Natalie McIlroy in conversation with Bruno van den Elshout
Using a custom-built installation on the rooftop of hotel NH Atlantic in Kijkduin, Dutch artist Bruno van den Elshout captured photos of the North Sea horizon all throughout the year 2012. Once every hour - day and night - heading straight for open seas. Morimaru's curator, Natalie McIlroy was delighted to walk along the coastline with Bruno and get up on to the rooftop in question to hear more about this project.
So, today we are on our way to see the location of where your New Horizons project was created back in 2012. Could you, first of all, explain what the project consists of?
I constructed a camera machine that took photos of the horizon for one year, every hour of the year.
It was here on this spot on the Zuiderstrand (South Beach) of The Hague that the project was born. It was the middle of 2011 and I was wondering what 2012 was going to bring, what I was going to do and make. I had figured out that I wanted to visualise space and tranquillity and make that shareable somehow. I was wondering how could I do that? Then one day in July we were at the beach and my son (Lasse, then almost 2 years old) pointed at the horizon and said ‘Vliegtuig’ (aeroplane). It was not a clear horizon like it is today and he was actually pointing at a ship. It seemed suspended in the distance. And then I realized this was it - I've always been coming here to experience space and tranquillity. I was thinking, ‘So what am I going to do with that?’ The first thought was to cycle to the beach every day, take a photo, same time, same place. But that felt like a lot of work for not so much pleasure and with little to be really seen. Then I thought what if I do it once every hour. Then I will see things that I'm not used to seeing. Then the only question that remained was how to build a machine that was capable. The next day I wrote a one page project description and I sent it to myself by post with a date stamp on it.
Creating a machine capable of such a task must have been challenging, could you explain a little about the technical development of the project? Are you 'tech savvy?'
[laughs] No, not at all. I was thinking, with whom I could make this happen! And, of course, the first concern was just about where to put the camera and how to protect it from the weather. Coincidentally, I met a photographer, Roelof de Vries, through social media who was specialised in aerial photography, 360 degree photography and timelapse photography. We met in Rotterdam the next day and he liked the idea a lot.
So you had a collaborative partner for the project?
Yes, just like that! We started doing some research into software programs and boxes for cameras. We found something we liked in Denmark. A large box that was just big enough for the camera with a wiper, sprayer, heating..quite sophisticated! Then we had a computer put together from non-moving parts because if something moves for a year the chances of it breaking are pretty high. Then we, sort of, theoretically figured out how it would work. We spent the entire Christmas holiday on the rooftop of the NH Atlantic hotel, not finding out how it worked and eventually finding out how it worked [laughs].
At the beginning, the computer would just completely shut down every so often. We couldn't figure out what was wrong. Eventually we found out that the computer hadn't been put together correctly. There were two hardware components that couldn't deal with each other. That took us about a week to figure out because it was the last thing that we had expected. It looked like New Horizons was not going to start on time and it really had to start midnight 1st January. We couldn’t start this project on, for instance, the 3rd of January, and say, ‘yeah sorry, we were a bit late’! [laughs]. So all the focus was just on getting the photos to be taken successfully and this was at the expense of making sure they were sent to the website, resized, with their titles in ‘real’ time – that didn’t happen at the beginning. During the first few weeks we just collected images on the camera and we were already happy with that. But every day there was 25 new images to resize, to put on the website which was a lot of work. Fortunately the automation kicked in. We managed to assemble a lot of scripts that ended up collaborating and sending the images directly from the rooftop to the website.
Once it was off and running how often did you visit the camera?
Between once a week and once a month, not very often. Once the scripts were working everybody could see the images appear online. At the beginning, I would have to monitor. But later I would hear when something was wrong from somebody else. The image would be uploaded four and a half minutes after the full hour which left just enough time for the night photographs to be taken because they had four minutes shutter speed.
What I like about the project was that there was a performance, of sorts, occurring on this rooftop even in dark hours and even when there was no human presence. What was your relationship to the process and did that change over the course of the year?
Well, I enjoyed it at the beginning of the year, during the year (laughs) until the end of the year. That's it. I felt that it just had to happen. I don't have an academic approach to my practice. I mean, I feel like I’m doing what is meant to be done. It is a rhythm and, I think, that's the purpose of life.
Yes, well, life is rhythmical, the tides, the moon, the pattern of our day…
Yeah, it is. And I think we’ve got some work to do to keep it that way or to remake it that way. I think we're generally moving away from natural rhythms. That's why spending 24 hours at the horizon is such a revelation for people. It is high tide and low tide twice during 24 hours. That is not so easy to relate to anymore. But when you see it and when you're there, it is so obvious.
Oh, yes, tell us about the 24 hour Horizon Observation?
The 24 hour Horizon Observation is an opportunity and an invitation to watch the horizon for 24 hours. In silence. And see what happens.
We go to the beach and look for the place where the last high tide has reached. We make a line there and people sit next to each other, about arm’s length apart.
During the last couple of Observations, we were between 10 and 15 people sitting in a line. There are no instructions during those 24 hours. Everything's done in the preparation. Participants have thirteen pages of introduction given to them beforehand [laughs]. To start there is a welcoming. And that's also when we tell people what their position in the line is so they can check who's sitting to the left and right of them. And then, with all the chairs and stuff, we cross the dunes when the sun is setting so that it already converges people to the experience. It's such an uncommon thing to do so walking there with the equipment automatically makes you conscious of a lot more than you otherwise would be walking the same stretch. We walk to the place where we sit, people install their chairs themselves, we make a fire which is close to the dunes. People are allowed to chat around the fire so that they can be silent when they sit in the line. If it gets cold during the night, the fire is nice and it’s also nice start a fire when you begin the observation and close the fire when it's over. From sunset to sunset. Beforehand, we also ask people to join around the fire to have a ‘check-in,’ have dinner together and then we invite people to take their position in the line whenever they feel it is time. This ‘check-in’ also consists of setting intentions. We ask people to think of something they want to leave behind and something they want to take with them through these 24 hours. They can share what they want to share so that everybody knows, a little bit, from each other why they're doing this. It creates a shared field where everybody has their own positions yet at the same time it's a very individual experience. And even though we're all sitting in this line, it’s you and the horizon.
Photograph courtesy of Ehlana Polgara.
And do people feel accomplished, elated, when they complete the 24 hours?
I think the sense of accomplishment is not so much part of the experience. I think that happens when you get back in contact with the outside world. Because when you're in this experience everything is just the experience. The whole idea of accomplishment or achievement disappears.
I am interested in your role in all of this and how you see yourself. Do you identify yourself as an artist in this process? A facilitator? A coach?
Not as a coach. Definitely not [laughs]. It would definitely be artist but I think the more my practice starts to speak for itself, that I work and live as an artist, the less prominence my role has, as a part of this experience. I'm here like everybody else is here. With the difference that I am the initiator, the co organiser (I organised the last three editions together with Hanneke van der Werf who is a painter.) So, we organise it as artists and we prepare it as artists but the ‘art’ is more in the preparation and what happens during the 24 hours is just…flow. There's not much you can do, because anything would be an intervention from the flow. And there is no wrong. There’s just this framework of; we meet here, we go there and we sit in this way. And then there's space and joy. And then we close the space again.
How are these observations documented, if at all?
I used to write travel reports because it felt like traveling through 24 hours. And I also liked explaining to people why it was worthwhile in the first place. I don't do it anymore. Or maybe I will do it again. I don't know.
The people who join tend to be people who want to make something and want to do something with the experience, want to write about it, want to share about it. There is no need for me to ask them to respond because they'll do what they want in the way they want to. And people do all sorts of things and everything is a bonus. It comes from abundance rather than compensation of value.
Accumulating 8785 horizon photographs has its challenges both in terms of physical data storage but also in the dissemination. The New Horizons book seems like the perfect, and perhaps only way to do justice to the project. Can you talk a little about the selection process that you went through for the book?
Yes curating the images for the book would be a whole new project again! I needed to figure out why and how, what will be the underlying narrative? I didn't know. And that's when the first 24 hour Horizon Observation appeared. Because that would be the perfect way to find out how people would experience the horizon if they were exposed to it for a longer period of time. I myself had only experienced this through photographs. The first horizon observation was on the 10th of April 2013 and when I started preparing for it, I realised how much of an adventure it was going to be. It was like going somewhere totally new. So, I tried to integrate adventure into the book. I wrote little paragraphs about what I experienced during different phases of the Observations. And then, with the designer Rob van Hoesel, we made the first composition of larger horizons, smaller horizons, many horizons, in order to give it rhythm and melody. And it started to work…
The New Horizons book is available at:
Sign up for the next 24hr Horizon
Observation - Sun 31 May - Mon 1 June 2020
Pentecost, international edition
Sign up to hear about future Observations