Studio Moniker on how it’s getting harder for small studios to compete with big tech
We caught up with co-founders Roel and Luna in their Amsterdam base to discuss working with but also critiquing technology, and how their practice explores its social effects.
I arrive at Studio Moniker absolutely sopping wet. Soaked through. From head to toe. On the advice of everyone I spoke to, I hired a bike during my (first) time in Amsterdam which was lovely. Until it started bucketing it down. Needless to say, however, my mood was lifted when I stepped inside the surprisingly humble office of Moniker – a studio I have long admired as one of the best – and I was greeted by a small, congenial, intelligent and clearly very passionate team.
The space itself is indicative of the group’s personality. An old school building housing many studios, Moniker’s appears small but rises up in a Tardis-like style, with steep staircases leading from one floor to another. On one window is the latest iteration of the studio’s Fungus Series (a crowdsourced sticker installation) and the team of six’s desks sit tessellated with one another. As there are many strings to Moniker’s bow, there are many levels to its studio, it seems. On the second level, a custom wooden almost treehouse structure which juts out over everyone’s desks, is where we sit to have lunch (and dry off) before our interview.
Luna Maurer and Roel Wouters are, as they describe themselves, “the big bad bosses” and they founded the studio in 2012 with Jonathan Puckey, who later left the studio in 2016. An interactive design studio, Luna and Roel, along with their team of Tjerk Woudsma, Jolana Sýkorová, Thomas Boland, and Grischa Erbe, work across a variety of media and with a range of clients, on both commercial projects and artworks for the cultural sector.
They’ve created crowdsourced music videos, automated drawing tools, AR painting applications, memorials co-created by thousands of people, and an ever-changing VR collaboration, all of which “explore the social effects of technology – how we use technology and how it influences our daily lives.” Often, there’s an element of participation involved and the resulting works are investigatory, critical, funny and organic. Their results are unexpected, yet are born from the systems and rules Moniker puts in place; they “expand and grow like plants, displaying their inner organisational process.”
Luna and Roel met while studying at the Sandberg Instituut, the master programme of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, and later the pair was employed to teach on the graphic design programme of the latter. They got the gig when Roel was asked to join one day when the programme was looking for a substitute. “I had no idea what teaching was, or how to do it and so I thought, ‘I need to do this with someone else’ and I asked Luna,” he recalls. The pair became quite the “teaching team” for a number of years and “did lots of nice, fun, weird things” with the students on the course, alongside an incredible team which included Experimental Jetset and Julia Born as part of its faculty.
Roel and Luna, specifically, were in charge of guiding the students’ interaction design practice – something which every graphic design student took part in, in accordance with the Dutch creative education system. They made them “think about screens, the digital, things that are not static, not fixed in the way they were used to (with posters etc),” Luna remembers. “Our assignments weren’t about developing a style,” Roel adds. In a prophetic manner, what they were about was looking at the human aspect of technology, the difference (and sometimes the similarities) between a human and a computer, and what happens when you combine the two. To complete each project, they would organise an event or a party in a club or wherever they felt like it. “And that was not mandatory,” Luna recalls, “it was pretty unique to our class – it was a very special time, and I think the students liked our class!”
These kinds of ideas were not new for Roel or Luna as they had been bubbling away throughout their own, separate studies. Luna, who’s originally from Germany, studied there before heading to the Rietveld to do her bachelor’s, during which time she began exploring the notion of the web browser and its philosophical implications. “This whole idea came up with the browser and the fact that it is like a filter, which affects the way you perceive information,” she says. “That started a really big question mark in my head. I was absorbed by the internet and the effect it was having on all of us – it was super interesting.”
Her graduate project, an operating system which turned the interfaces of all the computers in the Rietveld’s computer room to liquid, was a “totally digital and conceptual final project” and her tutors “had no idea what I was doing,” she continues, laughing. It was this misunderstood project that led her to the Sandberg, though, a place that was “very interested in people like me who were interested in digital media.”
Roel, on the other hand, had been tinkering with technology and its perceptible results even before heading to university, primarily through an 8-bit computer. “That was very close to my heart – I was very interested in the visual side of technology, how can you create something with technology as a tool, how can you use technology as a tool to express yourself?” When he did make it to art school, though, things didn’t go so smoothly, despite his inherent fascination with creative exploration. “Busy with other things,” and therefore never attending class, Roel was eventually kicked out and never graduated. “But luckily, I met someone who told me about the Sandberg, where, at the time, I could start a master’s without a bachelor’s.”
An experimental institution whose graphic design course was interested in technology, it was here that Luna and Roel’s ideas about the rapidly changing world aligned, sowing the seeds of what would eventually become Studio Moniker. This was 2001 and while the rest of the department was interested in technology, Roel and Luna were particularly interested in the human side of technology: interactive storytelling. “You can see it, the roots [of Moniker] are totally there,” says Luna. “It’s been in development for, you could say, 20 years.”
It was while teaching a few years later, in 2004, that they met Jonathan Puckey, who enrolled on the course. Prior to him attending the institution, Luna and Jonathan had collaborated on a project together and, as Luna tells me, Jonathan was “totally ahead of other students but also the world of digital media.” As it turned out, he was intrigued by the very same topics Luna and Roel had been discussing since meeting each other. “We just clicked,” Luna continues, and so the trio started to work on projects together.
It was a different time and the internet was a very different beast back then. The trio spent their time poring over what was then an exciting new breeding ground for creative work, a space filled with optimism and untapped potential. “We were looking at what was happening to the world with the internet, everything was becoming fluid and dynamic,” Luna explains. “The medium didn’t matter to us, it was the mentality. It was the fact that something was happening, something was changing that fascinated us; the relationship between man and machine.” With this change came the potential for the democratisation of knowledge – Wikipedia had been founded in 2001, for example – and for innovative ways of sharing information. “We thought, ‘OK, we need new designers who can shape all this energy that goes into the internet world,’” Roel adds. “We wanted to do something with that – the way we as human beings could give shape to the internet and the possibilities of the internet.”
A large part of their conversations was taken up by the issue of defining their practice, or their inability to do so. Their experiments into this newfound world were expressed in, well, whatever way they felt appropriate, resulting in websites but also performances or music videos and even print. At the time, the creative world relied heavily on a tried and tested lexicon of “graphic designer”, “filmmaker”, “performance artist”, “web designer”, etc. But Roel, Luna and Jonathan felt they needed to position themselves differently – they didn’t identify with any of these terms; or rather, they identified with a little bit of each of them.
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Conditional Design Workbook, by Luna Maurer, Edo Paulus, Jonathan Puckey and Roel Wouters
Together with fellow kindred spirit Edo Paulus, they therefore created the Conditional Design Manifesto in 2008, a book outlining a new creative practice. “For us, the method was paramount: to develop, stimulate and visualise processes,” Luna explains. “The power of a conditional designer lies in the ability to define a playing field within which something unexpected or unpredictable can emerge.” Instead of an outcome-focused way of working, conditional design is concerned with developing a strict set of rules (algorithms) in order to delineate a framework in which a process can unfold. Born from their collective frustrations, the book introduced conditional design as an entirely new term, went on to become an international success, and served as an anchor point for Roel, Luna and Jonathan’s work. Following the publication of the Conditional Design Manifesto and an exhibition on the topic, Moniker was officially formed in 2012.
Eight years later and Studio Moniker’s portfolio is as absorbing as it is playful. And while conditional design proved to be somewhat of a springboard for the studio’s formalisation, it’s since become known for another approach: participatory design. Put simply, it’s the process by which Roel and Luna produce work, inviting an audience to complete a task or contribute in some way. Take Do Not Touch, for example, an interactive music video which begins with an announcement: “Please note ➝ We are recording your pointer.” Viewers answer questions including “Where are you from?” and complete easy tasks like “Catch the green dot” – doing so using their enlarged cursor, set against a sea of cursors belonging to those who participated before them.
And then there’s Puff Up Club, an installation created for an exhibition on Alexander Calder and Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Mimicking the “fleeting, precarious and exhilarating moment of fragile balance as expressed through the works of Calder and Fischli/Weiss in the early and late-20th Century, respectively”, Puff Up Club enabled visitors to a website to team up in order to puff up a balloon – and burst it. Their progress was streamed live from a physical installation located at Moniker HQ.
There’s a tendency to use the term “participation” within design to denote some form of authorship over an outcome, as Luna points out: “The terminology of participation is really worn-out, it’s a problem. Every neighbourhood is talking about participation in the municipality context, meaning you can say whatever you want or at least you can be part of a decision process.” But that is very different from Moniker’s work. Within Moniker’s practice, the participation is very limited, it’s not about expressing any personal ideas, it’s about answering a question, filling in the blank, doing an action, as instructed by Moniker. “We set the framework,” Luna describes, “and they join in the game. There are certain rules and they have to follow (or not follow) the rules. The space for personal expression is rather limited.” She goes on: “This also goes well with the idea of how giving a lot of limitations actually sparks creativity (also a difficult word!). But you don’t get ideas from a blank page. We like this idea and very much embrace it.”
It’s a form of creativity which they have learned much about (and from), using each project as an exploration of a particular idea or avenue of curiosity, even referring to some of their works as “social research”. How do you get people to do what you want? How do people respond when told what to do? And how do you know you’ll get the desired outcome? It’s about limiting freedom but providing just enough room for something unexpected to happen. You’ve got to make sure it’s fun, that participants don’t just feel like robots and that there is a clear payoff in return. “So, when making a music video, you ask them to do something and in return, you promise they become part of the video – there’s a very clear reward,” Roel says.
It’s also imperative to keep the interaction to a minimum, to “one-click participation” if possible, Luna explains. “It’s also funny, we really like it when people don’t follow the rules,” Roel chips in. “We don’t encourage it, but we leave space for it, a little gap that anyone who is looking out for will find. A hacker who thinks: ‘They’re asking for this, but I will do that.’ I think this is part of the fun.”
But why bother asking strangers on the internet to complete tasks using their cursor, when a similar effect could be achieved through video editing? Why does it matter that the interaction actually happened? Because you, as an individual, or even several individuals, could never produce the same results. They are totally and beautifully unpredictable. “The thing that I’m always excited about,” Roel says, “is that it’s not really about us as designers, but there is this moment that is filling up and getting dirty and becoming human and then it just starts producing stuff. Often, you’re slightly disappointed by it but also totally excited about it. It’s always different and it’s never as you anticipate it.”
Perhaps the perfect example of this is Fungus Series, an ongoing work which has had several iterations since Moniker first produced it in 2010. A generative participatory installation that is executed by a large group of people, the concept is simple: each person receives a sticker sheet containing four stickers and a simple set of instructions that specify how the stickers should be attached to the surface. Then, completely organically, an artwork is produced, sticker by sticker, as more people contribute. “It’s decentralised,” Luna says. “How the crowd organises itself is just fascinating.”
Ultimately, this is the crux of Moniker’s practice: humanity. Yes, the majority of its projects are led by technology and, in fact, they often employ some very complicated form of it. But the technology is merely a tool to investigate the friction that occurs when you directly confront humanity and technology, to attempt to understand the role it plays in our lives, what the “social effects” are. It’s interesting to hear that they would rather undertake a project that is “purely human than something purely computational”. It’s the interaction between the two that leads to interesting results. “If everything is ‘human’ and muddy and undefined then that’s also not so interesting,” Luna remarks. “One informs the other.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in their project Red Follows Yellow Follows Blue Follows Red. Here each participant received a pair of headphones and a red, blue or yellow cape and was then asked to follow the instructions. These included “follow yellow but avoid blue” told to those wearing red, while participants with a blue cape were asked to “follow red but avoid yellow”. While there is no computer involved, the project highlights what structures do to us, how crowds behave – it’s social programming, and the instructions function like an algorithm.
GallerySculpture Cam, a social game in the park
GallerySculpture Cam, a social game in the park
Reflecting on the work that Studio Moniker has produced in its eight years of existence, there’s a shift that seems to have occurred. Many of the older projects, such as those mentioned above, have an inherent playfulness to them; some of them are downright funny, in fact. But some of the more recent works are far more critical in their outlook, challenging aspects of society, particularly aspects of technology. Last year, for example, the studio released Do Not Draw a Penis, which was made in response to Google’s Quickdraw data set; “the world’s largest doodling data set”. For obvious reasons, as Moniker outlines, the data set was missing a few specific categories that people enjoy drawing. “This made us at Moniker think about the moral reality big tech companies are imposing on our global community and [about how] most people willingly accept this.” The studio’s response is an automated drawing tool that collects drawings of penises from people “who are not willing to stay within the moral guidelines set by our social network providers”, creating an addendum Quickdraw.
There’s also Paperstorm, which mimics the historic practice of spreading political messaging through paper leaflets. In one instance, the project was used to protest The Federal Communications Commission proposed changes to net neutrality which threatened the internet’s values of free speech, choice and innovation. Paperstorm, therefore, asked users to virtually litter The Federal Communications Commission’s headquarters in protest.
Something Roel initially points out when our conversation drifts to this topic is that both he and Luna aren’t programmers themselves, and so they are perhaps more reflective on the medium than they were when Jonathan was part of the studio. “Jonathan, being a programmer, played with the substance itself – he produced things that really came from the medium,” Roel continues. What’s more, the pair aren’t actually massive fans of tech – “we like to understand it, that’s true, but I’m not actually that fond of screens, I don’t like them that much!” he laughs.
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Paperstorm.it, Mozilla’s airborne leaflet propaganda tool
The overriding reason for this shift though is that Studio Moniker began as a project to respond to the changing world, and the world has continued to change. Moniker’s work has a new social context. In the 2000s, the digital world was sanguine, it was a community that saw the emergence of new networks and with it, novel ways of sharing information like “de Digitale Stad, Geocities, Wikipedia, MySpace, Second Life, etc.” Multinationals did not yet understand the web but now, it is 20 years later and as Roel tells me, “startups and multinationals seem to be the only parties that are able to create environments that digital citizens want to use eagerly.” For most people, the internet means WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook – their apps, not even their websites – and these “capitalise on our behaviour in every possible, radical way,” he continues. “Because of big data, privacy and copyright issues, fake news and automated moderation, the digital domain is becoming increasingly grim.” With this in mind, it would be remiss for the studio to ignore it in its work.
What that means is that Moniker is currently left wondering: “Can and should we continue under the same premise – to present the internet as an emancipatory medium and to celebrate connectivity by means of participative and playful projects?”
The answer, on the whole, is no. “It’s kind of sad, but it’s true,” says Roel, to which Luna adds: “We cannot just have this super playful, optimistic, let’s all party together outlook.” Realistically, it’s time for Moniker to pivot to, as it always has, responding to the digital world and its effects on human behaviour – just from a slightly different angle. “In the past 15 years, we have built a successful creative practice based on the premise that we as designers should be able to build digital environments that anyone with an internet connection can join,” Luna says. “Slowly we are starting to see the limitations of what is technically possible for an independent studio like ours.” The fact of the matter is, it has become increasingly difficult for a small studio such as Moniker to compete with companies like TikTok and Snapchat, which “are currently sucking up all participation potential on the web.” The field for experimentation when it comes to participation online feels spent, as the post, like and share functions of applications like Instagram is embedded within our muscle memory.
So what does the future of studio Moniker look like? This February, Roel and Luna began weekly conversations on such topics; their knowledge of the digital world but also personal fascinations, the world around them and their role within it. They film these discussions and some might form the basis of a project. “Simultaneously, we are developing more speculative, surrealist projects,” Roel remarks. “One concrete project in that regard is a participatory film about the behaviour of the (internet) user – we call it the Perfect User.” Encouragingly, just last week, the pair found themselves having “great laughs with a little film project,” painting Roel’s head yellow and filming him mimicking various emojis. Moniker will, it seems, find a way to continue critiquing and reflecting upon the digital world. And it will, it seems, continue to poke fun at it while doing so.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.