Sander Veenhof: Semi-digital guinea pig in augmented reality

As an AR pioneer, Sander Veenhof has seen his work field grow over the years into an extremely broad area where by no means everything is interesting or relevant. The Fund’s professionalization grant allows him to reposition himself: ‘My hope is that this year I can make it clear what role I play in this area.’

Above: AR-intervention in de public space, unsolicited people perform Triadisches Ballet in AR outfit. Below: WeARinMoma

31 March 2022

Asked about his profession, Sander Veenhof immediately makes the link to last year’s Open Call for Professionalization and deepening of the practice. That question about what he does exactly, and how to make that clear to the outside world, was the reason for applying. ‘I find it hard to characterize myself – I move in different worlds,’ says Veenhof. He studied IT at the VU 20 years ago and then went to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. In 2010, he took his first public steps in the AR world with the exhibition ‘WeARinMoma’, where he exhibited his skills without being asked in an augmented MoMa. Since then, he has been experimenting with AR applications that allow you to shape the world to your liking. He has worn and – if at all possible – hacked all the VR and AR glasses that have crossed his path by now. During the Covid-19 lockdown, he experimented with interactive AR filters to give Zoom meetings a little more pizazz. And so, in his own words, he has ‘messed around’ in the intriguing borderland between the virtual and the real.

bigger idea
But is it messing around? Admittedly, no flashy apps are being produced, nor is it art in its purest form. ’For an artist in the digital world, what I do is very technical, but the designs I create are definitely not high tech,’ says Veenhof. ’To the outside world, all these disconnected things I do are often impossible to fathom.’ And yet there is a bigger idea behind it. With all these small autonomous experiments, Veenhof explores the opportunities and risks of the programmable world separately from the all-powerful digital platforms. In the lectures he gave with regularity until the advent of Covid-19, he strung together the loose components with natural ease. But when the lectures disappeared, so did his story and source of income. ’I have always moved successfully between the artistic and the practical, but currently it is difficult to connect with those two worlds,’ Veenhof wrote in his application to the Fund.

Being awarded the grant gave Veenhof the freedom to bring order to his practice, to look for the common thread and to find a new way to stand out. For once, this is not a subsidy where an innovative product must be produced, but one that creates space for reflection on your own practice – a breather in the high-paced development of digital culture. ’I suddenly have the freedom for a while to look at what I’m doing, and to formulate why I’m doing what I’m doing and where I want to go with it. I have the chance for a moment to be consciously aware of plotting lines towards the future. That brings a sense of peace but also restlessness: I feel the impetus to really accomplish something this year.’ The financial support made it possible to hire in two experts as coaches to help him analyze his work. One supports him in selecting practically applicable elements in his activities, while the other is his sparring partner on the artistic side.

I suddenly have the freedom for a while to look at what I’m doing, and to formulate why I’m doing what I’m doing and where I want to go with it. – Sander Veenhof
Be your own robot

be your own robot
The directional work that began late last year has already led to new products that are less ‘disconnected’. For example, at beyourownrobot.com, Veenhof now speaks out each week in a video post about the choices we still have to make before we become walking flesh-and-blood robots. He takes the viewer through the experiments in which he himself plays the leading role as a semi-digital guinea pig. This individual approach is an important starting point: instead of waiting for Apple, Google and Facebook to fill in the blanks and lock everything in place, he wants to be in control when it comes to his personal data. This is the time to try out and invent as much as you can, unhindered by patents, to create your own datastore and control it in your own way before you are dependent on the Big Tech companies a decade from now.

between 0 and 1
In January, Veenhof published the essay Between 0 en 1 on Oddstream, which underscores that line of inquiry. ’In the essay, I argue why it’s good to only half-finish things and hurl them into the world as quickly as possible.’ It is a plea for unpolished, ramshackle semi-finished products that can resist the power of Silicon Valley and the commercial revenue model behind it. And that is uniquely something that a person who is a mix between artist and hacker can do. Sander Veenhof is establishing his position on that cutting edge. On the one hand to market himself better, but also from a conviction: on the basis of sincere art projects, let’s enjoy as much as possible the freedom AR has to offer, and take a stand on it while we still can.

This project was supported in 2020 via the Open Call for Professionalization and deepening of practice. This call is currently open again and will close 20 April 2022.

Text: Willemijn de Jonge
Images: Sander Veenhof