Interview: Floris Kaayk, the Visionary Creative Mind Behind Human Birdwings

Alessia Andreotti
July 3rd 2013

Floris Kaayk is an innovative and visionary Dutch artist and filmmaker who focuses on futuristic visions, fantasies and concepts. His work visualizes technological progress, showing both positive and negative consequences.

You may know Kaayk as the mind behind Human Birdwings, the online prank in which the imaginary character Jarno Smeets developed working, DIY "wings". Kaayk collaborated with Next Nature Network on the Rayfish Footwear Project, a fictional company that offered personalized sneakers crafted from genetically modified stingray leather. In 2006, he produced Metalosis Maligna, a speculative documentary about a bizarre disease that affects patients with metal medical implants. A group of researchers from the university of Groningen actually took the term Metalosis Maligna and used it to name a new class of pseudo-tumors caused by the friction of the metal in patient with a metal knee or hip.

We recently talked with Kaayk about pranks, activism, what he thinks about technological change.

How did you get in touch with Next Nature? 

I learned about the Next Nature network back in 2005, when my first short film The Order Electrus was part of a Next Nature event in Utrecht. Since that moment I started following their blog posts and events. Although the work I create doesn't start with a very clear philosophy like that of Next Nature, their way of thinking has subconsciously influenced my projects.

Where does the inspiration for your projects come from?

Developing ideas for new projects usually start with one image, an atmosphere, a new item or a dream. It’s more an intuitive way of working instead of following a philosophical path. Looking back to my work of the past six years I recognize a clear narrative and realize that it has many connections to the next nature philosophy.

How would you define the Rayfish Footwear Project: a starting point for a debate about emerging bio-technologies, a social denunciation of the manipulation of nature for our benefit, a social experiment, or all three?

It’s a bit of all the three elements, but it was also an experiment in storytelling. Using online and social media with a compelling storyline made it push the discussion to an international level. By introducing various chapters in which the perspective of the story continuously changed we were able to stimulate different kinds of discussions.

At first a lot of people were upset about the idea of using living organisms as a product. Later in the story, when animal rights activists released the stingrays in the ocean and CEO Raymond Ong gave a passionate, intelligent monologue about our relationship with animals and products, the discussion turned and our audience suddenly showed empathy and understanding. Looking back to the project, these various angles of discussion, the possibility to spread out a fictional story over a course of months and to make an audience participate in those events was very exciting and valuable.

How did you feel about duping people with the Human Birdwings project and then again with the Rayfish Footwear fictional company?

It didn't feel like duping people, because that wasn't the intention. Within both projects the most important element for me was to explore the internet as storytelling tool, to present futuristic fantasies and to visualize consequences of technological development.

Do you see yourself as an activist?

No, not at all. The projects I realize are not made to warn or to change the world, they are made to share my visions and fantasies about our world and how technological development changes our daily lives. They originate from personal fascinations, fantasies or dreams, I feel the need to tell my stories and show new perspectives on existing themes.

Many concepts and themes of your practice, such as symbiosis, gene mutation, hybrids and bionics, are related to next nature philosophy. What is Next Nature for you?

I see Next Nature as a growing movement of scientists, designers, philosophers and artists who believe in the future and acknowledge the human influence on our planet (and maybe our universe). Next Nature believes in the merging of nature and technology, and it wants us to be aware of the fact that we are part of nature, instead of thinking that we are opposition to nature and animal species.

As it seems in our media society the fake has gained a certain authenticity. What do you think about the power of manipulation? Did simulation become part of our lives?

In a lot of cases reality is using fiction as a source of inspiration. A lot of fictional inventions from retro science fiction films became reality through the years because people wanted the fiction to be real.

Instead of only showing those beautiful, utopian inventions, my film Metalosis Maligna shows a downside of technological progress and our desire to manipulate nature in an attempt to improve our bodies. Although not as spectacular as my invented disease, it actually turned out that Metalosis Maligna was in fact happening for real to people with a medical implant.

It seems technological change is speeding up. Do you feel this is the case? And where will this go?

Technological change is getting more complex over time, I’m not sure if that means it’s speeding up. Technological knowledge is growing and therefore there are more and more doors to unlock. We have just entered the digital age, which seems very rich in opportunities still to explore. At the same time there is a lot of development going on in bioengineering to uncover the bigger mysteries of life. The digital and biotechnological seem to join forces. We can already print organs and convert brain impulses to digital commands. I’m extremely fascinated by all this developments and the consequences they have on our daily lives. That’s what I try to visualize and reflect on within my projects.

Assuming we as humans are co-evolving with technology. What can we do to steer this in a desired direction? Can we steer at all?

Humans have been steering it; we started this co-evolution with technology.

Why are we having this Next Nature discussion now, and not 1000 years ago or in 100 years?

Because we are now at a stage that we acknowledge ourselves to able to manipulate and control nature. The discussion will probably stop as soon as it’s globally accepted that nature is under control by the human species. I wouldn't know if and when we reach that point.

Thanks so much, Floris, for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!

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Koert van Mensvoort: Is the artificial womb frankenstein-like symbol of (male) engineers trying to steal the magical womb from women? Or… is it a feminist project and needed to reach through equality between the sexes? I personally lean towards the latter. To me it feels like progress if a girl can tell a guy to carry the womb for a change.

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