LAb[au], digital Meta-Architects

LAb[au] is a multimedia architects and artists group located in Brussels for nearly fifteen years. Guests at many European digital arts festivals, their work today receives international attention and deserved recognition in Belgium. Their approach, in the spirit of the artists of the Bauhaus, aims to be unifying and in search of a pictorial language for our times. Digital art, with its own codes and particular aesthetic, offers them a field of action conducive to the deployment of protean artwork in search of beauty. It is therefore highly visual art in which light and sound are omnipresent and which recalls the formalism of renowned predecessors, notably the precursors of cybernetic art, but finds fulfillment through the use of the computer and its infinite possibilities.

At the intersection of disciplines and practices, LAb[au] plans the various facets of its artistic activity - installations, performances, music, architecture and theoretical studies - with the same rigour and systemic approach that constitute its trademark.
MetaDeSIGN, the work recently published by the group, represents both a summary of their work and a manifesto of their artistic vision. Its publication provided an opportunity to look back with Manuel Abendroth, one of the founding members of LAb[au], on an outstanding career.

You see yourselves as building on a long artistic tradition dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. How would you trace the genealogy?

Our name itself, LAb[au], is a reference to the Bauhaus, where an essential question was formulated: what art form is appropriate for the industrial era? In other words, what is the art of the twentieth century and therefore, so to speak, the art of the machine. This questioning led to the development of systemic thought and fundamental thinking about the aesthetic. Industrial design was born with the Bauhaus as the culmination of this new relation between art and technology which originated with art nouveau and the German movement of the Werkbund .

After the war, the Ulm school developed and Europe witnessed the birth of concrete art with Max Bill. Designers such as Otl Aicher and Dieter Rams placed communication at the heart of their work. Such a design was later referred to as Communication design, which the Braun brand has since used to it's advantage.

This was followed by System design, cybernetic art, as practiced namely by Nicolas Schöffer , and . finally by Meta-design, as we have conceptualized it. For us, the object in its aesthetic and functional dimension results from all these processes with the artistic act taking place at a "meta" level through the identification of parameters and the setup of a programmed system.

That accounts for the major influences. But of course, there are also other traditions, such as minimalism, conceptual art, etc., certain traces of which can be found in our work.

What all these artistic movements have in common, is an abstract, rigorous, quasi scientific approach. They are often referred to as formalist art but the most important point is that they ask questions about art as a medium. I think that an art that asks, for example, the question "what is beauty?" in the digital age, as complex as the notion may appear, is much more deserving of its place and importance today than an art that controls or illustrates political events. All the more so if the aesthetic aspect becomes anecdotal. I think that the strength of art is that it offers its own vision of the world, which is neither science nor politics. Scientific research and politics therefore do not have a monopoly on furthering progress in the world; art also plays a vital role. The language of forms incorporates thought, perceptual phenomena and the "tangible" world.


Currently, the major European digital arts festivals (Transmediale, Exit, Ososphère, Via, Ars Electronica, Transnumériques...) are completely going beyond the boundaries of traditional plastic or performing arts with an ever increasing porosity between genres and practices. How do you situate yourselves in relation to this trend as artists?

Personally, I don't know of any digital artist who has not at one time or another practiced sculpture, performance or printing... It is certainly the expression of an art that is still searching for its own formats and language. Technology leads to a great deal of experimentation and research. The artefact results from a process often culminating in forms that are not those one had imagined at the start. These new forms may be considered as eclectic or betraying an immature art, but my point of view is that they prefigure new forms of art.

It should be noted that the digital medium is also the first technology which unifies information; whether it be an image, a sound, a color...everything is stored and encoded in an identical form: binary code. This unification of information enables an unprecedented interrelation of media and therefore leads to new forms of expression and new modes of exhibiting art. We might say, in the style of Marshall McLuhan, that it is the medium that incites creators to work in an interrelated and interdisciplinary manner.

Another important aspect for us is that digital art enables us to reread, rediscover and revisit art, particularly that of avant-garde artists that began by abolishing traditional forms. Take Kandinsky for example; in his work, the interrelation of music and color becomes "concretely" possible and experimentable. The interrelation of the parameters of color and sound constitutes the basis of the artwork and the composition becomes a code or a program. This code is a structured description which follows defined rules; it therefore relies on a language. This particular feature led us to describe our artistic practice as an art of systems. What most interests us is the authenticity and coherence of the artistic approach rather than the format it takes.


Digital art has from its origins faced the problem of durability and the trace due to rapidly obsolescent hardware and constant software development. This problem, coupled with the difficulty of finding a niche in the art market requires some preliminary thought to ensure that artwork will be able to stand the test of time. What are your strategies in this regard in relation to the art market in particular?

It is indeed necessary to implement specific strategies, ideas and research. The doubt concerning the durability of artwork is one of the reasons that continue to make it very difficult for digital artwork to access the art market. It should be noted however that artwork like PixFlow (2006) and SwarmDots are starting to attract interest. They offer a format for presenting generative art outside the framework of printed matter, the executable supplied on CD or the wall-mounted "living room" plasma screen ...The project is the product of research into new formats specific to real time generative art and offers a solution that corresponds both to characteristics of the art form and market criteria, because without economic reality there is no art.

We also work with more classic formats which do not aim to satisfy the market but are an integral part of our artistic approach. For example, the Chrono.prints (2007-2009) cycle offering a series of eighty prints, each illustrating the light process that took place on the Tour Dexia over one hour. These series of prints relates the basic units of time: hours, minutes and seconds with the three primary colors of light Red-Green-Blue. The result is chromatic forms and textures of time. With this type of series, we are clearly part of the optic art and Hard-edge painting movement that encompasses artists ranging from Vasarely to Sol Lewitt. The systemic art of the sixties is thus extended and confronted with systems and programmed codes.


Your recently published work MetaDeSIGN is a sort of manifesto of your work structured according to many themes. Could you elaborate on it for us?

Writing this book helped us to clarify and structure the main themes of our work. All our work is based around the idea of systems which we classify as follows: interactive, reactive, generative, performative, analytical and connective systems. Each of these terms determines a way of describing a system. The fundamental difference between them resides in their functioning. For example, an interactive system develops according to inputs, data, supplied by the user. There is clearly an exchange and transformation of information.

In a performative system, the person using the system knows the function and results of their actions in advance. The performer is the interface that communicates with the public, where as in the interactive system, anyone can use it. The mode of operation is therefore very different.

Conversely, reactive systems receive information from the exterior and use it in their internal processes. For example, a sculpture that receives daily information from a weather station and translates it into the form of colors.

The book follows this system classification by introducing a second reading distinction between open (connective) system and closed (generative) system. With the help of this structuring, we can identify and label our practice, but we also hope to provide some general insights concerning the classification of digital art. We also highlighted some recurring concepts in our practice. The diagrams and maps featured on the cover of the book combined with the classification of systems, concepts, and disciplines in which we operate give an interesting reading of our work. In its very design, the book attempts to be a concrete example of our approach of a the "parameter design" and provides "meta" readings of our work in keeping with our practice as MetaDesigners.


The generative process, very often controlled by a special algorithm, is an important element in your work. How does that fit into your creative process?

The generative is a system that does not require any external data; it is completely autonomous and closed. Once launched, it develops by itself according to the system's inherent rules. Our Pixflow project, for example, uses a calculation error to generate a process of change. Randomness is a technique often used in this type of system but it is not the only means. The interest of this work is to use a calculation error to create something changing that never repeats itself. In addition to questions concerning the functioning of the installation, it also sets out to examine the actual mechanism of a system based on error.


This work on systems is not the only theme of your approach. You attach particular importance to the concepts and methods that you employ.

There are recurring concepts in our practice. One of these we call fLUX, which refers to a flow of information rendered in the form of light. Binary waves is a good example of this or the concept of "datascapes" that incorporates ideas on the visualization of data. One of our first projects, Lightscape(s) (1999), a study carried out for the Heysel Plateau in Brussels, began with the analysis of information and then represented it in light form in a topography. The work on light led us to develop concepts that can now be integrated in or guide other projects and research. What is important for us is to find a language suited to the tools we use and to observe the resulting aesthetic.


Your projects generally offer a double reading: a quite immediate and highly visual experience followed by a more theoretical reading that often makes use of theories of computation. How do you combine these two aspects in your work?

We have always been interested in the aesthetic and the judgment of "beauty", which might at first sight appear to be a nineteen century concern. However, creating beauty is, for us, the ultimate meaning of art and a foremost concern that belongs to art. It is extremely difficult to provoke a feeling of amazement in the spectator, particularly if one works with technology because the barrier of special and technical knowledge is easily erected. But if one succeeds in creating this moment, any distance between the spectator and the work of art is removed and questions of meaning and preconceptions are eliminated.

The question therefore is how to create this moment of amazement by using technology without falling into the pastiche of "beauty" in the manner of the nineteenth century bourgeois salons that imposed this canon on an academic, backward-looking and romantic aesthetic. This is where theoretical, conceptual and methodological work has a role to play in order to reveal the meaning and hence the "tangible" that we might call "beauty". Based on this reasoning, one can understand our attachment to that which is avant-garde.

Although it is not necessary for the spectator to understand all the various levels of meaning to appreciate the work of art, if he is curious enough, he can discover the unseen part and its profound meaning.


You also create work for urban spaces. What are the difficulties and artistic challenges of this?

LAb[au] has been in existence for nearly fifteen years now. Over the years we have acquired a maturity in our work and an ever more refined command of the creative process.

We are today able to respond to public commissions whose specifications require certifications and a certain level of durability. We need to be able to cope with very demanding processes and respond to durability requirements that represent a real challenge. In this regard, our conceptual and methodological work is advantageous since it enables us to transcend a purely technological framework and transcribe our approach in more appropriate formats and media. A project like Framework led us to make use of kinetic art, and Binary waves enabled us to revisit optical art. For example, the town council of Vitry-on-Seine commissioned from us a large 80m high light sculpture for one of the gateways to the town, a sort of lighthouse symbolizing urban development. This sculpture is what we call a reactive system, and it makes use of the idea of the cybernetic favored by Nicolas Schöffer. The environment supplies information that is processed and translated into light, kinetic effects, etc. The sculpture thus becomes a mirror of urban activity.

We had applied these principles of analysis of the urban environment to projects before, for example, in Binary waves. The town generates a wealth of information: electromagnetic waves, traffic, sounds... These elements constitute urban life, but they are only ever rarely treated as such. How does one make all these elements participate in the construction of the town? In Binary waves, we analyzed the surrounding electromagnetic fields and translated them by means of rotating and illuminated panels,installed along the Seine. We scan the immediate neighborhood and this gives us a real time representation of what surrounds us and would otherwise remain imperceptible. It's a form of contemporary landscape painting that reflects in an abstract manner the environment (the landscape) by giving it a personal interpretation. This personal codification is situated at the level of "how" we visualize and interpret these data flows. From this point of view, digital art is not different from traditional painting. It is us who decide on the choice of colors, the palette, the parameters to take into consideration... Only the language differs, because it is expressed in the form of codes. Of course, the format is adapted to the medium used, but this offers a certain number of possibilities and a margin of liberty for personal writing.


Your projects very often integrate a musical component, and you collaborate with many external musicians. In what ways is working with sound important for you?

We don't really make music but rather sound work. The key project in this field is space navigable music (2004) which was realized in many versions. The basic idea was to link space, images and sound. We then carried out research on "particle synthesis" - not simply on particle synthesis but on sound particles in 3D as well. Incidentally, it is a project that continues to develop. Sound interests us particularly in its relation to space and in its parametric dimension.

From a historical point of view, the Poème électronique by Varèse and Le Corbusier was a source of inspiration: architecture and sound take on a parametric form in it. The exterior form of the pavilion created for the World Fair of 1958 was determined by hyperbolic mathematical functions. Xenakis was working at the time on particle synthesis but opting for a parametric approach even though the process was still manual at the time. He attempted to apply a tonal, scientific approach to sound by working on its density and granularity: a completely different way to write music. Xenakis, Le Corbusier and Edgard Varèse created a manifesto on the relations between architecture, sound and images with a very methodological and unifying approach. The meta-design that we favor is also an experimental language unifying the codes and parameters of various media, as well as a language that develops and is not static.

When we talk about "music", we prefer to collaborate with artists that specialize in music such as in the projects Spectr[a]um, an audio-light concert on the Tour Dexia with Frank Bretschneider and Olaf Bender, the 540khz Installation with Mika Vainio by Pansonic, the Tessel installation with Kangding Ray or the audio-visual dance show man in with Marc Wathieu.


You are very interested in the work of pioneers that you have presented in your MediaRuimte gallery or in sponsored exhibitions. Why this attraction?

In 2010 in collaboration with Seconde Nature, we organized an exhibition at the Vasarely Fondation, entitled De l'art cinétique à l'art numérique (From kinetic art to digital art). We wanted to compare the work of contemporary artists with that of artists from the sixties in the legendary building of the Fondation. Revealing our artistic roots, showing the current state of avant-garde work and establishing links for a better understanding: digital art is the best way to convey the subject because, more than any lecture, they help bring to life the real "experience" of an artistic movement.

These experiences motivated us to stage "historical" exhibitions at the MediaRuimte, such as one on the plotter drawings among other artists from the sixties whose artwork prefigures digital art of today.

The MediaRuimte accounts for two productions, four exhibitions and four concerts per year. To help promote our shows, we have links with various events and a network of partners, such as the Roger Tator Gallery in Lyon, in La Haye or Kunst-Zicht in Ghent. These sites are similar to our own in size, and we exhibit work in them by artists that we support. We work as co-producers with artists. There is a great deal of exchange and collaboration, not just financial assistance. It is very enriching.


What about collaborations with the academic world? Some of your projects (EOD 02, with electric fish) have been carried out with the support of Frederick De Wilde, a scientist at Hasselt University?

Frederick De Wilde is very much anchored in the university world in development and innovation, but I think he would define himself as an artist rather than a scientist. Research projects are difficult to manage in terms of time because scientists work on deadlines of three to five years, which would obviously not be possible for us. At the technological level we do not have the advanced knowledge, so we work instead with established technology that we know how to use, even though its realization requires knowledge and expertise that is difficult to acquire and rare in the artistic world.

Artists always think in terms of diverting from what already exists, which can lead to problems in collaborations with the scientific world which pursues other objectives. Our work is based on technology, but it does not represent an end itself; the goal is the aesthetic. We use technology, because it is part of our lives and our time. Nothing more. The fascination has faded over time.

We are perhaps scientists (a "lab"), but we position ourselves outside the academic system, notably because what also interests us is to build,("bau"); it would be very difficult to do our work without making compromises if we worked in the academic world.

Interview by Vincent Delvaux


LAb[au] is an artist group based in Brussels in Belgium. The group was founded in 1997 with the aim of examining the influence that new technologies exercise on forms, methods and considerations relative to art. LAb[au] mainly creates interactive artwork, audiovisual performances and scenography, for which special interfaces and software are developed. Its members (Manuel Abendroth, Jerome Decock and Els Vermang) have also managed since 2003 the MediaRuimte located in the center of Brussels, a gallery which focuses on contemporary artistic practice and therefore implicitly linked to digital art. The work carried out at the gallery reflects LAb[au]'s role as a collaborative and cross-disciplinary agency.

"The digital medium is also the first technology which unifies information; [...] everything is stored and encoded in an identical form: binary code. This unification of information enables an unprecedented interrelation of media and leads therefore to new forms of expression and new modes of exhibiting art."

"We have always been interested in the aesthetic and the judgment of "beauty", which might at first sight appear to be a nineteen century concern. However, creating beauty is, for us, the ultimate meaning of art."

"What is important for us is to find a language suited to the tools we use and to observe the resulting aesthetic."

"The meta-design that we favor is also an experimental language unifying the codes and parameters of various media, as well as it is a language that develops and is not static."


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