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Biology Takes A Turn For The Abstract In The Work Of Robert Seidel

The artist discusses his previous life as a scientist, and how what he’s really doing is “imagining memories.”


If you're familiar with the spellbinding films of Robert Seidel you'll know they're a strange mix of biological forms and abstract imagery. So it came as no surprise then to learn that he studied biology, before leaving and going on to pursue media design after finding the whole science thing far too rigid. Seidel translated his initial fascination with the subject—the processes and forms he found there—into inspiration for his art: the natural movements of biological entities informed the movements of the organic, cellular shapes found in his films, which are full of liquid beings and elemental forms from the ocean deep. But even though they're full of abstract imagery, they're still filled with plenty of visceral emotion and power.


We met up in a noisy London pub to discuss the uncanny movement of his animations, giant LED screens, and 19th century biologists.

The Creators Project: How long does it take you to make a piece? Let's say, for instance, the large-scale video work scrape you did a few months back?
Robert Seidel That took about 3 months work.

Some of the imagery in it reminds me of Dalí, the melting clocks. Was he an inspiration?
No, my inspiration for that was from underwater creatures that kind of come out of the dark ocean and glow from inside, the so called bioluminescence. I was interested in taking this and putting it outside an underwater environment. Another idea I always like exploring is movement that is very slow and complex, almost like a painting brought to life.

What was it like doing something on that scale?
I try to imagine the surroundings and how it'll look within that. Because it was showing on such a huge surface—the Seoul Square Media Canvas, which is a giant LED screen of 99 by 79 meters—it had to work from 100 meters away but it couldn't be annoying from 20 meters, either. With scrape I wanted to create something that would work on the façade of a building but moves very organically too. In its speed it is the very opposite to the city of Seoul, so it kind of quietens the place as well.

I was reading that for _ grau you used 3D scans of your head, motion captured movements and an MRT data set of your brain. So in a way it's like an abstracted self-portrait?
Yes, the idea of _grau was to show the split seconds of a car accident filled with abstracted images of my actual memory.


Did you have a car accident?
I almost had it, I was very close, one second later I would've crashed. So I was trying to imagine what would happen in our mind, what would surface. It was a time when I was doing my diploma, my final work, and I was doing a lot of visual experiments but I had no idea how to put them together. I had all these different ideas, all these pieces, and I wanted to fit them into something bigger. I had 3d scans, x-ray data and a MRT scan of my brain, but I wanted to show the essence of these things rather than the images themselves. I didn't want to show the brain but the processes of the brain. So I created these forms that are familiar yet unrecognizable—they are only a small part of the object they've been taken from, so we don't recognise them but we feel open to them. What I was doing is taking worlds apart and creating new images from them, which is something that's never going to happen to you in reality. I'm developing these ideas of abstraction and confusion and putting them in a new way, like creating beauty out of scientific data.


There are a lot of different styles in the film. Some of it reminds me of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations, some of the movements perhaps. Was that intentional?
It's kind of the thing I wanted to do… all the old animations and puppet films like the works of Jan Svankmajer have a certain rhythm because they are created frame by frame. And with computers, especially motion design, you always have polished movement, everything is perfectly clean and in rhythm. That's something I'm not really interested in because when you have a computer you can change it and do it in many other ways. So you can make it stutter, make it uncanny, in a way—the possibilities are endless.


I'd say uncanny is a great way to describe the movements. _grau transfixes you because you can't really work out what's causing these movements, it could be so many different things.
When you use scientific data sometimes there's a certain amount of noise and when I translate this into movement I keep the noise, so that way you always have something that is organic. It's like flipping coins, I like to keep that random element in.

The movement is ever so slight, very subtle, which is where its power is.
I've seen the movie _grau thousands of times now, and there's still things that I'm not sure of, and I know how everything moves. Sometimes it looks perfect and other times certain scenes look strange to me, it follows its own logic in a way.

And there's so many different forms in there, at one point it looks like there are crows sitting on some barbed wire.
Actually that's braces, but it does look like barbed wire. Everybody can read different forms in amongst the imagery, if you know what it is you can recognize it, if you don't know, you might learn something about you. In my work I want things to be fluctuating, so you can look at it several times. I'm creating an open form in a way.


How do you come up with the ideas in the first place? Do you see, say, a tree swaying in the wind and take some inspiration from that movement?
I can get inspiration from something like trees blowing in the wind or if I'm at the ocean, from the sea moving. But eventually if I'm working on something I do a lot of sketches, trying to draw different forms, and then I try to recreate them on a computer and see what happens. There's always an element of chance in my work, of discovery.


In your recent work folds, the projection work is interesting—the animation washes over the plaster casts of these old Greek sculptures and clothes them, the modern reanimating the ancient.
The ancient Greek sculptures, which they're plaster casts of, they weren't originally white. Originally the Greeks they put them in colorful clothes and their hair was brown or black, and when the Europeans discovered them 2000-odd years later, they didn't like the aesthetic, didn't think it was sophisticated—they wanted white sculptures, not colorful ones, so they erased the color. I wanted to put the color back. So I recolored them in a way they've never been colored before. But it has the memory of the past, which is why I called it folds. For a certain period something can have a layer of meaning and later generations don't know about it so they come along and create another layer of meaning. So it becomes these folds of meaning over centuries which keep our interest.

A lot of your work deals with memories, like the car crash that never was, you're creating memories that may've been. And here you're referencing layers of memories. Would you say you're not creating false memories, you're imagining memories?
Imagining memories, that's a good description actually. I create imaginary memories and then everyone can connect it to their own memories, because it can be something that reminds you of your own history, so you create a new, very personal story.

Futures — Zero 7 feat. José González

What's been the influence on your work of Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist and artist? Because not only do some of the forms you create look like digitalized radiolaria—floating oceanic plankton which Haeckel drew— but they also appear to be swimming in liquid like the radiolaria in the ocean. What is it about his work that you find so fascinating?
He was a scientific explorer and discovered all these things, but what's interesting is you never know if his drawings are close to nature of if he part-invented these things. Because the radiolaria are tiny biological specimens and the microscopes at that time—late 19th to early 20th century—they are not perfect. Everything he draws is beautiful, flawless, so the images he draws, a lot of it is looking for the perfect forms of nature in a way. Nothing has any faults or stains or scars, so I think he wanted to create these ideal forms of nature rather than actual representations—that's what I find fascinating and I'm pushing it into abstraction in a way.