Nick Verstand and Fatima Yamaha to power our emotions

11 February 2017
Anna Bogomolova

Our experiences form a powerful force for change. To influence our experiences is to gain control over our emotions and behaviour. The question is: who gets to control? While scientists examine complex relations between personality and emotions, marketing corporations are actively using psychometrics and big data to fuel algorithms to sell us anything we don’t need, including populist politics. By reversing the artist-focused paradigm, art can show us, its audience, the strength to influence our experiences.

Our emotions join music and light art to design POLARIS, a large-scale installation premiered at Amsterdam Dance Event. A group of artists and scientists, led by Nick Verstand, invited 20 participants in the audience to wear EEG headsets and bio-signal sensors. Measurements of their brainwaves, heart rate and skin response were translated to algorithms to indicate emotions and trigger the installation in real-time, so that artists and their audience could co-create the piece together.

We talk to Nick Verstand about the ambition of POLARIS to focus on the experience of the audience. We discuss the experience of co-creation and the concept of ownership of ideas against the art’s purpose to catalyse change.

POLARIS is a project by Nick Verstand, Nikki Hock and Children of the Light
In collaboration with Fatima Yamaha, Pandelis Diamantides, Showsync, TNO, EagleScience, Red Light Radio and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Video by Blitzkickers

Anna Bogomolova: Music, light art and contemporary technology — which of the disciplines combined in POLARIS is closest to you?

Nick Verstand: The music side is always closest to me. I used to DJ for a long time and I am still composing music. That really is my first passion — usually from the sound I create the rest. But the bigger installations like POLARIS I make from my imagination. When I learned about the technology that can measure people’s emotions in real time, I thought of ways to use it in an installation and let people comprehend the power of their emotions. Nowadays everything is digital around us and people can be treated as a set of simplified data, so for me it was important to show that our emotions play a constitutive role forming perception of our environment.

Emotions and perception are the main internal influences of us as human beings.

Absolutely. And by exploring how they alter each other, art reminds us of our human nature. I like to use technology as a contrast medium — it’s that emotionless thing that often gets between us and maybe it’s that perfect thing to use to show that we have emotions. This is what I wanted to realise with POLARIS, but it got a little bit out of hand I guess…

What do you mean with that?

I am always very ambitious when I do a project. And with POLARIS we had a lot of different parties involved: the TNO/EagleScience developers and scientists working on the real-time emotion measurement system, Children of the Light and Nikki Hock designing the light installation, Hidde de Jong programming the lights, Bas Bron (aka Fatima Yamaha) composing the sound, Pandelis Diamantides developing an interactive sound design system, and many more. What I learned is that in order to communicate a story, you don’t need so many people involved — the simpler, the better.

Would then Polaris continue to exist with all the participants involved or are you planning to change or improve things on your own and give it a new shape?

I discussed this with the team, and Children of the Light are working on a project that we feel is too similar to what POLARIS is — a circular shape with lights on both sides. If something of that shape as an art installation will exist and be presented sometime this year, it will probably be their work. Of course, they also designed POLARIS, so it makes sense.

The concept of POLARIS needs a bit more time to crystallise. The idea of giving the audience a chance to feel the strength to influence a situation through their emotions is very actual. We all have that strength, but it comes down to the moment of realising and using it. If I give myself as an example, only from that moment when I felt it myself, I started to be able to create art and show it to people. This strength I found in myself after a long search — that’s what I want to share. But how do you share it? You need to let people experience it themselves. ‘Yesterday I was able to influence this giant circle with my emotions, so what else I can influence today?’ — just a fragment of the experience can be enough to catalyse change. My goal now is to try and find another application and form factor, which, hopefully, will be more effective for this purpose.

This wasn’t your first time doing an art project with Amsterdam Dance Event, right?

This whole art thing is kind of an accident. In 2014 ADE asked me to host a party for them, because that’s what I did back then. But I didn’t want to do parties anymore, so I asked if I can do an exhibition instead and they said yes, but they had a really low budget. My reaction was like ‘I can not ask people to show their work for that little’, so then I thought I will make something myself. And that was ANIMA. I had no idea how to make it, but I just imagined what it should be and I thought I will just try and make it. So I started emailing people, the same way as I would organise a party, but then asking ‘hey, do you know how to program an interactive liquid in OpenFrameworks?’ or ‘do you know how use a Kinect sensor for tracking motion?’ and all those things. Apparently, you can make art the same way you organise a party or run a start-up company. After the ADE premiere, ANIMA became a success and I showed it in many places like SXSW in Austin, TEDx in Delft, FORMS in Toronto, Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, MTA in Beijing and many other amazing events. And now I kind of go with the same flow.

An interesting turn from being a DJ and throwing parties in Amsterdam to exhibiting at all these art events around the world… but it does make sense.

What I really like about DJing is the ‘1+1 is 3’ principle that you have with records. You are in a relation with your audience — you can pick records of other people and combine them in a way that you, the audience and the records become more than these parts separate from each other.

That’s how I see my projects as well — I collaborate with other artists, whom I always include in the credits. They are kind of my records now, if combine them in a right way, then the result is always more. I think there is a really strong link with DJing.

But I do think there is a bias towards collaboration in the art scene — you can position yourself very carefully in a way which is accepted or not accepted. Take someone like Olafur Eliasson or Ai Weiwei; they don’t make anything alone, it’s just impossible — the size and the expertise needed, no-one can make those installations on their own. But then someone like Daan Roosegaarde gets a lot of critique — he kind of positioned himself in a wrong way by claiming too much ownership over the work.

I saw that program (College Tour by NPO) where he was confronted with the criticism about ideas and ownership in his projects. I felt ashamed watching how he failed to give a straight answer to questions about ownership, and how his reputation was distorted because of it.

In that program he also gave an example of Rembrandt and his studio full of students who would paint a lot of his works — and that was accepted.

It the end, we all build on each other’s work — the concept of ownership of ideas is amorphous and complex.

Though I can understand if you are all alone in your studio for years developing an idea and then this guy, like me, comes in and says ‘ah let’s add this to it!’ — it’s natural to react like ‘what’s happening, I’ve been working on it for so long…’

Also, there is a bit of a thing in the art world, especially that you have to do everything alone — there is this kind of vibe, and otherwise it’s not the same. I can not specify why it is so, but it is definitely a thing.

Can you give an example?

A couple of weeks ago I met a friend of mine who is a very good coder known for technical art installations and his comment on POLARIS was a suggestion that I didn’t do everything myself. I said ‘I know that and it is also not what I communicate — all artists work together and I put everyone’s name on the project.’

And if you think, a very good coder makes his own technical installation — then again, the computer he works on is built by people in China and the technology is developed by the American government or whatever corporation. In a way, the whole world collaborates — I believe ideas are synchronous and subsequent.

I often refer to the American mythologist Joseph Campbell. He researched main human archetypical myths and symbols throughout all ages all over the world. And he concluded that all the story archetypes can be linked to our physiology — they all meant to give context to our place in the world and outline our response to life’s challenges. From this perspective, it is hard to think that you can ‘own’ an idea.

If my experience of your work results in new ideas in my head, who owns them then? I want to believe the meaning of art is to share ideas that change the way we, humans, can think.

And unlock our perception. It’s all about what I, as an artist, perceive in the world, and what you, as my audience, perceive from my work in relation to your experiences.

The real medium is the audience; and whatever is in between is a set of tools. Sometimes to influence that perception you don’t need anything other than yourself. But it’s very difficult — how do you convince the audience that they are the art piece themselves.

Would Marina Abramović be a good example? Her performances are focused on transferring ideas and making changes in the observer’s perception and only bound to her body and mind.

Absolutely. She allows the audience to perceive the power of change that comes with an observation of themselves and others. It’s very powerful the way she does it — without the use of any object or technology, it is just her in the space with her audience. The intention of her work is very human — it places people first, their understanding of themselves and their ability to change. If you think of how we ought to live our life or what would be the utopian way, I think her work comes very close to it.

I am doing Master’s in Music at the moment and it gives me time to reflect on these philosophical constructs. Usually, at art schools students learn from the bottom up — they advance their skills, discover their own voice and then communicate with the world. And for me it is the other way around, I already know how to make things happen — it is easy for me to collaborate with a team of 10 people or to approach a museum, but the hard part for me is to develop ideas by myself in a way that make sense to me artistically. I am not sure if I understand the bigger message that I am trying to communicate. But one of the important themes is, for sure, humanity.

You don’t always have to know in order to do things.

I believe so too, but today’s art scene asks of you to be very rational about your practices, especially when sending a funding proposal or communicating with a museum. You need to have that whole concept ready and explain what it means. But with ANIMA it took me 2 years to come up with the text that now accompanies the piece and the video — I changed it 20 times, and only now I think it is perfect. Because only when you put your work out there, you learn how people respond to it and what change it brings.

Nick Verstand and Bas Bron / Fatima Yamaha

Follow Polaris crew:
Nick Verstand
Nikki Hock
Children of the Light
Fatima Yamaha
Pandelis Diamantides
Red Light Radio
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Video by Blitzkickers crew:
Anna Bogomolova and Dammes Kieft
with the assistance of Thomas de Vrij and Ferra Luciano

Anna Bogomolova

Anna Bogomolova

Chief editor at
Anna is the solar engine of the Blitzkickers. As a video director, she knows how to identify and embrace the creative vibe and is not afraid to trust her intuitive mind.