Artist Rafaël Rozendaal made a selection of screensavers for the exhibition Sleep Mode. These anonymous digital works were very popular in the 1980s and 1990s. They emerged as a solution to a problem, evolved into a space for experimentation, then disappeared from our digital lives without a sound. Rozendaal, whose body of work exists largely on the internet, talks about his fascination for the screensaver.
How did you become interested in screensavers?
Rafaël Rozendaal: At art school I discovered the internet, which can be both a medium and a podium. I could do my own thing there, exploring the possibilities of the computer, finding out what you can do with the computer that you cannot do with other media. Technically speaking, you can create generative images, which are programmed to change constantly. You create a moving digital image by compiling a list of instructions that the computer follows. Put very simply: you create a sort of fountain that gushes water all the time, but never repeats itself exactly. The drops of water fall slightly differently every time. That is how I think of generative images, and that is also the link with screensavers.
How did the screensaver come about?
The very first screensaver arose out of a search for a solution to a practical problem. The earliest computers were often left running all night, and the numbers and letters burned into the CRT monitors that were common back then. So a programmer wrote a small programme that made the screen go black if the computer was not used for a few minutes. The programme was dubbed a ‘screensaver’. Programmers later realised that you could do more interesting things than create a black screen. That is when the screensaver changed from a purely functional programme into a space for play.
What were your criteria in selecting screensavers?
What fascinates me is that so many people saw screensavers on a daily basis, without really looking at them carefully. I found it interesting that the images could lodge themselves subconsciously in our brains. It was a matter of recognising something you were never fully conscious of. You never wondered where it came from or who made it, or what their intention was. That is why I didn’t search for obscure examples, but stuck to familiar screensavers.
For me the idea of staring is very important. When you are tired and just gazing blankly at what is in front of you. Most of the things we do on the computer are done with a purpose in mind, but screensavers relate to a very different part of your brain. That is why I like the title Sleep Mode. Most art is best experienced by just looking at it without thinking too much.
Most screensavers existed for just a brief period, with new versions installed with every software update. Was it difficult to find them all?
No, that was quite easy. My theory is that software continues to exist as long as people think it is interesting. Enthusiasts preserved various versions of the screensavers. You can download them from the internet. What is more, the creators are still alive, so I was able to interview them. Perhaps it will be more difficult a hundred years from now, but by then this exhibition might provide a point of reference. Screensavers are an interesting phenomena. That is why they survive.
As an artist, do you sense some kinship with the screensaver creators?
I feel very closely related to them. I came across many screensavers I was not familiar with, and they contained lots of ideas that I have explored in my own work. For instance, in terms of the way you indicate movement. You actually do not require many elements to suggest a lot of movement. A good example is Starfield, the screensaver in which tiny white dots move, making you think you are looking at a starry sky. The effect is created by about a hundred moving pixels, in a grid of half a million pixels. Just these few elements are enough to give the viewer the illusion of movement.
You often start with a grand idea, which you then have to reduce to the essence because so many things turn out to be impossible. That process interests me. Just as with film and photography, where you look at a scene through a lens and make choices about framing and composition. You start out with nothing and use code to construct an image on the computer made up of a limited number of pixels.
What exactly is the difference between an animation and a generative image?
An animation is composed of twenty-five to thirty frames per second. If you look at these images in quick succession, they suggest the movement of a short film. A film always contains images arranged in the same sequence, while a generative image is recomposed again and again by the computer, and so appears in infinite variations. Each image differs from the others, which is why it cannot burn into the screen, and that is the reason for the very existence of the screensaver.
How are the screensavers presented in the exhibition?
On a computer you can only look at screensavers one after another. In the exhibition, however, I can arrange them side by side. The screensavers are shown on huge screens, taller than a person. Presented like this, they create a totally new experience. Visitors move through the history of screensavers, almost disappearing into them. The result is a more interactive way of looking.
Interview: Lotte Haagsma