PhD defence: Art and design in a digital world

Date of news: 11 April 2022

What does it mean to be an artist or designer in a digital age where images are less and less the direct product of human handwork and more the result of complex machines and computer programmes? Marijke Goeting investigated how the work of contemporary artists and designers enables us to think critically about the socio-cultural effects of digital media and technology. She will defend her thesis on 11 April.

The way we process, visualize and experience information has been fundamentally changed by the advent of computers processing massive amounts of data at high speed and software programs that automatically generate images, as well as self-learning algorithms that analyse data and recognise images. These technologies have become important tools for artists and designers.

Cultural effects

In her research, Marijke Goeting explores the cultural effects of digital images, algorithms, automatic image recognition, big data and super fast computing. Goeting: 'In the past two decades, an increasing number of artists and designers have reflected on this fast, fluid and fragmented condition of digital media by investigating its aesthetic, communicative and socio-political effects.'

Goeting analysed a number of cases - artworks or designs - to find out how artists and designers in the twenty-first century have experimented with digital media and technology, and what critical alternatives they propose to deal with this technology and its cultural effects. 'My goal is to contribute to a better understanding of some of the key mechanisms in digital technologies and how they affect our perception, experience, visual expression and identity,' says Goeting.

In the interactive installation Test Screen (2010), Jasper van Loenen shows the complexity of the seemingly simple code needed to generate a test image. In his installation, the visitor sees a screen surrounded by 93 switches and dials with which the test image on the screen can be manipulated. In this way, a normally fixed script/image becomes a design instrument with which fluid images can be created.

The study of the various works shows that digital images are in fact changing representations of data, as in Test Screen. 'The fragmented nature of the digital paradoxically makes ever-changing visualisations possible', Goeting explains. 'This makes it possible for artists and designers, but also for viewers, to continuously change the composition, order and thus the meaning of the images.'


In addition, algorithms have become important methods for ordering and filtering information. Increasingly, these algorithms are also being used to recognise and even generate images. Although algorithms make it possible for computers to analyse almost anything, the downside is that they reduce things that are vague or ambiguous to predetermined, unambiguous, classifiable and quantifiable data.

Google Faces (2013) by studio Onformative makes it clear that computer vision can be seen as a representation system that influences the way we look at the world. At the same time, the strange and unexpected results of computer analysis can also be used to enrich the imagination.

For Google faces (2013), Studio Onformative processed huge amounts of satellite images through Google Maps using a face recognition algorithm. For Google faces, Studio Onformative developed an algorithm to simulate paereidolia, the tendency to discover meaning in vague visual stimuli, such as a face in a bowling ball. A face tracker continuously searches for figure-like shapes while hovering above landscapes on earth.

The inspiration for the project was the photograph "Face on Mars" taken by the Viking 1 spacecraft on 25 July 1976.


In addition, at a time when we are outsourcing more and more tasks to machines, the speed with which this happens plays an important role. The design project TimeMaps (2011) by Vincent Meertens, for example, shows that people and machines deal with time differently.

How quickly can a destination in the Netherlands be reached by public transport? With TimeMaps, Vincent Meertens shows that nowadays we think more in terms of time than distance. That is why our current maps are outdated. Meertens combines time with perspective (from Eindhoven, the Netherlands is 'smaller' than from Stavoren, because of the number of connections) to create TimeMaps. The time of day is also very important. At night, the map of the Netherlands becomes larger because there are no night trains, and in the morning smaller again.

Because artists and designers will probably increasingly use databases, algorithms and generative software, it is important, according to Goeting, to think about what the effects will be on cultural and artistic production. Goeting: 'Designing for a fast, fluid and fragmented world like ours is a challenge. New media and technology have created new ways of seeing, thinking and acting and we can choose how we design and use the technology. As artists and designers deal with existing technologies in experimental and original ways, they offer us alternative perspectives and new possibilities for interaction.'

The Chair Project (Four Classics) by Philip Schmitt (2019) is a series of four chairs that were designed with AI, but made by humans. Thus, the usual roles of man and machine are reversed. Schmitt uses machine learning to stimulate human imagination rather than automation.

Marijke Goeting will defend her thesis on 11 April. The book Fast, Fluid, Fragmented, Art and Design in the Digital Age is available for pre-order.