Stan Portus is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in C Magazine, Ossian Magazine, Photomonitor, Emotional Art Magazine, Design Exchange Magazine, Review 31 and others.

Informally hardcore and critical: Juha van ’t Zelfde, Lighthouse and Brighton


“I have vertigo.” Juha van ‘t Zelfde tells me when I ask about his first exhibition, Dread. “Trying to understand what my vertigo was about I came across this book by Søren Kierkegaard called The Concept of Dread, and suddenly it opened up this whole world.”

In The Concept of Dread Kierkegaard contends that imagining the possibilities of what might happen is heavier than accepting reality. If one comes to accept what happens and what can become fact, then the burden of dread becomes lighter.

Van ‘t Zelfde echoes Kierkegaard when I speak to him, “If you just focus on the destination, that’s the thing that might happen or not happen. But you should just undergo it, and then you’ll be able to cope.” Accepting vertigo is in this light the same for van ‘t Zelfde as facing the subjects that Dread confronted: drone warfare, global communication, the Internet, and the war on terror post- 9/11, to name a few. In fact it was coming to understand his vertigo that formulated his approach to these subjects that weigh heavy in people’s psyche.

But he is also quick to comment that he is still refining his position. This might appear problematic. Surely we expect or want the conceptual framework for an exhibition, the basis from which the exhibition grows, to be firmly established? Van ‘t Zelfde doesn’t see this as so much of an issue. For him, there is a sense of being in the moment, exploring and coming to terms with something in the process. Dread was the first time van ‘t Zelfde worked creatively with Metahaven, and he explains that they helped him forget about the conceptual elements of dread, and simply embody the experience. Yet this is not to neglect, or to bury one’s head.

I ask whether he feels that the sense of dread surrounding terror has become normal, and in effect lighter, less pressing, now we are 15 years from 2001. Tighter airport security or interrogation based on name prejudice may just seem commonplace, however wrong or problematic. It may just be noise surrounding calculative action.

He tells me a story that China Miéville, academic, author, and Dread collaborator, told him about a cow being lifted into the air. “It just screams and screams. But when it’s twenty meters high it stops screaming and becomes placid. That’s when it doesn’t relate anymore to the height and the ground, and it doesn’t feel dread anymore. Maybe at some point, for whatever reason, we lose our sense of dread. Because of ignorance, stupidity, or complexity, or whatever reason there is. You can tune your dread or detune your dread.” Dread was this process of tuning. Spinning the dials of a radio can help you make sense of the noise.

“It’s a funny project because it’s got three identities, three shapes. One of them is an exhibition in the form of an installation - a multiscreen forest that premiered in San Francisco in December. Then there’s the linear feature film, which premiered at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. We immediately got nominated for a prize: The Bright Future Award, for best feature debut. And then the third version - the third identity of the project - is the online one, which will be a sprawl, or archipelago of short videos that we call shards. They will engage with other videos through the YouTube algorithm. So imagine cutting up the entire film into 50 or 100 different scenes, or shards, or bits and see how the YouTube algorithm organises that in the rest of the collection. You’ll see something about the St Petersburg troll farm that Putin operates to respond to Western news, and that will come next to someone who’s done other investigative journalism about that, or some pro-Russian propaganda video, or some crazy conspiracy theory website. It will go from live leak to YouTube to wherever. That’s the original work - the YouTube shard version.”

Juha van ‘t Zelfde is talking about The Sprawl, a collaborative project between Lighthouse and Metahaven. Like how he describes himself as a “minimal viable curator”, he describes The Sprawl as a “minimal viable feature film”. Its identity is not fixed, and the work will shift between cinema screen, gallery and Internet. New content may also be added meaning The Sprawl changes and morphs, but van ‘t Zelfde insists that this is how it should be in 2016. “It doesn’t have to be finished. It can just be a zone you tap into, or something you unlock and leave behind again.”

In cutting up the film and letting it permeate YouTube, surfacing between other videos and content, The Sprawl becomes viable through the media and interfaces it aims to reflect. The fact the content may change and mutate also becomes a mirror and commentary on how people experience media online, and how knowledge is formed through browsing, clicking and flicking between source after source.

Van ‘t Zelfde explains that this presentation of media acts as a commentary on propaganda. It makes us ask questions about how media influences decisions to vote, how we learn and how we receive news. The film also highlights how the algorithms of websites such as YouTube script reality: certain information becomes viral and commonplace through watch time, quality, hits and relevance.

In the pub we watch a short clip from the film. Metahaven’s graphics run across the screen, and boxes appear in the bottom corner like links to other videos. We are watching a road unravel from the perspective of a car bumper, but the road has been flipped over so the sky fills the lower half of the screen. Black M&Ms begin to rain down filling the screen. On one side they have the IS logo.

The Sprawl is in some respects a continuation of Metahaven’s book Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?. It acts as commentary on how the Internet and social media can be platforms for political activism; whether that is the activism of WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring or terrorist groups. But in a sense the intention of the feature film is to act as a reveal or provocation itself. Van ‘t Zelfde describes it to be like the opening sequence of a James Bond film: “It’s action, action, action. And you’re thinking, wow what the hell’s happening here? But just before the plot kicks in the film ends.” Stepping out of the cinema van ‘t Zelfde says you realise you’re stepping into the film. “Our multiple realities are the plot”.

Before going to Lighthouse, a cultural agency that focuses on art, technology and society, we wondered through Brighton’s pedestrian streets. I lived in Brighton for four years, but my friend Gianmarco had never been. He commented on how everyone seemed to walk slower. Seeing people saunter and drift out of your way makes a change from the leaning forward pace of London, where it feels people are more often than not viewing you as an obstacle, and you are doing the same to them. The air is different too. Standing on the beach you feel refreshed; the wind cures you of something, and the sound of pebbles in the surf soothes.

Brighton’s fame grew in the 1700s, when its sea was said to have medicinal qualities, and it received the royal patronage of the Prince Regent. Alongside health benefits, the Prince Regent’s pleasure in the fishing village transformed Brighton into what it is today: a place of exuberance, eccentricity and mañana, mañana.

I studied in Brighton, and in 2014 I was trying to formulate some plan after university. Trying to escape the trap of endless hospitality work, I started volunteering at Lighthouse as a gallery assistant. This is where I first met Juha van ‘t Zelfde. He had recently become Lighthouse’s artistic director, the position he still holds.

When interviewed by the Guardian that year, he commented on how Brighton felt like the suburb of a city, placed on the coast; a lovely place, with elements of San Francisco’s tech culture, London’s centre-of-the-universe feel and “a Nordic-European laid-back friendliness”. But I’m aware that he too feels the frustration many of the fresh graduates feel. Despite its charm and village intimacy, Brighton can often feel like it lacks the opportunities and spaces you expect such a hub of creativity to offer. Many people find themselves trapped by the service work Brighton thrives on.

“Brighton is amazing and very special,” he tells me, “but definitely has some issues with space and place for experiencing new art. Whether it’s contemporary art, or music, or cinema. It has its galleries and cinemas but it’s not like there’s a destination where you can go and tap into what’s happening, like you have with the ICA or the Palais de Tokyo. With the size of Brighton there should be one. There isn’t that much going on. If you see Janus travelling the world, or Rush Hour even, they don’t stop by Brighton, even though they should. We have enough people that are into that.”

Having spent a year in Brighton after graduating, working with little aim, I decided to move away. Not long before, me and two other friends bumped into Juha coming out of a café. He asked us what our plans were for the near future, and seemed disappointed to hear that we were all moving to London. We said we couldn’t find the jobs or courses we wanted in Brighton so we had to go. We wanted our side of the bargain: the opportunities Higher Education and debt had promised us. Away from aspirations we also struggled to find the music, the club culture or the art that we wanted to see. For some reason it seldom came to where we lived.

Yet what Juha probably doesn’t know is that for the final year we spent in Brighton, which was the first year he spent directing Lighthouse, he was one source of medicine for Brighton’s fatigue. Under his influence Lighthouse transformed into a space where people came to talk and share their ideas. Metahaven came, Lotic came, TCF came, Holly Herndon came. But it wasn’t enough for us, and it still isn’t enough for Juha either.

For him, Brighton’s combination of history, political energy, and its proximity to London is the perfect storm for greater engagement with the arts, and for a space to facilitate this. Although he sees Lighthouse in its present form functioning in a different way, he’s committed to realising this vision of a new space for the arts:

“Lighthouse is really a production facility. We’re almost a server of the Internet. The Internet being this international cloud of cultural institutions. We’re like a node for The Sprawl or other work. But we believe, and have the ambition, to be that Internet ourselves.”

He wants the gallery, the club, the space that will entice the performers, thinkers, artists and makers that might otherwise pass Brighton by. Even if someone else lifts the mantle he wants to offer his support in making it happen. He has achieved this to a degree with his work at Lighthouse. However, the perfect storm might require the perfect algorithm – which is still some way off.

Progress Bar launched last year. Van ‘t Zelfde compares it to the extras on a DVD, where you get to here the director or producer talk you through the ins and outs you wouldn’t necessarily understand from seeing the film itself. However, with Progress Bar it isn’t just film you may gain a better understanding of: Musicians, artists, designers, writers, journalists, economists and activists come and share their ideas and work.

Progress Bar came about because van ‘t Zeldfe found himself struggling to get people to join him for a drink, or go to Lighthouse’s monthly talks when he first came to Brighton.

“The talks needed to be repositioned. So I asked people, ‘Would you come to them if I buy you a beer?’ They said yes. So I asked them, ‘If we have a bar night at Lighthouse will you come?’ And they said yes to that. It’s about creating the right algorithm for a good group of people to have fun.”

Providing food and drinks was van ‘t Zelfde’s tactic for getting people to come along to the talks. The combination of burgers and loud music in a gallery also combats the formality he sees surrounding a lot of the art world, which often runs the risk of becoming stuffy and dry with its own secluding language.

The desire to create a relaxed and informal space van ‘t Zelfde credits to his time spent DJing. He says he always thought about DJing growing up. From selecting tracks for school parties when he was 10 to owning decks when he was 15, his life was music. “I would only listen to music, and buy music, and compile tapes. After clubbing we would go to my place and I would play music to my friends. Super low volume, but I would play straight up Jungle at three in the morning.”

It took him until he was 21 to realise that music was his passion and talent, and that it should be the path he followed, as opposed to the “grown up illusions about having a job” that made him study economics at university. For him, DJing is about creating an experience for others that is intuitive, fun and responsive. But he believes taking these ideas into the gallery also creates another effect: it means people who would otherwise turn away from going to an art talk will come.

“I want to be informal about things in order to be as hardcore and critical as possible about what I think is important. Is the art or the environment difficult? If the environment’s easy then the art can be difficult, because people feel at ease.”

Van ‘t Zelfde sees people being at ease as an opening for them to think about things, learn about something unexpected they would otherwise look over, or not see at all. But this he argues is how art, and art institutions should work, especially in times of difficulty.

“Today you need a comforting friend, or a resource you can access that helps you forget dread, or to make you feel alive, or to help you regain confidence, or meet new people. You need a conduit for everything: an access to life. That is culture, that is art. The world is difficult - and it always has been - but we’re suffering from austerity; the hollowing out of our terrible neoliberal system; we’re confused by geopolitical movements like the EU and the Euro, or IS, or the war in Syria, or the Refugee crisis. You can go on and on and on. Losing jobs not just to people visiting your country or younger people, but to un-people, to robots. How are you to deal with that? How are you supposed to cope?”

Van ‘t Zeldfe believes the best thing cultural institutions like Lighthouse can be is social, and to help form communities of people, regardless of whether those people first met because they were like minded or not.

He spends half his time in the Netherlands, travelling back and forward between Brighton and Amsterdam on the train. Recently Progress Bar travelled with him, and it will return to Amsterdam several times over the next months. One account for why Progress Bar has temporarily left Brighton is the fact Lighthouse has not found a suitable club space in Brighton for the event, meaning it can’t develop in the way van ‘t Zelfde envisions it. So when Sonic Acts approached him asking if he wanted to do an event he suggested that they should do Progress Bar. He also explains that by moving an event from country to country you build its appeal, its outreach and its network. It also marks a return to his life prior to Lighthouse, when he worked at Trouw running arts events in the basement.

“Scenes grow and develop around clubs. Look at Berghain or Café Oto. Clubs are like the informal galleries of a city. I got my experience in clubs, getting to see light artists and graphic designers, and audiences. Now I’m a director of an arts organisation, but my reference and education is clubs. It still is, that’s why I still DJ and still make an effort to stay involved, because it’s so rich.”

He tells me that Dread was the first time he was called, and the last time he used, the title ‘curator’. Maybe MC is better. But that, still, would be to ground.