Looking into Sytske Nijp’s “SHIFT BOX”
By Bettina Pelz
“The nighttime is the moment where I become the most alive and the time in which preferably do my work.”¹, said Sytske Nijp when I met her passing by for a daily check-up on her installation at the Stationskwartier in Leeuwarden. Her installation “The SHIFT BOX” was part of the MEDIA ART FRIESLAND YOUNG MASTERS exhibition from 3 to 19 February 2023.
The exhibition of the YOUNG MASTERS was located on the 1st floor of the ‘Stationskwartier’ in walking distance from Leeuwarden’s Central Station. In 1988 the large-scale building lost its former function, presently it is turned into a creative hub with a raw, unrefined appearance. For recent years, MEDIA ART FRIESLAND (MAF) hosts its annual festival of media art and digital culture here. The festival features a wide range of media artwork encompassing exhibitions, performances, and talks. It is a valuable platform for artists, designers, and makers to showcase their work, connect with peers, and engage with audiences interested in the latest trends in art and technology. Since 2016, I have been joining the activities as a visiting curator, a jury member, or a researcher dedicated to light- and media-based practices.
The scouting and selecting of the YOUNG MASTERS 2023 was a collective process guided by the MAF director Andrea Moeller and the emerging curator Jan-Herman de Boer. There are thirteen positions by emerging artists on display along a parcours meandering through the building. Most of them (69%) are home in the Netherlands, in addition, there are some artists from the Philippines, Syria, and Tunisia; more than half of the participating artists (57%) perform female or queer; it feels like a good diversity mix. I asked Sytske to comment on the other YOUNG MASTERS, and she responded that she has “… a lot of ideas to make them a bit different or to expose them differently. I think all the young masters need to connect and make one big installation …”. Her answer corresponds with the inspiring atmosphere that accompanies the exhibition.
Two of the installations – one by Alyson Sillon and the one by Sytske Nijp – are both rooted in the technoculture and engage with its potential of (re-)shaping identities. “ … electronic music is the music of my time”, said Sytske In the interview accompanying this text, “I like the way you can make your own, connection, feeling, emotion, or story. I am really loading myself up to listen to electronic music.” In a comparable way, Alyson Sillon talked about her graduation work on display: “For my thesis, I researched the ritualistic aspect of techno parties and their healing potential, specifically with regards to socially oppressed bodies. According to society, my body corresponds to the female gender with a mixed-race identity. These characteristics have an impact on the way my body is perceived and therefore rule how I am allowed to behave and take space. Attending techno parties allowed me to make a profound discovery that revealed unconsidered perspectives about my body.”² Both works are inspired by leaving conventions behind and engendering an imaginative approach to reflecting on identity. The installations are compositions in which no one element is guiding but rather co-existing and overlapping embedding the visitor in a greater whole. They refer to body, mind, and emotions as shared human experiences, and invite the viewers to embark on a personal journey.
The SHIFT BOX is Sytske’s graduation project from the University of the Arts (HKU) in Utrecht which she presented in 2022. “We all see short movies on our phones now … most of the time we want it to be shorter and shorter and shorter so we can consume more. But I will forget them in like 10 seconds when I’m seeing the next video.”, she said when talking about her starting point. “I make installations and projections to take the 3D animated visuals, movies, and stories to the next level, to take them off the screen of my desktop and make the surrealism entering real life. And with that, stimulate individuals in their imaginations.“ _ she summarizes her approach.
INTO THE DARK
Sytske chose one of the larger spaces to inhabit. In the corners, there is a sound system, and in the center, there is a black rig with two screens, positioned at an angle to one another. Opposite are two video projectors, showing visually striking graphical animations floating between abstract shapes and bodily movement. They form a light and shadow play on the wall behind them and they engender some colorful reflections hovering through the space. The darkened space and the drifting sounds featuring repetitive rhythms, synthesizers, and other electronic sounds infer the ambient qualities of a club.
With her installation SHIFT BOX, she generates a dynamic, engaging atmosphere emerging from an installation that plays with a myriad of reciprocal interactions of digital visuals, analog optics, and an electronic soundscape. “I can create my whole surrealistic dream world in 3d and with projection, I can bring them into the world and people … can experience a surrealistic world in the real world. That is where I started.”
The screens consist of lines of white squares, and some of them are partly coated with mirror foil. They are wired to one another, hanging loosely, and are organized in a grid. Their visible amount and in their length are controlled by small motors that can move them up and down; the mechanical shift lets the lined panels slightly swing in space. Visitors can hear the squeaking mechanics, the clip-clop of the unfolding boards, and it chirrs when the cards are retracted again. For the artist, the mechanical structure is a unique tool for her VJ set: “For the SHIFT BOX, I wanted to do everything myself … so I learned everything of the code what I needed to work with the servo motors how are turning the gears … I also learned how to work with a laser cutter to make my blueprints into a real 3d object to build the SHIFT BOX.” An additional part of Sytske’s VJ set is a computer to run the VJ software and to store and manipulate the video content. She works with a VJ software program that allows mapping the architectural environment, mixing multiple video sources, and synchronizing the visuals to music. For the projection, she installed two projectors opposite the screens.
“I first make the visuals … in a way that they will be live editable … and then, I’m mixing them live … with colors, movements, different sides, and sizes … I’m preparing a bit, but I don’t want to just press start and it plays, because I want to play.” Sytske takes her inspiration from the conscious rendering processes of the brain. In her compositions, she refers to representation and its glitches, the roles of loops and layers, and the construction and deconstruction of what is described as reality. She is interested in the surrealistic spill that allows her to stretch beyond the known and the believed. “I love to make art that inspires people to do something … create something … think of something to talk about … start a conversation with each other … everything that can be a beginning.”
She works 3d animations featuring color and contrast, experimenting with moves and shifts, floating and glitching of the visuals. Abstract shapes and forms, drawings of flora and fauna, moving hands and dancing bodies come and go in a non-narrative flow. When projected onto the 3d screens, the visuals are diverted, distorted, and fragmented. Part of them render visible on the screens’ grid, part of them reappears behind walls with an overlay of shadows cast by the rigged installation, and part of the projection interacts with mirroring fields that reflect color fields into the viewers’ space.
The complex interchange of imageries with transiting from one form of appearance to another corresponds with the metaphorical idea of “moving out of the box”. “The SHIFT BOX stands for the ‘out of the box’ state … so sometimes you are in one box and sometimes you shift to a different box. In this way, everyone can feel at home, everyone can shift to another box to experience what it is like to be ‘out of the box’ for a while” _ Sytske commented.
For the co-development of the soundscape, she worked with a young DJ home in the Techno and Tech-house scene. “I had a story a visualization in my head. I shared it with ‘Merlín’ (Merlijn van der Straten) who made this sound composition. I asked him because I know his sounds, and what he is creating, and I wanted exactly that. Then I made one of the moving lines and showed it to him and he got on with it and made the story I wanted.” While commonly DJs focus on providing a musical experience to the audience and VJs enhance the overall experience through visuals, here the roles are inverted and the visuals provide the ferment to create a truly immersive and engaging atmosphere. Both share the ambition, to generate something new and leave a lasting impression on those in attendance.
Sytske Nijp is experienced in performing in club settings. She highlights the intensity of the experience transiting from dance to trance and dreamlike states of mind. The combination of light, techno music and video visuals in a nightclub environment offers a highly immersive experience. The use of abstract patterns, shapes, and 3D animations in the video visuals engenders dreamlike qualities. “My work is a combination between my fascination for the brain and my passion for the night. The brain is your perception of reality, and your perception is just passing by, disappearing as in your dreams what is both, subjective and surrealistic.”, she explains what is fueling her.
On one hand, the intense sensory experience of a nightclub environment can create a feeling of collective identity and community among the attendees. “… I love to see new-media art or party people who want to dance on it or the ones who love to dream and float a way by sitting and watching.”, the artist said. The shared experience of being in a space where the senses are heightened and the barriers between people are lowered can create a sense of connection and belong among the attendees, who may come from diverse backgrounds and identities. The surreal and immersive nature of the experience can encourage attendees to let go of their everyday selves and experiment with new forms of self-expression, whether through dance, fashion, or other forms of artistic expression. The club culture encourages a sense of fluidity and experimentation in personal identity and ways of being. The transformative potentials guide Sytske Nijp in her vj-ing performances and she seeks to be in dialogue with the audience: When I vj-ing I’m not far away in the back, a bit because I need to see the whole stage, but I love it being in the crowd … to feel the people the vibe …”
Vj-ing is a process-based artistic practice. It started in the 1970s, when video technology allowed moving images to be sampled, manipulated, and played back. Vj-ing features the real-time mixing of images from pre-selected and prepared content for a public audience, most commonly in response to music. Experimenting with all aspects such as recording and processing visuals, animating and coding, rendering, displaying, and remixing played an important role in the development of artistic practice. The technological advances of the last 50 years played a crucial role in shaping the field of video visuals, providing frequently new tools and techniques for artists to delve into. In the 1980s and 1990s, as techno music and rave culture grew in popularity, so did the use of light and video projections in club environments. Visuals such as abstract patterns, psychedelic images, and 3D animations were used to enhance the sensory experience of techno music. Some of them became a form of avant-garde experimentation and challenged traditional notions of medium and materiality.
While Vj-ing is a performance art to be experienced in social settings, video art is a twin sister in exploring video technologies, transmedia cooperation, and new forms of expression exhibited in art spaces, art institutions, and art festivals. They both experiment with montage, collage, animation, and digital manipulation of images and sounds. Over the last decades, vj-ing and video art have been the visual seismographs of the digital shift and have continuously pushed the boundaries of what is possible, creating new and innovative forms of artistic expression. By now, VJ sets are not only used in the context of live events such as concerts, festivals, and clubs, but are becoming increasingly popular as a standalone art form in galleries and museums, some artists’ examples are Ryoji Ikeda (*1966), Mira Calix (1969 – 2022), Tina Frank (*1970), Ryoichi Kurokawa (*1978), Max Cooper (*1980) and Architecture Social Club, Rosa Menkman (*1983).
THROW-BACK TO THE PIONEERS OF VIDEO-BASED ART: JOAN JONAS
Sytske Nijp’s approach echoes the approach of one of the pioneers of video-based art. “My work is all about layering because that’s the way our brain functions. We think of several things at the same time. We see things and think another, we see one picture and there’s another picture on top of it. I think in a way my work represents that way of seeing the world – putting things together to say something.”³ Joan Jonas (*1936) explained her approach. She emerged in the 1960s/1970s in the New York scene. Her work has been described as “otherworldly” and her pioneering transmedia approach links elements such as props, scripts, sets, costumes, or such as visuals, sounds, and dance, or such as installation or performance. She retells fairy tales and myths, creating emotional and visual landscapes which tune into our subconscious experience of the world.
Alike with Sytske Nijp, Joan Jonas stated that she prefers to work at night: “I rehearsed my work only at night, and when I rehearsed, I stepped into another space that was not the same as my everyday space. You could almost call it a séance.”⁴ In 1970, she purchased her first portable video camera, a Portapak, and experimented with a handheld video recorder. Using the camera, TV monitors, and live video feeds, resulted in the first performance to include video in 1972, the “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy”. The work’s formal elements — the layering of mirrors and mirrored images, manipulations of reflective space and spatial ambiguity, and the use of drawing to add a further layering of meaning — are part of Jonas’ signatures.
In the context of video-based art forms, women artists have played an important role in pushing the boundaries of the medium and creating innovative and immersive displays. Alike with Joan Joans, female artists such as Nan Hoover (1931-2008), Jenny Holzer (*1950), Pipilotti Rist (*1969) and Hito Steyerl (*1966) have used light and video art to explore media technologies along with conceptual themes related to identity, gender, and social justice. “Images do not represent reality, they create reality, they are second nature…”⁵, said Hito Steyerl. Alike with Sytske Nijp, she reflects on the interaction of the present image flood and its impact on mindsets, identity processing, and social interaction. Across generations, both artists experiment on the status of the image in an increasingly technological-bound world and how they inscribe in attitudes, cultures, and worldviews.
CUTTING EDGE CONTEMPORARY: SYTSKE NIJP
Across cultures and through the ages there has been a long fascination with enhancing stories, events, environments, and experiences with moving images. This ranges from archaic shadow-plays to the creation of present days immersive environments. Vj-ing features this intent and entrenches it in digital media technologies. As with all contemporary media, Vj-ing is constantly evolving, and over the decades, the broad array of practices continued to push the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of video visuals and digital approaches.
Sytske Nijp is an emerging artist in the Dutch scene dedicated to mind-melting performances emerging from a processual way of working continuously on updating materials, medially shifting them, and newly inventing some. In her artistic practice, she fans prismatically into a complex system intertwining the analog and digital spheres along with technical and conceptual aspects. She blurs the boundaries between physical and digital visual frameworks generating both animations and their displays. With her imageries, she explores the policies of identity challenging herself as much as the viewer’s perceptions and assumptions.
SHIFT BOX Credits
VISUALS: Sytske Nijp
SCREEN SYSTEM: Sytske Nijp
SOUND: Merlijn van der Straten
PRODUCTION: Marinus van Groen (MAF)
1] Bettina Pelz: In Conversation with Sytske Nijp in February 2023. Unpublished Manuscript. All quotes are from this interview unless stated otherwise.
2] Gerrit Rietveld Academie: Alyson Sillon: Graphic Design, graduated in 2022. No author, no date given. URL https://rietveldacademie.nl/en/page/13285/alyson-sillon >> 19 February 2023.
3] tate.org.uk: Art: Artists: Five Things to Know: Joan Jonas. No author. No date.URL https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/joan-jonas-7726/five-things-know-joan-jonas >> 16 February 2023.
4] tate.org.uk: Art: Artists: Five Things to Know: Joan Jonas. No author. No date. URL https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/joan-jonas-7726/five-things-know-joan-jonas >> 16 February 2023.
5] artsy.net: Hito Steyerl, German, b. 1966. No author, no date given. URL https://www.artsy.net/artist/hito-steyerl >> 16 February 2023.
Photo by Tom Meixner