Random Aesthetic Memories: A Studio Visit with Harm van den Dorpel

Located on the top floor of a nondescript office building in the Prenzlauerberg neighborhood in Berlin, the studio of the Dutch artist Harm van den Dorpel is defined as much by what is not there as by what is. On the day I visit, van den Dorpel is sitting at his desk in the eastern corner of the room flicking through images on his computer of potential works in his ongoing digital project “Death Imitates Language.” The works that compose “Death Imitates Language” are generated by an algorithm that is applied to a set of colors and shapes and which it then recombines to create new “generations” of images from the “parent” images. At a certain point in the process, van den Dorpel selects an image and produces a physical, printed version. As I watch him working, van den Dorpel toggles between images of layered grays and greens that have an almost watercolor quality, warped lobular purple orbs, and regions of ochre, turquoise and mauve that evoke both tectonic plates and Venn diagrams.

A look around the artist’s workspace reveals a riot of wires, disused keyboards, printers and other computing accessories, but no brushes, no drop cloths, no tubes of paint, and no artworks to speak of. Van den Dorpel’s roots are in the so-called “Net Art” movement of the late 1990s and early 21st century. A defining feature of Net Art was its eschewal of the traditional media of visual creation and its embrace of the possibilities offered by digital and technological tools. What does a studio-based practice mean to an artist who requires none of the traditional materials that compelled earlier generations of visual artists to seek out a studio in the first place? For van den Dorpel, the physical space is significant for the psychological space it creates. When I ask him why he bothers keeping a studio at all, his answer is straightforward: “It’s mostly to be alone.” “There are a lot of romantic ideas about the studio that I don’t like,” he says, noting that the best ideas often occur to him at home or hanging around in cafes. Nevertheless, he comes to the studio religiously, where he spends hours immersed in his work. It seems that the isolation of the studio allows van den Dorpel the headspace to work through the massive amounts of data created by his algorithmically driven works. The studio is something like a clearing house of ideas for him rather than a site of production.

It seems ironic that a physical space acts as a way of managing the digital space of his program. When I put this to him, Van den Dorpel is quick to point out that digital and material spaces are deeply entangled, and that the metaphors we use to conceptualize the digital world long preceded the World Wide Web. Often, for van den Dorpel, algorithmic creations — which sometimes involve found images, other times original ones — prove to be a kind of visual archeology of the digital era. “Sometimes I use particular algorithms from particular eras, not always knowing what visual output they will make, and I’m very interested to see if the algorithm from a particular era produces visuals that resonate with what things looked like in that earlier era.” Visual signatures from different eras have their own aesthetics that evoke for the artist a kind of nostalgia for potential futures that never came.

I ask van den Dorpel whether, despite his deep interest in the history of digital visual cultures, he finds himself returning to more traditional, art historical subjects — much in the way that interfaces for programs often reference the physical acts of painting or drawing in their image-making software, for example using paintbrushes or plotters to denote specific functions. He thinks for a while and then replies at length:

I once gave a lecture in which I described works by Sarah Morris, Gabriel Orozco, and a third image by a Constructivist painter, and what I found interesting was those three painters — all coming from very different times, backgrounds and interests — were making works that, in a way, were variations on one computer program. There were lines and squares, there was repetition, and there was composition. I thought if I could describe the way those images are constructed as a kind of program, then I could generate all possible works not just those three.

The paintings were, for van den Dorpel, less about their subjects than the emotions and relations they summon. “It’s not that I look at a painter and then I’m inspired by [their works]; it’s more that I recognize unconscious aesthetic memories in my head. And when I tune my algorithms there is always an aesthetic sensitivity or desire and that might be influenced by the art I’ve seen around me.” Art, in this understanding, is something like an ecology, an entangled and entangling environment of images that translate across media, eras, and usages, not so much unstoppable, but simply moving because stopping has never seemed like a possibility. By this point in our conversation the sun is setting over the Alexanderplatz television tower, which is just visible from the window at Harm’s studio. I leave him to sift through the menagerie of images his algorithm has produced, the visual universe remains in its constant flux, in and outside the walls of the studio.

By William Kherbek