Right now, while we’re having this conversation, it has been a month since you launched The Flemish Scrollers. It went absolutely viral and I was wondering if you feel that the project is a success already?
Dries: I do, yes. The project is being shared so extensively, that it does feel successful to me. Actually, I have 2 kinds of projects: online works and physical installations. With the online projects, I can easily measure how successful they are, by looking at how many people share them.
A large reach is an indicator of success?
Dries: To me it is, yes. With the physical installations the success is much harder to determine. I don’t have a tracker to see how many people come to visit my work at an exhibition. It matters to me how many people share and view it. One of my latest projects before The Flemish Scrollers, for instance, is The Lookout. It allows you to use your PlayStation controller to direct unsecured surveillance camera’s all over the world. I still think that is much more spectacular than The Flemish Scrollers, but I know The Flemish Scrollers will do much better online. The success of an installation like The Lookout will only be apparent in five years, when I know how many requests there have been to show it at exhibitions or festivals.
Does your success also depend on the kind of people you reach with your work?
Dries: No, I just try to appeal to the widest possible audience.
The shotgun approach?
Dries: Yes. It gives me a lot of satisfaction when people who are completely uninterested in art start sharing my work. One of the worst turn-offs in the art world, I believe, is when they say: “you need to read these books first before you can begin to understand the work.” They lose me there. It’s something I try to resist. The wider audience should be able to understand my work immediately.
And does it matter at all what the wider audience makes of your projects?
Dries: I leave it up to them. I show the dangers of certain technologies. What people think about it, is up to them. I think I’m perfectly aware of the questions it raises, but I won’t always be answering them. Sometimes it matters though. Originally, the idea was to launch a sequel to The Flemish Scrollers, for example. I had installed a function in my webshop that would allow each politician in Belgium to pay one per cent of their salary to stop the programme from tweeting about them.
Like some kind of blackmail?
Dries: Yes, I hesitated for a long time if I shouldn’t just launch that function along with the first part, but it would look too much like blackmail. That is not what the work is about, so I decided against it.
Was it about inventing a business model for this project?
Dries: Perhaps it was. Even though I knew of course that not a single politician would buy it. I still thought it was important for the entire system to work, so I did build it. Eventually, we decided not to launch it. But I think I will tweet about it today because the idea was there, and I want to share that at least. The fact that my projects feature these small business models, is an influence from my parents. My father has a domotics company, for the automation of people’s homes. So you can switch on all the lights in your house with your phone, for instance, or fill the bathtub before you get home. Ever since I was a child, this fed my fascination for technology. I studied electrical engineering for six years and I was planning to take over the family business, but then I went to the art academy in Ghent. I was missing a certain creativity.
But you do feel that you made the right choice?
Dries: I like to think so. Sometimes, I do have to explain what it is exactly I’m doing. It is an art school after all, so initially you get the standard questions: How will you make money? As a result of those questions, many of my projects have some kind of income model. It’s obvious that all the attention for The Flemish Scrollers generates more sales in my web shop. More and more companies and people are starting to follow me, I get more requests for lectures, and as a consequence, my reputation continues to grow.
Do you constantly need new projects to keep the attention growing for what you are doing as an artist?
Dries: I don’t want to be a one-hit-wonder. I don’t want to be recognised as that bloke who made Die With Me, the app that only works when your phone battery charge drops below 5% and allows you to chat with others whose phones are also nearly dead. That also went totally viral, but it was three years ago. Now it’s The Flemish Scrollers, and next year, it has to be something else. It can’t be that one single project.
Would it be bad if your work wouldn’t be up-to-date anymore at some point?
Dries: That is the reason why I have to keep making new things. It has to stay relevant. But the main reason why I work out my ideas so quickly is that, as soon as I come up with a certain idea or concept, I always feel that right that moment someone else will have the very same idea.
This sense of haste in your work is reflected in the volatility of going viral. What is it like for you when a project is being picked up so quickly around the world?
Dries: If I hope that a certain project will go viral, I make sure I’m prepared. When I launched The Flemish Scrollers, I cleared my schedule for the rest of the week. Before I put a project online, I make a list for myself with the ten questions that are most likely to be asked. You see, every five minutes there’s another email from a press agency asking about my work, and the list allows me to copy-paste nearly all the answers. I respond immediately to everything, to get the most out of it.
When you launched The Flemish Scrollers, I noticed that you posted hourly updates of its reach on Instagram. It really keeps you occupied at those moments, doesn’t it?
Dries: I think it’s cool when other people have an opinion about it. I copy phrases I find interesting, things I hadn’t noticed about the project myself. I do feel the adrenalin on a day like that. It’s definitely a rush to go viral.
The downside of going viral is that it only lasts so long. What will happen next with The Flemish Scrollers?
Dries: The software keeps running of course, so the politicians continue to be watched. Technology develops quickly, which means my projects have to be kept up-to-date. The next software update will make it possible to distinguish if politicians are scrolling or typing. Facial recognition software is continuously improving, and I feel that I should update that software too.
I won’t ask you what you are going to make next, lest someone else beats you to it.
Dries: Exactly, let’s skip that one.