"Werk Constant Nieuwenhuys door nieuwe bril bekeken" an account of Enter New Babylon for the website Utrecht Centraal

Enter New Babylon is a VR installation in which young writers and designers reflect on Constant’s work. From September 29 to October 15 at IMPAKT (Centre for Media Culture]. The Fondation Constant produced this ‘mixed reality’ installation in collaboration with Over Het IJ Productions, Feikes Huis, Poetry Circle and the HKU, which can now be seen in The IMPAKT [Center for media culture]. — by Valentijn Arends for Utrecht Centraal.

Read the article in Dutch and listen to the audio account by Merijn Jonkers here.

The exhibition is set up in an old building on the Langenieuwestraat, in the center of Utrecht. The entrance is lined with some quotes from Constant. Location manager Ruben Coers welcomes all visitors and guides them into the room. The hall is small and has a peculiar central open space with a boat, a bicycle and a hanging chair. Coers explains: ‘The installation is divided into four experiences, in which different reflections on Constant’s work ‘New Babylon’ are discussed and depicted. Everyone has time to experience at least three parts of the VR experience.”

In the first part of the installation called ‘The past of a future city’, the visitor is taken into an experience in which they visit a fair in New Babylon, accompanied by a robot guide. The little yellow robot says: “New Babylon should have been a Utopia, unfortunately the reality turned out to be different, soon it turned out that man is not made for freedom.” This is followed by the experience “Echos of oblivion”. A boat trip in which the visitor can row through pink waters, accompanied by a spoken-word artist, who talks about how much more colorful and playful the world could have looked, ending with the statement ‘Do you ever think about that? How it all could have been different?’

Between the experiences there is a short period in which you can relax and there is an opportunity to talk to the volunteers. Volunteer Sofia Kaloterakis explains: ‘I had come to Utrecht for my master’s degree when I was approached by an acquaintance if I wanted to participate in the project. I am both a VR and spoken-word artist myself, so the project really appealed to me.” Sofia is one of several volunteers who do their best to make all four experiences as immersive and seamless as possible.


Blooming New Babylon, photo Merijn Jonkers


Blooming New Babylon, photo Merijn Jonkers

The other two experiences are “Blooming new Babylon” and “We don’t want to fill our days with regrets.” Blooming new Babylon offers the chance to discover New Babylon using a floating chair and a flying bicycle. Lantern in hand, the visitor zooms through the places where people can gather in this idealistic world. This experience is by far the most intense and some people feel nauseous. Finally, there is ‘We don’t want to fill our days with regrets’, in which you can relax. Here the VR experts have done their best to recreate a beach including sand and wind and the starry sky can be admired, accompanied by a spoken-word artist.

Visitor Paul Dijkstra shares his experiences: ‘I thought it was a nice experience, but I do feel that certain aspects of the exhibition had little to do with Constant.’ In Paris there are VR exhibitions in which you can see every leaf in a jungle, this sometimes looked more like a student project.’

Director of the Constant foundation Kim van der Horst explains how the installation came about: ‘Constant always strived to make his ideas immersive, so he also made interactive installations with other artists and was a great supporter of using technology for art. That is why it makes sense to do an interactive VR exhibition.’ Involving spoken-word artists was also a no-brainer for Van der Horst. Constant often worked interdisciplinary and was always socially engaged. The makers of Poetry Circle also have that activist view. The relevance of Constant, even after 66 years since the project started, is still undisputed according to Van der Horst: ‘Constant’s works can be involved in every exhibition on current topics, which is what makes him so surprising.’