At first glance, engineering and art do not seem like a dream match. How did this pairing come about?
Valentin Spiess: That was a given in my case: I’m a qualified electrical engineer and my brother is an artist. I already helped out in artist circles early on when technical problems had to be solved. That’s how I got into the video art scene. In 1988, a cooperative called Via was formed from the first class to graduate from the audiovisual course at the School of Design with people who are household names today, such as Pipilotti Rist. As a teenager I was soon engaged as a technical assistant to these artists. When it was a question of puzzling out how to control a video recorder using an iron, for example, then the query usually landed with me. In 2001, I then set up my own business and opened an engineering office for art and technology –iart.
And you could live from that?
Some of the artists I worked with were very successful and were awarded some major art-in building projects. I was commissioned to act as the interface between builders, contractors, architects and artists. On the one hand, I had to understand the visions of the artist and, on the other, it was my task to provide guidance when it came to the reality and feasibility of these visions. It is precisely this that still drives me today. In the projects that we pursue today, art and technology can generally no longer be separated. While half of our 45 employees are engineers, they work very closely with game designers, visual designers and interaction designers.
iart has managed to break through internationally in this niche. What was the catalyst?
Expo02 at the time certainly provided a kind of initial spark. This national exhibition brought us major projects at home and consequently a large contract for the Mercedes Benz museum.
How would you describe the market niche of iart in a nutshell?
Our work always has both a digital/media aspect and a spatial aspect to it. We don’t do purely digital projects, such as websites for example. What interests us is the materialization and bringing together of the digital and physical aspects, for example through sensor technology and human machine interfaces.
You now want to fire up the next stage with Fluxdock. What’s thinking behind it?
iart has the necessary size and established methods. Now we can open up. We want to approach projects so that there is a certain symmetry between the companies and not simply the classical principal/agent relationship. So we are aiming for genuine collaboration. A lot of companies – especially also SMEs – have a great deal of untapped innovation potential. This lies fallow, because it is not exploited in the companies’ primary business areas. It is precisely here that Fluxdock offers itself to come up with new ideas and pursue them further in collaboration. We are convinced there are a great many specialist companies, especially in Switzerland, whose know-how is still far from exhausted. We are aiming to release this potential with Fluxdock.
What companies are you thinking of specifically and how exactly does Fluxdock work?
It could be the cabinetmaker who wants to have something worked into his furniture, or companies in the watchmaking or textile sectors. Either companies approach Fluxdock with a question and are looking for an interdisciplinary team to come up with an answer. Or they have a concrete idea, for which they need technological input from the Fluxdock network to implement it. For this either a cross-company project team is formed in Fluxdock or a specific exchange of ideas is organized. The crucial objective is to break down barriers and, in a spirit of collaboration, bring ideas that show a high level of innovation to project maturity within a timeframe of one or two weeks. This is especially attractive for SMEs that cannot afford an innovation department. But large companies, too, can benefit from our agile approach and thus drive innovations forward much quicker.
And what does Fluxdock look like in concrete terms?
Fluxdock will provide around 80 jobs for different companies, including iart. At the same time, we will offer an infrastructure on an area of similar size that will be open to very flexible use and permit the exchange of ideas at different levels. For example, companies can rent space in an inspiring setting even for just a few weeks. We firmly believe that the working environment has a crucial influence on the result. Informal spontaneity is important for us. We want to inspire as many people as possible to visit Fluxdock and develop an interest in our ideas. We will also hold lectures and workshops and create a space where people can meet, talk shop, experiment and ultimately collaborate.
What technologies do you currently have on the radar?
iart is currently working intensively on adaptive systems – in the context of a museum. It’s like walking around an exhibition with my best friend, who draws my attention to specific topics or works, because he understands me inside out and knows what interests me. Research shows that people who knew very little before visiting an exhibition also know very little after leaving the exhibition. But if you have some prior knowledge and are then introduced to the topics, you come out of the exhibition with much more knowledge and satisfaction. I think that, if our cultural and educational institutions do not want to lose their interpretational sovereignty to Google and co., then they will have to address the issue of artificial intelligence sooner or later.
Another important area is the link between materials and digital technology. Smart materials are really fascinating and will bring about stark changes in our future architectural surroundings. Printed electronics are also an issue in this context.
Also on the radar is virtual reality, especially with regard to real-time simulations of spaces. This technology will radically revolutionize architecture. It will be possible to plan and test buildings in 3D in real time, before they are built. So in our context virtual reality is above all a tool. The kind of VR goggles that are on the market today are therefore rather uninteresting for our purposes. They shut people off, whereas it is precisely meetings between people that we are seeking to establish in and with spaces.
How do you see Basel as a location for companies like iart or Fluxdock?
The cost structure in Basel compels us to keep innovating and maintain a clear focus. On the other hand, it is an attractive for employees: we have no problem attractive people to Basel to work with us. In fact, they very much appreciate it here. Many of the people we have recently hired are also returnees from London or Berlin who are in a new phase in their life. I think any company that is out for quick, short-term success will tend to have a problem in Basel. To work here and be successful, you need a certain sustainability and a clear USP in the market. Fluxdock will enable the innovative SME in the region to make the most if its entire innovation potential in collaboration. It is precisely here that the digital and creative industry can also make a key contribution. To my mind, this is still underestimated in the whole debate around innovation, especially in Basel.
Valentin Spiess, a qualified electrical engineer, has been working in the field of new media since 1993. At first he created media installations in cooperation with artists and was the technical manager for various festivals and theatrical productions.
In 2001 he set up the company iart as an engineering office for the planning and realization of media projects. In the same year he and a small interdisciplinary team realized the media for the Museum of Communication in Berne and then created the media effects for the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart. iart's activities encompassed hardware and software development and the conception, planning and realization of media.
Today Valentin Spiess heads a team of over 40 people specializing in the conception, planning and execution of media solutions for exhibitions, museums, architectural projects and outdoor spaces, as well as consulting in the planning of operations.