INTERVIEW by Petra Heck, curator

Petra Heck: Esther, could you briefly tell me something about your background? Where do you come from and what was your training? What sort of influence has this background had on your present artistic practice?
Esther Polak: I was trained in The Hague as a painter, very classic. I've always been interested in the representation of landscapes, from back when that was still chiefly a matter of landscape painting. At the academy in The Hague the emphasis was on the autonomy of the work of art, and the painting had to speak for itself. I had problems dealing with that. After that I studied in Amsterdam at the Rijksacademie. By then I was already rather rapidly reaching an impasse in autonomous art practice, and made the radical decision to stop with art. I did retraining, and via a bit on a roundabout route ended up as a layout editor on the staff of various newspapers; one of them was the Groene Amsterdammer. Doing that sort of editorial work, I discovered that text and images have an incredible influence on each other. It was during that period that I slowly became interested in things involving media too, but I still had that old interest in landscape, and was looking for a way to combine the two elements. Everything that I did with landscape was immediately very frumpy and referred directly to 19th century nostalgia, which in The Netherlands is of course what you get very quickly with landscapes.

In the summer of 2001 I joined a number of people on a short boat trip. They were some of the first to be using GPS. That immediately intrigued me, because of my long interest in the representation of the landscape. I had by then become a fan of 'land art' and walking artists, but had the feeling that there was not much I could add to that. When I saw that GPS visualization, I understood immediately that outside its context that very simple scribble on the map meant nothing. Fortunately I had already abandoned the autonomy of the image. When you saw a GPS drawing within its context, you could infer an awful lot from it: the influence of the wind could be seen, just like the places where we had stopped. Individual decisions were apparent, influenced by factors at the moment. Thus a map like that says something about very specific moments.

PH: Of course that also has certain similarities to walking artists, who document their trips. In that sense, GPS is a nice continuation to that.
EP: I'd want to develop that a bit more art-historically. I have the idea that it is a sort of conceptual art put into practice. Presently it is technically possible, but is the actual realization poetic enough? It is a way of applying the Situationist's dérives. But what does this concretization add to it? Is it still conceptual art?

PH: Could you say something about your work in general? What defines your work? What are the characteristics of a typical 'Esther Polak' work? And what conditions do you place on your work as you develop a project?
EP: My first GPS work clearly arose from that experience with the boat trip on the Lauwersmeer. As the location, I substituted the city of Amsterdam for the lake. The Amsterdam municipal archive had sent a New Years card with a map of all the urban expansion plans through the years. I considered the possibility of coupling GPS to all Amsterdammer's mobile telephones. Amsterdammers move around through the city via the streets; they never leave the street network, just as we could not leave the lake with the boat. That means Amsterdammers have to retrace the centuries-old urban pattern over and over again. Then I got the idea that with a GPS on my telephone I could draw the map of the city anew. Of course, I absolutely didn't know whether that could actually be done, but I immediately felt it was a good idea. I read a lot about cartography and the Waag Society participated in the technical development and production of the project. It was only after a while that the Archive was also prepared to show the project. After that it was worked out into 'AmsterdamREALTIME'.

It's not just the use of GPS that defines my work. My interest in landscape is important, but my chief preoccupation is with its mediaization. What happens when you get a new tool for viewing the world? I look for ways of seeing the world which are unbiased. I seize on my obsession with mediaization at the expense of other perspectives. In the 'NomadicMILK' project in Nigeria, in which I followed local herdsmen and distribution routes for powdered milk, you could see a very political story. But my interest is in the routes themselves; that is what interests me artistically. All the stories that have to do with political and social issues simply happen, but I don't focus on them. The advantage of mediaization is that you can concentrate on the technical part in order to see the world in a different way, and in doing so can let go of the ethical issues. The beauty of being an artist is that you are permitted to look at the world without an opinion or ethics.

PH: Can you briefly explain the concept behind 'NomadicMILK' is?
EP: I had previously done a project in collaboration with Ieva Auzina and the Latvian New Media Center RIXC. In it we followed a dairy transport from Latvia to the Netherlands. On that occasion we also worked together with farmers. Later I got involved in a conversation with a cousin who lived in Nigeria, who was back staying in The Netherlands for a while. He told me that from his office he could see herdsmen walking past with their cattle. His colleagues had told him that they were the Fulani and that they were always on the move, that they led a nomadic life. I was immediately interested, because in the Latvian project we had not worked with people for whom mobility was an intrinsic part of their life. I was curious about whether nomads had a different relation to their routes than people do who think more in terms of one single place, and thus more in terms of a territory. I didn't know if that was the case or not, but I was curious.

The most important brand of powdered milk in Nigeria comes from a Dutch firm: Friesland Campina. I went to have a talk with that company and discovered that Friesland Campina focuses particularly on the distribution of their product. Their policy is that every Nigerian should be able to buy their brand within a three minute walk of their home. Even if that means that Friesland Campina sells something at that place only one time a week, they still transport the powdered milk there. This interested me, and they thought it would also be interesting to work together with me. I needed cooperation like that in order to be able to follow the distribution process. We also worked together with an NGO for pastoralists in order to make contact with the herders. I loved the complexity in the landscape. On the one hand there are the cows that migrate through the landscape, and on the other there is the network of roads and the distribution that goes with them. I was also able to break through the classic categories, the Arcadian Herdsman and Trucker's Romanticism. By focusing on the mobility patterns I could place both types into a new sort of landscape context.

PH: You developed parts of 'NomadicMILK' here at the Media Art Institute. What was the idea behind that specific part of the project, and can you describe the work that you did here during your artist in residence period?
EP: Here at the NIMk I concentrated primarily on a certain kind of software that we needed for the project. Because we were working with highly mobile people in NomadicMILK, it was difficult to devise a visualization that would be good for presentations to these folks. A beamer or other digital visualization that would have been obvious here is problematic in places without any electricity. Sitting down with these people at a laptop also didn't seem to me like a good solution. So then we thought about a visualization that would fit with their mobility, with people who live along the roads.

PH: It was important for you to see what people's reactions were when they saw their routes?
EP: Yes. In previous projects I noted that people saw the visualization of their own routes as something personal and wanted to tell their story on the basis of what they were seeing. In this project I wanted to find a way by which you could invite people to talk about their routes. Someone at the Tropical Institute told me that in development projects for farmers in Nigeria they had somebody draw the village plans on the ground with a stick. That idea stuck in my mind. Then the plan was conceived to make a robot that drew the routes on the ground with sand, in a sort of 'breadcrumb trail'. I investigated whether this was technically feasible, and found people who thought that they could in fact realize this. It proved more complex than expected, but in the end they succeeded. The robot draws the routes on the ground, and you can look at them together and talk with people about them.

Developing the robot was one aspect, but you've also got to have the software to run it, which translates the GPS routes into motor commands. In the first place, the software primarily controls the scale at which the robot draws the route on the ground. The robot has to determine where to begin the drawing and how long to take. But there were more interesting elements to develop. For instance, I wanted to be able to zoom in on the map. It's possible to do that with a GPS image on a monitor, but with the robot it was much more of a problem. The most important thing was for the image to be recognizable. The robot is not technically perfect; it was made purely so that people could recognize their own route. We weren't out to get it to do more than that; the technology was precise enough for what we wanted. At the moment that I began to work with the data, to make it as recognizable as possible, and thus to manipulate it, I had the feeling that I was directing the data, just like with a photo or film, and I found that interesting. You can make things much more realistic by the editing of material. I wanted a sort of Photoshop software, an editing tool for GPS data. That in itself is an interesting subject for further development.

PH: To what extent was the work that you did here in the NIMk already under development before you began your residency?
EP: I had been working on the project for quite a while. I carried out a first phase as part of a project in the CO-OP's program with Michiel de Lange. After that we did the first work on the robot, but had not yet started with manipulating the GPS data. We went to Nigeria one time for research, and then wanted to work it up as a larger project. The residency at NIMk was important in order to be able to make it into a bigger project. We had already gotten support for the project from various institutions. Some partners only wanted to give money, others only wanted to show the project. NIMk was the greatest partner in the development of the work. Residency at the NIMk provided an intrinsic context, and gave the project currency within a particular world and network.

PH: Was that also the reason that you ended up here with your project?
EP: That really happened in a sort of roundabout way. I was asked to participate in an exhibition that was being organized from Trampoline, in Berlin. Then I met Susanne Jaschko, who coordinates the residencies here, and after that the Media Art Institute invited me. The idea was to develop the software and a number of aspects of the robot here. There was also space here to try out physical things with the robot.

PH: So it was not only the money, but also the space and the feedback that brought you here?
EP: Yes. For instance, I was able to discus with Jaromil what he thought of the software, and whether he could provide any feedback on it. And there was space to edit video with two screens, so I could synchronize things here. I also talked with Heiner about things. Thus your work could look better at other places too. I was able to work out a small part of a much larger project, which otherwise would never have gotten so much attention. It would otherwise never have been such a beautifully finished whole. And the more theoretical essay 'ElasticMapping' also arose out of it.

PH: Did you already know in advance precisely what you wanted to do here, or did it develop and change during the period of three months?
EP: Looking back, you always think that you had planned everything beforehand, precisely as you carried it out, but of course there are certainly a number of things that changed. For instance, it was here that we made the decision to bring in an external editor. As a visual artist you often have the idea that you have to do everything yourself. Here, in the Institute, it is more common to work in teams, so that certainly played a role.

PH: During your residency did you work together with people from outside the Institute too? Were those collaborations successful?
EP: Yes, I worked with Edwin Dertien [for development of robot hardware] and Floris Maathuis [for software development]. Edwin is connected with the Technical University in Enschede. Floris does lots of theater along with the software development. That collaboration was already in place before I came to the NIMk, but I noted that it was really nicer to come here to work. Here we formed a real team.

PH: If you had not done this residency, would you have been able to develop the work further, and/or would it have taken a different form?
EP: Well, financially there was really an extra boost necessary. If I had not had this residency, then a different miracle would have had to take place. In fact, it was a bit dependent on this support. This was not the easiest project to get financing for. As soon as you do a project in the third world, people look at the work very differently. Then it is not just an art project, like I did in Latvia, for example. All the cultural institutions that support projects in the third world do that only if a local artist also gets a chance. They would rather not support whites who go there to do a project of their own. I didn't realize that before I started, so that was quite a blow to me. On the other hand, art institutions that support an autonomous approach sometimes shy away when you work in the third world: that has to have a lot of political content. Moreover, Nigeria has a very bad reputation for being unsafe and corrupt, so many organizations shy away for that reason.

PH: What do you see as the most important thing that you accomplished during the three months of the residency? Are you pleased with the results?
EP: I was very happy with the context of the NIMk, but you have to fight a bit to define the place that you have in the Institute yourself. It is really difficult to have a logical place here, both physically and in terms of your role. One time some students dropped in, that was very nice. It's a shame that that doesn't happen more often, particularly for the Institute. I benefited from my time here, but an internal presentation would have been good. Insiders at the Institute can come up with good ideas and solutions. I think that it works very well if you come here with a project that is already rather well advanced, because three months is rather short. It is also nice to be able to develop a sub-project within a larger project as a separate package. I was very happy about that. That also taught me a lesson for the future, that a small part of the work can be valuable in itself.

PH: Were you satisfied with the ultimate presentation of your work in the NIMk, with a performance and presentation on 'Elastic Mapping'? Did the form that the presentation took add something to your work? Was the response from the public what you had been hoping for?
EP: I was very eager to install the work here once; in fact I really found that a 'must'. To the outside world, it is almost as if our collaboration was not successful, if the installation didn't appear here.

PH: Yes, your work fit in with the exhibition that was initiated from Germany, with Trampoline. It was in part as a result of that show that you were invited by NIMk for the residency, but we had not yet received any notice whether the financing from the EU was finalized for the whole project with Trampoline. And at the same time your project was presented at Kasteel Groeneveld, so it was then doubling up.
EP: To go back to the presentation [with the lecture on 'elastic mapping' and a performance] in October: I thought it was quite something. It was absolutely packed with people who normally are not a part of my audience. A lot of people had come as a result of the publicity done by the Media Art Institute. And I found it useful to concentrate on one subject by means of the presentation.

PH: In general your works are long-term projects that develop over a period of time. For you, when does a work reach its final state? Or does it ever reach a final state? And could you say something about how such a process runs? A blog is an important tool in this process, isn't it?
EP: That is quite a challenge. I often show intermediate phases in various places. Each space requires a different solution. You've got to find a balance in showing the process. From my classic visual arts training I had the idea that you worked on something in your atelier, and only let the public see it when it was entirely finished. I have learned that it can also be quite helpful to show things while they are in process, but you have to be careful. Because I already show so many intermediate phases, it becomes harder to go for a perfect end result. I have a website under construction with which I only go public when I can put everything on it. To balance everything out, it is necessary to keep some things secret and go public all at once. I have a very clear project plan with specific images and data and interviews. That is the ultimate result.

PH: For you, does an installation have a definitive form? Or can that change, based on the context?
EP: For 'NomadicMILK' it is really taking on a rather definitive form. But when you are asked to exhibit it somewhere, you sometimes have to adapt things, and it can be that you have to change the installation somewhat to work things out. But there is always an ideal version in my mind.

PH: Could you tell us what direction you are going to be going with this project now? What are the next steps and what are your future plans for further developing, presenting and using the work that was generated during your residency?
EP: I have just made the final trip to Nigeria, and we are now engaged in completing the editing.


translation: Don Mader
concept development: Anna Hoetjes
edited: Petra Heck & Esther Polak