Thom van Hoek


(g)listening is a video essay in 12 chapters—one chapter for each month of 2018—by Amsterdam-based artist Thom van Hoek. Thom graduated with an MFA in Materialisation in Art & Design (MAD) from the Sandberg Institute in 2017. That his practice is situated in the serendipity of materials is evident in this collection of videos where the digital—“turn[s] into something REAL” as he puts it. In the following interview Thom and fellow MAD participant Oliver Barstow discuss some of the key ideas flowing through the work. All twelve chapters of the video essay can be watched below.

Oliver Barstow (OB): Let’s start with the basics. Is all the video footage in (g)listening material found Online (ie YouTube)?

Thom van Hoek (TvH): Yes, definitely. Most of it from YouTube, some off of Facebook.

OB: Did you start the search for content with the project in mind or is this material that you’ve been gathering for some time?

TvH: There are a few videos from a while ago, that I already had before in playlists. A lot are more connected to 2018, like more recent actually, that made me think of certain topics that play a role in our and my world. I only wanted to use footage that fit the subject I had in mind, and often those were interwoven of course also. Sometimes I remembered certain things that somehow related to it, like the opening of the chapter about THE GLITCH for example.

OB: In Chapter 9: INTERMISSION you have used a clip of the sea. Waves bounce off a tidal wall and deflect in a perpendicular direction to the incoming waves. When the two waves collide, the incoming wave increases in height and force. The voice over on the clip describes this process as “constructive interference.” Is this a good analogy for your method in (g)listening?

TvH: I guess so! That makes sense. Every video had to flow in a certain way, so I was quite obsessed with the order and timing of all the videos together, but at the same time it shouldn’t be linear either. So you would inevitably get a certain interference. I see it more like building up to something, breaking that, then bringing it back again. De(con)struction. So yes, two waves bouncing and deflecting is actually a very good way to visualise it.

OB: What is the ideal setting for the viewer of the series? Online or in a gallery context? I’m interested in the intention behind publishing the series on YouTube and Facebook, especially given the content of the work. When I watched the series on your YouTube channel I was constantly aware of the “suggested videos” bar on the right of the screen, which changed in relation to each chapter. This felt like part of the work.

TvH: Mmm, I wondered about that a lot. Because I felt like it would fit best on a kind of website that would be curated in some way, directed more towards video art. Sometimes I feel like that’s missing in our digital landscape, but maybe it exists and I have no clue, haha. I like how it functions on Youtube though, that’s where the content comes from, so it feels like bringing it back to the life source, which is maybe best. I also like the idea of seeing it in a more spatial context however, which could be in a gallery setting. There’s a video night called ANOMIA in at7, where the first chapter was part of the programme last year. That was great and interesting to see how it functioned in a kind of cinema setting, projected on a screen. But it’s tricky, something I’m still tossing and turning around in my mind. Because I think you have to be able to choose which chapter you’d want to see and also be able to experience it fully. It has to be interactive in how you access it, like how you would choose which book to open up.

OB: Do you see Online content, specifically the kind of content that you have filtered through and extracted for (g)listening, as a kind of “manna”? You have used a clip in Chapter 9: INTERMISSION of the Israelites receiving manna from heaven in Exodus. Manna is something that appears miraculously, from a metaphysical source, beyond the domain of the human. Is there a sense in which, when you get down to the deep, forgotten corners of the Internet, that the material becomes serendipitous, to a point where it takes on a life of its own?

TvH: Definitely! Maybe that’s also why I wanted to use that clip. I think that—since the Internet sort of grew out of our hands, you can easily find things without being able to see or find the author of it, which can give it a kind of miraculous aura. Especially in certain moments or mind states, when it relates to your life. Like, “wow, what IS this” and “who would upload this”. When something is laying there in a forgotten corner, you can choose to read into it and give it meaning. And that’s what I was often trying to do while compiling the videos, I think, imbuing them with a new context and reviving them in some way. In order to do that, I felt like I had to discard the whole notion of copyright etc., so I didn’t credit any of the original authors.

OB: Is there a reason why Chapter 8 is missing?

TvH: I didn’t really have so much to say that month, or I just kind of blocked. Then I thought “okay, maybe it’s good to take a month off like some people do”, so I just kind of disconnected and decided to skip that one. Which was good. August should be like the Sunday of months, especially if it is 36°C outside. Plus, I really enjoy the idea of having a gap in the series, which I could secretly fill up again later, if I wanted to and needed to.

OB: Throughout (g)listening there is repeated reference to flows: of people, of fish, of insects and of matter—water in particular, which floods and overflows (OVERFLOW is the title of Chapter 12). At the same time, I pick up references to something systematic underneath, a pattern or logic that defines the seemingly random flows. At particular moments, the flows become impossible to contain, erupting with violence and destruction—a glitch (the title of Chapter 11) in the pattern. Do you see the Internet, and technology in general, as a natural phenomenon, subject to the same patterns and ruptures that direct nature?

TvH: Yes, I think that’s what lies at the heart of the series. It’s an investigation into the mechanics underneath our everyday life, the stuff you take for granted, looking for the moments when or where it becomes tangible. I still find it so fascinating how this works, because I see these moments of eruptions (the glitches) as the most viable—for years and years and years there is “nothing”, but it is actually quietly building up, brewing under the surface, and then suddenly you’ve got “something”. Which is also very much a matter of categorization of course. Everything is systematic in some way, so you can see the Internet or technology as a very natural phenomenon also—it behaves differently, but if you zoom in enough it obeys the same (quantum) physical laws as any other matter. I think I was, and still am, looking for the moments in which suddenly all the 0101000111’s turn into something REAL, which is the whole concept of emergence also.

OB: The loop is an important motif in (g)listening. In the opening Chapter you make the statement: “For some reason we are always trying to get out of the loop.” In Chapter 4: FRACTALITY you have used a clip of a snake eating its own tail. This is a literal manifestation of Ouroboros, the ancient Egyptian icon of the serpent eating its own tail, often interpreted as representing the simultaneously destructive and rejuvenating force of nature, like the flooding of the Nile. The clip of the snake in Chapter 4 is more ambiguous though. By literally eating itself, the snake seems to be committing suicide (the voice over also raises this question), self-destructing without regenerating. Perhaps in response to its captivity? This is the only means that the snake has to escape the loop. In relation to this, what are you thoughts on the Anthropocene? Do you feel we have reached a point where nature is no longer able to renew itself?

TvH: Yeah, interesting point. The mention of the loop in Chapter 1 stems from thinking about the eternal human desire to transcend nature and the everyday—just living and being is often not good enough. Which is why we started creating things, I believe, to make life easier but also to progress. And I feel like that is inherently linked to the Anthropocene, because it is this desire that is now starting to form huge problems for us and planet Earth. The industrial revolution is a good example of it: it might have been a blessing for a lot of people at the time, but now we are witnessing how it can backfire as well. The main question is like: why do we need to look for this progress so often? Isn’t the iPhone 5 functional enough? I feel like we need to distinguish more often between the substantial, necessary progress and redundant, irrelevant progress. Which is a enormous topic of course, because it is obviously connected to capitalist mechanisms and machismo(!), also.

OB: In Chapter 1: KEEP IT METAPHYSICAL you ask a question: “At some point people started to think of themselves as gods. When did that happen?” For me, this question, together with the title “Keep it metaphysical” sets the tone for the entire essay, which I read as a kind of prayer, or scripture, or chant. Clips of religious rituals also appear at various points in the work. In the title of the essay itself (g)listening, I see the verb listening. To listen is to receive the word of the other, as a congregation would. Is there an appeal to spirituality in this work? To who or what should we be listening?

TvH: Great, yeah, I guess that’s what I am wondering about also. There is clearly some kind of appeal throughout the series, a longing for something to change. I’m not sure if we can find this within “spirituality”, but to be open and remove hierarchical thinking (a.k.a. thinking of ourselves as gods) would have a huge impact. I can already see this happening around me, and within myself a little, so I’m optimistic, but it takes a lot of effort to be critically engaged 24/7. To listen and “receive the word of the other”, as you phrase it wonderfully, is for sure the first and perhaps biggest step towards a more plural, horizontal, non-linear organisation of our existence and society. Then to see things glisten, and realise there are powers at play that we cannot easily understand or perceive —maybe never fully grasp—I think that’s another part of it. It’s all about being indivisive, playful and connecting to the natural elements of the situation.

About the artist

The practice of Thom van Hoek (NL, 1990) is located in-between the physical and the virtual world, where one influences the other as an interruption in sense perception. Predominantly inspired by mediation and the passage of time, he investigates how we define matter in relation to repetition and its disintegration, questioning the influence of mediation on content and vice versa. Using photography, image collecting, organic plant-based material, and video his work is rooted in the term ecology; οἶκος meaning “environment | house” and λογία “study of”. This enquiry is strongly connected to the landscape of The Netherlands, responding to terraformed and virtual aspects of the curated environment. This topic inescapably circles around the sociopolitical question of how to organically coexist in a space that has been overly designed. Propelled by this line of questioning, his practice often involves the notion of time and site-specificity. He studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and graduated from the Temporary Master Materialisation in Art and Design at the Sandberg Instituut. He currently works from his studio at ISO Amsterdam.