In Profile: Pia van Gelder

Gail Priest

Tetra Synth, 2013, Pia van Gelder & Stephen Jones

Tetra Synth, 2013, Pia van Gelder & Stephen Jones

Tetra Synth, 2013, Pia van Gelder & Stephen Jones

Pia van Gelder is the “Overlord”of the Sydney chapter of Dorkbot, a loose international network of “people doing strange things with electricity.” She is also incredibly active as a curator (co-director of the Moduluxx festival and the now-ended Serial Space), an educator and artist.

Van Gelder’s practice involves performance and installation works utilising what she describes as “media machines” which she hacks and reconfigures. She says “hacking or tinkering is a way to look for a new aesthetic…to explore or reveal the machine’s intrinsic visual or audio language, sometimes arriving at surprising results. But mostly I’m looking at how a machine can have its own form of expression [either through an] electronic aesthetic or the machine’s connection to the outside world and the people around it.” In her artist statement van Gelder talks of the pursuit of an “AV mysticism.”

Heirloom machines

Van Gelder is particularly interested in older technologies, which she refers to as heirloom machines. “This is a term Joyce Hinterding and I came up with when I was doing my masters. There are machines, like the video synthesiser for instance, that are historic and rare…a prize possession.” There’s an interestingly female flavour to the term—a small reclamation of machines from an assumed male custodianship.

Van Gelder has recently collaborated with Stephen Jones to recreate one of these machines. Based on Jones’ original 1996 designs for a video synthesiser, they have recreated the Tetrasynth. It’s a pyramidal object with one colour from the video spectrum—red/green/blue—assigned to each side. It allows users to play, manipulating the colours via generators and filters to create abstract video images. The work was commissioned by Campbelltown Art Centre for their exhibition Catching Light, part of ISEA 2013 (see realtimeTV and review).

Mountain Operated Synthesiser (MOS), 2013,  Mt Mehrapi, Pia van Gelder, Michael Candy, Andreas Siagian

Mountain Operated Synthesiser (MOS), 2013, Mt Mehrapi, Pia van Gelder, Michael Candy, Andreas Siagian

Mountain Operated Synthesiser (MOS), 2013, Mt Mehrapi, Pia van Gelder, Michael Candy, Andreas Siagian


While the term ‘geek’ offers the impression of lonely souls working in isolation, only communicating virtually, the contemporary use of the term ‘hacker’ infers a shift beyond software to actual object modification and is strongly associated with the idea of real-world communities. Hacker spaces are popping up all around the world where people come to share tinkering tips, tools and resources. Before this year, Van Gelder had not participated in many collaborative art processes (curating aside), but now she’s making up for this.

As well as the Tetrasynth project, she has also recently taken part in the Instrument Builders Project in which Australian and Indonesian artists came together at iCAN in Yogyakarta (see review). Van Gelder teamed up with Brisbane-based artist Michael Candy and Indonesian artist Andreas Siagian to create the Mountain Operated Synthesiser. Inspired by a solar-powered seismic monitoring station half way up Mt Mehrapi, an active volcano 28 kilometres north of Yogyakarta, the trio have created an instrument that is played by the mountain. It comprises three flags dug into the ground, each holding three oscillators. The flags have analogue senses sewn on or built into them, capturing wind and moisture levels and soil activity. This data then activates the oscillators creating a raucous sonification of the mountain’s conditions. It doesn’t sound very pretty but it’s a wonderfully integrated concept.

Gender issues

Hacking is an area of practice notoriously dominated by males and I asked Van Gelder how this affects her practice. “The Instrument Builders Project was a very good example—there were no other female practitioners on that bill of artists. (There was, of course, Kristi [Monfries] who was one of the curators.) And it came up in discussion from time to time. You have to recognise that imbalance and talk about it, but you also can’t let it get to you, even though it can feel quite isolating…If we don’t recognise that it’s a male dominated field then it becomes even more unappealing [for women]. But if you make a point of making space, making women feel recognised and comfortable, that’s a way of moving past it, just a little bit.”

What’s next

Van Gelder has already achieved a lot this year, but there’s still more to come. She’s one of five artists who have been commissioned to make works for the Tele-Visions festival celebrating the passing of analogue TV (part of Performance Space’s 30th birthday celebrations). For Tele-Visions Van Gelder will perform a series of experiments for live television broadcast involving participation from the audience in the studio. “It’s kind of like a cross between a global groove and a science show.” If only the Curiosity Show was still around today—Pia van Gelder would make the perfect host(ess)!

COMING UP: Pia van Gelder (represented by First Draft) will exhibiting at the inaugural Sydney Contemporary, Carriageworks, Sydney; 20-22 September 2013 ; http://piavangelder.com/

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

18 September 2013