During the Zomerfestijn (Summer Festival) in 1991, de Balie in Amsterdam looked like a laundromat. But instead of seeing laundry swishing around, around thirty computer screens were installed in the machines. You could see the monitors through the door. And on the screens, each machine played loops: animations, short films, simple actions or blinking, VJ-ing avant la lettre.
Under the name ‘de Beeldlus’ and flying the flag of the Vereniging van Mediakunstenaars, the summer festival ushered in the new digital era.
Shortly before, most of the artists who took part had bought a low-priced computer, the Commodore Amiga. A machine that instantly became a tool used by all kinds of artists. Donald Beekman used it to draw children’s TV programmes, Max Kisman to design postage stamps and, later on, the house style of the VPRO. Brightly coloured flickering monitors appeared in the video clips of Maarten Ploeg’s band The Astral Bodies.
TELEVIZED OIL – RIETVELD TV #6 featuring the TV-MATIC (go to 02’06” for THIS…
In ‘de Beeldlus’, Maarten Ploeg showed his work THIS. THIS became the origin and very first broadcast of over a thousand hours of ’Puur Beeld en Geluid’ a night-time cable TV programme of PARK 4DTV, an initiative of Maarten Ploeg, Peter Mertens, Dick Tuinder and Maarten Sprenger. THIS has since been added to the collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
WHERE DID IT COME FROM? HOW DID IT EVOLVE? Ten years earlier, the first home computers had popped up in electronics stores. But what exactly were they for? No one knew for sure. Computers did have a purpose, it seemed. You could use them to play office, keep track of your club’s addresses and bookkeeping, and as word processors to type out letters or shopping lists. All of these uses required programmes, which you had to programme yourself, or copy lists of commands culled from amateur computer magazines. Overnight, office work became a source of seemingly infinite joy. But why on earth was organising numbers and text so appealing? Was it the beauty of numerical alphabetical order? No. Not at all. It was all about gaining control, about having a say in what happened on the all-powerful TV screen.
For a generation of artists growing up, for whom television was a new marvel and a window to the world, creating and manipulating something on your own television screen was almost a kind of magic. Even if all you came up with was a flickering square or little bouncing ball. Or a sound – even an odd-sounding bleep.
Maarten Ploeg used tape and video recorders to make video clips and pirate TV broadcasts, but when it came to painting, he painted with acrylics or oil on canvas. Then he discovered the computer and applied to making images that explored shape and colour: the very precise shape of a circle, the precise number of colours in a palette. All of it was exploratory and had its limitations. But despite that, the computer was novel, and initiated a quest for new colours and shapes – circles became steps, the palette was dominated by primary colours. Red, yellow and blue, black and white. Maarten saw that when it came to green, there were so many shades you were spoilt for choice. And that’s exactly what excited him. Infinite possibilities, with no end in sight. Maarten fiddled about, poked fun at the computer, and worked with an appetite for experimentation and playfulness.
In itself, the Commodore Amiga micro-computer was a precarious product. Idealistically conceived for the unlimited creation of visual images, yet a commercial disaster forced to compete with Japanese game computers.
The programmers of De-LuxePaint were experimenting just as much as the users. Neither had a clear idea of their ultimate goal, or even shared the same goal. Mysterious functions appeared that seemed more akin to arithmetic than generating visual output. Although no one wanted such features, they were there all the same. Even by today’s standards, the Amiga offered almost endless possibilities; no one suspected how the computer would impact the art studio.
Most of the participants in ‘de Beeldlus’ used DeLuxePaint’s animation function to make short animations of around twenty-five frames a second, which was more or less all that a one-megabyte diskette could hold. That meant repeating that single second. The best loops were those that you watched for a minute or more before realising you’d already seen it sixty times.
Maarten Ploeg, of course, knew about animation – like the rest of the students in the Audio Visual Department, he made animations for the well-known VARA television quiz 2 voor 12. He sometimes made a sort of animation for his own pleasure, exploring the colour palette of the Amiga.
Of the 4096 conceivable colours (a selectable combination of sixteen steps of red, sixteen steps of green and sixteen steps of blue) the Amiga was able to produce on-screen, you were only able to show thirty-two different colours at once. This restriction led Maarten to perfect his technique. He practiced, calculated, puzzled and tested things out, and became an undisputed expert. Also, because it was arithmetically possible, the programmers had integrated a function known as the Colorcycle that enabled the colours in the palette to switch places one by one. The Colorcycle brought a still image to life. This was unnecessary and often little more than an ugly, intrusive flicker. Maarten got to work. He spent whole nights delving into the mathematical organisation of colour and the purely technical make-up of the computer’s screen memory. Always with the painter’s eye.
He managed to come up with an orderly structure which he could use to great, and aesthetic, effect. The result was a collection of abstract geometric Amiga images Maarten intended to turn into animations – and he did. Moving image with sound.
To create the animations, Maarten taught himself AMOS (Amiga Operating System), a simple programming language. It was a version of Basic, expanded to include a number of commands that applied specifically to the Amiga’s audio-visual capabilities. AMOS could be used to vary the time factor. With simple algorithms, you could create a quasi-randomness. Thus, with two images – providing they were defined by the right parameters – you could achieve more than with a sequence of twenty-five.
Enthusiastically, the AMOS handbook reads: “At last you can make games with no experience at all. Forget Machine Code. Who needs it? AMOS gives you all you need to programme good commercial video games!” Those words must have fired up Maarten. People who still share that enthusiasm are active online today. The private group on Facebook can be found here facebook.com/groups/AmosPro/ with 610 members, the group includes Francois Lionet, the group’s admin, and original AMOS programmer.
The combination of his painting talent, eagerness to learn and curiosity for the new, inspired a series of works. He bounced ideas around with colleagues, of course. With Wiel – simple solutions for stupid problems – Seuskens, Maarten shared thoughts on art and how to turn this to his own hand. “Let’s say you want to play with light. Make a grid of transparent coloured paper, then stick different-coloured transparent paper onto it.” Wiel explains it all in his contribution to the PARK handbook (the PARK Handen Voetboek): bytes per pixel, the Bitplane model, and what is a CLUT (Color Look Up Table).
Early one afternoon in 1987, while Maarten and Peter Mertens are, quite literally, bent over an Amiga, they check out a fresh batch of diskettes that needed copying for security reasons, wondering if they’ll stumble across any new tricks. The Amiga’s disk drives begin, slowly and audibly, to process the megabytes, accompanied by Maarten’s mumbled status commentary. He happily discovers a hidden menu selection that explains how to spread a single colour over the palette and how – laboriously – you can show 4096 colours on the screen at the same time. The two can be heard going off on tangents, and now and then real life intrudes but, when Maarten finally solves the puzzle of a new palette and how to use it, Peter Mertens doesn’t catch on. Buried somewhere in the following transcript is the key to Maarten Ploeg’s genius. The transcript begins with a fragment of press conference – evidently, in 1987, the kidnapping of GertJan Heijn, heir to a Dutch supermarket chain, had just ended.
The cassette tape: 00:00 ...tragic way in which Mr. Heijn met his death, he wasn’t even given the chance to return to his family. We wereunable to trace Mr. Heijn in time. I’m passing you over to Mr. Geelhof. Your attention please for Commissioner Brinkman, chief-of-police of the municipality of Bloemendaal. PM: Right. Hmm. MP: Grrr... PM: Here, personal copy for you. You need it before you circulate to whoever, circulate the old copies. That’s not a problem. MP: Oh. PM: To keep it all on the up and up. MP: Because everyone it’s from Ad Wisman. PM: Huh? MP: Because everyone it’s from Ad Wisman. PM: Yeah, well, this come from Ad Wisman, official, the, err, MP: But the other. So, I’ve got to circulate the other. 01:00 PM: Yes, did you tell them or not? MP: What? Yes, only that you were there. PM: Look, Onion Pelly, Special Brush effect. MP: Yes, looks like it, it’s a link with an overscan screen. PM: With a? MP: Over-scan-screen... PM: No, but err, maybe overscan, yeah it could be. MP: It’s standard ... PM: It isn’t copy-protected, so it went right through. MP: It isn’t copy-protected. PM: No, you should be able to just drag it, I think. MP: What’s it called? PM: Well, it’s one way to copy. MP: Oh, yeah, that’s the intro 02:00 PM: Yeah, I don’t like it much, I think if you just drop a picture, IVB or something, I think if you just put it there. MP: Yeah, yeah, just save, as IFF. PM: what? MP: Save it as IFF. PM: Yes, no, if you take it well. It’s definitely faster. PM: Yeah, it seems faster to me, maybe it’s another version. MP: Yeah, try it. What’s it called? Nice Curver? PM: Yeah, it seems quicker to me, too. Get a brush. There we go. MP: That was Alt-D? 04:00 *(HG: Right.out at Max’s print it out couldn’t I. * PM: Yeah. It’s integrated in Postscript, Max has it too it’s just that, well, err, it’s a bit experimental dear Henk, he wants it in PageMaker. Because it’s En- capsulated Postscript) *) PM: He didn’t do it specifically? Although you could find out for sure. MP: It’s a bit of a difficult one, this. PM: Now the examples. Thanks, Westdahl. MP: Oh, yeah, that’s the American. The Photon. PM: Hmm? Yeah. And it’s bloody crap as well. They’ve coloured it in here as well. 05:00 MP: Easy. Great, that works best. That’s how I do it too. PM: No colours ... MP: No. I just do red. (Under his breath) The palette knife’s a pain the neck. It’s super accurate that colouring in, isn’t it...? E_24 fast. And, err... If I print that later, I could right now, it should be on diskette. I think if off, then it’s, err... MP: Darth Vader Presents. Photon Paint. PM: Haha. No, is it, funny. MP: No IFF. PM: No – it’s DF0. it’s not IFF there, look, MP: Pictures... PM: No, it’s not in Pictures, this is it, here. MP: Yeah, O.K. PM: Load version. 03:00 MP: Yes. anyway, yes, modify Ah, it does that too. Then you’ll get it as the take it This bit especially – the eyes, they really did their best with those... PM: Hmm. Nope. Lara. MP: Lara, ok. I think it’s great that it does that. That you can click on something and it loads before it’s done the whole list. Girl. 06:00 PM: Lara oh yeah. And those Lois drawings are all crap. MP: I can see Lara. There you go – it’s a Dpaint picture. Are you already recording? PM: Yeah, no worries. MP: In case I say something interesting. PM: Oh – there – there it is again. MP: Bloody hopeless. PM: Yeah, it’s not much fun. MP: Isn’t that the HAM pic? You put a HAM pic there? Look how fast it is. 07:00 MP: And have you still got a hi-res image? Wonder how fast it’ll load. PM: I’ve got one hi-res? Oh. Now, have to convert them. MP: Yeah, right, but see how fast it does it, or if it does it just as slowly. PM: No, it takes ages for that. Hey, it started up really weirdly, did you see? MP: No, it asks for DOS first, tos f 3. Has it still got disk access, no, this is much faster. PM: No, this isn’t hi-res, E_25 this. MP: No, it’s just Amiga, this. 08:00 MP: Yeah, an Amiga picture. C: didn’t do it. I can select bits, from that horizon, haha. PM: There you go, hi-res is loading now, it’ll take ages. MP: Yeah, that’s great. PixMate is a bit faster. PixMate’s pretty good. Photos, and really quick processing. Then yourhead’s a sort of moon landscape. You know the kind of photos? 09:00 PM: Oh yeah, sure. MP: You know how the photos of the moon’s surface look, with mountains and valleys. Well, that’s your head. PM: It does that itself? MP: Well, you need to reset the threshold a bit with your Lab, edge errors. Then it will. This is hi-res? Why is this in it? PM: Those are different stages it can show. That’s, err... That it showing it’s been saved in different ways... MP: Yeah, right. The Hires wireframe is still there. Tricky. PM: Yeah, four different phases. MP: Been done to death. PM: Yeah, it’s useless. No imagination, 10:00 MP: Nothing good about it. Someone who doesn’t know the first thing about drawing could’ve made it. And that head’s pretty inaccurate, or did you do that? PM: No. Bad, hey, points. MP: And the stupid C-Commodore, advertisement pic, couldn’t they do that any better... PM: You know, I seriously think it’s a tiny bit faster. What d’you reckon? MP: Could be. PM: That it shows that. Inthink maybe in the start-up sequence that it didn’t, that it, err... MP: Ad buffers or something. Or C-stack. Stack hundred thousand. 11:00 PM: Now it’s scanning, yes, and the entire start-up sequence is scanning the memory, and if it has extra memory, it’ll pump as much as possible into the memory. MP: Now with two. Have you got two now? Two meg? PM: Yeah exactly! Two meg! MP: Well, if you got just one meg, you don’t want it throwing the whole programme at it. PM: Okay, why? MP: Because it’ll take a lot longer to load. And afterwards there’ll be less memory for calculations. It’s just done them, so there’s not much memory left. PM: Well, can’t you change that – in principle. MP: Sound’s nice too. in seven ... you always 12:00 PM: Hmm... I don’t really see how those palettes...? Oh. Right. MP: How they work? PM: Well, why that palette of 64, why it’s separate from the other palette. MP: 4096? PM: Yeah MP: I don’t know either. PM: Was there a picture with this? PM: I’ll take a look. Where the palette had turned pretty nice. MP: The base colours, 4 1 8. Now the first 16 are the colours that the monitor is made of. PM: Okay, right MP: The absolute exact colour. I’ve just looked there, too. Oh. Right. If you do current, you see there are 16 as halftones as well. PM: If you what? MP: If you do current by colours, you can see which colours it has at the moment. Right – current base colours, current or F10, and you’ll see which ones. PM: Oh, right. But hang on, now – what’s it doing? What makes the colours different to this? MP: Not again. But look, if you use one of the main colours, of the first 16, it doesn’t need to Hold and Modify the first 16 [yawn], so if you draw with that, so if you draw with that you get cleaner lines, so then you have one of the others, and then you often get a kind of glow. Like her. Then you have bits of yellow there too. If you take one of those, you don’t. PM: OK, then this? MP: That should give that, too. Let’s have a look. Okay – there are red points there, and this for pict things. For when you want to use something like a brush. That’s de-fuzzing. You can’t get rid of those colours. Hmm. 13:00 MP: What are you doing? PM: Just undoing. MP: Then use Esc. Then you won’t get this circle. 14:00 MP: Let’s see... MP: Yeah, where’s that coffee? Thought I was a guest? MP: Hendrik’s old cup. MP: No plastic beakers? PM: I’ll wash it. PM: Milk? PM: Maarten? MP: Yeah. Please. And sugar. 15:00 PM: There you go. MP: Wow! It does spread too! PM: Spread? MP: Yeah, it does spread! Know how it does it? First 16:00 MP: You can find that out for yourself. But you’ve got to remember, it can do spreads too. How come all those people are looking for copies of the user manual? PM: Then you can see how it’s different, as well. Or the same. That’s all the same colour. MP: Even if you do fill? Then it sees individual colours. 17:00 PM: This is the next one. This is all D9 8. MP: Oh yeah, if you fill it? Does it see them as separate colours? PM: No, it sees that as 1, if it’s D99 now, yeah. MP: Oh, that’s great. It doesn’t work like that in Dpaint – it always sees individual colours. PM: Ok, right. MP: It’s part of it. Unavoidable, you shouldn’t have changed the start palette. That’s the best way. PM: D99, C99, ah, 29A. Like that. 18:00 MP: Have you already printed it? No, just a version with eve- rything on it. MP: Good printer, late night, or are you just ill? Fancy a smoke? PM: Yeah, a cigarette. No, I’m not sick and I didn’t have a late night. MP: The Edi Show was last night. E_26 you have this, and then this. PM: Ah! MP: Fantastic! PM: Closer together! The colour levels. MP: What? Watch how you do this. Click and copy to plok, and pok copy to plok. Pok, spread pok. MP: Yeah, that’s handy. then click Wow! PM: Oh, shit! MP: You were on camera for 1 second. Oh... PM: Did I behave? MP: Yep. Better than me. PM: Oh, crap, yeah – I had an invitation somewhere. I lost it. HG: See you, MP: See you MP: Okay, bye MP: I had this weird grin on my face. Standing like this – holding a bottle of beer. PM: That must have been by the kitchen ladder they were using to project the slides. We’ll have been on, for sure. 19:00 MP: Wasn’t listening to a word the man said. MP: That’s exact colour. Okay, right, if you do exact colour, it draws with precisely that colour. What is that XL. PM: How d’you mean? MP: Otherwise it sometimes makes a slight adjustment. What else was there that I didn’t know. Oh, right... 20:00 MP: There needs to be a difference. PM: One’s exact and the other isn’t exact. MP: D’you know what pix is? PM: Huh? Pix, hmm. Sorry, I’m yawning my head off. Worked too hard. Been writing papers and stuff. MP: You can see it here. PM: No, no, I know what– a brush? PM: Hmm... what? A bit from a drawing. MP: No, no. First get another picture. Yes, one like that, with a head. Well, it doesn’t make much difference really. 21:00 PM: Look – this is how you make it smaller... and then overscan, MP: Why overscan? PM: Poor image, but then good. MP: Let’s take a look, no overscan, then. Yep, PAL. Overscan. It works like that, too. And what now? MP: And then pix. And then it’s got to be plus. Than make it bigger – oh, you haven’t got a plus on here... this is an ancient keyboard. Oh, hey, you’ve got a plus there as well. PM: Where? MP: Isn’t it enter or something? No. PM: yes. 22:00 MP: Oh, it’s just the zero. Then you grab a thingummy. Thenyou go over it, like this – see? Then it does this, and then you can get a job with a bigshot TV company. PM: Now put something over it right away... Got an ashtray anywhere? MP: Hmm...
Having spent several years steeping himself in the Amiga’s ins and outs, and steering clear of pitfalls, Maarten created THIS, his contribution to ‘de Beeldlus’. A flickering red-green cross transforms into a square, as if it wants to choose its own shape. The words ‘THIS of THIS is de keuze’ (THIS or THIS is the choice’) can be heard at ‘de Beeldlus’. A computer-generated voice repeats ’THIS’, accompanied by a repetitive synthesizer melody. THIS has a hypnotic effect. Maarten’s choice of palette, and the fluid colours, are not animation. It is painting in motion; although it is, of course, repeated, it is this iteration that seems to help the loop to accrue meaning. The image is immersive.
A so-called Catalo, in the form of a nightly broadcast on local Amsterdam television, is made of the entire exhibition. Viewers at home are asked to record the programme on VHS tape; the labels are ready. The call to action is dubbed ‘To Watch is to Steal, Watch This, Tape This, Steal This’. Many viewers of night-time TV simply call the broadcast TAPE THIS.
Later that summer, Dick Tuinder, Maarten Sprenger, Maarten Ploeg and Peter Mertens meet to continue the exhibition and late-night broadcast. Given the project’s success, they’re convinced that funding won’t be hard to find. They confer and come up with plans. Sprenger and Mertens have submitted a proposal to the Vereniging van Mediakunstenaars with the working title PARK 4DTV. Whatever its final format, the transmission will last an hour, but won’t be television – it will be one thing, and one thing only: a moving painting. By now, the Amiga has proved itself to be an effective and fairly simple tool for the independent production of a full hour’s television. ‘Pure’ television, as they call it. Or, to use Maarten’s term, the screen as Canvas, TELEVIZED OIL. With relative ease, the four artists are able to find transmission time. The (former) pirates are offered a platform on Salto Televisie Amsterdam. Much to their surprise, they discover that the first hourlong broadcast needs to be made in September. Maarten Ploeg works on the leader, and the editors meet to look at examples of other television art, including pieces from the collection of Time Based Arts. But that’s not work they aspire to. Tuinder and Mertens embrace the motto ‘To Watch is To Steal’; from the video art samples they pick a short scene (a plank hits the camera and, thus, the television) and turn it into the first PARK broadcast. But are dissatisfied with their choice and soon realise they should have chosen Maarten Ploeg’s THIS as their inaugural transmission. And because – as they say – you write history yourself, they correct that. THIS is the first officially documented PARK broadcast.
By now, Maarten has embarked upon a series of contributions for PARK television, structured around his newly-acquired ideas of colour and the screen. A total of forty PARK broadcasts, which can be grouped into different techniques, will be attributed to Maarten Ploeg. Together with Dick Tuinder he made a series of Amiga-programmed transmissions under the name ‘TV-Matic’. These broadcasts centre on text and generated speech whereby the television begets ‘artificial intelligent’ visuals: Artificial Stupidity. Four broadcasts were made using a video camera. Twenty-nine can be considered moving paintings, part of ‘Televized Oil’. With its colour variations in primary colours, the ‘Ophthalmology’ series most closely approximates THIS. The broadcasts in this series display a hypnotic palette supported by a synthesizer drone, and are the liveliest link between painting and computer art.
Maarten playfully turns the television screen into a self-generating painting in the – selfexplanatory – transmissions Barnett’s day off, which take Barnett Newman as their inspiration, and Bob (bad) that alludes to the TV painter Bob Ross. Japanology shows a red circle, Ajax a red stripe.
For Amsterdam viewers of late-night TV, the transmissions – along with the test screens that are aired at night – become familiar images. Zapping is a relatively new pastime for people coming home at late hours, and many of them faithfully watch Maarten’s creations on PARK. Responses received from viewers at the time showed that many loyal fans were artists who worked at night – including the composer Louis Andriessen and the writer Martin Bril. PARK is a phenomenon and Maarten throws himself into it, heart and soul. He directs, advis
es the board of directors, writes grant applications and accountability reports. He also brings new talent on board, some of whom are now highly respected artists, proud to declare the impact of Maarten’s work and mindset on their artistic practice.
The Amiga also serves as a sketchbook for Maarten; a place to develop ideas for paintings. The interaction between ideas and machine inspires several works in the series ‘Televized Oil’, a salient title that sums up the synergy between the media.
At some point in 1996, the Amiga disappears from Maarten’s studio. Albeit a less challenging machine, the Apple Macintosh is clearly a more stable professional computer, although doesn’t lend itself well to video. It’s far easier way to build a platform for media art on the World Wide Web using a Mac. It does, however, require mastering the page layout language HTML, but with a little effort you soon have your own homepage on the internet. Maarten becomes an HTML expert but goes no further than ‘my first homepage’. In straight black and white lines and dots, he draws himself, wearing glasses, sitting at an easel that’s part canvas, part television and monitor, and uses that on the landing page.
Five years later, ‘King Pong’ premières at PARK. Maarten switches his Amiga on again, and programmes a portrait – square eyes, angular nose and a line for a mouth – that plays a colliding Pong. A continuous painting that is at the very least an alter ego, or a self-portrait.
park.nl/handenvoetboek vimeo.com/maartenploegtrust notes: – PARK LEADER Maarten provides the leader for PARK; his own broadcasts show a slightly different version. After all, it is a dynamic and generic version. The palette flickers, PARK 4DTV becomes – simply – PARK TELEVISIE. BEELD en GELUID. WATCH THIS, STEAL THIS. The PARK Tune, released as a single in 1993, performed by the German ensemble Aktien Ag, in an ‘Original Aufname von 1976’, was written by Maarten. Screeching rock guitars and a tight rhythm box with the sampled voice of Maarten’s life partner Ryu Tajiri saying ‘PARK’ and ‘TELEVISION’ in an English accent. – 4096 Tape number 4 of PARK is titled 4096. Over the course of an hour, a rectangular block with a frame gradually changes colour and systematically cycles through the (hexadecimal) values of the Amiga colour palette, to the synchronous accompaniment of a generative soundtrack. [ thanks to the efforts of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the entire collection of PARK 4DTV has been digitised and viewable at the Museum on request. Alternatively, you can access maartenploeg.nl/av by using the QR code and find out where the works are publicly available. ] page 327 / 358: – Computer prints from Maartens archive, no dates were found. page 359 / 390: – A selection of Maartens video art pieces. images page 391 / 393: – Newspaper clipping: NRC, 1994 “Television as lamp for sleepless Amsterdam” Raymond van den Boogaard. – Newspaper clipping: “A whirlwind tour around the world.” image page 394 / 395: – Newspaper clipping: NRC, 1994 “Successful slide show starts with a fun reception” Nathalie Faber. images page 398 / 399: – Newspaper clipping: PAROOL, 1998 “Park-tv broadcasts several paintings” Maartje den Breejen. – Newspaper clipping: PAROOL, 1999 “We taught each other mostly” Maartje den Breejen. images page 400 / 401: – Newspaper clipping: “The artificial stupidity of a sentence knitter.” Edo Dijksterhuis. – Newspaper clipping: “The dumbest computer does not know colour” Wiel Beijer. page 219 / 266: CATALOGUE section III