When Richard Vijgen studied graphic design at university, there was hardly a computer in sight. But despite being on a print-focused course typical of the early naughties, it didn’t take long for the Arnhem-based creative to discover the emerging digital practices that would later form the bedrock of his practice.
“I came across Project Gutenberg, a repository of over 20,000 public domain e-books available for free in plain .txt format,” Richard recalls of his formative first encounter with the world of open data. The discovery set his mind racing and he couldn’t help but ask: “if this is the future of books, what am I doing designing them one at a time?” Unable to summon a satisfying answer, Richard taught himself some basic code, rustling up a neat little programme that would – algorithmically – design all of his books, all at once. “Ever since then,” he tells us, “I’ve been fascinated by large datasets and using code to imagine them visually.”
Adopting an experimental approach to data-driven methods, Richard’s innovative and expressive work uses “code, space and pixels to visualise the invisible.” Deeply rooted in a world of ones and zeros, it’s a practice keenly attuned to the interactions of digital events with physical and social space. “I’m fascinated by the abstractions of modern life, like digital networks, the radio spectrum, smart cities and digital repositories: things that are shaping the world we live in but are invisible, almost intangible to us,” Richard tells It’s Nice That. “I like to experiment with ways to make these abstractions visual – not to show exactly what they look like, but more as a way of understanding or imagining.”
“Data interpretations” – as opposed to data visualisations – Richard’s pieces enable their audience to relate to the invisible realities which surround them. Atmospheric and poetic, rather than directly translating waves, measurements and data-points, his work uses these quantitative values to generate multi-layered qualitative experiences.
Richard’s latest project, WiFi Impressionist, sees a surprisingly endearing, machine-cum-artist depict the presence of surrounding radio signals. “I created a mechanical system consisting of a directional antenna mounted on a pan-tilt mechanism. This enabled me to pick up wifi signals in real-time and determine where they were coming from,” Richard explains. “I then wrote some software that controls the antenna, getting to make a full scan of its environment. Based on this scan, the software creates a three-dimensional model of its surroundings.”
This model was a crucial initial step for Richard but he knew the project needed to be pushed further. “While I liked this image visually, I found it to be too directly representational of the subject,” he muses on the objective, utilitarian depiction. “It’s a helpful image if you already understand the nature of radio signals around you. But if you don’t it just looks nice but it’s still very abstract.”
Grounded in a more subjective, relational point of view, the final iteration of WiFi Impressionist represents wave signals in relation to the machine’s location, “much like how a painter might sit in a field with a canvas on an easel and paint a representation of their view.” Reflecting on his commitment to the painter metaphor, Richard says: “I took this analogy literally because it helped me to imagine and communicate an understanding of wifi as a landscape of radio signals. Just like visible light, radio is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. So in the same way that a landscape painting is an interpretation of the electromagnetic vibrations of colour, so is radio – albeit in a different range of the spectrum.”
Richard’s decision to embrace the artist metaphor allows for traces of humanity to be read into the machine’s otherwise robotic motion. Subtle and smart, this faint anthropomorphism imbues WiFi Impressionist with Richard’s signature combination of precision and poeticism. “I didn’t want to make a ‘black box’ where an image just appears at the end, as a jpeg on a screen or a digital print,” he concludes. “The mechanical plotter was the vital final ingredient because it builds the image slowly, in a way that’s understandable, allowing you to follow the process.”