An Interview with Kees de Groot for TEC ART ’23

By Vera Santana

Have you ever wondered what a Basquiat-style painting of a cyborg in the year 2099 researching drugs in a laboratory might look like? Emerging AI technologies, designer drugs, and tech art talent are raising critical conversations about never-before-imagined possibilities for the future. From Dall-E 2 to crystal meth, Kees de Groot reminds us to remain both critical and playful about the emerging technologies of our time. With a long history as a visual artist, Kees began his career as a creative director in 1995 when he founded PLANETART—  later came other initiatives, such as TEC ART.

This year’s edition of TEC ART is your playground for this kind of exploration. The socio-critical art and technology festival TEC ART lands in the city center of Rotterdam again from Feb. 8 – 12 2023 as a subversive element of the annual Rotterdam Art Week. The theme is on progressive art, performances, and drugs in Rotterdam, encouraging visitors and policymakers to embrace the pioneering capabilities of mind-altering substances.  The corner of Boomgaardsstraat / Witte de Withstraat will function as the backdrop for a Cyberpunk Arena: 500m2 of free-to-experience futuristic outdoor art, trippy light installations, performances, and DJ sets; the adjoining indoor spaces of cultural center WORM can be visited for a psychedelic indoor exhibition of groundbreaking artworks by well-known names and up-and-coming talents.

Wearing blue shades and a big smile, Kees tells us about his 10-year journey as TEC ART’s creative director and this year’s theme on drugs.

The Artificial Self by Lucas Völp

I want to know more about your relationship with TEC ART. How long have you been the creative director?

Let me start at the beginning. I started as an artist of video and audiovisual sculptures in the eighties, and I was one of the first-generation video artists in the Netherlands. I showed my work in museums several times in the Netherlands, but also in Japan, the United States, Germany, England… everywhere. And then in 1995, after I toured around the world, I thought, I’m going to start an artist initiative to help other young artists organize events, festivals, and parties, in response to the dance culture that was quite new at the time. And then I combined parties with contemporary art. That grew from 1995 into a good foundation called PLANETART. And ten years ago we started TEC ART in Rotterdam.

You’ve really accompanied this movement from the eighties and brought it back to the Netherlands with you. How has TEC ART grown in the ten years that you’ve known it?

We have partnered up with WORM since 2014, they call themselves an organization for avant-garde artistic recreation. WORM is similar to PLANETART because they also seek contemporary art on the edges of the underground– both mix disciplines like cinema, live performance, dance music, hardcore music, radio transmission, internet art, web art, and activist art. We have a strong and active artistic accent in our programs, because we are really critical of what society is bringing us with technology. So, TEC ART is growing in the sense that it continues to work together with like-minded organizations and young talents to dig into what is urgent in society.

I hear that it’s your last year being the creative director and that the theme on drugs is a “long cherished” desire. Is this a special edition for you? Tell me more about your contribution to choosing the theme.

I think drugs are a logical theme because it’s so overwhelmingly urgent in our society and worldwide. It’s connected to underground culture, music, art, and technology. It’s surprising that none of the youth musea in the world have ever organized an exhibition with this theme before. It’s surprising because it’s so obviously interwoven with alternative culture. Especially in the context of the Netherlands, one of the largest producers of ecstasy. When I was 14 and I smoked my first marijuana joints, I did that in a network where my friends showed me the music of Jimi Hendrix, John Cage, and Frank Zappa. It was just a couple of years after the Woodstock Festival in 1969, which was a sort of revolution in society as well. I mean, in those days, the world changed radically and it was this younger generation that stood up in the late sixties with all these musicians and drugs connected to it.

And if you’re wondering about the theme’s connection with technology: in the recent 10 to 20 years you see that these designer drugs, like crystal meth, for instance, depicted in series like Breaking Bad are a sign of the times. Designer drugs are more and more taking part of underground culture. 

It’s true, drugs and technology are becoming increasingly intertwined, as you say.

Yeah, I think there’s a lot to discuss about the theme of drugs– also in relation to politics. Things have to change; there’s no point in criminalizing substances when the world is dominated by criminals. Yesterday I was at the Poppi Drugs Museum Amsterdam for a lecture about research on how ecstasy can be safely distributed by the government. It’s really interesting because, of course, drugs can be dangerous if their chemicals are not controlled. 

I’m happy to see approaches to this taboo and to the idea of distributing drugs safely. Is this something that the keynote speakers at TEC ART will discuss?

Oh, for sure, the people from the Poppi Drugs Museum will give a lecture on ecstasy at our symposium. 

Speaking of innovating topics, can you tell me more about Dall-E 2? I can imagine that it’s going to be a highlight this year.

Yes it is, it’s all over the place now, it’s huge! With Dall-E 2, you can produce any artwork you ask the software to make. If you ask the software to make you a painting of a cyborg in the future of 2099 researching drugs in a laboratory during the middle of the day, and hit enter, you will get an artwork of exactly that within a split second. The quality is super high and you could make it in the style of Basquiat, for example. It is amazing. I am working together with a few artists like Arno Coenen and  Roger Werkhoven to create an installation at TEC ART using this software. Arno designed the Markthal in Rotterdam.

But, we’re also going to add something in response to the ethical issues surrounding Dall-E 2. It’s an important moment to reflect on the copyright dilemmas that lawyers are starting to raise. Like in schools, students are entering 3 questions into an AI text software and receiving a whole essay or article. The software essentially writes their homework for them and the teachers can’t tell the difference. I hope to make something that confronts the audience and challenges them into entering a debate about this. It’s about provoking with art, and from that, reaching new developments. 

Hexagons by Joey Kremer

AI taking over human functions– terrifying or revolutionary?

It’s both. I mean, since 1995, when the World Wide Web exploded, we started a digital revolution. Technology is getting so smart and it’s growing so fast that some philosophers predict that in the forties of this century, we may get an explosion of artificial intelligence. If you ask me if I’m terrified, a dystopian part of me could come up with some scenarios where robots or computers are outsmarting humans and making us slaves of the machines haha. It’s scary because if you observe AI knowledge, it doesn’t have us in control yet, but they are very smart.

It reminds me of the movie Ex Machina.

Yeah, exactly. Beautiful movie. Speaking of, on the Sunday of the festival (February 12), we are screening a cult movie related to this called Lucifer’s Satanic Daughter. Cultfilm, an underground cult film festival in Breda, chose this film for the festival and their archive is really full of drugs, acid trips, gore, massacre, murder, and more cults.

Sounds like fun, and on theme. Is that what you’re looking forward to the most in TEC ART’s programming this year?

What I’m looking forward to most is, well, creating and organizing the installations on the street next to WORM that are open to the public. It’s a challenge for me as a choreographer and director to make the street work together. This year, we will have some robotics and a DJ booth user installation.

I know that a big part of the festival’s programming every year consists of the tech art graduates and emerging creative tech talent that participate. I was wondering if there’s anything you’ve noticed about this year’s graduates.

Well, first of all, I would like to point out that TEC ART is an inspiring platform for young talent in the Netherlands because every year we go to graduate exhibitions of Dutch art academies and collect the best talents with installations related to technology and bring them to our festival. This is where they meet international artists, musicians, DJs, and other talents from a big network of contemporary art in the Netherlands. That’s a really important platform, I think: for the best talent in the Netherlands to meet each other and discover art from abroad too.

In the 20 years that I’ve been running these shows, I have found that graduates from design academies have made pretty typical things. Most used to design furniture for the street, clothes, cars, and whatever.  But now, they design more in reaction to societal issues like climate change, the recession, activism, or fake news. I think it’s so important that now a lot of students are reacting to these kinds of subjects.

It seems like they are more critical.

Yes, much more critical. I was so surprised to see that maybe 60% or 70% of the graduates’ work nowadays have a connection to climate change. And to technology. You know, like worldwide issues on voting, fake news, sexuality, the role of technology in social media, algorithms, and the big bosses like Zuckerberg or Musk. Yeah, we have to be really critical about technology. It’s a big phenomenon.

Then that is exactly why it’s so important to have places like TEC ART where you can go to have a concentration of these types of conversations, like, the relationship between drugs and technology.

Exactly. It ties back to the first subtitle I invented for TEC ART when it first started in 2014: critical fun and play.

And it still stands true! I think we need to talk more about how it’s your last TEC ART as creative director. What’s next for Kees

I’m excited to have more time now to make my own art again. As an organizer, the research that happens behind a laptop for production purposes takes so much of my time. I’m working together with hundreds of artists and colleagues, and that takes a lot of time on a daily basis for me. So I’m happy to have more time to create my own installations or think of new initiatives because I like to invent crazy stuff like a nightclub museum.

Good! I think museums need a revolution too. But I digress, is there anything else that you were hoping to add?

Yeah, I would like to invite the people who are reading this to come to us in Enschede, preferably for a couple of days, and visit the beautiful countryside, the art academies, the music Conservatorium, the parties, the Museum for the Future. It’s really a breeding ground here, we call it a Warp Technopolis. There’s a lot going on and it may be refreshing to come out of your bubble to meet new people, make friends, and have a great time.

I agree, it’s nice to leave our everyday bubbles a little bit. Well, thanks so much. It’s been lovely

TEC ART is part of the Rotterdam Art Week 2023 and the agenda of Rotterdam Festivals, and closely collaborates with WORM. Visit TEC ART 8 – 12 February 2023 at WORM, Boomgaardsstraat 73 (3012 XA) in Rotterdam. Find TEC ART’s full program here.