An interview by Diana Fehr / March 5th, 2021
Rodolfo and Lija Groenewoud van Vliet are the founder of In4Art. Together they create the space at the intersection of art, science, and technology and translate the outcomes to strategic directions and innovations. Lija has left her mark as innovation researcher and start-up mentor and Rodolfo spent his early career developing sustainable business propositions in the construction and clean-tech sectors. Through their unique ADI framework, they cultivate partnerships and combine insights from artistic experimentation with defined responsible innovation goals and technology promises, leading into business hypotheses, propositions, and ideas for responsible innovation.
Museo: You are saying that the moment has come to harvest the potential of the arts in our society and economy. Why do you believe that art is a powerful engine for responsible innovation?
Rodolfo: Art as a driver, in terms of technology, science, and innovation development has a long history. Until the early 19th century, art has always been in the centre of the political and social life, but at one point of history this changed and art was separated from all of these important aspects. Thus science was there to develop knowledge, businesses to drive innovation, and politics to decide on the boundaries and create the rules of the game. Art became an inward focused discipline and the distance with other domains grew.
But for us at In4Art this separation felt wrong because Art never changed! It has always been pacing with the developments of technology and science, more so than most of the other categories. While societal positions are distancing themselves from the realm of knowledge gathering and progress, the artists themselves are very much doing it within their studios. Artists are now working with new machines, materials and technologies, and are creatively intersecting the fields of biology, chemistry and physics with their own.
This is why we decided to make a stance and show that the artists are the true advocates for change. From then on we started to develop and discovered new fields where we could find like-minded people with whom we could collaborate on our projects.
Museo: What exactly do you want to achieve with your work?
Rodolfo: We are interested in the place where science, technology and the arts meet. I think the best summary of what we want to achieve, can be found at the end of my TED talk from 2018. We want scientists to look at art when setting up their experiments. We want policymakers to incorporate art into their policymaking and we want companies to incorporate art into their innovation funnels. Basically, we want art to be back in the centre of innovation and progress as it once was. This is why we are engaged in projects like Better Factory and S+T+ARTS, where the connection between policymaking and development is very direct.
But at the same time, we are also interested in playing a role in creating space for experimentation ourselves. Because when it comes to subsidies and funding for artists, the emphasis on ready-made and easy to interpret visual art is too strong. We believe in experimental artworks, which do not necessarily have an aesthetic outcome, but are very important because of the questions they raise. For us, the power lies in the interests the artists put into their work. To make this more clear, we identified four of these: humanizing technology, taking science out of the lab, questioning technology and exploring new paths to progress. So on one side we try to become a part of the European ecosystem and together with partners to influence the European agenda on this topic, and on the other hand we work with artists, with whom we set up experiments by investing in them directly.
Museo: You have also developed a novel Art-Innovation Method, a term which is now adopted by the European Commission. What does this method imply?
Rodolfo: We are very proud of that. We call it Art-Driven Innovation. It is obviously about art and innovation, but this does not imply that you can translate an art experiment one-on-one into an innovation, proposition or product. Often the innovation result is very different from the original artwork. We deliberately chose the term „driven“, as we want to keep the base elements, that have been put into the art experiment, like the mission that it has, the questions that it raises, or the materials that it uses.
Experiments are fundamentally important in the innovation process, which has also been acknowledged by the European Commission and eventually adopted the term Art-Driven-Innovation. This shows that they understood that Art-Driven-Innovation is indeed something that they need to include as a route for progress towards innovation. Our „Collaboration Toolkit” provided to the European Commission in the frame of the S+T+ARTS initiative, is providing a practical resource to support researchers, technology experts, companies, and the artists themselves in finding common ground, clearly identify goals, and eventually to plan and execute successful collaborative projects.
Museo: As you already mentioned it is also about responsible innovation which becomes conditional and not a choice. What are these responsible innovation drivers?
Rodolfo: Innovation is about creating new and valuable products and services, and technology is obviously important in this frame as it delivers new possibilities. However, creation for the sake of creation is not always sustainable and can actually do more harm than good.
Responsible innovation is about the idea that you should only develop new products and processes in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and values leading to a more green or care path of innovation. We believe that especially artists have the right skills and environment for critical thinking, which they need to point our attention towards the future and guide us on the route forward.
Museo: What are the challenges that come with this approach?
Rodolfo: Artists bring multiple perspectives to the innovation process, but as they are very critical and conscious towards the approaches taken for an innovation, they can be disruptive to profit-driven modules that emerge from the business sector. But this is not about replacing anything, it is more about adding a perspective that we somehow lost.
For example, we are working with artists within the Better Factory framework. Within this program we could see that there is still a general struggle to understand what exactly the artists bring to the table. By adjusting our approach through practical demonstration, we were able to change the mindset of involved companies, who are now realizing that we have artists on-board that have an overall expertise in technology and nutrition, for example. This are artists that have been doing experimentations in food and who are beyond what any of our farmers in the project ever dreamed of achieving. These artists are not just creative, they are experts in diverse fields.
Museo: You are also collaborating with museums, as you believe that they should be places that facilitate experimental and new thinking. Why is this so important and what do you mean exactly by that?
Rodolfo: Museums are not just a place of showing art to a public audience, they can also be a place of idea generation, procreation, and experimentation. However, this is difficult for museums to achieve, because they always receive a lot of pushback from funding entities and sponsors. This pushback emerges from the fact that it is not easy to calculate the return on something that is unproven and unknown in comparison to the revenue of a show on Andy Warhol for example. So, the room for experimentation in most museums is not there. The amount of new artistic experiments getting a foothold in the museum is so limited that it is almost embarrassing. This is a missed opportunity to show the public that art is more than historical or conceptual.
But we are happy that the European Commission understands that museums are a very important place to be showcasing and supporting modern challenges and that they started to fund programs like S+T+ARTS that connect institutions, artists and other players throughout the museum landscape.
Many of these programs are picked up very well by museums such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Bozar in Brussels. And we for example, are working with the ZKM in Germany, which has always been a place of experimentation and grass-root development. This means that museums can create a space for projects together with partners outside the art world which in turn diversifies the museum. They can be a place for preservation and experimentation at the same time and also be curated by different artistic directors.
Museo: Does this mean that this development happens also in other places?
Rodolfo: The Netherlands is a place where there has been a very rich tradition of art-science overlap collaboration. But yes this development happens also in other places, where there are some great initiatives, like in Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. Everyone does it a little bit differently, but the outcome is phenomenal.
Museo: What have you managed to achieve with your programs so far?
Rodolfo: It has been a big learning experience and in the past two years we have partly tried to position ourselves as a partner and coproducer of art works and experiments, and partly as a social enterprise that tries to increase the role of art in economy and society in Europe. This is going very well and some of these experiments have grown into R&D programs such as Prosthetic-X, which now has multiple partners and finance sources from the art, science and technology sectors. This program is scouted for the EU S+T+ARTS prize on art and technology, and it is also part of a startup incubator for the product development. It is becoming much bigger than we could ever have hoped for.
Museo: What are your next steps going to be?
Rodolfo: Currently we are setting up more programs like this, showing how to break the linear cycle of art-making and art-showing. Projects like the one on human machine interaction where we build together with Marnix de Nijs and V2_ our own robotic technology, or the one on the topic of CO2 where we create experience and understanding in a project led by Leanne Wijnsma.
These programs are gradually becoming a sustainable source of income for a group of artists, and that is exactly what we envision to do! „To position art next to science, business and technology as at the same level source of ideas and inspiration“. This model is both inter-disciplinary and across domains, which raises its value and sparks the interest of many channels, making it a model of the future in our view.