Thomas Kuijpers

Metronom: You stated your are interested in the “friction between this conveyed version of reality and the place it occupies in daily life”. How do you think the ‘repetition’ of actions, images, slogans etc. can affect our basic communication? 

Thomas Kuijpers: I think if we base (part of our) communication on repeating images, slogans, etc – at some point it will be complicated to think outside of that box of images and slogans. Communication will become an inward spiral only referencing it’s own paradigm. Maybe it can be compared to breeding dogs; if you don’t add new blood or new DNA to a certain breed, the breed gets fucked up if you continue ‘repeating’ it’s procreation. I think there’s a special role here for writers, visual artists, musicians and other creatives that make sure some new DNA is always brought into our spectrum of communication.

Your reflections often start with a collection of various material, from newspaper cut-out, to tickets, emails, elements you randomly find during your day. How complex is the selection and the usage of these information? Do you treat it a sort of contemporary archive? 

Sometimes I start collecting material around a certain topic of which I know it interests me, but it’s not super clear yet what particular aspect of the topic it is that triggers this interest. So in this case the selection will start very broad, and massive. Sometimes I find what I’m looking for, sometimes I don’t – in which case it ends up in a (few) box(es) in my physical archive. Other times I start more focused and I know exactly what aspect, in for instance a contemporary news narrative, interests me. In this case it goes the other way around, and only things that directly relate to this interest are collected. I know pretty much every part in my archive by heart, and most of it is physical. The physicality of this archive helps me to connect dots between different stories, see parallels and other similarities that can be essential for the investigation. It’s a bit like writing down something you shouldn’t forget. If you just keep it in your hard drive it’s easily forgotten, but the act of making it physical by writing it down makes you remember. This is comparable to the way I see my archives.

In your series Bad Trip you described your personal feeling of “paranoia” generates by a super-consumption of information… You decided to dedicated a period of your life just checking and following all these channels and news into the massive flood of media impulses. What brought you at the end to choose the specific medium of video and photographs as final result?

The project started more or less at the moment Trump got elected. I was kind of confused by this whole idea, and was really astonished by the result. I could not believe so many people voted for this man. And how the polls were wrong. Did I spend too much time in my private bubble? What did I miss? How did this happen? From one day to another he also introduced the term ‘fake news’, making everyone a media-critic overnight. Even my mom started doubting the writings in the newspapers. Because most of my work before this period was about investigating the way a true event is visualised, written down, and presented to a larger audience, and all the difficulties that came with that process, I had to rethink what to do now. The first step for me was to try to understand why this happened. On what information have the people who voted for Trump (and in my own country, who where about to vote for ‘the Dutch Trump: Geert Wilders) based their votes on? For four months I submerged into the online world of this ‘alt-right’ information machine, and read everything they read, saw every video they posted, went through every research they presented for their cause. Before I started this, of course, sometimes already had a feeling of paranoia, for instance when stepping in an overcrowded subway, thinking: “if someone comes in now with bad intentions, we’re all fucked”. But these kind of thoughts occurred very rarely. A few weeks in this research period, I started to notice these kind of paranoid moments became more and more present in my daily routine. At a party I would get these ‘Bataclan’ flashes, thinking where I could hide when shit would hit the fan. When seeing a truck driving into the city centre just a bit too fast I would assume the worst. The flashes where always short and weird, completely irrational. I decided to record them, as some sort of personal ‘evidence’ of this moment. These recordings, mostly photographs, where brought back to my studio where I retraced in my archives what I’d read and seen before that could be seen as building blocks for this paranoia; to rationalise what happened in this moment. I think photography was the perfect ambiguous medium for this moment, for it’s inextricable connection with reality, which to me at that moment was lost in a cloud of paranoia.

Your latest series Decor is a visual research on reactions images can still generate in contemporary time. You studied IS propaganda, attitude towards the camera and language. Why did you decide to employ the empty landscape as your personal mean of communication? Why you choose to refer to the term ‘decoration’?

The term ‘Decor’ in this context is referring to a decor as it is used in cinema or theatre. A background, a situation where a scene takes place. The project was initiated within the ‘Foam Farm’ project, a collaboration between me and four other artists of different disciplines. We were asked to talk about the role of the image in our contemporary society, and from these talks create a work. After a few weeks of contemplation we came to the overall working title ‘we know it sells, but does it hurt?’ – commenting on the way the visualisation of pain (in all it’s different meanings) has become a strategy of marketing. To me this was the start of this experiment, departing from the way images to me most of the time are incapable of transmitting emotions on a deeper level, because I always tend to approach them from a professional point of view, and it is quite impossible to ‘turn this off’. The content gets rationalised and analysed before a true emotional response can settle. Since I’m less used to textual emotion in that way, the response to an emotion transmitted by text is usually much stronger, and less superficial. I made a series of works, landscapes without persons; decors of the most horrific videos I’d seen in years: propaganda videos by IS. After watching fragments of those videos, feeling numb, being not as emotionally disturbed as I would have expected to be while thinking about them, I started looking for writers, who could write a new scene to fill this decor, in an attempt to see if this combination can evoke a new feeling that, to me, is stronger than the original image. An attempt to override the handicap of the over-rationalisation of images by partially transforming them into a new format. These empty decors were printed on large thin see-trough fabrics, again a reference to the theatre, presented with a small textbook, in which you could read the texts by the 45 writers that wrote new scenes to fill the decors.

In some of your previous series, as Gesture (2015) you were already fascinated by the analysis of the social and political moment you live in, but in some way you created work more connected to yourself, more deliberately personal as you choose drawing as medium. How would you describe your attitude towards narration and representation? Do you feel the consumption of images we are subjected nowadays can distract in some way our comprehension of ‘reality’?

I think Gesture was one of the last projects in which I tried to be super analytical, without my own perception playing a big role. Of course, that is always impossible as a maker. But the attempt to make it as clear and almost scientifically as possible, also led me to the drawing of the handshakes. I wanted to only address the gesture, the handshake, with as little ‘noise’ around it as possible. I decided to remove all context first by cropping the handshakes, but that wasn’t enough. Then by erasing everything around them, but still there was too much context present, so in the end I ended up with only a line drawing. As dry as a representation of such a gesture can get I thought. The urge to get rid of as much context as possible was to me a exaggerated metaphor towards news media, in particular press photography, in which this ‘political play’ takes mostly place. A scene gets captured by a photographer, the images of that scene end up at a newsroom, someone writes an analysis to accompany the images, and this is the version of that moment that is presented to us, the audience. The gesture only exists to be captured on camera, and show a certain message to the world. As I presented the anonymised line-drawings to body-language experts around the world for analysis, most of them wrote me there’s too little context to make a useful analysis of the particular moment.

After this project I developed an interest in the way these kind of media-narratives can influence our daily lives, as I researched in Bad-Trip. My personal conclusion from this project is that these virtual realities we encounter on a daily basis become part of our life. The way you state it in your question, that they ‘can distract in some way our comprehension of ‘reality’’, is a different way of looking at it then I do. I think they are not separate realities, they merge. What I see on TV now, goes with me out on the street. It’s not a distraction, it’s just part of how the world is now. I think it’s impossible to detach these ‘realities’, and it has no use to do so either, because in practice they don’t exist (anymore?). But since the way we receive our daily information is so personalised nowadays, we need to be well aware that everybody out there is walking around with a different set of realities. I’m not sure how different that is from the pre-internet era, but I’m very sure that in our contemporary world the cocktail of different realities we perceive is much more complex than it has ever been. I think this is also why I allowed this personal approach in the works that I’m currently making, because I see it as a very important part of the paradigm I’m trying to grasp.

You just won the Grolsch Unseen Residency and you will spend two months in Stockholm in spring 2018. Can you explain something more on the concept ’In search of Equality / In search of Utopia’?

Where the rest of Europe (perhaps I could even say ‘the western world’), is more concerned with contemplating dystopia, Sweden and its neighbouring countries have never lost sight of utopia. And by now, while the whole world is falling apart, they are closer to achieving that then all others in the world. Progressive law-making based on science and social studies, in combination with the socialist state the country still aims to be, leads to experimental though often successful advanced social structures. Equality for all Swedes is currently high on this agenda, as it is seen as one of the last steps to freedom for the individual.
I’m very interested in the way this governmental involvement affects the residents of a country, major city, and how the people feel about it. I recently interviewed some Swedish residents, and the tendency overall is good, but sometimes the friction between this well meant ideals and the daily-life situation gets unbalanced. This friction will be the focus of my research.
To do so, I will start with asking myself if this striving for ‘equality’ will also be applied to me, as a temporary resident? Can I, as an immigrant, become equal to the Swedes around me?
I would like to use this personal approach as a vessel to tell a bigger story that researches the balance between the personal freedom that is provided by the state, and the borders of that freedom. By interviewing local residents, lawmakers, other immigrants and sociologists I’ll try to gather ingredients to be used for visualising this abstract topic. I’m quite unsure about the visual outcome, but I’ve worked before with certain abstract points of departure, trying to capture a quite invisible social structure. Usually this ends in a range of small experiments that somehow touch upon the notion of the topic, but never fully grasp it. As it goes in real life.


Thomas Kuijpers (1985, Helmon NL) is a visual artist. He studied photography at the AKV St. Joost, Breda. His work has been featured in numerous solo and group shows, both in private and public institutions, such as FOAM Museum, Amsterdam; De Kunsthal, Rotterdam; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Awarded in 2017 with Metronom Book Award, during Fotopub festival in Novo Mesto (Slovenia) he is one of the selected artists for FOAM Talent 2017 and Plat(t)form 2018 at Fotomuseum Winterthur. His work has been acquired for the collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Cover image: © Thomas Kuijpers, 26.10.2015, from the series Decor, 2017