We’ve all heard the saying, “two heads are better than one” – well, how about three? Smack is an award-winning digital art trio that explores themes of individual and collective identity, surveillance and technology. Greatly introspective, their installations are guaranteed to make you pause and reflect on your own behaviour. In this interview, they discuss their teamwork, their art process, and herd mentality in the context of their latest work – a three-part installation called Tribe shown at Madrid's Colección Solo. And one of the pieces from this exhibition, Tribe Tower, will be part of the reopening of the Evolum museum in Eindhoven (The Netherlands), starting on September 24th.
Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and what you do?
We are Smack, a collective of three digital artists: Ton Meijdam, Thom Snels and Béla Zsigmond. We use computer animation to build figurative video works and generative art exploring issues such as digital identity, surveillance culture and mass behaviour.
You three have worked together for over a decade. How do you collaborate to make creative decisions? How do you reconcile disagreements?
Smack operates like a three-headed monster. In the first stages of a new project, we work together on research, concept and design. After that, we divide the work depending on each project. After more than a decade, we know what to expect from each other. Of course, we sometimes disagree on creative decisions, but we try to never let our egos get in the way. We keep each other sharp – that’s the advantage of working in a team.
Your work is largely centred on how humans behave as a collective. Your previous pieces – Kapitaal, Transparency Suit and Branded Dreams – discuss the prevalence and inescapable nature of commercial brands. What inspired you to explore this idea?
There was a development in the 90s, where a small group of graphic designers didn’t need a client anymore to tell a story. Adbusters is a good example of that – a socially engaged magazine made by designers about graphic design. This opened a lot of new possibilities for us as graphic design students.
Our first subjects were graphic design, advertising and branding. We were especially interested in what happens behind the curtains. Our first works Kapitaal, Transparency Suit and Branded Dreams deal with this subject. When social media was introduced, advertising suddenly wasn’t just for corporations and governments anymore – it was also for individuals. People now could redesign themselves. That’s when we arrived in our second phase and that’s where we still are.
Smack Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Your other work, Speculum, is an animated screen that portrays our modern-day dystopia – a world that is image-obsessed, lonely and pervaded by technology. It’s interesting, almost ironic, that you use a technological medium to discuss issues of technology. Was that on purpose?
It wasn’t on purpose, but we are children of our own generation. We always use the latest technology to reflect contemporary culture.
Your latest project, Tribe for Colección Solo, is a three-part work that uses a variety of mediums for this project, including digital media and sculptures. How did you choose which mediums to use? Why did you decide to incorporate both digital and physical forms of art?
We are digital artists first, but we’re also digital sculptors. The sculptures that flow from our digital work are a way to bring our characters closer to the public. For example, with the King sculpture, people can see how they relate to the character by imagining themselves walking in the same landscape. Also, it’s just awesome to see your digital work take a physical form.
The first part, Tribe City, depicts characters walking around a landscape and worshipping a totem in the centre before panicking and running away. Each character is individually programmed – what does that process look like?
Most of the works in the Tribe Universe were built in a game engine, Unity. This program allows us to create landscapes that have characters interacting with the environment and each other in real time. Each character has a series of unique movements and is equipped with a set of basic pre-programmed rules: walk around the square and avoid other characters. Also, they behave according to a certain script, a simple timeline: enter the square, walk around aimlessly, circle the totem, worship the totem, panic and run away, come back and repeat.
The totem is an element that reoccurs in our work a lot. A totem in itself is an inanimate object. And has no meaning until the tribe superimposes it onto the totem. So, the tribe is the architect of their own belief – a church or a bank fulfils the same function as a totem in that sense.
Smack Metalmagazine 16.jpg
Watching these characters move around in circles and go nowhere reminds me of busy street crossings, where people are on their phones and don’t even notice anything around them. Why do you think people often move around aimlessly?
The characters in Tribe City have different motives. Some are aimlessly gallivanting, displaying their feathers and colourfully decorated bodies. Others are hiding in self-made shells, curled up like snails, in safety suits, capsules, self-driving animal vehicles and wearing protective armour. And all of them are screaming: Look at me! I’m unique!
We don’t know why people seem to move around aimlessly. Most people do have some sort of a goal in life, although from the outside it seems aimless. To us, this is such a fascinating phenomenon that we have been exploring it for years.
What can we do to be more present?
The second part of this project, Tribe War, depicts a battle between various groups of characters. Why do you think people fight others, especially those who are part of a different group?
War has been amongst us since the beginning of humankind. Classical depictions tend to be wars between countries or based on differences in politics and religion. For example, the first thing you’d think about is a prehistoric tribe or a civil war. However, there seems to be a new kind of war emerging online in which people are immersed in their subcultures and bubbles of truth.
Since we were looking for a classical theme that needed a modern interpretation, we started experimenting with this, and it ended up in a symbolic depiction of the essence of conflict. It works as an infinite machine like a Perpetuum mobile. Once you put it on, the disagreement starts, and it never stops. Everybody thinks their own little bubble tribe is the only truth there is. We are all part of some Tribe, whether we like it or not. People will always find something to fight about based on their version of the truth.
Smack Metalmagazine 2.jpg
The third part, Tribe Tower, is currently in progress. It will portray characters working repetitively and infinitely in an office block. To me, this seems to represent the idea of being a ‘corporate slave.’ What needs to be changed in order to free ourselves from this environment?
Your interpretation is quite interesting, and probably right from a certain point of view, but it wasn’t necessarily the starting point. Mostly, when we start a project there’s a hunch or a direction rather than where we want to go or an elaborated idea. Once we start exploring the subject and experimenting, it starts to demand where it wants to go. So there’s this ping-pong situation between the artist and the work.
We started with a shopping mall but ended up with a hybrid of the Tower of Babel and a panopticon, a perfectly designed prison where the inmates never want to leave. We didn’t necessarily get to this result because we intended to, but somehow these are the themes that always seem to slip into our work.
You’ve said that Tribe reflects the behaviour of people during the Covid-19 lockdown, when “people were living in their own safety bubbles.” Why is it detrimental to live like this?
I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily a bad thing to live an isolated or hermit-like life. For some people, this even is a conscious choice. However, what happened during the lockdown is that a lot of people seemed to be sucked into their own personal bubbles of truth. For us, this is quite inspirational since our work deals with the individual in the mass. So, some of the characters reflect how people were behaving during lockdown, but mostly it’s about the validity of the individual as opposed to the mass. This has been going on for quite some time. The Covid-19 lockdown has worked as a catalyst for this development.
People are social animals; they thrive by interaction (with some exceptions). Living in a safety bubble might seem like a good idea for a while but eventually, you need to get out there.
Finally, your work overall explores this ‘herd mentality’ exhibited by humans. Where do you think this behaviour stems from? Is it necessarily a bad thing?
No, as we mentioned earlier, people have always thrived by working together. Look at history – it’s a matter of survival, basic human nature. We never say that tribes are a bad thing, but some tribes are more productive than others.
In conclusion, we don’t claim to have answers to big life questions. Through our work, we try to reflect on reality in a symbolic way, and probably raise more questions. We’d like people to have an outer-ego experience and see how you, and we, behave – but without wanting to be pedantic of course!
Smack Metalmagazine 13.jpg
Smack Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Town Chicken People -TRIBE GOLDEN CIRCLE CHARACTERS, 2022. Video (3D Modeling).
Smack Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Big Head Guy -TRIBE GOLDEN CIRCLE CHARACTERS, 2022. Video (3D Modeling).
Smack Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Fat Tube Guy 2b -TRIBE GOLDEN CIRCLE CHARACTERS, 2022. Video (3D Modeling).
Smack Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Smack Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Smack Metalmagazine 9.jpg
GOLDEN TRIBE CHARACTERS, 2022. Video (3D Modeling).
Smack Metalmagazine 10.jpg
GOLDEN TRIBE CHARACTERS, 2022. Video (3D Modeling).
Smack Metalmagazine 11.jpg
GOLDEN TRIBE CHARACTERS, 2022. Video (3D Modeling).
Smack Metalmagazine 3.jpg