Interview: Arvid Jense and Marie Caye

Every month, we’re catching up with former speakers of TEDxEindhoven. This month, we talked to the design duo Arvid Jense and Marie Caye. He is Dutch. She is French. They both completed different design studies in the Netherlands. And now they work together on several exciting projects. In their TEDxEindhoven Talk in 2016, they presented their project Soundlab. Amongst others they talked about The Pigstrument, a musical instrument designed to observe a pig’s potential interest in music and sound. Nowadays they are not only focused on sound design, but also on non-human themed research. So we have a lot to talk about!

How did your collaboration start?
Marie: ‘A lot of people don’t know that we are actually a couple, as well as a duo in work. We first met as a couple. We were both studying in design. It came naturally that we started to help out with each other’s study. First Arvid graduated and started working. So while I was finishing up with my study, I was also already half-working with Arvid on our projects.’
Arvid: ‘The first project we did together was a little silly thing. Because we were always helping each other out with our projects but never really worked together, we decided to enter a contest together. For that we made a…’
M: ‘Cookie printer!’
A: ‘Yes, a cookie printer! And then we discovered that it works very well.’
M: ‘Very complementary.’
A: ‘And it is also a lot of fun to work together.’

Before we talk about anything else, when I watched your Talk, I was very fascinated by The Pigstrument! Are there pigs using it right now? Or was it just a one-time project?
M: ‘It was a one-time project, but we are still interested in trying to spread it out in other farms. It got used on the farm where we were developing it, until the end of the project. It was a partnership. So now we are looking for a suitable new partner. It is still in progress.’

Cool! How did the pigs react to The Pigstrument?
A: ‘They went crazy!’

In a positive way?
A: ‘Yeah, they couldn’t stop playing with it.’
M: ‘After a few hours of playing, we had to get in with the pigs to take The Pigstrument back. The pigs immediately all went to sleep. They were done! Which is a very good sign. Pigs have a lot of energy. So there is a risk, if pigs have nothing to do, that they get aggressive. It is very dangerous, because they will hurt each other. So we examined their musical interest, but we also wanted to see if we could offer some sort of stress release.’
A: ‘We really wanted to design something for and with the pigs. Instead of making something for and with the farmer, which is usually the way it goes.’
M: ‘This was a turning point for us. Like you can see in our TEDxEindhoven Talk, we used to make musical products for human enjoyment. During ThePigstrument project we started to question this human-centred design approach. Here we focused on the pigs, and with our later projects it was machines.’

Yes, I noticed a turning point as well. Your current projects seem completely different. In your latest projects, SAM and The Last Job on Earth, you “lend” a human body to an artificial mind. This is a huge contrast with your previous, more tangible projects like The Pigstrument. How did this change in your work develop?
A: ‘It’s really the evolution of how we look at design. We both started off as product designers. But we get inspired by people who are very performative in music, dance and art, but also in design. So we wanted to figure out: what is the difference between art and design and where do we fit in?’
M: ‘The Pigstrument was really the moment where we started this new way of thinking.’

SAM The Symbiotic Autonomous Machine, 2017

The Pigstrument, 2015

In 2016 you were one of the speakers of TEDxEindhoven. How did people react on your Talk?
M: ‘I remember that the audience was really stiff. Like really stiff. Luckily we had a few friends in the audience, so I could focus on them. We had a few jokes and participation stuff in our Talk, but there was just no reaction. It was good that we had the music. Something that could keep on going.’ (She laughs.) ‘But on the other hand, after the Talk, a lot of people came up to us to talk about our project, and told us how interesting it was. So although people were very calm during the Talk, a lot of people showed their enthusiasm afterwards. And even now, it surprises me how many people have watched the Talk online. Also when we have other interviews. They look us up online and one of the first things they see is our TEDxEindhoven Talk. They often refer to it.’
A: ‘It is a good credential. “Oh, you did a TEDx Talk? So you must be serious!” Sometimes it also confuses people, because in the talk we only talk about music. But now we do so much more.’
M: Yes, for some people it would be easier if you would just make one line of furniture, and this is what you do.’

How did you experience the whole TEDx process?
M: ‘It was very last minute. I think we were a back-up plan.’
A: ‘We heard about it just two or three weeks before the event. At the time we were very busy with another project. We had a tight deadline, but we just really wanted to do this.’
M: ‘It was a very hectic time, so we had no rehearsal or whatsoever. They just trusted us! On the day of the event, we were working until the last minute. So we literally came in, set up our instrument and did the Talk.’
A: ‘Because of the other project, we couldn’t be there in the morning. So we missed the introduction. The funny thing is: while we were preparing for our TEDx Talk, Marie was also working on a project about a fake TEDx Talk.’
M: ‘Haha yes, so I could use the experience of the real talk for my fake one!’

If you could do another TEDx Talk, how would it differ from your first one?
M: ‘I would like to do it again, but this time with the guidance and then be against everything!’ (They burst into laughter.) ‘Not to create conflict, but to see how the TEDx format can be stretched. TED has such a strong format and such a strong guidance. It is very smooth, but it can also lack in personality and miss that little edge.’
A: ‘We are very inspired by the TED Talks of Reggie Watts, a voice artist. He has one Talk about nonsense. He talks all the time, without really saying anything.’
M: ‘It is very entertaining. But there is no content.’
A: ‘There is also another TEDx Talk I really love. I don’t remember the name of the speaker. (TEDxNewYork Talk by Will Stephan, red.) But he comes on the stage and starts to talk: “Now I am coming on this stage. I am telling you a very personal story. Then I will take a very dramatic pause.”.’
M: ‘“My voice will drop. Some people will say “Ahw” in the back.”.’ (We all laugh; the imitation is very entertaining!)
A: ‘If we could do it again, we would definitely experiment more with the performance side of it. We wouldn’t just want to talk, as the designers, about what we made. We might even do it in character, really go deep and build a story world on stage. Now it was just a bit awkward, because I was making music and Marie was talking. But I am also a person on the stage.’ (He laughs.)
M: ‘Yes, it was actually really funny. Every time I see it again I think: Why did we do it like this?’ (A burst of laughter again.)

What are your plans for the future?
A: ‘We want to focus on things we really want to do. We just want to make new designs and find interesting collaborations, and put in less effort in applying for awards and doing exhibitions.’
M: ‘The problem with awards and exhibitions is that you need to put in a lot of work, which takes a lot of time. We need to be careful that this won’t take us over. We are creative people, but still need to bring money in. And above all, we are makers. We don’t want to spend too much time in showing. I guess, it is just a matter of finding the right balance.’
A: ‘Yes, because we still do some exhibitions. For example, we’re joining the exhibition Reloading Technology in TAC in Eindhoven until the 4th of May. And last Friday we had the opening of a Frankenstein exhibition in Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden. Our project SAM is part of it. It will be featured until October. This is a really cool thing, since it is an exhibition with a lot of the projects that inspired us before!’
M: ‘All our heroes are there! That is so cool! We are also in a big moment of internationalisation. We travel a lot. We’re always trying to have a very critical approach, but of course we have a very Western view. By traveling we try to expand our views and get a more critical aspect in our work.’
A: ‘Last week we were in Iceland at the Master of Design as guest teachers. Later in the year we will probably go to Bologna to collaborate with the Future Food Institute, where we will make another version of SAM. In April we go to Milan, to exhibit at the Salone. After that we will go to Poland for the Lodz Design Festival, then to Budapest with the Pigstrument.’

Hearing all this I just have one final question. You do so many different projects in so many different countries. How do you get there?
M: ‘It is a combination of working really hard and maintaining a network. I think the new chances come from things like exhibiting at the Dutch Design Week and giving a TEDx Talk. Then people just find us. So it is a little bit of luck, but mainly just working really hard to be present and visible.’

For now, they will stay a bit closer to home. This Saturday (March 24, 2018) they will perform at FAQ Festival for Electronic Music in ‘s Hertogenbosch. As far as I know, without pigs.