Introducing: The PhD team

Promotor: Wendy Morris (SA, BE)

Wendy Morris is a visual artist, a professor in contemporary arts at the University of Leuven, teacher and researcher at LUCA School of Arts, Brussels and founder of the research constellation Deep Histories Fragile Memories.

She engages with moving images, diaries, letters, drawings and sound works. Her work explores fictional, documentary and autobiographical genres and is concerned with colonial migrations, religious dissent and archeological traces.

Morris completed her doctorate in the arts in 2013 at LUCA School of Arts and the University of Leuven with three animated films and a book of 52 letters. She has shown her work internationally on exhibitions and festivals that include Jeu de Paume, Clermont-Ferrand, Dok-Leipzig and Annecy. In 2016 she had a solo exhibition, Off by Heart and Out of Breath, at Argos Centre for Arts and Media in Brussels. The year after she had a solo exhibition at Mu.ZEE in Ostend, titled: This, of course, is a work of the imagination, in collaboration with GoneWest and VAF.

Morris is currently working on reconstructing the plant knowledge of a 17th century South African midwife, but her intermedial practice involves so much more than that. Visit for context, and our dhfm research blog for collaborations, knowledge exchanges, events and updates.

Travelogue of the Wandering Womb, her Fantastic Encounters and Curious Utterings (2019). Courtesy Wendy Morris. Vocals and composition: Mariske Broeckmeyer. Notes for the Wandering Womb: Wendy Morris. Installation view Alias, Netwerk, Aalst.

Co-promotor: Jan Verpooten (BE)

Jan Verpooten did a double PhD in philosophy (KU Leuven) and biology (University of Antwerp). He’s interested in the evolution of artlike behavior in humans and animals, and presently a researcher and manager (coordination H2020 EU-project Pop-Machina) in BEE – Behavioral Engeneering at the KU Leuven. See more here.

“The Art Observation Post – AOP is a fibre board box in which an observer can take place to collect data on art event typical human behavior. My father, Gert Verpooten, designed and constructed it on the basis of my general instructions. Essentially, it had to be watertight and transportable, as I was going to use it for observations during the Kunstvlaai, an outdoor art fair in Amsterdam. “

Advisor: Theun Karelse (NL)

Theun Karelse studied fine-arts at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam before joining FoAM, a transdisciplinary laboratory at the interstices of art, science, nature and everyday life. His interests and experimental practice explore edges between art, environment, technology and archaeology. Lately he has been creating research programs that consist of fieldwork as a means of critical reflection. For this diverse teams are established to address specific topics in specific locations by in-situ prototyping, experimentation and direct perception. Visit his website here, and find more here.

Intro video to the research program ‘Random Forests’, looking at environmental machine learning.

Advisor: Agnieszka Gratza (PL)

Born in Kraków, Poland, Agnieszka Gratza is a writer and drifter.  Her writing about art, performance and film has featured in frieze, ArtReview, Artforum, Flash Art, Mousse, Metropolis M, KUNSTforum, The Calvert Journal, PAJ, Sight & Sound, The Quietus, The White Review, the New Statesman, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and The Observer. A lapsed academic, she has also published articles on the subject of Renaissance intellectual and cultural history while researching and teaching at the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Queen Mary, London. Read more here.

(Photo: Mauricio Limon, via Netwerk, Aalst)

The Compositor collaboration

Ips typographus (‘de letterzetter’, or The Compositor) is a small beetle, that lays its eggs in spruce bark. Its larvae eat themselves a way out, leaving intricate tunnel patterns. A healthy tree fights off these otherwise useful beetles, but the drought of the last couple of years weakened the trees. All over Europe dead or dying spruce forests can be found.

The Plot (see also here) was cleared last year because of an Ips typographus plague. I’ve collected pieces of bark displaying these almost hieroglyphical alien alphabets.

What are they telling us?

To get a grip on what these hieroglyphs are trying to tell us, a variety of works is being made, departing from the tunnel patterns.

Letterzetter: De Font Maker

Jeroen van der Ham, working as Joebob Graphics designed the published version of my graduation paper in 1998. His speciality is turning hand written letters into usable fonts which keep the flaws and mistakes of handwriting. Names of his fonts include: Dearjoe, Old Letterhand, Coalhand Luke (you can tell there’s some sort of cowboy and Western connection here), seriousSally and serialSue, mixtapeMike, onetrickTony, moanLisa, and fancyPens. At his Instagram account he’s collecting sightings of Joebob fonts under the hashtag #lostandfont. I’ve always been impressed with the use of dearjoe 2 in Grand Theft Auto Vice City.

“As I strutted along the virtual streets of Vice City I suddenly noticed my dearJoe 2 font was used for the Malibu bar display.” (text & image Jeroen van der Ham).

He’s the perfect person to turn Ips tunnels into letters. I want the font to be about 26% readable. The font can be used as initials, but also to produce ‘hidden’ texts: text that look like patterns at first, and only can be read with some effort.

At Joebob’s office in Den Bosch (NL) in September 2020. Jeroen studies some Ips bark here.

Emoji proposals

Attempting to make artistic additions to the internet and consumer technology: the emoji.

In June 2020, I submitted two proposals for emoji, to be added to the expanding digital pictogram vocabulary. Unfortunately, Unicode, the organization responsible for the standardization of digital symbols, declined both proposals in its first selection rounds. 

Stone Tool emoji proposal
Hand Stencil emoji proposal

Unicode adds a selection of emoji each year, based on incoming proposals. Anyone can submit an idea for an emoji. The total selection procedure can take up to a year from submission to implementation. Many devices and apps use their own design sets for emoji, so the proposal is more a conceptual defense than a design challenge.

The Stone Tool and Hand Stencil proposals were deemed to be used not frequently enough for implementation, although I argued their conceptual merits would outweigh those, since especially the prehistoric cave art of hand stencils are the first examples of pictograms.

Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, Argentina. Picture via Wikipedia.

Find the proposals and the Unicode responses here.

195.1 million views


An animated GIF consumer technology exploration: 16.03.2019 – 22.05.2020

Between March 2019 and May 2020, I made a series of works on my iPhone 5s, using a combination of digital ready-mades – publicly available online graphic elements such as emoji and GIF – and a social media add-on.

At a certain point, I started uploading my own GIFs to the largest GIF sharing platform, GIPHY, giving everyone with a smartphone the possibility to use my work.

The account I used for sharing the animations accumulated over 195 million GIF views in less than 10 months.

What are GIF animations and stickers? What is GIPHY? What is an Instagram Story? Why are GIFs used? An overview.

GIF animations & Stickers

Example of an apologetic .gif (by GIPHY Capture)

GIF is the abbreviation for Graphic Interface Format, using the extension .gif. An animated GIF is, simply put, a digital file that loads images into a stack, and is able to switch between layers, creating the illusion of movement.

GIFs are amongst the oldest image formats used on the internet. They were never really meant for animation, but were developed to compress and optimize images for dial-up connections were still slow, and data needed to be wrapped as tightly as possible in order to get it from one place to another.

This is why GIFs are limited in colors and frame rates. They usually loop endlessly.

GIFs are often made from video frames, and used for making memes by adding text, thus expressing various emotions. Stickers are GIFs with a transparent background. The heading above is a sticker. In this text, when I’m using the term GIF, stickers are included.

GIFs are hosted on internet platforms, so people can easily share them in messages or emails, and through social media.

The largest GIF and sticker database is GIPHY, which was founded as a search engine in 2013 and quickly became to go-to source for all things .gif.

Everyone can contribute to the platform by uploading GIF, but in order to be found through affiliated apps, one has to apply for an artist or brand account.

Uploaded GIFs are – according to the terms – owned by its uploader/creator, but GIPHY holds the perpetual right to distribute them. GIFs can also be modified.

By far most GIF and sticker contributions are uploaded by volunteers – illustrators, designers, meme-makers, artists – though sometimes GIPHY commissions GIFs. In the case of brand content, we can assume the maker has been paid by the brand.

The Instagram stories feature

GIPHY has partnered up with many applications, but none was as successful as the GIPHY integration in the Instagram Stories feature.

Instagram Stories allow the user to share photos or 15 second videos, that disappear after 24 hours. The user can add GIFs and stickers to these images and videos, thus adding an extra layer. By adding a time-base element static images are thus turned into animated images. The length of a sticker-fueled image is 5 seconds.

Users can search for stickers or GIFs by entering tags or keywords. The results are being displayed as a (rotating) selection related to the keywords.

On Monday, June 8 2020, according to GIPHY, the trending GIF is:

.Gif by Bounce TV

While the Popular on GIPHY sticker selection in Instagram Stories shows:

Sticker by Studio Neuheus

Why use GIFs?

People use GIFs to add dynamics to still images, or to convey and amplify an emotion. Brands use them for calls of action, involving text based or pictogram animations such as ‘Swipe’ or ‘Tap here’ or to stress new products and offers. GIFs can also be used as an online extension of activism, a way for people to show support for a cause, such as the Black Lives Matter fist above.

The view count and use of a GIF indicates the public’s involvement with a certain topic, and can therefor be used for commercial purposes. A simplified example: the popularity of the Black Lives Matter GIF exposes a potential market for related merchandise.


The internet is made by people (I)

The internet is made by people. This realization lingers in the codes that make up the websites in our browsers, in the collaborative effort of the Wikipedia project, and in virtually any icon, emoji, or button. Even machine learning, which is often mistaken for artificial intelligence, is often based on manual input of data by a low wages workforce. 1

The most visible human face of the internet is found on social media. Facebook has over 3 billion users, including not only Facebook but also its additional apps: Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. 2

Instagram is an image-based social media feed. It has two types of publicizing posts: either permanent – or until the user decides to remove them – in a grid of squares that makes up your account, or via Instagram stories, where posts automatically disappear after 24 hours. 3

Instagram has gained popularity amongst the visual arts precisely because of its emphasis on image. Its art-following audience often has some budget to spare, and art is increasingly sold through social media, leading to the consumer collector. 4

  • MOMA, NY: 5,1 million followers
  • Louvre, Paris: 4 million followers
  • Banksy: 9,3 million followers
  • Cindy Sherman: 341.000 followers
  • Saatchi Gallery, London: 1,9 million followers
  • Gerhard Richter: 59.800 followers
  • Jerry Salz: 419.000 followers 5

The internet is made by people (II)

Signature of Bernard Hennet, Abbot of Žďár nad Sázavou Cistercian cloister, in 1741, with smiley-like drawing. Image via Wikipedia.

Every image, icon, emoji, GIF or sticker was designed by someone. Often these people are completely anonymous.

Micro movies and limitless boundaries: the boxed loop

The popularity of GIFs may very well be connected to its limits: they’re lightweight, so don’t take up much bandwidth, but the format also provides artistic and conceptual freedom within its set boundaries. Translating complex ideas into a GIF can be challenging, but the animations are quick and easy to make.

Since 2005, I’ve been working with 3d software, using professional programs with serious learning curves. It takes oceans of time to get a grip on even small parts of the medium. In the production of digital animation – including gamedesign -, the visual tasks are split up in specialized teams: texturing, lighting, camera, physics, modeling, rigging, character design, architecture, landscape, and actual animation all have their own departments. It’s virtually impossible to be fluent in all of these components. In my work, for instance, the blind spots are rigging (which is providing a model with a virtual skeleton so it can move ‘naturally’) and complex modeling.

Within my technical limitations, I’m able to work relatively quick: I’ve never worked longer on a film than a few months, though it may contain scenes and ideas that go back years. Still, the film has to be rendered in high quality to keep all the details and to provide a certain illusion of reality – many of my works still seem to puzzle the viewer because they don’t recognize that a work was made digitally, and none of the elements in it physically exist.

Rendering takes hours. And when mistakes are made – which in the early years were many – it has to be done again, and again. After that, there’s editing and post-production, such as color grading. And after that come other renders, to all kinds of digital video formats.

This is part of the trade, and, in a way, a sign of craftsmanship.

A GIF, however, can be made in minutes.

I use a lot of oval shapes in my work. They are eggs, or mirrors, or portals, or holes.

On my mobile phone, I discovered the hole emoji.

Various devices or operating systems use different designs. Since I’m using an iPhone, I stuck with the Apple version.

Originally meaning pictograph, the word emoji comes from Japanese e (絵, “picture”) + moji (文字, “character”). 6

The hole emoji in one of the woven tapestries of ‘The Three Motions of Loom’, 2019


First composition made in Instagram stories. Still image from 2 black hole emoji. March 16, 2019.

In March 2019, I was playing around with the Instagram stories feature. I started by making compositions using the hole emoji, but soon found out I could add small, transparent .gif animations to these images.

This produced ultrashort, 5 second miniature looped videos.

The animations were extremely simple to produce on my phone, by dragging the elements to the desired place on the – quite small – screen.

This was in stark contrast to the elaborate technology of my usual 3D animation practice, that requires a professional desktop computer, specialized software, a mouse, and some serious skills.


What surprised me, though, was the effectiveness of these animations. They seemed a crossover between image and video, between perpetual movement and stillness, and between consumer technology and fine arts.

At the time, I was working on a project that embedded me firmly in 16th century visual culture.

The resemblance between 16th and 17th century alchemist or esoteric emblemata and the animations I assembled with the Instagram Stories feature was striking: isolated elements connected like a rebus. It became a language.

Andreas Friedrich, Emblemata Nova, 1617
#32, July 9, 2019


After some time I started to miss elements to improve my miniatures, as I started to call them, in the GIPHY database. I applied for an artist account.

To be accepted for an artist account, you need to have 20 .gifs uploaded, that comply with the platform’s rules (no violence, porn, racist, etc. images).

I used models and tests from my previous works and turned them into the sticker format.

My application swiftly got accepted.

Sticker (transparent .gif) based on a 2014 video work, ‘The Poisson’s Equation’.

On August 4, I uploaded my first batch of 20 .gifs. One of which was a unicorn, that was part of one of my earliest designs for a woven tapestry I had been working on as part of the 16th century project.

My username was Denkbaar, which means ‘Thinkable’ in Dutch, and is a recurring reference to the book ‘De God Denkbaar, Denkbaar de God’ by Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans.

This .gif gathered 31.027.385 views between August 4, 2019 and May 21, 2020.

But what does that mean?

From the GIPHY site:

A view is counted every time a GIF has been served through GIPHY’s services or technology. A single view is counted when a GIF is served, regardless of how many times it loops. A GIF view on GIPHY is a sign of relevance, share-ability, and popularity.

Spreadsheet of Denkbaar’s views per .gif. For unknown reasons, the start date at the top was set on January 2, 2013 – which I presume was GIPHY’s official starting date

In total, my contributions on the channel were viewed a whopping 195.1 million times over the course of 10 months.

Screenshot of the Denkbaar profile

Oddly, my second most popular .gif was this nondescript hazy shape:

12.496.521 views, tagged (by GIPHY) under Ball Glow Sticker

I meant it to be a fuzzy background for other stickers, but on the smartphone screen, it looked more like a simple circle.

The future of GIF

Although GIFs carrying the .gif extension may disappear and be replaced by other formats that have better compressions while maintaining a higher quality image, such as MP4 video or APNG (Animated Portable Network Graphics), the word GIF will probably be synonymous with any type of ultrashort, looped animation.7

Further reading

  1. AI’s new workforce: the data-labelling industry spreads globally. Madhumita Murgia, Financial Times, July 24 2019. Retrieved May 22 2020. []
  2. Number of Facebook users worldwide 2008-2020. J. Clement,, Apr 30, 2020. Retrieved May 22 2020. []
  3. Facebook has a similar ‘stories’ feature integrated, and posts can simultaneously be shared on both platforms []
  4. ‘The nothings that threaten everything’: how Banksy, Kaws and other street artists are shaking up the art world. Instagram power and the rise of the consumer collector are turning the art world upside down. Scott Reyburn, The Art Newspaper, November 7, 2019. Retrieved June 9, 2020 []
  5. Data from their respective Instagram profiles, June 9, 2020 []
  6. See the Wikipedia entry on Emoji. []
  7. What Alternatives to animated GIF are there?. Retrieved June 9 2020. []

Mistakes: the artist talk

HD, colour/sound, 20’20”, 2020

Antwerp, April 28, 2020

Wednesday, April 29, 2020 anno covidii, I was supposed to give a talk over lunch at the end of my two months involvement with Residency Unlimited in Brooklyn, New York. This, of course, took place in another universe.

Instead, I flew back home to Belgium on March 15 for obvious reasons. Luckily, the two weeks in New York were incredibly productive.

Back in my studio, I had trouble processing all information I managed to gather during my short stay, and everything that’s connected to the current virus crisis. A weird overlap between my body of work, my research, and this Situation has occurred. I lost sight of the Universe of Former Normality, in which I was still in New York.

Last week, RU’s Rachel reached out to me, asking if I would be willing to give the talk anyway, through means of a recording of some sort. I suddenly snapped out of artistic bewilderment – I’ve been starting projects since I returned, but nothing at this point really materialized in a satisfactory way – and made this 20 minute hyperspace powerpoint video work, explaining my research, using fragments and frays of halfly finalized ideas.

This is by far the longest film I ever made in the shortest time available. There’s a lot more I wanted to address, but for now, this is it. Thanks for watching.

Mistakes: the artist talk. Still from The 5 Stages of Grief chapter. 2020.

See also

Credits: All images and soundtracks by Alexandra Crouwers, except for: a fragment of Bald Terror’s ‘Rotterdam’, a sample of Brenda Lee’s ‘I’m sorry’, the Marvel character Thanos is mentioned, it uses YouTube footage of jumpstyle dancers, gifs from Giphy, two sound effects of, and smoke effects from pixabay.

This video is made possible with the kind support of Mondriaan Fonds, Kunstloc Brabant, and the Vlaamse Gemeenschap.

AMNH part 1

March, 9, 2020. First visit to the American Museum of Natural History.

We’re about 6 weeks into the Covid-19 corona virus frenzy, which became global right before I traveled to the U.S. as part of my residency at Residency Unlimited in Brooklyn, New York.

Prior to my trip, I had a normal case of a cold that wasn’t healed completely while I boarded the plane. In New York, I still have a bit of a cough, which could be a leftover from the cold, be part of my occasional smoking habits, or is induced by the dust in the apartment I’m currently staying in. In any case, I feel fine.

The first week was mainly about getting over the jet lag, and settling in. I did manage to walk about 10 kilometers a day, according to the ‘health app’ on my iPhone – which usually underestimates my steps, by the way, since it’s in the pocket of my coat instead of in the back pocket of my pants. I heard somewhere the app is calibrated on that.

I went to MOMA, to the Armory Show, to Art on Paper, to the Brooklyn Museum, to the MET, to an opening, and finally to the ultimate goal of my NY residency, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH, from now on).

The last months, I already researched the museum quite extensively but nothing prepared me for the dioramic reality of the place. It has an incredible amount of diorama’s in all kinds and sizes, and they’re all wonderful. Not every gallery space is equally pleasant: the Hall of Ocean Life feels like a hotel lobby, for instance. The Hall of North American Forests did feel a bit like walking through a forest, with wooden panelled walls, and a selection of diorama’s in various sizes and interesting proportions (vertical, for instance). It also houses a Daguerre/Bouton-like diorama: this small scale scene shows a forest before and after a fire using light effects, glass and mirrors.

I gravitated towards the Hall of Human Origins.

Featuring four life-sized tableaux of Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and Cro-Magnons, the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins shows each species in its habitat, demonstrating the behaviors and capabilities that scientists think it had. Also displayed are a variety of important fossil casts, including the 1.7-million-year-old “Turkana Boy.” The hall also features examples of what are thought to be some of humans’ earliest forms of artistic expression, including an original limestone engraving of a horse carved about 25,000 years ago in southwestern France.

(Text from the website of AMNH)

Upon entering, a full scale model of Australopithecus Lucy and a companion are on display in a glass case. The models used to be part of a large diorama, showing them walking in light-colored ashes with an erupting volcano in the background. The tableau was based on the find of 3.66 million year old footsteps in East Africa. Both models seem lost without their context. Apparently, the original diorama they were part of was dismantled in 2007, when the hall got a complete make-over. I was surprised to see the size of Lucy – her species was much smaller than I imagined: a lot smaller and more fragile than chimpanzees, even.

Lucy (left) and her companion.

The Three Motions of Loom: Shuttles

To a loom, time is linear.

I usually deliver
miracles to this world.

With you, 
I deliver death.

Primary motions of loom are the fundamental Mechanics: shedding, picking, beat up. Without these movements, it is impossible to produce a fabric.

The monumental 14th century Tapestries of the Apocalypse are a series of originally 90 woven panels – of which 70 now remain – covering 180 square meters in total. 

The panels show scenes from Saint John the Divine’s Book of Revelations. John himself often appears in the frame, looking at the otherworldly scenes – sometimes from a gothic phone booth sized alcove or balcony.

TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), ‘invented’ in 1963 for the British Dr. Who tv series, is a time machine, often disguised as a police box, similar to a phone booth.

Although the source material is apocalyptic, the images are remarkably lighthearted: even the most horrible of monsters, such as the seven-headed dragon and the beast from the sea, bear friendly expressions. 

Blood rains from the cloudy web
on the broad loom of slaughter.

The web of man, grey as armour, is now being woven;
The Valkyries will cross it with a crimson weft

The text at the castle of the French town of Angers, housing the Apocalypse tapestries, suggests the series may have been set up outside the castle grounds annually, mounted on frames and arranged in a route people would 

walk through. 

To a tapestry, time can go either way. It can unravel, be repaired, and rearranged. It can bend, wrinkle, roll up, be flattened, stretched or shrunk, and cut into pieces.

Warp and weft.

…Hence the name Antwerpen, from Dutch hand werpen, akin to Old English hand and wearpan (to throw), which has evolved to today’s warp.

A warp drive is a theoretical superluminal spacecraft propulsion system in many science fiction works, most notably Star Trek and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.

The modern power loom has two mechanical pickers – one on the left, one on the right of the machine – meet multiple times per second halfway the width of the loom, handing over the yarn in microsecond microtransactions. 


The 11th century Bayeux tapestry is not a tapestry, but an embroidery of 50 cm high and 70 meters long – though it’s missing an estimated 3 meters. It is assumed it would have been on display in the Bayeux cathedral.

Secondary motions of loom are the unwinding and winding movements, determining the yarn’s tension.

Out of thin air.

A woven surface has no carrier. There’s no paper, canvas, fabric, stone, wood, or glass needed for it to be connected to. The image is the carrier. You can tell by turning it over: the image is still there, though reversed.

In Alternating-time Temporal Logic, logical formulas as 

 ⟪{❆,☼ }⟫F

express that agents ❆ and ☼ have a strategy to ensure that the property ☁ holds in the future, whatever the other agents of the system are performing.

The warp is made of human entrail;
Human heads are used a weights;
The heddle-rods are blood-wet spears;
the shafts are iron-bound,
and arrows are the shuttles.
With swords we will weave this web of battle.

The peculiar size of the Bayeux tapestry is reminiscent of a scroll. Combined with a narrator explaining the events to the audience, it could’ve been used in a similar way as the Japanese emakimono (before the 10th century), the Indonesian Waja Beber (described in the 1500s), or the European moving panoramas of the 19th century. 

The narrator would unwind the scroll with one hand while rolling it up with the other.

| ↝ |

The Bayeux embroidery is displayed behind glass in a dim lit museum space in Bayeux, and can be ‘read’ by 

walking past.

The distant past ⟷ The far future

I tie a knot to Deep History and stretch the yarn until I get to my my computer. 

It becomes entangled in cable connections, wrapping around the wireless mouse. 

Ref: Wikipedia: Timeline of the Far Future 

To anyone who considers this article depressing or disturbing; please do not say so on the talk page. Wikipedia is not an internet discussion forum. As an antidote, you might try reading this short story

Some historians believe the innumerable deaths brought on by the plague cooled the climate by freeing up land and triggering reforestation. This may have led to the Little Ice Age.

A tapestry is very much a thing, a physical presence, a mutual human/machine effort, and very much not an illusion or a simulation. 

It’s pleasant to the touch, can’t be damaged by fingerprints, it can be washed, unwinded and reused. It can turn into pillow cases, a rug, a shelter, a blanket, or clothes, and used for darkening a room, an investment, a symbol of authority, or as a mobile theatre stage.

The first power loom was designed in 1784. The first panorama exhibition was held in London, in 1788. 

Interlacing is used for an out-of-date method to build up a digital bitmap or video image for display: at lower bandwidths or processing speeds, an image would be sent through scanlines: line by alternated line, the top line first and proceeding to the bottom before repeating the process for the next image.

The automated Jacquard weaving machine was developed in 1804, based on Basile Bouchon’s 1725 invention of the punch card as a ‘program’ for the automatic weaving of complicated, often repetitive designs.

So, time.

I’m en route, shuttling between Distant Past, Deep History and Far Future, talking about space, spaces, technology, simulated nature, science fiction, and visual culture using the very contemporary medium of the computer. 

Two fragments from Jeroen Olyslaegers’ novel-in-progress, Wildevrouw, pulled me into the 16th century. 

While commuting between Paleolithic and future times, I kept shooting past this era; the nearest stop would usually be early medieval, Carolingian times or the Viking age. 

Europe’s 16th century
starts with the end
of the Middle ages:

the Antwerp golden age, and miniatures, trees of life, stories of unicorns and virtue;
the Flemish Primitives and the way they painted folds and wrinkles so all fabrics look like iron sheets – like metal armour.
Europe’s 16th century ends with Rubens’ unbearably arrogantesque baroque –

but oh! the expression of texture!
the shine of satin dresses, the softness of velvet curtains, the elasticity of cotton loincloths,
all blowing in 10 Beaufort!

– imported made in China kitsch void of meaning for the nouveau riche, emblem books, the destruction of Antwerp by the Spaniards and the subsequent start of the golden age of Holland including the offset of the machine age

When a man had to hand over three wives and their unborn children to the earth, one after another, he considers his semen cursed. 

Losing his faith in god, 

his newborn son crying the background, 

gently rocked back and forth

by a shaken midwife. 

The machine’s noise is rhythmic, soothing, almost mediative. When a yarn breaks, it violently comes to a halt 


This is the third motion of loom: brake.

The Three Motions of Loom
Alexandra Crouwers

First print, November 2019
Edition of 10

The text contains quotes taken from Wikipedia, interpretations in translation of phrases from Wildevrouw by Jeroen Olyslaegers, fragments from the 13th century Darraðarljóð (13th century, Iceland, translation unknown), and original texts.

Written as part of the doctoral research The Appeal of the Unreal, and three tapestries + exhibition The Three Motions of Loom, Textielmuseum Tilburg (summer of 2019) and Antwerp Art Pavilion (December 15, 2019 – February 16, 2020).

Trace 2
deep histories fragile memories
Luca School of Arts, Brussels & Faculty of Arts, University of Leuven. Belgium.

The Three Motions of Loom: shuttles. An experimental non linear text on weaving as animation and time-traveling as a research method.

Epilepsy warning! A tapestry gif animation.

Gij, Wildeman is a small, woven work in an edition of 35. It has two different sides: the front shows an emblem-like image, inspired by late 16th, early 17th century alchemic illustrations. On the other side, this image is mirrored in colors that are not used in the front – which is relatively normal in weaving because the image is the carrier. Not normal is the added text: this is a technical trick, developed by Marjan van Oeffelt of Textiellab (Textielmuseum, Tilburgh, the Netherlands).

The phrase is selected by Belgian writer Jeroen Olyslaegers from his novel-in-progress Wildevrouw (planned for publication in December 2020).

Apparently, both sides work wildly as an animated gif. More examples below.

I’m interested in working with the tapestry medium more often, as a way to perpetuate my work without the use for an electrical plug. For future projects, I would want to investigate the possibilities of making an animated tapestry – a tapestry that, for instance, changes its appearance under the influence of light (glow-in-the-dark yarn will do the trick), or while walking past it.

A life-sized doll house.

Château de Breteuil | Vallée de Chevreuse | France | Visited Oct. 2019

Uncanny valley.

In aesthetics, the uncanny valley is a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. The concept of the uncanny valley suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. “Valley” denotes a dip in the human observer’s affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica’s human likeness.

Examples can be found in robotics, 3D computer animations, and lifelike dolls among others. With the increasing prevalence of virtual reality, augmented reality, and photorealistic computer animation, the ‘valley’ has been cited in the popular press in reaction to the verisimilitude of the creation as it approaches indistinguishability from reality. The uncanny valley hypothesis predicts that an entity appearing almost human will risk eliciting cold, eerie feelings in viewers. (1)

Hovering right above the Ravine of Kitsch.

Breteuil Castle is a 17th century historic French castle, with 18th century modifications, situated in the Vallée de Chevreuse, about 35 km. South-West of Paris.

The Château has an extensive literary and political background. It markets itself as the castle of fairytales, focusing on the stories collected and edited by Charles Perrault who published them in 1697 as ‘Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye‘ (Or ‘Mother Goose Tales’) (1).

Perrault was a financial official of the Royal Treasury, which was managed by the lord of the castle, Louis de Breteuil. The men closely worked together in the castle.

On the castle’s grounds and also in the castle itself, dioramas can be found, depicting some of the fairytales, such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and, most notably in this case, Puss in Boots. But not only fairytales are made into dioramas, also various historical events throughout the centuries are staged within the castle’s period rooms.

Next to this, the castle houses a range of automatons, or automata. The whole building therefor has an Unreal feel to it; it’s simultaneously enchanting and overdone, much like theme park Efteling.

Mounted animals vs. life-sized dolls.

In the habitat diorama, life-like representations of animals in the form of mounted specimen, are an inherent part of the design. Life-like, but lifeless, these former living creatures allow us to marvel over their fur, their teeth, or their size.

The castle of Breteuil moves into different, and much more complicated territory: their historical dioramas are based on real events, but the depiction in the scenes is completely fictional, turning history into a fairytale. This probably has something to do with the castle’s positioning as an entertaining ‘family-outing’.

The sets are on display in beautifully decorated period rooms of various centuries. Wax human figures act out typical events. The figures are relatively well done; they’re not your average ready-made mannequins, but display a hint of personality and much more realism.

Diorama or not?

These are not ‘true’ dioramas, in the sense that there’s not a clear delimitation of the view: there’s no frame, and no illusionary sense of depth since the background is a real wall, with real objects. The scenes are set up in period rooms the visitor moves through, and are demarcated only by a metal rod.

On the other hand, these scenes do count as simulations: whether of real or fictional events.

Four Events.

Images from the restoration of the castle. It opened its doors to the public in 1969. Take special note to the photo on the top right. Image via the website of Breteuil castle.

Below, a description of four scenes.

Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet & her lover Voltaire

…”a great man whose only fault was being a woman

(Voltaire on du Châtelet in a letter to the king of Prussia)

Exactly what professional gambler and women scientist Émilie du Châtelet has to do with Breteuil Castle is unclear, except that her father was the baron of Breteuil. In her biography there’s no mention of her being at the castle at any point in her life. (2)

So, the scene depicted here never took place in the room it’s set in, and even more: du Châtelet was much more a mathematician and physicist than an astronomer, so this scene is likely a very un-typical activity from her life.

Voltaire looks more or less similar to his portraits (the sheepish look on his face!), but du Châtelet not so much: she’s really turned into a doll.

Oddly, the dress seems to be a copy of the one she’s wearing in her portrait shown here, except that her décolleté has moved upwards at least 10 centimeters, and her sleeves are now covering her whole arms.

What is the castle trying to tell us? Women can’t be contemporarily sexy and supersmart at the same time?

Would the low-cut dress of Émilie spoil the family fun?

Marcel Proust, hanging around in a Chinese lacquer bed.


(1) For now, this is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entrance for ‘uncanny valley’

(2) Mother Goose Tales and its background on Wikipedia

(3) Emilie’s Wikipedia page / Passionate Minds: Emily du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the great love affair of the Enlightenment by David Bodanis

A Brief History of Visual Trickery.

Visual illusions come in many forms. The main category is concerned with transforming 2-dimensional surfaces into 3-dimensional space. Another category is involved with the suggestion of movement.

Attempt to Timeline

– 30.000

The Mind in the Cave.

Chauvet Cave, France. See also here.

Chances are shadow-play and sound were the first immersive acts in prehistoric times.

Some have suggested a ‘camera obscura’ effect was deliberately used.

By referring to cave ‘paintings’ as merely paintings, the three-dimensionality of the cave surfaces, the acoustics, the torch or oil lamp flickers, and the enveloping darkness of the whole space is ignored.

These are, without a doubt, multimedia installations.

– 17.000


Lascaux Cave, France.

Almost undetectable on photographs, the Lascaux animals obtain an extra dimension by the use of anamorphosis: the paintings are adapted to the visitor’s viewpoints.



Found in 1868 in Laugerie-Basse (Vézere Valley, near Lascaux), this double-sided little disc made of bone shows an engraved deer in two positions.

A possible use of the disc. Critics would say the two images do not complement each other enough to achieve a ‘real’ animation effect.


Catropic Cistula.

The most elaborate catoptric chests known from Ancient Rome exhibited detailed scenes, including expansive libraries, forests, cities, or even vast treasures. Another form of entertainment involved placing an animal, such as a cat, inside a chest, and watching it interact with numerous other cats that appeared to surround it.


Distorted perspectives.

The ancient historians Pliny and Tzetzes both record a sculpture competition between Alcamenes and Phidias to create an image of Minerva. Alcamenes’ sculpture was beautiful, while Phidias’ had grotesque proportions. Yet once both had been mounted on pillars, the decelerated perspective made Phidias’ Minerva beautiful and Alcamenes’ ugly.


Allegory of the cave.
The cave, image via Wikipedia.

Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality.



Trompe-l’œil (/trɒmp ˈlɔɪ/tromp LOY, French: [tʁɔ̃p lœj]; French for “deceive the eye”) is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions.

A version of an oft-told ancient Greek story concerns a contest between two renowned painters. Zeuxis (born around 464 BC) produced a still life painting so convincing that birds flew down to peck at the painted grapes. A rival, Parrhasius, asked Zeuxis to judge one of his paintings that was behind a pair of tattered curtains in his study. Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to pull back the curtains, but when Zeuxis tried, he could not, as the curtains were included in Parrhasius’s painting—making Parrhasius the winner.


Panoptic vistas.

Wall to wall murals, Pompeii


Linear perspective.

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) develops the mathematical technique of linear perspective.

Masaccio, The Holy Trinity (1425-1427).

Originally, the design included an actual ledge, used as an altar, physically projecting outward from the now-blank band between the upper and lower sections of the fresco; further enhancing the sense of depth and reality in the work. Constructed as a pillared-shelf ~5 ft. above the floor, and estimated to be about 60 cm. wide, the altar-table’s appearance would have been intended to match and/or complement the painted architecture. Its facing-edge and upper surface integrating with the fresco’s steps and archway; and its supporting pillars, both real and illusory, combining with the shadows caused by the over-hang to create a crypt-like effect for the tomb beneath. (via Wikipedia).


Peep show.

Around 1437 Italian humanist author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer Leon Battista Alberti is thought to have created the earliest impressive peep show boxes with painted pictures to be viewed through a small hole. He had two kinds: night scenes with the moon and stars, and day scenes. It is thought these pictures may have been transparent and lit from behind, possibly changing from day to night by changing the lighting. It has also been suggested that it may have been a predecessor of the magic lantern that could project images.


The Ambassadors.

Holbein’s The Ambassadors with a memento mori anamorph skull in the foreground.




Pepper’s Ghost.

First described by Giambattista dellla Porta, the Pepper’s Ghost illusion was popularized, and given its name, by John Henry Pepper in 1862.

Let there be a chamber wherein no other light comes, unless by the door or window where the spectator looks in. Let the whole window or part of it be of glass, as we use to do to keep out the cold. But let one part be polished, that there may be a Looking-glass on bothe sides, whence the spectator must look in. For the rest do nothing. Let pictures be set over against this window, marble statues and suchlike. For what is without will seem to be within, and what is behind the spectator’s back, he will think to be in the middle of the house, as far from the glass inward, as they stand from it outwardly, and clearly and certainly, that he will think he sees nothing but truth. But lest the skill should be known, let the part be made so where the ornament is, that the spectator may not see it, as above his head, that a pavement may come between above his head. And if an ingenious man do this, it is impossible that he should suppose that he is deceived.

Pepper’s Ghost effect, ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Efteling Fairytale Forest. Image via Wikipedia.


Magic Lantern.

Athanasius Kircher published Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, on the subject of the display of images on a screen using an apparatus similar to the magic lantern. Kircher described the construction of a “catotrophic lamp” that used reflection to project images on the wall of a darkened room.

1659: Christian Huygens’ sketches for a magic lantern projection of Death taking off his head.


The Mighty Eidophusikon.

Described by the media of his day as “Moving Pictures, representing Phenomena of Nature”, the Eidophusikon can be considered an early form of movie making. The effect was achieved by mirrors and pulleys.

The Eidophusikon consisted of a large-scale miniature theatre that let experiment the try of creating the perfect illusion of the moving nature: sunrise scenes, sunsets, moonlight images, storms, and volcanoes from all over the world with sound and music effects. The sound and light effects of the Eidophusikon, compared with the shows seen until that time, were specially inventive by their realism. (via Wikipedia)

This video – though not quite a masterpiece of film-making – shows both the workings of an original Eidophusikon and the digital simulation of the mechanics.

1787 – 1792

Panoramas & Cycloramas.

The word “panorama”, from Greek pan (“all”) horama (“view”) was coined by the Irish painter Robert Barker in 1792 to describe his paintings of Edinburgh, Scotland shown on a cylindrical surface, which he soon was exhibiting in London, as “The Panorama”.

Related: Cycloramas were very popular in the late 19th century. The most popular traveled from city to city to provide local entertainment — much like a modern movie. As the viewers stood in the center of the painting, there would often be music and a narrator telling the story of the event depicted. Sometimes dioramas were constructed in the foreground to provide additional realism to the cyclorama. Circular and hexagonal-shaped buildings were constructed in almost every major US and European city to provide a viewing space for the cycloramas. 

Cross-section of the Rotunda in Leicester Square in which the panorama of London was exhibited (1801). Image via Wikipedia.


Daguerre and Bouton’s diorama.

… “a mammoth synthesis of the panorama, illusionistic painting, and stage design – a theatre without actors and stories”…

(Erkki Huhtamo, ‘Illusions in Motion’, MIT 2013, p. 141)

The original diorama combines the immersive monumentality of the panorama with theatrical tricks, creating an ‘alcove space’. The frame is used to enhance the perception of depth. The diorama’s came to life using light- and sound-effects.

See also this post and this post.

An illustration of the Daguerre diorama principle.

The Diorama was an invention of painter Charles-Marie Bouton and painter/inventor Daguerre.

An animated still image simulation of the light sequence at the diorama Daguerre gifted the Bry-sur-Marne church. Video by AC/Denkbaar.


Polyorama Panoptique.

A miniature, portable variation on Daguerre’s diorama, consisting of a large lens and a painting or colored print on cardboard. By cutouts or semi-transparent additions the image changes colour depending on the surrounding light situation.

The Polyorama was sold as a souvenir of the auditorium-sized diorama shows.

Image via here.



Only named Anorthoscope around 1836, this anamorphic disc image turned into normal proportions when it was rotated at some speed.

Anorthoscope image, handcolored, 1870. Via Intaglio Antique Prints and Maps.



A revolving cardboard disc showing the first ‘real’ (in the sense of ‘smooth’) animated image in a perpetual loop. The device was originally developed for scientific research into visual illusions.

Animated Fantascope disc by Tomas Mann Baynes, 1833. Image via Wikipedia.

The phenakistiscope found a second life as a picture disc: printed vinyl records.



1833 – 1838


Busy bee Charles Wheatstone was involved in a wide range of inventions and innovations, from acoustics and musical instruments to the telegraph, measuring devices, cryptography, and optics.

His theory of using stereopsis – and two images instead of one – to achieve depth in a flat surface came just before the definite breakthrough of photography.

Stereopsis – the 3-dimensional image we build up from the two, slightly parallax views our eyes register – was described before: for instance by Leonardo Da Vinci.

A notable genre in stereography was the ‘diablerie’, a French series of stereo images, immensely popular in the 1860s.

Note: Queen’s Brian May – also an astronomer – made a Diableries book. Here he is explaining it.

A Diablerie French Tissue stereo card, reproduced actual size. The ‘Odalisques’ are Satan’s Harem girls. Via

The Kaiserpanorama was a rotund stereoscopic device, also known as the Photoplasticon.

Kaiserpanorama, around 1880.


Kineograph, or flip book.

The concept may very well have existed long before John Barnes patented the ‘kineograph’; the first animation that was not circular, but linear.



Conceived by Eadweard Muybridge in 1879, and built in 1880 to project his chronophotographic images.

A ‘behind the scenes’ of making a Zoopraxiscope Muybridge-style.



A circular animation device, able to project its image: a large glass disc, rotated by hand was lit with a stroboscopic lamp.



Based on the idea of a flip-book, a mutoscope would provide a private viewing of a short animation.

‘The Mutoscope and how it makes money’ advertisement from 1899. Image via Wikipedia.



Cinéorama was an early film experiment and amusement ride presented for the first time at the 1900 Paris Exposition. It was invented by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson and it simulated a ride in a hot air balloon over Paris. It represented a union of the earlier technology of panoramic paintings and the recently invented technology of cinema. It worked by means of a circulatory screen which projects images helped by ten synchronized projectors.

The film was shot by locking a circular array of ten cameras to a central drive, putting them in an actual hot air balloon, and filming as the balloon rose more than 1,000 feet above Paris. Cineorama’s only public viewing was short lived. It closed after only three days for safety reasons, due to the extreme heat from the projectors’ arc lights. The virtual experience was more dangerous than the actual reality. (source)



The Viewmaster (originally a brand name) is a follow up on the stereoviewer. It uses smaller slides, set in a circular cardboard fiche, making it possible to view your own private stereo slide show stories.

A typical viewmaster sequence: a diorama’esque scene of fighting dinosaurs.


Ames room.

Invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr.

An Ames room is viewed with one eye through a peephole. Through the peephole the room appears to be an ordinary rectangular cuboid, with a back wall that is vertical and at right angles to an observer’s line of sight, two vertical side walls parallel to each other, and a horizontal floor and ceiling. The true shape of the room, however, is that of a six-sided convex polyhedron: depending on the design of the room, all surfaces can be regular or irregular quadrilaterals so that one corner of the room is farther from an observer than the other.

Note: the Ames room was extensively used in the filming of Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, especially in Hobbit-Gandalf scenes.



(VR, or the ‘Multiplying of artificial worlds’)

There’s some debate on how to define VR (Virtual Reality) and when it was used first exactly. Is a stereoviewer VR? Does an immersive diorama count as VR? Or a panorama? Or the perspective of a Renaissance painting?

Image source is unclear, but it shows the Sensorama in use.

Morton Heilig – a ‘multimedia specialist’ – first wrote about ‘experience theatre’ in 1950. In 1962 he built a prototype, the Sensorama, a mechanical device, including a stereoscopic color display, fans, odor emitters, stereo‐sound system, and a motional chair. It simulated a motorcycle ride through New York by having the spectator sit in an imaginary motorcycle while experiencing the street through the screen, fan-generated wind, the simulated noises, and smell of the city.


The Sword of Damocles.

The first VR headset was so heavy, it had to be suspended from the ceiling in order to be able to wear it, hence its name.

The environments were simple wireframe rooms.

In 1985 the ‘EyePhone’ was developed, which looked a bit like a modern headset, only with clunky movements and a terribly low resolution: transporting the viewer into a candy-colored polygon nightmare rather than providing an immersive experience.

The entire Eyephones system, including the computers required to run it, cost upwards of $250,000.

Follow ups were a.o. the Oculus Rift, and cheap, lens-fitted devices that work with a mobile phone. These are remarkably similar to the 19th century stereo viewers.


GIF animation.




or Wiggle stereoscopy.

Left and right images of a stereogram are animated. This technique is also called wiggle 3-D or wobble 3-D, sometimes also Piku-Piku (Japanese for “twitching”).[1]

The sense of depth from such images is due to parallax and to changes to the occlusion of background objects. In contrast to other stereo display techniques, the same image is presented to both eyes.

Wigglegram. A gif animation made of stereo-images. Photos via Gif by AC/Denkbaar, 2019.



Split Depth GIF.

An animated form of forced perspective. See also this link.

Occlusion (also referred to as interposition) happens when near surfaces overlap far surfaces. If one object partially blocks the view of another object, humans perceive it as closer.

An example of a split depth gif. Via suddenlygif.tumblr.



The Holodeck is first used in the 1987 pilot of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’.

A Holodeck creates a completely virtual and deceivingly real environment for the crew to relax in, or to train for battle.

Star Trek’s first holodeck appearance.
The Poetic Holodeck II is a 2014 remake of a 2007 animation.
“After everyone left, the holodeck transformed itself into something as close as possible to a real environment.”

‘Choir of a gothic church’ by Daguerre & Bouton.

The last remaining original Daguerre/Bouton diorama, donated by Daguerre to the church of Bry-sur-Marne (near Paris) in 1842. The diorama was restored in 2013, with funding by the Getty Foundation.

Visited October 2019.

Daguerre Diorama, Bry-sur-Marne, 1842. Photo Denkbaar/AC, 2019.

The diorama.

Louis Daguerre (1787 – 1851) was trained as an architect and panorama painter, and first gained attention for his use of illusionist effects in his theatre stage designs, before moving on to, together with painter Charles-Marie Bouton (1781 – 1853), develop the first incarnation of the Diorama (giving it its name), and, later on his signature photographic technique.

In 1842, Daguerre – either with or without help of Bouton – turned the otherwise unremarkable little church of the suburban Paris village Bry-sur-Marne into a megalomanic gothic cathedral. An extension to the choir was built, and a monumental semi-opaque painting replaced the old backside of the church.

The painting is lit by a skylight above the alcove, and additional light effects in the front and the back of the painting simulate a day/night sequence. Originally, the painting was lit with oil lamps. These are now replaced with much safer lighting.

Gif of the light sequence.

My visit took place during a sunny afternoon. For some reason the church has glass doors, and the reflection of the sun on passing cars at first spoiled the experience. Only after the doors were closed, the sequence could be seen better, though it still seemed to have some problems: one of the lights promptly turned on and off, instead of gradually – I doubt it was meant to do that.

The sequence’s length was unclear to me: it could be just below 2 minutes, but it also could be longer, or even random.

The ‘show’ is started by pressing a button – much like a regular light switch – near the entrance. The first ten seconds or so nothing seems to happen, and some of the light transitions are so subtle they’re difficult to make out, though this could also be due to the sunny afternoon conditions outside.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine the magical impression this piece of religious high-tech theatre must have made on the church-goers.

Video-registration of a part of the rather subtle light sequence of the diorama.

The faux-marble (painted on the walls) neo-Renaissance side panels, including its statues, are part of the stage. Before the restoration in 2013, barely any of the illusionary depth and simulated grandeur of the wall and choir was left.

Below an 1852 illustration of the diorama, and an early 20th century postcard in honor of Daguerre. By this time, Bouton was completely overshadowed by this partner’s marketing success, both in dioramas and in photography.

Diorama execute par Daguerre, offert a l’eglise de Bry-sur-Marne. Illustration for L’Illustration, Journal Universel, 11 December 1852. (source)

A composited image for a touristic post card. Image via Ebay.

Throughout the decades, and even centuries, the illusionist effect of the diorama diminished. Below, a photo taken around 1950. The marbled walls have no paint left or were painted over, and the altar is taking up half of the actual diorama.

At the second Vatican Council of 1962 the Catholic church decided to modernize, leading to the destruction of countless historical altars and church interiors (in Dutch referred to as ‘the second Iconoclasm’, or ‘wreckovation’).

The alcoves on both sides would be fitted with glass stained windows, the gothic elements – including the pulpit – removed, and the seating updated.

The Tourist Service of Bry-sur-Marne was so kind to provide me with a pdf – originally a Powerpoint presentation – concerning the restoration of the diorama. It includes some pre-restoration pictures of the church.

A portable Diorama

Below: the front- and backside of a recently rediscovered diorama-painting by Daguerre and Charles-Marie Bouton. The painting is only 92 x 152cm and framed, and therefor lacks the real immersive experience of the life sized illusion of the Bry-sur-Marne installment.

Description via Artnet.

Text by Sarah Cascone, March 15, 2019.

When the Parisian Galerie Perrin bought this atmospheric painting of the Pisa Cathedral, they knew there was something unusual about it. “There’s a small hole in the canvas,” Mandy Tutin told artnet News. “We thought, ‘this is not normal, this isn’t an accidental hole.’”

After careful research, they realized they had stumbled upon a Louis Daguerre (1787–1851) diorama, a unique form of painting devised by the artist and inventor in 1822, nearly two decades before he invented the daguerreotype. Working with painter Charles Marie Bouton (1781–1853), he crafted canvases with elements painted on both sides, so that the work shifts in appearance under different lighting conditions. He showed works such as this one in his custom-built Paris venue, called Diorama.

“People went as if it were the cinema,” Tutin said. “It’s like a little movie.”

Nearly two centuries later, the effect is still stunning, as the scene miraculously shifts from day to night, with a figure holding a torch appearing in the center of the canvas, the flame aligned with the once-mysterious hole. The effect, explained Tutin, “is a reflection between the light and the transparency of the canvas.”

The piece is for sale for €850,000. “This is unique in the world, the very last one in private hands,” Tutin added.

Hippolyte Sébron

Daguerre, though by far the most famous diorama-producer – was not the best painter. He was considered more of an inventor. His partner Bouton was widely appreciated for his much more sophisticated paintings.

Sébron (1801 – 1879) was Daguerre’s ‘right hand’. After Daguerre got interested in photography, Sébron took over most of the painting, though he remains out of the spotlights. Sébron perfected the double-effect diorama: canvasses that would would show hidden elements when lit in certain ways. These canvasses temporarily saved the diorama business from bankruptcy, since the crowd would grow tired of the standard diorama-formula: a landscape (Swiss Alps, for instance), followed by an interior (a church or cathedral).

Sébron claims to have painted fourteen monumental illusionist diorama paintings.

Source: Erkki Huhtamo, ‘Illusions in Motion’, MIT press, 2013, p. 147-148.

Are prehistoric caves dioramas?

Caves are environments, not dioramas. People walked through them, and they were used for, you know, purposes. The Lascaux replicas are some sort of dioramas. A diorama usually has a distinct educational purpose, it tries to show us something we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see.

Caves are also very real. The caves themselves are not simulating other caves. The decorations, or interior design, do seem to simulate nature in a lot of cases, and can have an undeniable immersive effect. The big Lascaux hall with its ceiling of life-sized running animals might be a bit diorama-like, though it doesn’t represent a ‘real’ situation. Dioramas connecting to prehistoric natural architecture seems to lead to a conceptual dead end (or does it?).

Theatre decors, film sets, and elaborate altars

Caves are natural architecture, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the blueprint for all following human-made buildings. Altars, especially the baroque altars, but also stage design, and theatre and movie sets have a much more diorama-like presence. Altars are symbolic dioramas, representing not elements from reality, but visualize a way to get closer to god, or gods, or the afterlife, or enlightenment, or redemption. But they were also used, at least some parts of altars would get meddled with while performing rituals.

Decors and sets only really are dioramas when they’re not in use. Once a play is being carried out on the stage, a set looses its frozen-in-timeness, and becomes part of a time based narrative. Actors interact with the decor, and the diorama is lost. When abandoned, a theatre decor could very well be a diorama, albeit a handicapped one, since it’s missing its context of story and actors. Can a decor on a stage be a diorama in its own right? 

The making of Lascaux IV, photo via The Guardian/Denis Nidos/Département 24, 2016.

Fiction dioramas: a rant on an Efteling theme park dark ride

Note: this text (in an extended version) was first published in April 2019 (with an edit in June) on my portfolio site.

Fiction dioramas: a rant on thema park Efteling

De Efteling is a well known fairy tale themed amusement park in the Netherlands, and according its own website it has only one diorama: an elaborate miniature set of mountains and villages through which miniature trains travel. In fact, Efteling has a staggering amount of dioramas, and most are more or less brought to life using animatronics.

The oldest part of the park is the fairy tale forest, which was built around 1950, where visitors can look at sleeping beauty in her coffin through glass windows, her breathing simulated by an air pump. A bit further is a haunted castle (Spookslot), where every fifteen minutes a show takes place: Saint-Saëns’s ‘Danse Macabre’ accompanies a choreography with animatronic red-eyed bats, skeletons and dancing tombstones, and a clever mirror and lighting illusion of holographic ghosts dancing in a cellar.

Efteling, Spookslot, photo via Wikipedia
There are also video registrations of the show, for instance this one by YouTube user Eftelwesley.

I probably need to explain why I’m talking about theme park Efteling: in the Netherlands, the Efteling is a standard component of virtually anyone’s childhood. For an adult, it can simultaneously be incredibly annoying and eerily enchanting. The special effect rides are up to Hollywood standard, only with less bling. All over the park, (sickening) music is added to enhance the fairy tale atmosphere. On the other hand, the outdated technology of some of the attractions in the park, and the overall kitschiness are part of its charm. It does bring out the kid in an adult.

In 2015, the gallery I had been working with for years celebrated its tenth anniversary. The gallerists asked their artists what we preferred to do: go to the Efteling, or another option which I forgot. Without any exceptions, all artists opted for an Efteling visit. And so we went. We had a good time.

Photo by Lana Mesić. With Daan Paans, Marleen Sleeuwits, Pierre Dirks, Sarah Carlier, Geertje Muffels, Alexandra Crouwers, Christian Kryl, Rob Wetzer, Sjoerd Knibbeler,Karianne Bueno, and gallerists Geertje Muffels and Robert Jan Verhagen in front of Efteling’s Vogelrock (an indoor rollercoaster), 2015.

Due to the sometimes dated animatronics, a lot of the park is slightly uncanny, and in various cases straight out kitschy. There are some serious problems with the way many of the fairy tales are being pictured, and I once had a discussion with their costumer service about these issues. The park holds on to the depiction of the fairy tales as the original park designer – an illustrator – had visioned them in the 1940s and 50s, a vision that in itself was based on 19th century British romanticism. Because of this, some of the dioramas display extremely outdated ideas about gender equality, or terribly stereotyped notions on ethnicity.

Wikipedia: A dark ride or ghost train is an indoor amusement ride on which passengers aboard guided vehicles travel through specially lit scenes that typically contain animation, sound, music and special effects.

The problem with Droomvlucht

One of the attractions, the immersive ‘dark ride’ Droomvlucht, built in 1993, has several dioramas the visitor admires from the comfort of a cart following a route through a building (note: although the cart is moving, it’s not moving through the dioramas, but rather passes them by). The scenes are loosely based on Oberon, ‘the king of the fairies’ originating in 13th century Merovingian texts: an ‘elven-man of the forest’. Shakespeare’s Oberon from ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ is a trickster elven king, arguing with his wife, the elven queen, over the custody of a child.

Victor Jory as Oberon in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, 1935

Efteling has turned ‘Oberon’ and his elven kingdom into a segregated society: female fairies ‘live’ mostly in separate dioramas from the male trolls. Oberon seems to be the only male elf, which is weird in many ways. All (women) elves are blond or have light brown or pastel-colored hair – they’re all very white – have blue or green eyes and are dressed in pastel-coloured ballet-like dresses. They don’t really do anything but sit on branches or swings.

The trolls are a bit more engaged in activities (playing, bathing, risk-taking by swinging on one hand). They mostly wear loin cloths, and are a bit less white-skinned than the elven girls – consistent with the idea that men work outside and get tanned in the sun, while women are confined to an indoors golden cage life. At the start of the ride there’s a larger young and fresh looking woman in a pond – the elven queen, then? – and in one scene, there’s the elven king, old and crooked and surrounded by young, white women-elves, on a throne, waving. There also seems to be a ‘race’ of green people with pointy ears. No idea how they fit in, but there they are.

This is the so-called ‘onride’ of Droomvlucht, a registration by De Efteling.
Warning: some may feel it’s hard to stomach, but it helps if you turn off the sound.

After visiting the park the last time, when I also went for the dark ride of Droomvlucht, I felt the need to write a comment to the Efteling, since the message that the dioramas conveyed were not of the sort that I would want to promote as a theme park in the 21th century. Although I do appreciate a certain traditionalism when it comes to fairy tales, sagas and myths, I’m convinced that with minor adjustments such tale can be transformed into something more inclusive, both concerning gender and ethnicity, culture or skin colour.

Suggestions: put a female fairy queen right next to the fairy king. Spray paint the fairies in various skin tones, replace their eyes and wigs, have them wear pants and boots and bows and arrows and dresses. Mix the trolls and the fairies in the dioramas more: trolls can be female too, and fairies can be male. Since most of the diorama’s appeal lies in the meticulously decorated nature scenes and its unearthly lights and colors – including even science fiction planet scenes – these are small changes, conveying a big message.

It’s really not that difficult.

Side note: my significant other’s argument that ‘children won’t notice it anyway’ is invalid. They might not actively notice it, but the ride reaffirms gender stereotypes in a really not so subtile way. Of course they won’t ‘notice’ it, but it’s definitely part of an overall framing. The Efteling welcomes over 5.000.000 visitors per year.

Dutch right wing nationalist politician Geert Wilders has a favorite Efteling ride, Droomvlucht.
It led to these two journalists making their own rather hilarious – and interesting – Droomvlucht analysis, in which they’re talking about hyperrealities and a desire for the impossible, but appear to miss my points.


Juni 2018

Geen gekleurde duiven meer
De Efteling heeft in juni het sprookje ‘Het Bruidskleed van Genoveva’ in het Sprookjesbos aangepast. Sinds juni 2018 zie je geen gekleurde duiven meer rondom het Herauten Plein, alleen nog maar witte. Hoewel de duiven altijd met een diervriendelijke verf gekleurd werden, vindt de Efteling het niet meer van deze tijd. Dus is besloten te stoppen met het kleuren van de duiven. In het begin van het sprookje ‘Het Bruidskleed van Genoveva’ zijn de duiven nog wit. Dat fragment wordt nu uitgelicht in plaats van het eindfragment met de gekleurde duiven.

(In short: the theme park stopped dying its doves – using animal-friendly dye -, since they regard coloring doves an outdating practice)

If they can change the colors of the doves to ‘normal’, you can change skin-colors and outfits of characters to ‘normal’, too, right?

Titanic sinks in real time

Originally meant to promote a game, this 2 hours and 40 minute real time simulation, based on the actual events and timeframe of the sinking of the Titanic, displays an eerie artistic quality of its own. Devoid of human figures, the story of the disaster is told through the character of the vessel itself, a few explanatory captions at key moments, and minimalist additional audio.

Titanic: Honor & Glory, 2016. Via Youtube. See also:

By the end of the video, even without any depiction of the desperation of the victims and in complete silence, the desolate demise of the Titanic becomes barely watchable.

Hark! The clock of Notre Dame strikes!

London, Vol 6, edited by Charles Knight, 1844. CXLIII: Exhibitions of Art by J. Saunders. p283 – 285. Excerpt.

The eye witness account of J. Saunders.

(…) let us pay our two shillings in the vestibule of the exhibition, ascend the stairs, and submit ourselves to the guidance of the attendant waiting to receive and conduct us to a seat through the darkness-visible of the theatre, into which we enter; a precaution rendered necessary by the transition from light to gloom, which at first almost incapacitates us for the use of our own eyes. 

In front opens, receding apparently like the stage of a theatre, a view of the beautiful basilica or church of St. Paul, with its range of delicate pillars and small Moorish-like connecting arches at the top, over which again the entire flat surface of the wall appears covered with beautiful paintings, now lit up by the radiance of the moon streaming in through the windows on the opposite side. 

But as we gaze – the dark cedar roofs disappears, and we see nothing but the pure blue Italian sky, whilst below, some of the pillars have fallen – the floor is covered with wrecks; the whole, in short, has almost instantaneously changed to a perfect and mournful picture of the church after the desolation wrought by the fire. 

A bell now rings, we find ourselves in motion; the whole theater in which we sit, moves round till its wall closes the aperture or stage, and we are in perfect darkness; the bell rings again, a curtain rises, and we are looking on the time-worn towers, transepts, and buttresses of Notre Dame, its rose window on the left, and the water around its base reflecting back the last beams of the setting sun.

Gradually these reflections disappear, the warm tints fade from the sky, and are succeeded by the cool grey hue of twilight, and that again by night – deepening by insensible degrees till the quay and the surrounding buildings and the water are no longer distinguishable, and Notre Dame itself scarcely reveals to us its outlines against the sky.

Before we have long gazed on this scene the moon brings to emerge slowly—very slowly, from the opposite quarter of the heavens, its first faint rays tempering apparently rather than dispersing the gloom; presently a slight radiance touches the top of one of the pinnacles of the cathedral—and glances as it were athwart the dark breast of the stream; now growing more powerful, the projections of Notre Dame throw their light and fantastic shadows over the left side of the building, until at last, bursting forth in serene unclouded majesty, the whole scene is lit up, except where the vast Cathedral interrupts its beams, on the quay here to the left, and where through the darkness the lamps are now seen, each illumining its allotted space.

Hark! The clock of Notre Dame strikes! and low and musical come the sounds – it is midnight – scarcely has the vibration of the last note ceased, before the organ is heard, and the solemn service of the Catholic church beings – beautiful, inexpressibly beautiful – one forgets creeds at such a time, and thinks only of prayer: we long to join them. 

And yet all this is illusion (the sounds of course excepted) – a flat piece of canvas, with some colors distributed upon it, is all that is before us; though where that canvas can be, it seems, to one’s eyes at least, impossible to determine; they cannot by any mental processes be satisfied that buildings, distance, atmosphere are not before them – to such perfection has the Diorama been brought. 

Note: the eye witness account is likely from before 1844, the publication date of this piece. In 1844, the original diorama phenomenon was in decline due to the subsequent rise of photography, including portable special effects devices such as the stereoscope. In 1839, Daguerre was working on his photographic invention, the Daguerreotype.

The Artist in His Museum

Charles Wilson Peale (1741 – 1827) was an American painter, scientist, naturalist and inventor. He’s most known for his portraits, and for setting up one the first museums in the United States.

Peale’s famous self portrait, ‘The Artist in His Museum’, was painted in 1822 – Peale was 83 – and has a distinct diorama’esque quality. The monumental painting depicts the artist full scale, as if he’s standing there in real life, while holding up a velvet curtain – usually part of the backdrop for studio portraits.

This provides us a view of one of the museum galleries of Peale’s natural history museum: part of an elephant skeleton is visible on the right, while paintings of wildlife are on display on the left. The whole scene is very theatrical: coulisses, perspective, atmospheric lighting; painting techniques that contribute to a real sense of depth.

Peale himself looks directly at us. Though he seems to look up at us – his head is slightly bowed down, giving him a bit of a mischievous look – the perspective of the museum hall suggests the viewer is sitting on a chair.

Peale’s hand invites us to his museum hall, or maybe his gesture just means: “See what I did?”

The painting palet is prominently visible on the table, reflecting Peale’s work on both art and science.

Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822. Self portrait, oil on canvas Height: 103.7 ″ (263.5 cm); Width: 79.8 ″ (202.8 cm). Image via Wikimedia.

Though Peale’s portraits are usually classic compositions of mostly army folk – and therefor a bit pompous – this is not the only devoid painting he did. Below is a trompe l’oeil of his two sons, ‘The Staircase Group’ from 1795. This painting is in fact part of an installation with a door frame and one steps of stairs, creating the illusion of a ‘real’ doorway (see the video at the bottom of this post for a clearer image).

C.W. Peale, ‘The Staircase Group’ (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), 1795, oil on canvas. Height: 226 cm (88.9 ″); Width: 100.5 cm (39.5 ″).

Peale’s zoological museum didn’t make a distinction between the taxidermist specimens and sculptural qualities. He experimented with ‘habitat’ displays: cases with (small) mounted animals, of which the back was painted by Peale with skies or landscapes.

These cases might be the earliest example of the habitat diorama concept. (*)

He also developed new ways to mount skeletons, and paid special attention to composition in his ‘habitat’ scenes.

Peale’s museum was disassembled after his death, due to a lack of public funding. It would take decades before his groundbreaking work would become standard inventory for natural history museums.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker talk about Peale’s paintings. Via smarthistory.

(*) Karen Wonders, Habitat Dioramas. Illusions of Wilderness in Museums of Natural History. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1993. Page 28, 29.


C.W. Peale on Wikipedia | The Artist in His Museum on Wikipedia

Visual tricks by animals: Bowerbirds and Forced Perspectives.

Apart from humans, there’s at least one other species associated with the production of ‘art’: the Australian/New Guinea bowerbird builds elaborate architectural constructions to lure its mate to its lair.

These ‘nests’ are decorated with shells, leafs, flowers, pieces of plastic; anything the bird can find.

The constructions are so sophisticated, they make use of false perspective: a visual illusion that either optically enlarges or diminishes an object by contextual placement of other objects.

Baroque altars, for example, look taller because sculptures at the top are a bit smaller than our eye would expect, based on our default perspective situation. This illusion obviously is meant to increase the notion of the almighty power of either god or the church.

The bowerbirds, however, seem to use forced perspective to create more or less flat surfaces: objects further away are a bit bigger, contradicting default perspective. Consequently, the male bowerbird – who is of the building gender – seems smaller, when standing at the end of a bowerbuilding or bowerlane. This is an odd contradiction to what would be expected, because why would a male bower bird use special effects to make him look less impressive?

Maybe he wants the construction to look even bigger?

Maybe the flat surface illusion is part of the male bowerbird’s attractive features?

Thanks, Jan Verpooten, for pointing this out to me.

Ames room, image via Wikipedia.


Guardian, Bowerbird builds a house of illusions to improve his chances of mating, by Mo Constandi, 19 Jan 2012

Wired, Absurd Creature of the Week: Meet the Bird That Lies and Tricks Its Way Into Sex, by Matt Simon, 2 Dec 2016

Nature, Perspective of a Bird, by Casey Dunn, 26 Oct 2010

Sciencemag, Illusions Promote Mating Success in Great Bowerbirds, by
Laura A. Kelley, John A. Endler, 20 Jan 2012