Published on March 18th, 2014 | by Chris Campbell


Taken Out Of Your Daily Reality

I recently had the chance to peel the onion with marvelous Dutch duo, FRONT404. The inquisitive tandem is comprised of Thomas voor ‘t Hekke and Bas van Oerle.

CC: To begin, can you give a quick snapshot of Front404’s ethos?

BVO: Front404 is about getting people out of their daily routines and trying to make them think a little. We try to add playfulness or weirdness to people’s days. We want to reach people in unusual ways, instead of the all too familiar frames like TV-screens or advertisements in the streets.

CC: While walking peacefully in the park, enjoying the weather you may suddenly be blasted by a green explosion of happiness! Suddenly surrounded by a cloud of flowers floating down it can mean only one thing, you’ve stepped on a Front404 Plantmine! What inspires you guys to catch people off guard?

BVO: You’d be amazed how hard many people work on ignoring anything unusual around them while walking in the street. By surprising them in their daily lives we try to break through that apathy.

All images unless otherwise noted are by Thomas voor ‘t Hekke.
‘The explosion of flower confetti serves as an instant party to celebrate that you live in a country where you don’t have to worry about stepping on a real landmine. The flower confetti contains seeds to create a permanent happy and colorful spot in the place of the plantmine explosion,’ reads the project’s about statement.

CC: What does the moniker mean?

BVO: The name Front404 came from our love of technological glitches and errors. The 404 refers to the famous ‘404: Not Found’ error message. The final states of our projects usually result from errors and mistakes we ran into during development, that end up enhancing the project by giving the work more personality.

Image by NRG.

CC: How did you two come to live a life of unbridled experimentation?

BVO: We first worked together on an interactive installation in our third year of art school. The project became the Chemistree. We both really enjoyed the freedom and variety that you get working on installations, and the reactions of people playing with the final result. We worked well together, deciding to collaborate on our final project in our fourth year. This became the panoptICONS project.

The Chemistree plays sad music, but when it is hugged the music starts getting happier and the tree starts waving its branches around in a happy dance. It also starts opening its flowers. The more people that hug it, the happier it gets. 

CC: Let’s jump to the panoptICONS. You engineered city birds with surveillance cameras for heads. You placed them all over Utrecht and Brussels. I was enthralled reading the philosophical underpinnings of this project. Can you compress the panoptICONS idea into a digestible kernel for my readers?

A: In 1787 Jeremy Bentham described a new model for a prison, the panopticon. In this circular prison there is a watchtower in the middle from which guards can see inmates, but because of the way it’s lit the inmates can’t be sure if there are guards in the tower. The presence of the all-seeing watchtower is enough to make them police themselves.

In his book ‘Discipline and Punish’, Michel Foucault took this principle of the panopticon and argued that our entire society is structured in such a way as to make people police themselves. He called this the panoptic society. The most obvious and open representative of this panoptic society we live in is the surveillance camera.

Panopticon prison in Cuba. Image by Julie Lille.

CC: Our world is absolutely peppered with security cams, how does your project address this overabundance?

BVO: In the struggle between security and privacy there is a certain tipping point, which in camera surveillance is the point where you go from feeling safely watched over, to just being watched, yourself. Using these somewhat sinister looking camera-birds we try to tip that scale.

If people look up and see the camera-birds, they might start looking up more and see all the actual surveillance cameras too. We want to make people really feel the fact that they’re being watched, and hopefully make them critically consider camera surveillance and the panoptic society we’re building.

CC: You made a fascinating conclusion, that the panoptICONS are the logical evolution of two species, scavenging city birds and security cameras. Can you explain this curious hypothesis?

BVO: We were walking around in our hometown of Utrecht, watching the cameras watch us. From up there, the surveillance cameras look down upon the people moving through the city, watching and feeding on our privacy.

While looking up we realized that scavenging city birds occupy these same spaces in the urban environment, watching the people go by in crowded places so they can react quickly when someone drops a piece of food. The birds and the surveillance camera share the same urban ecological niche. We imagined the two species growing closer and closer together, until they merge into one. The panoptICON camera-birds are the logical evolution of these two species of scavengers that feed on our presence in the city.

CC: In a similar vein, you guys celebrated George Orwell’s 110th birthday by decorating surveillance cameras in Utrecht’s city center with colorful party hats?

Front404: By putting these happy party hats on the surveillance cameras we didn’’t just celebrate Orwell’s birthday. By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye we create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays, and that the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.

CC: How crucial are courageous authors who have the guts to write bleak, predictive fiction?

BVO: Although many parts of the books like 1984, Brave New World, or We are obviously not directly equivalent to the way our world turned out, enough of the content is very recognizable. I feel that books like these are valuable in that they magnify certain problems in our society, making them much more obvious. Many people don’t really see the problems in our society because we live inside of it; the status quo is accepted as the natural state of the world, and changes are so gradual we don’t really notice them.

But, by reading books like these, or seeing movies or other art works about these problems, you step outside of your own society and look at the glaring problems in another. Then when you’ve finished reading, and you look at your own world, you suddenly see similarities that were hidden to you before. Getting people to see and acknowledge the problems in society is the first step to solving them. This is also what we try to do with (most of) our art projects.

CC: You guys tackle heavy dystopian concepts, but it seems to be important to you to do so in a playful manner?

BVO: We choose to engage people in surprising, funny, or playful ways because people don’t like being confronted with problems in a negative way. They get stubborn, cynical or hopeless and try to ignore it. If you make them happy, make them laugh, or give them a surprise then they will be much more open to think and talk about it later. Also, we just like to make art that’s fun for people.

Join the Cosmonewts! Buy some of Bas’ prints here!

CC: Do you ever catch criticism for not being more jarring?

BVO: One criticism we got on our George Orwell Party Hats was that we should have destroyed the CCTV cameras instead of decorating them. I’m not against taking direct action against surveillance, but destroying a few cameras won’t get many people thinking about the surveillance society either. Because our project was so cheerful it got spread a lot around the Internet, reaching lots of people and maybe getting some of them to start noticing the cameras all around them. So both methods can compliment each other in combating a problem.

A couple more of Bas’ stellar prints.

CC: What do you think the world will be like in the year 2070?

A: I think technology will be making the world a better place. What we’ve seen up to the present is that technology has been prohibitively expensive or complex for most normal people, meaning that large-scale technologies have been mainly in the hands of large corporations and governments, who will always use it to enrich themselves.

But, what we have seen lately is the rise of Open Source movements, crowd-funding, 3D-printing, and other democratizing developments in technology. I think this will continue in the future, and will continue to undermine the power of corporations and governments. Of course they will try to suppress this, but I prefer to think the positive outcome will prevail.

 Image by Crossett Library.
Georges Pompidou Future City Experiment and Utopia in Architecture 1964 Image by Paul Prudence.

CC: What is the evil version of you like?

BVO: I guess the evil FRONT404 would be doing much the same, except to get people to buy overpriced products they don’t need, or to improve the image of oil companies.

CC: What is the scariest thing you can think of?

BVO: Our biggest fear is that one day we will build a robot that is designed to hug people, but it goes into a hugging rampage and crushes several small children to death.

 (The answers above are by Bas, and Front404 counterpart, Thomas, might not necessarily share the same opinions.)


Taken Out Of Your Daily Reality

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About the Author

I live on an island floating in the Puget Sound, a stone's throw from downtown Seattle. I am keenly interested in nature, mysticism, the cosmos, futurism, existentialism, nihilism, kitsch, satire, and miscellaneous whimsy.

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