by Ken Rosenberg
Professor Mark Deuze met Miek van Dongen when they were both 19 years old. They would become lifelong friends, eventually inspiring each other to create brilliantly imaginative works – but their initial common ground was much less intellectually lofty. Of course, though the details of the various paths Mark has taken differ: everything began with him up on stage, an aspiring rock star. On this occasion, he was actually playing rock music; he was in a band with a mutual friend who introduced him to Miek. Mark had an upcoming interview with Michael Gira of Swans (a post-punk, experimental-industrial rock group) in Amsterdam and Miek, being a huge Swans fan herself, asked to tag along as a photographer. Mark had a destination, Miek had ideas, and they worked together to bring it all to fruition (and to have fun, naturally).
Miek is an artist. She is also a casual student of many other disciplines – everything from philosophy to physics – who seeks an “intuitive understanding” from books and articles that catch her interest. Keen to share, Miek would always come to Mark with some new revelation in a stack of paper, hoping he would be inspired as much as she was. One such work was an essay from theoretician Hakim Bey’s book Immediatism. It is about the pervasiveness of media and its impact on our lives – or, correspondingly, our very existence is mediated to some degree. As the degree increases, people experience a loss of intimacy because technological mediation dilutes the closeness of firsthand sensory experience. The concept is not without precedent, but Bey’s unique wording and framing would truly inspire Mark – eventually.
For the next 20 years, the essay would sit in a folder at the bottom of a box, but, more importantly, it remained in Mark’s possession. As he finished his education and traveled around the world, Bey’s writing managed to survive the journey to each subsequent destination. Mark’s friendship with Miek endured through the next couple of decades, as well. They would write each other at least a few times each year, meet whenever possible, and maintain the strong bond over similar worldviews that first united them. When Mark began working on his latest book, Media Life, he serendipitously stumbled upon the essay, understanding its words as he never had before. In his book, Mark also espouses the perspective of existence as an ever-mediated experience:
“Who you are, what you do, and what all of this means to you does not exist outside of media. Media is to us as water is to fish. This does not mean life is determined by media – it just suggests that whether we like it or not, every aspect of our lives takes place in media.”
The main difference is that Mark believes the only way to reestablish intimacy and become empowered is to become more aware of, more proficient with media. Since efforts to escape media are futile – and eschewing them all is impossible – the best people can do is to become aware of the mediated enviroment in which they are living.
Shortly after having his epiphany, Mark contacted Miek to thank her, and to ask her if she would like to create the art for his book. Miek was glad to hear that her recommendation had proven inspirational, albeit belatedly so, and was intrigued by Mark’s ideas. She accepted Mark’s offer and, in turn, was inspired to create some intense pencil-and-watercolor drawings that capture the essence of embodied experience and ever-mediated communication. Of the collection, sixteen drawings were chosen to be featured in the book, two for each chapter: one at the beginning of each chapter, one at the midpoint. Interestingly, the drawings were chosen and placed without any purposeful connection to the adjacent passages. Furthermore, the two creators worked somewhat independently – at first. However, as Miek’s drawings came, Mark was influenced by one of her strongest artistic propensities. “It’s all about body parts: dissembling and reassembling, infused with technology,” Mark said about her art. “She would constantly make me aware, even though that wasn’t her plan, of the body. As media scholars and theorists, there is often a tendency to almost ignore blood, sweat, and tears. You talk about emotions to a certain extent but, basically, there’s this clean proposition of how media fits into everyday life. Everyday life is a mess. It’s emotional, it’s smelly, and it’s blood, sweat, and tears – and that dimension is often lacking in media theory, in most social theory.”
Having done book tours in the past, Mark knew he wanted to do something different when debuting Media Life. “It’s tough being on the road all the time,” he explained, “and you’re traveling around just to get ten minutes in a lecture hall. Sometimes, there are people who are excited to hear from you but, other times … it’s sort of hit-or-miss.” Because the project is much more personal, this time, Mark thought it would be exciting to share the unveiling of his book with Miek, to try art galleries as the settings for his book-tour talks. Mark and Miek began their book-tour this past Wednesday with a talk at IU’s Grunwald Gallery. Miek’s drawings and other interactive media are currently featured in the left wing of the gallery:
Miek also defied expectations on this project. As a former web developer, she has done plenty of digital work. As an artist that dislikes the cold, impersonal nature of the traditional gallery aesthetic, she even decided to enter the art herself, by incorporating projected animations into live performances. Miek still views the computer as an important medium for her art—but more for means of presentation and dissemination, instead of production. Her website is a way for people to access her art at their own convenience, allowing them to create their own context. “I like that people could go and check out my stuff in their underwear,” she said. Additionally, technology is what allows her to sell prints, making the prospect of owning her art easier and more affordable to as many people as possible. But, despite her propensity for computers, she decided to create this collection with pencil and watercolors. “I like the dirtiness of drawing,” Miek said. “I find, now, that the body is really important to me. I like the dirtiness of the body, how it farts and sweats… and so I like the hands-on approach to making art, as well.” So, for her work on new media, Miek returned to more traditional art media. Mark and Miek hope to replicate this gallery experience in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, where Miek lives.
After 24 years, their friendship continues much as it began: mutual interest in art, a sharing of minds, and professional collaboration. These two quirky friends met because of music, stayed in touch with letters and email, and reunited because of a joint writing-drawing project. Mark and Miek have, unquestionably, a highly mediated friendship, based on and sustained through media… but, then again, we’re all living the media life. The only choice we have is to become aware of it, to appreciate the forces that connect us. Mark and Miek figured that out and then shared it with everyone else. Now, through media, we are connected to a piece of what connects them.