If we can create the best version of ourselves online instead of IRL, does it still count as ourselves? What does ‘true self’ really mean nowadays? These are some of the questions that Dutch artist Daan Couzijn explores through his audio-visual and multimedia work, which ranges from video-making to singing and editing.
He found refuge on the Internet as he was the only visibly queer person in his small town; however, he’s kept working on his self-confidence to be able to present himself into the world. “True liberation happens the moment you can step outside of the house and be completely comfortable with who you are, flaws and all”, he tells us in this interview. Discover his journey of self-acceptance as well as his main artistic reference, his anxiety before performing live, and finding different ways to express himself.
A lot of people who tend to be more introverted or shy turn to the digital realm because it is a way for them to be themselves or to be the person they want to be. Why did you choose to become an artist that creates online avatars and digital life?
I have a strong connection to the Internet (no pun intended) because it helped define my identity when I was younger. I grew up in a very small town in the flower field region of Holland, where I was pretty much the only queer person in town (or rather, the only one that was comfortable being queer publicly at that age). And that made it very hard to find people that I could relate to and identify with, which I think is very important to be able to do at that age. The arrival of Myspace and other similar platforms opened up the opportunity to connect with other (queer) people from all over the world and gave me access to an entire network of people that I could relate to that I otherwise wouldn’t have found in my hometown at that time. Simultaneously, it opened up a lot of possibilities in terms of self-expression.
In what ways?
Society often paints a picture of younger generations as ones that are very self-centred, vain and fake because we are able to mask certain aspects of ourselves online. And by so doing, we would supposedly be masking our true selves. And there’s definitely truth in that. But if we prefer the version of ourselves that we embody online as opposed to the version we embody offline, then arguably, the online version could potentially be our authentic ‘true self’ (assuming such things as authenticity and a ‘true self’ exist). For some of us, the offline world pressures us to be a certain way that might not feel true to who we feel we are or who we want to be. The Internet offered me freedom to explore and express my identity in ways that I did not dare or felt safe enough to explore in my physical, offline life. And so, to me personally, the Internet is a very liberating and quite an honest place that unmasks our true selves, rather than the other way around.
Indeed. When and why did you start exploring the possibilities of digital creation?
I started using 3D animation as a medium to create visuals not only because I love the aesthetic but mostly because it was cheap and it offered endless possibilities. I have always been interested in film and moving image, but I never had access to the right equipment. 3D animation software like Blender, however, is free and allows you to have an entire studio inside of your computer, complete with performers, light equipment, backdrops, and many other options. And you have full artistic control and freedom over all of it.
The medium also appeals to me because of my interest in human emotions and psychology. I’m fascinated by the fact that I can create hyperrealistic humanoid figures that are artificial, digital and thus voided from actual human emotionality, even though these figures are able to mimic it almost perfectly. In a way, working in this medium reflects on my own journey to fully comprehend the complexity of the human psyche.
Though, I will say that even though most of my work is digitally produced and using the Internet as a way to promote it has become part of my brand, I do believe in the relevance of exhibiting in a physical space. I wouldn’t call myself a digital artist since my work doesn’t solely exist in the digital realm. It’s important to me that the work offers a physical experience since it adds a performative layer. Watching a video on your laptop screen in the comfort of your own home creates a different kind of experience which, though depending on the work, is often not the experience I’m aiming for. I use my online presence as a tool to express myself and to gain audience by promoting my work. But at a certain point, I think I would like to be a bit more exclusive online in order to stimulate the audience to get out of their homes to view and experience my work physically.
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You seem to have a very wide variety of artistic abilities up your sleeve that includes digital creation, video-making, and music. Which one is your favourite to work on and why? How do you feel they feed and contribute to each other?
It was never my intention to work in multiple disciplines. I guess over the course of my education, I was mostly dabbling across mediums to find one that best suits my message. But I get bored quite easily. So, I think the fact that I tend to switch between disciplines is also a way for me to keep it fresh and interesting and at the same time to keep it challenging. I consciously used to call myself a multidisciplinary artist as opposed to an interdisciplinary artist mostly because I didn’t want the disciplines to intertwine because I was afraid it would result in a ‘look-at-all-the-things-I-can-do’ show. Mixing all your abilities together doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome.
Even though I do still agree with that last statement, I now realize that thinking I could separate the disciplines without them influencing each other was quite naïve. Naturally, everything I’ve learned over the course of my education resonates through my entire practice. In my visual work, I often use recordings of my voice that are very performative. And so my performance background is very much present in my visual work. But I also often create my own produced soundtracks. And so, my musical background is very present as well.
Is there any of them that you prefer over the others?
I like all the disciplines I practice equally, but if I had to pick a favourite, I would choose music. Music is such a beautiful medium because it doesn’t need words or visuals to communicate a feeling. It doesn’t need to explain anything. You can play one chord or even just a few separate notes and it immediately ignites a feeling inside of the listener. It is such an effective way of emotional communication. It has always felt like the purest and most natural form of self-expression to me. When I sing, I feel every feeling in the book. And even if I sing with my eyes closed, I feel connected to the people listening. I get bored quite easily, but I will never get bored of music.
Drying my Tears in the Cooling Fan is a 3D image printed out in order to look realistic and as though it is an actual person facing sadness. The male in the image looks a lot like yourself and you are said to be a “self-proclaimed narcissist.” Is this why you made the piece look like you?
It’s super interesting because I get that a lot and it was never a conscious decision of mine to create a character that visually resembles me. Creating a character in 3D software is kind of like producing a sculptural work. And I have always been fascinated with the human body and its aesthetic. In particular, male bodies. Not just because I’m attracted to men, but also because I find the structure of the male anatomy very beautiful because the features are almost inorganic. The male body consists mostly out of straight, almost geometrical lines whereas the female body is more consisting of round lines (which I find equally beautiful, but in a different way).
When I create characters, I always get a bit carried away because I find it very satisfying that I can sculpt the, in my view, perfect being. I spend hours altering minor details. It’s kind of like creating the perfect-looking person from scratch. And interestingly enough, the result is always different. I don’t really think the character in this project looks like me, but maybe on a subconscious level, I wish I looked that. And perhaps that’s why people think he resembles me. Because they see a desire of me. And when I was altering minor details to make him look perfect, I was actually altering myself.
So this narcissism is not because you really love yourself but because you project yourself into your projects.
You see, when I claim to be a narcissist, it’s not because I idealize myself or because I think I am perfect and I look down on others; it’s because I occupy a great deal of my mind as a subject. I’m often analyzing myself and reflecting on my own emotional and psychological behaviour. It’s true that I seem to pursue an idealized self image, like I think most people do. But I don’t truly think of myself as a narcissist. That being said, for the benefit of the concept I was exploring at the time of this project, I think I was willing to walk a mile in the shoes of a narcissist. And by doing so, I discovered a narcissistic tendency of myself, which is to romanticize sadness or to find satisfaction in dwelling in melancholy. And that’s exactly what Drying my Tears in the Cooling Fan is about.
Even though my work might be very personal, it’s not necessarily about me. I’m often the starting point, but I always try to translate it in a way that is universal and speaks to many people. Because I can’t be the only one thinking about the things I think about, wondering the things I’m wondering. I can’t be the only one feeling the things I feel. And so I hope plenty of other people can identify with and relate to the topics I explore in my work
With so many different artworks, surely some were much more difficult and elaborate than others. Which piece took you the longest to make?
My latest work, titled Beautiful Impact, was the most difficult to create in terms of technicality since I had never done anything of that level in quality, realism and animation. It was also the toughest process since I had to learn a lot of new stuff and wasn’t completely able to get the result I had in my mind. The concept behind the project also proved to be quite confronting on a personal level. The work examines a longing for a metaphorical crash that would mean the end of that addictive, melancholic identity I was talking about before. In the end, I was unable to let go of that identity, which is also portrayed in the final result. But even though I had no control over the process, looking back on it now, I’m more than happy with how it turned out.
Forever Online took the longest to make since it is the longest of all my video works in terms of duration. But many amazing people helped me out with that one and we really took the time for it, so that made it a very fun process. I think it took me about three months to create, including designing and building the construction it was shown in.
And which would you say means the most to you on a more personal level?
The project that means the most to me is my music. And that also makes it incredibly difficult to create. I’m an extreme perfectionist and I’m still searching for the right sound that fits my personality, my voice and my message. As I’m constantly changing, so is my music. It’s the scariest to release to the public because it’s the most personal, which is why I’m often extremely anxious before a live performance.
I understand…
You’re confronted with direct feedback as you’re performing, and as a performer, you place yourself in an extremely vulnerable position. Sharing your emotional conflicts with total strangers in such a personal way is not always very comfortable to do. And it’s up to you in that moment to keep the audience captivated, which is a huge responsibility. Things as anxiety and pressure can influence your performance, but I have so much love for it that I could never give it up. It’s extremely therapeutic to me, and being able to connect with other people in this way is just beautiful. I can’t wait to release my first EP.
I personally enjoyed a lot Fat Guy Dancing, which was part of the exhibition Eye See You at Not In New York gallery in Rotterdam. In this group exhibition, the artists were inspired by the theories of The Gaze by Sartre. This piece had to have come with a lot of mixed reactions ranging from humourous to objectionable because of not only the very blunt title but the video itself. To me, this is slightly ironic because you’ve created a deeper meaning of a man who is dancing as though no one is watching and is, in a way, free of judgment. What does this video reflect regarding your own thoughts concerning beauty ideals and self-confidence? What reaction were you expecting to gain from it?
Well, it was indeed very ironic, yes. A lot of people took offence in the bluntness of the title, which is exactly the reaction I expected and aimed for. The word ‘fat’ is merely descriptive. Yet, there’s such a negative connotation attached to it only because we, as a society, put it there. And I wanted people who took offence in the title to realize that. I wanted them to stop and think, ‘why is the word fat offensive to me?’
As you said, for this show, the artists were asked to create a work based on the concept of The Gaze by Sarte and I wanted to create someone who is seemingly not affected by this phenomenon. To show that beauty isn’t only found in one’s physical appearance but also in their confidence. This was a commissioned work, but looking back on it now, it’s also a reflection of myself and my desire to feel comfortable in my own skin by valuing my appreciation for myself over the lack of appreciation of others. Fat Guy Dancing illustrates what I believe that would look and feel like.
A lot of your work correlates back to the idea of self-judgment through the media and how social media is a way to identify yourself and take control over the way others view you to fill a void feeling people have. What do you want your work to express in regard to social media and how it affects people’s mental health? Especially since the younger generation revolves around technology and the media.
Besides Forever Online, my other works don’t reflect on social media directly. But when talking about the effects of social media, arguably, there’s a similar state of mind that’s being explored. I’m from a generation that experienced life both pre- and post-Internet and, as I mentioned before, the Internet and social media really helped me to explore my identity. I can’t deny that that has influenced the way I view certain things in life. It resonates through my work because the characters I create often reflect on the existential crisis they’re in. And so, while it doesn’t necessarily directly address the topic of social media or its effects, people who are experiencing a sort of existential crisis (perhaps because of the negative effects of social media) can hopefully relate to it.
When we’re talking about the way social media affects our mental health, I think it is important to acknowledge that, even though the Internet might feel very liberating, it’s only because it shields you from the direct judgement of others. It is important to practice that liberation offline as well. When you spend too much time and energy trying to seek validation and acceptance through how other people perceive you, online or offline, then that’s where it becomes dangerous. It’s important to realize that you will never be able to please everybody and that true liberation happens the moment you can step outside of the house and be completely comfortable with who you are, flaws and all.
You’re right! Does that apply to you?
I’m probably not the best person to tell you this since I am still struggling to do just that. Even though I might seem quite the extravert, I’m extremely insecure and suffer from a lot of anxiety. It’s been very hard to come to terms with who I am and I’m still finding it very complex because I value the opinions of others too much. I think that is a life-long process. The Internet offers liberation and escapism, which can be satisfying and harmless every now and then. But you shouldn’t want to escape your life completely. Insecurities aside, I am very happy that I feel the need to escape myself less and less as I grow older because I feel more comfortable in my own skin. But I wish I had been able to enjoy myself in my young adult life more.
Do you think that one's perception of themselves is more confident from all the approval and acceptance that they receive online or would it be shattered by the constant set standards of appearance and continuous comparisons?
Social media created a measuring system to determines someone’s social value by simply being able to see how many ‘appreciation’ (likes) another person receives. Which makes it dangerously easy to compare yourself to others. It’s a win-lose situation. When you gain appreciation, it makes you feel good. When you don’t and see that others do, it could make you feel bad. It’s not surprising that that alone has caused depression rates to rise. But can we really blame social media? We’ve always had the tendency to compare ourselves to others. Social media didn’t instigate our fucked up sense of self or our need for validation. It’s a bigger issue relating to an existential desire for our lives to have meaning and significance, that we can’t just blame on an app. This desire has always been there. Social media just triggers it and pushes it to the extreme.
“The Internet offers liberation and escapism, which can be satisfying and harmless every now and then. But you shouldn’t want to escape your life completely.”
Let’s talk more about Forever Online. The digital video shows two men making love and presents the viewer with a very sensual and erotic display of affection. You say your intent was to use digital media to place yourself digitally into different situations to obtain control. Although you believe that through this control you have power of the way you’re represented in the online world, isn’t it also possible that by placing yourself in this position you are relinquishing all your control since now it is technically forever online and people can do what they want with it, causing it to eventually lose the original meaning?
The matter that we have been discussing of an existential desire for our lives to have meaning and significance is what Forever Online explores. The work illustrates shameless self-glorification and a narcissistic need to leave behind a legacy that lives on forever. At the same time, that desire reveals a fear of being forgotten. Anything that exists online will be online forever, so it’s the perfect place to execute this desire and manifest yourself virtually. Arguably, if you truly fear being forgotten, whether or not you have full control over your online manifestation doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it will exist online forever and it won’t disappear into oblivion.
Currently, your website mentions that you have two songs out on Soundcloud called Time and Overdone. Both songs have a very unique and electronic sound to them. When it comes to music, you go by the name of Cousin, which sounds very similar to your last name. What is the reason behind this decision?
When I started making music, I wanted it to be separate from everything else I do. For the reasons I mentioned before but also because I wanted to start from a blank canvas as much as I could. As a kid, I was always obsessively fantasizing about leaving the Netherlands and becoming world-famous. And so I was often jokingly called ‘Dean Cousin’ by my friends and family, to make my name sound more international. When I wanted to release music, I kind of liked the sound of Cousin. I felt it was very timeless and it made a lot of sense. It never really bothered me after that, so I never changed it.
What/who would you say has been the biggest inspiration when it comes to your work?
There are many visual artists that I find very inspiring, such as Jon Rafman, Roman Signer and Jordan Wolfson. But I once saw a solo exhibition of Ed Atkins at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and I was so impressed by the way he used multiple elements such as music, writing, performative use of the voice and playful 3D animations to create a funny, imaginative but yet dark and deeply emotional atmosphere that was extremely appealing to me. I identified with his world. I guess you could say that experience defined the very essence of my work today because I saw for the very first time the potential of audio-visual storytelling and how it could embody my range of emotions in a poetic and personal yet universal way.
In terms of music, I enjoy listening to James Blake and I have always been extremely inspired by Björk. I truly think she is a creative genius – both musically and visually. She has the guts to go a hundred per cent for what she likes without worrying what people will think of it. And it’s because of that, that so many people like her. It’s extremely unapologetic. When I first heard All is Full of Love, I was amazed by how the track was able to touch a huge amount of pain inside of me that I didn’t even know I had. The lyrics are beautifully simple yet poetic, and the composition, particularly the vocal melody, speaks volumes. When she belts out that C#, it’s just out of this world. Her voice carries so much emotion. And the video made in collaboration with Chris Cunningham is beautiful as well. Her visual language matches her music perfectly. There is absolutely no other artist like her.
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