Hybrid Space @ Media Cultural Sciences University Utrecht

Max Urai interviews Professor Frans Vogelaar, who is a professor for Hybrid Space at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne.

In this interview Max Urai asks him about the path that the professor followed that lead to his teaching and research position.

The interview also elaborates on the concept of hybrid space and the professor’s inspirations to teach in this very direction.

Interview, Max Urai @ BLIK #5.0, University Utrecht, Media and Cultural Sciences, the Netherlands, March 2012


I meet Professor Frans Vogelaar in front of his office at the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne.
He apologises for his somewhat confused appearance, which he attributes to the fact that he has been awake for 36 hours after the graduation party the day before.

Before I have recovered from the surprise of hearing these words from someone who is (a) my father’s age and (b) a professor, he again apologises for scheduling a double appointment, the other of which is with Dingeman Kuilman the director of ARTez, the art academy in Arnhem.
He advises me to walk around the academy, as the students are exhibiting their final proects that day.

The campus is full of set-ups, video screens and paintings, with their creators beside them. Some are dressed in groin boots and XXL jumpers with holes, others in turtlenecks and berets and still others in all-stars and hip hats, but they all have the same tense look in their eyes. Except for the few who are still shifting their installation a bit or just can’t get their projector to work, they are all willing to chat, and each of them has a surprisingly good story to tell. I meet a girl who is making an animated film about “freaks”, a boy who wants to highlight the poetic side of science and a pregnant young woman who has a video installation showing people painting squares in the colours of their clothes on a wall. Prof. Vogelaar later tells me that most of the students had already completed their studies before coming to KHM, and it is noticeable. The influences and inspirations of the artworks really come from everywhere: film, theatre and visual arts, but also from things like opera, medicine and theoretical physics.

When Prof. Vogelaar finishes his talk, he quickly locks something short with two students while I take a seat in his office. If it was not already clear enough that the professor is of a different calibre than I am used to at UU, his office leaves absolutely no doubt. The parts of the wall that are not plastered with posters have texts written in marker, there are four or so mysterious machines buzzing about, and small pieces of plastic and metal are everywhere. Even by my standards, it is a mess, but it is the kind of mess of someone who simply doesn’t find tidying up interesting enough to spend time on it when there is so much to do. Once he has answered all his questions, the professor takes his seat and we begin the interview.

In short: who are you and what is your position at this school?

My name is Frans Vogelaar. My background is in architecture and industrial design, I have worked for Studio Alchymia in the 1980s and worked for Rem Koolhaas in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, I started to develop a new field of study: hybrid space. This was twenty years ago the start of analog and digital space. At that time, I was very interested in networks, internet was still not yet public, but the concept of networks – social networks, mobility networks, etc.-was of course already known.
Ten years after I had developed this idea I started at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and was appointed as a full-time professor in hybrid space.

The Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln is a very special institution. It started about twenty-five years ago and it is extremely successful, extremely anarchic… I think, in all my worldwide experience, it is definitely the best media school in the world. We have three departments: media arts, film, and media studies. We have about 350 students, about 40-50 professors and a technical staff.

Our students are a bit older than the average student in the Netherlands. In the room where we are now are three second-year students, all in their late twenties early thirties. Roman has just graduated as a doctor. Jonas is a television producer. And then we have Robert, who studied classical singing and art history in Hungary and completed both studies. All three are students of media arts and that gives you a bit of a background.

The professor speaks softly and calmly, but with the authority of someone particularly knowledgeable. Despite his lack of sleep, which clearly plays tricks on his coherence, his story is absolutely fascinating to listen to.

What is in practice a hybrid space?

Simply what we now understand as merging communication and real space. For example: you interview me now on your mobile phone. Someone can call you now, and then for a few minutes we are connected in two spaces. I am in real space with you, and you are on the line with someone. It’s a very simple example, but so this is how a hybrid space is created. There is a blending between public space and private space that suddenly intrudes when you get a call.

You said that you had worked for Rem Koolhaas. How did you do so?

In the 1980s, I graduated cum laude from the Design Academy in Eindhoven. I was pretty sure by then that I wanted to get out of design and do architecture. I was planning a trip to New York and I thought his book Delirious New York was insanely good. When I got back from New York, I thought: why don’t I see where he works? It turned out he was working in Rotterdam, in an office with maybe 15-20 people and he was working on what was then to be his first building project, the Netherlands Dance Theatre. I looked him up, showed him my work and left my portfolio there. Three weeks later I called him and asked if he had time to look at my work, He then invited me to come and actually I started working immediately.

How are you after that, then again in the academic world?

After a few years of working with Koolhaas – which was a fantastic time – I wanted to study architecture, develop independently as an architect. During one of the last days with him, on a mad dash from Rotterdam to The Hague, he asked me “What are you going to do?” I said I probably wanted to study architecture. He invited me to come to London two weeks after that to have a look; he wanted to introduce me to the Architectural Association. I was immediately enamoured and went to London to study. Within a year, I started working in a particularly interesting unit on a number of projects that would later evolve into the concept of hybrid space. We are now talking about the early 1990s: as I mentioned, the internet was not yet public and I was interested in networking. I had already suspected that there would be something like hybrid space. I started developing that idea over the years, and it ended up being a very good basis.

How do you use this concept outside the theory?

We are currently working on a project called the Intelligent City Forum, a collaboration between the London School of Economics and the MIT Media Lab. We were asked a few months ago to join that consortium with our agency Hybrid Space Lab, and in it we are researching and developing projects for the new E-mobility. This is a kind of combination of Electronic Mobility and Electric Mobility.

Mobility is going to change radically in the next few years. First of all, we will increasingly use electric motors in our transport instead of traditional internal combustion engines. The latter have about 1,000 parts that are highly engineered, for which you need a lot of knowledge, high-quality materials, good engineers et cetera. An electric engine, on the other hand, has only about 100 parts and can be made at a much lower quality level. You don’t need such super engineers for that, almost anyone can build electric motors.

Electric motors have other advantages: for instance, you no longer have local pollution, and we can do away with the miserable noise of the traditional internal combustion engine. Cars will also become smaller: in 75% of cases, we can go anywhere with very small quiet cars with short ranges.

Another development – which is why we call it E-mobility, not Electro-mobility – is that we are developing smart cars. Google is developing automated driving. Through sensors, scanners, software et cetera, cars will be able to drive much closer together and much more safely, we will no longer have to play chauffeur, which will save us time by not engaging in an increasingly stupid activity, but will be able to focus our attention on other things. At the same time, the car will become less important. What will become important is how you will connect different multi-modal mobility systems. You will need a bicycle for a while, then ten kilometres the car, and then you are going to make a 300-kilometre journey that is best taken by train. You’re going to arrange all this, you’re actually already doing that, through your smartphone.

You said earlier that you for developing hybrid space was inspired by networks. What do you think of current social networks as Facebook and Google +?

We have done a workshop a month ago at the Delft University of technology, which is called INDESEM. The theme was “Losing Ground”, and exactly this theme, new electronic social networks, we try to find in it. With a large team of international scientists and students we have seven days long searched for really new what our social networks with our existing social space Crosslinking.

I’m not not on Facebook and Twitter which I find frankly a complete disaster. A project what we have done has predicted this not so much as considered. This project was called Public Media Urban Interface, this we have done 20 years ago, but is still highly topical on the level of almost not expected developments in the field of electronic social networks.

Where are you currently working on?

I have proposed a new field in the last six months: hybrid design, post-industrial design. We are moving away – we have been moving away for a long time – from an industrial society. If you look at design, even in the Netherlands, it’s still about the object. Actually, now it’s about services. I did 20 years on hybrid space, I feel like I’ve been working on hybrid design for six months now. It is moving faster and faster. It is interesting to see that there is a lot of international interest in the idea. That’s why we have now been invited to Bejing Design week. We are not a design school, yet we influence design in a very innovative way.

The professor takes a break and walks out. I study the office again and am told that one of the devices buzzing in the background is a home-made 3D printer, which is making a part for a project. Once the prof has regained his breath, we resume our interview. The conversation gets a bit lighter after this, and we chat a bit about the differences between the Netherlands and Germany. The professor, a Dutch citizen living in Berlin, is particularly fond of Germany, especially public transport, the young generation with their worldliness and German design. Even the German sense of humour, assumed worldwide to be a contradiction in terms, is fine, according to the prof. When the conversation inevitably turns to Dutch cuts in the arts, his advice is simple: “Emigrate”.

We walk around campus together for a bit and buy a cup of coffee at the student canteen. The professor looks proudly at the exhibiting students. This is his place. When he announces he has to catch his train, we say goodbye. He advises me to go watch the graduation films, which start right after in the auditorium. Although I don’t understand German very well, they are all made with unmistakable craftsmanship. I leave campus with a button, two free pencils and the urge to make something.

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