Kikk Festival: beauty, context, machine learning & some crazy inspirational talks


1 / Why beauty matters

Stefan Sagmeister (website/twitter) talked about “Why beauty matters”. He started off by looking at architectural examples. Medieval castles had a purpose: defend their inhabitants. But still: they were beautiful! Since in 1910 Adolf Loos argumented that wasting your time on ornaments is a crime, the focus has shifted to functional-only buildings.

(Probably vacant) soviet apartments

This has resulted in mass produced soviet apartments, of which many have already been taken down (less than 100 years later), because no one wants to live in them.

in the 19th century, beauty was still as highly appreciated as truth and goodness. But after World War I, where many artists fought as soldiers, the art world also removed aesthetics from art. A period started in which Marcel Duchamps presented a mass-produced urinal as art, and Warhol and Liechtenstein started projecting soup cans and comics into art.

So what is the problem? And why does beauty matter?

According to Sagmeister, people have been making beautiful things for a long time. The half-apes that made their hand axes had no functional reason to make them symmetrical (and thus beautiful), but they did so anyway. Probably to impress the girls 😏

He also argued that we all (somewhat) agree on what is beautiful. Psychologist Chris McManus has experimented with altered Mondriaan paintings, to see whether people could separate the real Mondriaans from the fake ones. And they did!

Can you tell which one is the real Mondriaan?

An example of how beauty changes our mindset, was found by the New England Complex Systems Institute. They compared Twitter messages sent from two different train stations. And they found more positive messages being sent from a beautiful train station, while significantly more negative messages were sent from an ugly one.

Even more significantly, this ‘sense of beauty’ remains, even with people who have Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that people can still consistently order paintings in the same order of beauty week after week. Even when they can’t remember their children’s names…

So what does this mean for us? Since it does not seem so subjective after all, we should be able to talk about beauty to our clients, and not avoid the topic “because everyone has different taste”. Stefan also wants us to put more care into the digital objects we create because they have a stunning impact on the business. The Design Management Institute (Boston) analyzed the S&P 500 and found that companies most committed to beauty had 224% better stock performance. As a final note, he argued that most often the issue is not that someone purposely wanted the product to be ugly, they just did not care enough to make it beautiful.

2 / What you can do with machine learning

Gene Kogan (Website/Twitter) gave a very interesting talk about machine learning, and adversarial nets. He gave examples of how a computer (Deep Generator Network) can “hallucinate” and generate new images from millions of images. So if you show it a large number of boat house pictures, it will be able to create a new image of a boat house based on what it has learned a boat house should look like. Every generated image is different, because it learns when you overlay a new image.

Different generated boat houses

He showed how you can transfer a style from one painting onto another one, or even onto a video. He showed a Mona Lisa in Van Gogh style, but also a Google Maps version!

Style transfer on images and video

He also showed how the Densecap algorithm can be used to caption what is shown in an image. When applying it to the Mona Lisa, it identified the painting as “a woman with a smile” and in the background it found “small tree in water”. But of course it still makes mistakes, as it also identified it as “a person is holding a camera”.

The Mona Lisa captioned by Densecap

Of course there are many more applications for this kind of machine learning. Gene made a website full of demos and guides for artists (or anyone that wants to learn more about machine learning): And of course you can also check his Kikk talk video on Vimeo.

3 / How to do business in a fun way

Thomas & Thomas from WILD agency (Wild Agency, @madebywild) talked about their struggles when building a company. They offered a few interesting tips:

  • While software like Slack is an essential communication tool in the office, messages are destined to be read incorrectly. So in order to avoid misunderstandings, it is still the most powerful to just talk in person.
Wild Agency and their lessons learned
  • When you build a team, favor personality over skill: Someone has to fit into the team, the rest will follow. If someone has all the right skills, but a personality that doesn’t match the rest of the team: don’t hire them!
  • If you do cool things, the right people will come to you. If you work on projects that you don’t like, more people will come and ask you to do work that you don’t like. So pick your projects carefully.
  • As a company, you are what you do. So this should help you in deciding whether you should take the money. Don’t accept a project if it makes your employees feel less motivated.
  • Have a good contract. A good contract is one you don’t notice, because every situation that might occur is covered beforehand. You can focus on the right things, and have less stress about legal stuff.

4 / Why Context matters

Pablo Garcia (website/twitter) gave a wonderful talk “Context is the Only Medium That Matters”. He started off by showing his Webcam Venus project, in which sex cams were juxtaposed with classic art. He asked webcam performers to pose just like the models in classical paintings, and then put the images side by side. The question is: When do you have to blur the image? Pablo’s answer: This is decided by the context.

Pablo Garcia and his Webcam Venus project

Though I’m not sure what to do with that information, he gave a few nice examples. Like even the words we pick are dependent on the context, depending on who we are talking to (our friends or our boss).

The same porcelain sunflower seeds as used in Ai Weiwei’s artwork, only cheaper

Or like the porcelain sunflower seeds that Ai Weiwei commissioned for his artwork. The factory continued to produce them and they are now sold on ebay for a few dollars. They are exactly the same porcelain seeds, made by the same factory workers, but the context is not longer that of an artwork.

If you would like to see more, check the video on Vimeo.


1 / If you want to be a goat, be a goat

In the category “Not sure what to think of this, but WOW”, there was Thomas Thwaites. He started off with a quote from the book Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams: “Left to his own device, he couldn’t build a toaster. He would just about make a sandwich and that was it.” And there is a lot of truth in that. Suppose that you were stranded on an island (or planet) with a less-developed civilization. All by yourself, you can’t teach them how to build all the technology we have now.

So Thomas decided to buy a toaster and disassemble it, to see how it works. And then he tried to build a toaster himself from scratch, to prove to himself (and the world) that at least building a toaster would be possible.

Thomas Thwaites and the insides of a toaster, neatly arranged

In another one of his projects he wanted to be an animal, since animals are happy because they don’t know any better. They lack the existential angst for being human. So he decided to become a goat for a few days. He visited a professor of goat psychology (it exists!) to know what goats think. He dissected a goat and made prosthetic legs and an artificial stomach to digest grass. And then he ran around in the fields with other goats for a few days. Crazy.

Thomas as a goat, roaming the green fields of Switzerland with his goat-friends.

If you want to see more, check his video on Vimeo.

2 / No pain, no game

In the category Crazy Germans, the artistic duo Volker & Tilman //////////Fur//// showed us their interactive installations. One of them was the PainStation, where you play Pong. Instead of losing points, you get physical punishments (whip, heat, electric shocks). And you only lose by taking away your hand. People enjoyed it so much they didn’t stop playing, even when they were bleeding 😮

A museum visitor getting whipped by the PainStation

They also built Facebox, what they called: “The Smallest Social Network”. There you could be connected to one person, face-to-face.

Two people connecting through Facebox, the smallest social network

If you want to see more of their crazy stuff, check out their full talk Video on Vimeo

3 / Science can be beautiful

And to finish this list, something not so crazy, just beautiful. Fabian Oefner showed us The Art of Science. He zooms in on scientific phenomena, like the evaporation of petrol, or a soap bubble explosion. His artwork looks rendered, but it is actually a real close-up photo. He wanted to show the beauty all around us, and he succeeded!

Fabian Oefner and his images of evaporating petrol (above) and bismuth in close-up (below).

If you liked the pictures, make sure you watch the full video on Vimeo to see more of his work!

These were my personal highlights, but next time you should just go to Namur and see for yourself! 😏