The Spaceman who created a Living Breathing Painting!
Purpose: By the end of this article, the readers are inspired to combine their different interests as the article predominantly contains advice for people with multiple passions.
The Spaceman who created a Living Breathing Painting!
Key Words: Connector, Science, Arts, Mentoring, Bottom-Up Design, Grass-Root Initiatives, Co-Creation, Diversity, Intercultural Dialogue, Multi-Disciplinary Education, Embracing Capacity.
On 2-3 February 2018, I got the opportunity to attend an event “Creativities Unfold” at the Thailand Creative and Design Centre where I happened to exchange thoughts with Mr. Angelo Vermeulen, a 46-year-old space systems researcher and a Senior TED Fellow. I was basically interested in getting some practical advice about working in groups in intercultural settings. I ended up exploring not only a person who strongly advocates teamwork with bottom-up leadership and a facilitating style but also an individual who combines different professions. In this article, I am sharing his journey of combining different professions which I found very inspiring and powerful. Further, I will unpack his practical advice for people with multiple passions and interests. Especially, if you are a person who has diverse passions and is maybe unsure of what and how to do, then this article may be interesting to you. In fact, I am also a person with various interests and I find this conversation inspiringly helpful. So, I believe it may help you as well to uplift your spirits about combining your passions together and work with people creating and trying out new things.
Creativities Unfold (2018) Photo: Amina Noureen
Following is the conversation with Angelo Vermeulen, who called himself a connector or a man who wears various hats. He is a biologist and an artist from Belgium who currently lives in the Netherlands where he is doing his 2nd Ph.D. at the Delft University of Technology.
Amina Noureen: Tell me about yourself and your work.
Angelo Vermeulen: I combine different professions. I am active in various fields such as Science, Engineering, Art, and Design. As an artist, I create mostly dynamic, emergent installation art with communities of people all over the world. My original training was in biology and ecology but over the years I have been involved in space exploration, particularly in interstellar exploration. (TED Talk: How to go to space without having to go to space).
HI-SEAS Mission I, NASA Mars simulation in Hawaii (2013). Photos: Angelo Vermeulen
I am also interested in emergent design processes. Designs that are not coming from a top-down, blueprint approach that people must execute, but rather bottom-up design that emerges from interactions of people. The summary of what I do and who I am is a combination of arts, design, and engineering.
AN: Share something about the place where you grew up?
AV: In my childhood, I was surrounded by arts. I literally grew up in the smell of oil painting. So, this artistic vibe in the place where I grew up affected me. When I was a teenager, I would do a lot of exploration of the surrounding area of where I lived.; I grew up in a kind of semi-urban and semi-agricultural area. I would go out with my binoculars and little sampling vials, I would just explore and sample bugs, insects; I would collect plants. So, my interest in biology peaked even when I was still a kid.
When I was 12, I started my own science magazine. I wrote my own articles, together with a friend of mine. We wrote articles and then we photocopied the magazines and we sold it in school. The topics that I wrote about were almost all about either biology or space exploration. This is quite interesting because right now I am doing my Ph.D. at Delft University of Technology on bio-inspired concepts for interstellar travel which is once again biology and space exploration. So, I am pretty much still doing the same thing I was doing when I was a kid, which I feel very grateful about. That’s a bit about where I come from.
Photos: Angelo Vermeulen
AN: How do you do what you do?
AV: In both science and arts, I rarely work alone, as I am interested in working with groups of people. When I am doing these activities, different backgrounds are continuously influencing each other. When I am working as a scientist, art always remains in the back of my mind. When I am working as an artist, science and engineering always stay in the back of my mind.
AN: What was your first project in Science and Arts?
AV: In science, my first project was my master’s and Ph.D. thesis. The topic was very specific, “deformities of the teeth of larvae of non-biting midges”. It’s microscopic research looking at the morphology and development of insects where deformities of teeth indicate environmental pollution. This is called biomonitoring, using a biological response to detect environmental pollution. On the other hand, my first installation art piece contained living organisms and was called a bio-painting. I took a blank white canvas and permanently circulated water over its surface. I also put some strong lighting in front of the canvas. Then I walked around my studio and collected objects that were lying outside, covered with a green layer of microscopic algae. I took a few bits and pieces and infected the canvas with those algae. During the next two weeks,
“The algae started growing over the surface of the canvas and I obtained a living breathing painting.”
I exhibited it a few times. It was my first simple artwork using biology, and it basically started the rest of my current artworks.
Biopainting No I, (2002). Photos: Angelo Vermeulen
AN: What was one of the major challenges of your journey?
AV: The original challenge, something that I have overcome by now, was how to bring together arts and science. That was a bit of a search, a personal struggle. Like I said, I operate in a broad field and to me all these activities make sense and they are connected. But it took a while to figure that out and especially when I made the decision after my first Ph.D. and my photographic studies (he did both at the same time) to dedicate myself full time to the arts. I did not quite know what to do with my scientific background, so my first response was basically to shut it off. I put it aside, ignored it. But I learned to include all my interests and my capacities – even though they might not seem compatible at first – by embracing all of it. Slowly but surely, I discovered that I could bring it all together. So, the artwork that I just mentioned, the Biopainting, is the first artwork in which I felt that everything came together, my scientific background came together with my art interests. My activity was containing all my capacities. That was really important.
AN: What helped you in coping with your arts and science quest?
AV: In my case, one of the things that really helped me was a book by an American philosopher called Robert M. Pirsig and the book is called Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A quirky title but it is a very famous book from the 70’s. It actually talks about these two states of mind, the artistic and the scientific state of mind, and how it is best to bring them together. The book really motivated me to embrace everything, instead of trying to forget a part of who I am.
In addition, I do seek out mentors. I surround myself with people that I can talk to who can mentor me. I have been doing it for quite a while. Mentors can be different types of people, an advisor of your Ph.D. thesis, a personal coach, a good friend, or somebody who is just as interested to work with you on regular basis. When I decided to make a move from science to art, I basically decided that I want to spend 100% of my time in the arts. I made the decision to go and live in London. Before moving to London, I wrote to a photographer there that I wanted to spend a few months with him. I left for London and I actually stayed one full year. He was my mentor during that time. We had a lot of conversations about art and how I could proceed with my photographic studies. It was really helpful.
AN: How do you think mentoring is helpful?
AV: Having mentors helps you to stay humble in a way, and it helps you to stay grounded because you always realize you still do not know as much as you wanted to know. On the other hand, it’s also nice that all the things that you picked up and figured out, that you can always transmit them to the younger generation. So that’s why I hope that my entire life, I can be in between the mentors and the mentees. I think being a mentor and seeking out mentors is really useful. But at the same time, I always have been mentoring other people. I always valued it very much because,
“My philosophy is to mostly remain in this stage. If you can stay in this stage for your entire life, in between having mentors and at the same time mentoring others, I think that’s the best of both worlds.”
AN: You mentioned that you design with communities? How do you do that?
AV: As I said, I am interested in emergent processes, community activities, and community arts. The way I create these emergent artworks by working with a lot of people and trying to establish a bottom-up design philosophy and co-creation methodology. This is also quite a challenge because people are really used to a more traditional top-down strategy where there is a boss who tells every single person what needs to be done. But if you open up to creative process saying,
“Hey! I am leading and facilitating this process, but I do not know what we need to do either. For me, it is like a journey as well. We are all in it together.”
Some people get little nervous about this. Facilitating a co-creating community was really something that I needed to learn. I am not saying I am the expert yet, but I definitely learned a lot about this.
SEAD, Biomodd, installation art creating symbiotic relationships between plants and computers (2016). Photo: Angelo Vermeulen
AN: What did you learn while working with people from different backgrounds?
AV: From the beginning, when I started to embrace the idea of working with communities to explore co-creation, I had to move beyond my own culture. I am European. Definitely, I am very aware of it. But I am also interested in all those other cultures in the world. So, I started collaborating with people from different places and in different places. I went to the Philippines for a long time. Of course, it was a huge learning curve to go to Asia and work with Asian people as a Western person. And later I ended up in other cultures. So, I have been exploring and learning about that. I think that is something like a never-ending story. I also think it is very complex. There are always tensions, and it’s never like the perfect situation. That’s really something that I haven’t resolved my arts-science question, but
“It does not have to be resolved. It is the beauty of human existence that we meet people from different backgrounds that it involves exploration, tension and joy and I enjoy all of these different emotions together.”
Photos: Angelo Vermeulen
AN: What’s the role of ethics in your work?
AV: I consider my work as a contribution to the exploration of where the world needs to go. I do this from an understanding of history. It is from that understanding that I can extrapolate towards the future because my work is very futurist-oriented. After a few years of working with communities, I kept collaborating with some of the same people, and we decided to become a collective called “Space Ecologies Art and Design (SEAD)”. That’s the name of the sour collective, and we initiate all these projects all over the world. The goal of our group is to prototype constructive ideas, this is not a dystopia. We are really trying to figure out how, from a grassroots bottom-up perspective, we could come up with different alternatives. Or how we could question the dominant paradigms that are currently determining our thinking about the future, and how we can upset or dislocate those ideas. We love to explore different possibilities, other than the dominating ideas. That’s for me a very ethical component
TCDC (2018) Photo: Angelo Vermeulen
So, it is not just art because of the sake of art, or art for the sake of being skeptical. It is really embedded in a broader sensitivity. I think if you start to think more deeply about where we are heading for when you want to connect with the flow of mankind and history, you end up embracing both arts and science. That’s really the ethical field that I am operating in together with the communities I work with. So, it’s about empowerment, it’s about a hacking ethos through a bottom-up perspective, it’s about hacking the existing system, trying to propose different alternatives, and trying to make progress, but in a broader and more diversified sense, not in a traditional modern sense. That’s where our ethics are!
AN: How do you think young people may contribute to Sustainable Development Goals?
AV: The first thing is of course education. It doesn’t have to be university education but some sort of education. I do believe that you should not only wait for large initiatives to contribute to these goals. I do believe in the power of grassroots and bottom-up design. I am not saying we can solve the world’s problems entirely through grass root initiatives and bottom-up design, but I think there is a huge potential there that is still not really used. A decentralized network creating solutions, if it is run well, (I mean if it is facilitated well because I still believe that decentralization needs some kind of facilitation) it can be very resilient, more resilient than a top-down structure and actually more effective. Because the problem with top-down solutions sometimes is that they are imposed. So, the inherent power of decentralized bottom-up designs is that when you work with local interest and local knowledge that you come with solutions that are much more taken up by the local communities.
So, to summarize, I would suggest people educate themselves not just in a mono-disciplinary way, and I think a multidisciplinary education would be really useful. Once again, it doesn’t matter at which level you explore your interests, but if you are an engineer and you also have interests in biology, environmental studies, law or arts, you should try to explore these different interests, finding solutions and creating innovations.
AN: Is there anything that you would like to mention, any advice for people with multiple passions?
AV: The lesson I learned that I would like to give to everyone else is,
“Never shut off any of your capacities, and really try to find a way in which you can embrace all those different capacities even though they might seem very dispersed or different and try to bring them together to one strong statement or flow of creativity.”
By and large, I hope this simple conversation contained some helpful advice and inspiration, particularly for people who have various interests which sometimes may cause them confusion and people like me who share different study backgrounds and passions. For instance, I decided to study mathematics at high school. Later, I got interested in entrepreneurship and decided to go Thailand to study, which is a very field than my previous background. After having a conversation with Mr. Angelo, it makes sense how I often try to ignore my background in sciences. Now, I think it would be interesting to explore a way to engage different passions of mine together and see what comes out. Moreover, I wonder it might be helpful to seek out people for advice. What do you think?? I would love to hear your thoughts. What did you learn and what was helpful or new to you? See you next time.
Cohort 4, Amina Noureen