” and then you get positioning of people within the group. Of course, this always happens to a certain extent. It would be naive to think it won't happen, but you can minimize adverse positioning.

When such adverse positioning happens, it can be very destructive for group dynamics because the people that are doubting their position in the group will either leave, or they will just sit and wait instead of taking ownership. My goal in my community art projects is to stimulate everybody to take ownership through embracing certain aspects and making it their own. It’s not easy. Sometimes, I do fall into the mode of the artist who starts to micromanage things. I don’t think there's been even one project where I didn't have those moments.

When that happens my team has to put me on the spot and say “stop it”. It's a continuous process of self-regulation and group regulation.

MK: Are extreme scenarios where you have to be very careful about how you conduct your every movement an ideal situation for coming up with innovative new concepts? Or is this more a scenario where you have to stick to the plan?

AV: If you enter very risky situations, the worst you can do is making a plan and then sticking to the plan. That's pretty much a recipe for complete failure. The only way out if you enter a very risky or unpredictable situation is resilience. You have to be resilient, which is all about building capacity for change. Forget about the plan. You can make a plan, but you have to know that you probably have to throw the plan out, and that that's fine.


HI-SEAS:  The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS.org) is a new Mars analog program studying food supply/preparation options, team function and performance, and life support resource requirements. The habitat site, in the saddle area of Mauna Loa on the Island of Hawai'i, is both visually and geologically similar to Mars, enabling crewmembers to conduct high-fidelity exploration EVAs and test space suit components and rovers in a challenging environment. An 11-meter diameter geodesic dome structure enclosing two stories of living, working, and laboratory space serves as a habitat for a crew of six. It is powered by a combination of diesel and solar power and is instrumented to provide real-time monitoring of water and power use and control of internal temperature and CO2 level. Communication delays built into the habitat's internet connection mimic those anticipated for a real Mars mission. The initial HI-SEAS mission, April 16 - August 13, 2013, was funded by NASA's Human Research Program primarily to test differences between crew-cooked and pre-prepared food systems. Related studies on power, water, and labor requirements for food preparation and cleanup accompanied the food study, along with a complement of crew-directed and "opportunistic" research projects related to team dynamics, crew sleep, antimicrobial garments, robotics, habitat thermographics, and hydroponics. A team of 30 volunteers from around the world served as mission support staff. During the next three years, NASA will fund three more HI-SEAS missions of 4, 18, and 12 month duration, focusing on studies of crew autonomy, performance and training. The opportunistic studies planned for these future missions may include testing of EVA equipment, water recycling, waste management, medical telemetry and telemedical simulations. 

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