Roel Wouters’ work encompasses art, graphic design, film and live performance, while also appearing in both commercial and non-commercial contexts. “I would describe my practice as an interdisciplinary design studio with a strong conceptual approach,” he says. “The categorisation of my work in different media does not make so much sense, it’s more about the concept, a method, a principle, not so much the medium. First I formulate a concept, and the medium derives as a logical result.”
This approach has seen Wouters hire an actor to promote an event about mass media, using the money that would usually be spent printing flyers. He also helped launch a new video-art screen in Amsterdam by bouncing a giant ball over the gathered crowd. Fitted with a wireless built-in camera and microphone, the ball, titled the Jubilator, captured the expressions and body parts of the audience as it bounced from person to person, with the images all being directly transmitted to the giant screen. Alongside these experimental ideas, Wouters also uses more conventional forms of communication, including posters, flyers, short film and video. What brings all his work together is a hands-on, human approach combined with an enthrallment with technology.
These interests began at an early age. “When my father bought a ZX Spectrum in the mid-80s, Koen, one of my earliest friends, and I started connecting Lego to it,” Wouters explains. “I built robots and thought about applications, Koen programmed the code.
In the early 90s we became intrigued by the demo culture, an early form of computer art, which was mostly text scrolled over the screen to show the capacity of a computer. We designed the typefaces ourselves and let them dance over the screen. The music we ripped from games – we stole music even before mp3s existed. The biggest problem was what to write about, so most of the time we wrote the names of our friends, or let the computer speak as if it was a human itself. This approach has never changed, I still like to make ‘things’ and want to let the ‘things’ speak for themselves.”
For the last three years, alongside his own work, Wouters has also taught at the prestigious Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, running a course in interaction design with colleague Luna Maurer. “We teach a course that follows the principles we use in our own daily practice,” he says. “What we don’t teach is ‘how to design a website’. We want the students to be aware that they are becoming designers in a world where technological development shapes our lives. They are designing at a time when information flows as a continuous stream that is changing constantly – in such a time, we believe, it becomes more important to design the systems that hold the information. We want students to think about designing or developing tools that can be used in a creative process. In other words, they should think of the frame within which others can operate, where others have the liberty of creation.”
Alongside teaching, Maurer also collaborated with Wouters on a simple yet beguiling film, Sally, which sees a group of marbles rolling elegantly within a cube, guided by gravitational pull. Another film by Wouters, a music video for the band zZz, more overtly references technological effects. The promo, which was recorded live in one take as part of the opening of the exhibition Nederclips at the Stedelijk Museum’s-Hertogenbosch, sees trampolining gymnasts simulating typical video editing effects in their movements. “The important criteria were that the audience at the opening would be able to witness the whole shoot, and that the video clip would be added to the exhibition immediately after the shoot,” Wouters explains. “This meant that we had no option to reshoot or edit if something went wrong, which made the whole crew so focused that we performed even better than any of us could have imagined.”
While Wouters describes this live quality, which he has also used in other films, as simply “a matter of efficiency”, it introduces a freshness and excitement to his work that feels lacking in recent post-heavy videos and films. He acknowledges, “I myself am not impressed by cgi easily anymore, I think we want to trust our eyes again. I also like the honesty that characterises a single-take video.”
Wouters’ diverse practice brought him to the attention of Nexus Productions in London, who recently signed him for worldwide representation. This move will open him up to more overtly commercial possibilities, a prospect that he finds intriguing, if mildly uncomfortable. “I would love to do more commercial work,” he says. “Although I dislike the manipulative aspect of it: The idea of seducing an audience, the idea that I’ve made people buy a product because they feel it has become an important part of their identity or lifestyle. It might sound naïve and outdated but I would love to promote the products themselves, by showing their qualities.”
Born 20.02.76, Haarlem, The Netherlands.
Education: Graphic and typographic design, KABK Den Haag; Design MA, Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam.
Work history: Wouters has run his own design agency, Xelor, since 1999 and has taught at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam since 2005. He has just been signed by Nexus Productions in London.