Folkert Gorter is functioning on a different level than the rest of us. The interaction designer and high concept community creator is the man behind online arenas such as SpaceCollective and Cargo, not to mention his own design studio, Superfamous. He is a genius, in his own right, who works tirelessly to bridge the gap between the offline world and the online world, a challenge that seems both like a science fiction story and an impossibility. We met up with Gorter at SpaceCollective and Cargo’s Angeleno Heights headquarters one afternoon, to hear his take on life, technology, and Los Angeles.
Gorter is a Dutchman, born and raised in Holland, with only the faintest hint of a hard-to-place accent. He always knew he wanted to do something around art and design, but didn’t quite know what exactly. Growing up and pursuing higher education, new media seemed like the area for him but it was just that: new. At the time, it wasn’t really a defined subject but while heading to the Utrecht School of Art, he found that it was taken very seriously, both on a conceptual and philosophical level. “After a month, I knew I was going to dedicate my life to the Internet,” he said. For your reference, this was around 1994.
Toward the latter end of his education he spent some time in New York City doing an internship “during the height of the bubble, around 1999.” Post-internship, he returned to Utrecht to finish a Masters of Art in Interactive Multimedia at the Utrecht School of Art, which was one of the first serious programs in the field. Upon finishing his education, he returned to New York, where he worked at an interactive agency. “At this typical and essentially boring ecommerce boom advertising giant I nonetheless learned a lot about managing creative projects and setting up large interactive structures, and coming from a school that was emphasizing the coneptual side of information architecture, interface design, information structures, etc., this was a valuable continuation.” he explained. “As students, we learned to think about virtual information spaces in the most psychedelic ways.”
After 3 years or so in New York City, he started to crave more “traditional graphic design,” which led him back home, to the Dutch design world. He worked for a few agencies and, around 2003, 2004, he started Superfamous Studios, working on projects independently. This is also around the time he started to become more focused on online branding, interface design, and participatory/community-oriented creative networks.
It was also within this period that Folkert met Rene Daalder, a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles. Daalder was making a “fictional documentary about the Future of Everything” and wanted to create a community around the film. The project was an experiment in cultivating cult followings around movie projects before they were even produced or released, partly as an experiment in circumventing advertising, which traditionally takes up a very large percentage of the budgets, and to reroute the funds into more interesting directions.
“We started prototyping ideas for creative communities and collaborative interfaces,” he said, “and out of that grew the project that is now SpaceCollective, which turned into a kind of think tank: we were calling it things like an independent creative research platform meets a participatory learning community. Together with partner and web technology expert Josh Pangell we developed a whole bunch of interfaces for this project because we wanted people to talk to each other in ways that were as intuitive as possible; to share ideas seamlessly in the online space. We set out to produce tools that made it easy and intuitive to not just use words to communicate, but all types of media. We wanted to optimize the flow of ideas between people, lowering (eradicating?) the threshold that exists between the mind and the internet.”
SpaceCollective was very successful and is still running to this day. The collaboration with Daalder and Pangell was only the start of a working relationship, though. “When we finished that project, we had so many ideas about interfaces and collaborative structures that we decided to make it available to a larger audience outside of SpaceCollective,” he said, “That became what is now Cargo.”
Cargo is Folkert’s most recent project and is going quite well. While speaking and reflecting on his high concept, big and bold projects, it’s really remarkable what he has accomplished. Yet, he seems unphased by this: “I mean, I don’t think it’s any more significant or important than what many others are doing. And I’m really happy to be able to contribute something to the situation.”
His nonchalance in relationship to his accomplishments is rooted in a strong belief in turning ideas into realities. “That’s what we are about,” he explains. “We’re not fucking around: when we do something we go all the way. We take it very seriously.”
These projects are things that he feels he has to do and are fueled by passion and design. In many ways, it’s no surprise that he is in Los Angeles to accomplish this as it is a city of passionate people who—like him—have to always be making things. But, how did he end up here? Well, it was from working with Rene, who was stationed out here.
“The moment I got here, I knew I wasn’t going back.” he said, having come from Amsterdam before arriving in Los Angeles. “What struck me immediately was how modern, forward thinking, free and creative everyone is in Los Angeles: and everyone seems to be a freelancer here. In New York things are much more “established” and conventional, even though it has a lot of great things going for it. I immediately fell in love with Los Angeles. That’s never changed, and by now I love all of California. It must suck being from here because you can pretty much never find a better place…”
He laughs, as he finishes up a thought. “LA is so nimble and can change so quickly,” he says, “I think it was Timothy Leary who said something along the lines of: the further West you go, the more recent things become. As in, if you go from LA to New York, you’re going back a hundred years in history. If you go to London, you go back two hundred years. Paris? Three hundred. Rome? Four hundred, and so on. I love the phrase ‘Whatever shakes loose rolls west.’ It’s so true. This city is as modern as you can get because you can’t go any further west… until you hit Japan that is, which is like two hundred years in the future.”
Moreover, Los Angeles just seems to have a combination of everything for him. “The climate definitely is appealing,” he says, “Especially being from Holland, where there’s always this menacing, dark sky above your head, which does really kind of keep your imagination in check. To not have to accommodate a climate is a really freeing thing. You come here and there’s this light and this feeling, and this huge metropolitan area—and you can be on top of a rocky desert mountain right in the middle of the city, in 20 minutes from anywhere. The people here all seem quite young, regardless of their age. And the people this town attracts—writers, architects, filmmakers, artists, musicians, etc.— are all attracted to LA for that liveliness, to invent new things, build something new, to live in a different way. The whole place is kind of like a movie set, in the good sense of the word.”
This really appeals to Folkert who comes from a very set-in-its-way place, where it sometimes seems that there is an immediate answer for everything. “The most important thing for me is to keep transforming,” he explains. “I always look for situations that change me, whether they are physical, geographic, or mental—change by whatever means necessary. That’s my way of growing. I see my life as a project: I don’t see any distinction between work and life. I don’t live to work or work to live or something like that. I find that all to be bullshit. My life is a project.”
We sit in the backyard, in the sun, a spotlight seemingly trained on him. “Like I was saying in the beginning, I dedicated myself to the Internet, fully,” he says. “As we all know, the strain on the physical environment from human activity is getting a little out of hand. The more activity we move out of the physical space and into the virtual, the better. That’s one part of where my excitement for the internet comes from.”
What’s most fascinating about Folkert’s work and ideas is that it’s bourne organically, without long-term planning. “I never have plans beyond an hour or so ahead,” he stops to laugh, picking up where he left off: “It became pretty clear, very quickly, that it was something to do with technology in the larger sense of the word because it allows us to interface with reality in interesting ways. Something part technical, part creative for sure. I try to stay away from making plans because I’m trying to always let the process drive the outcome, and to not think about the outcome as much as I can, because that can pre-determine where I will end up, and that is what I’m trying to prevent.”
Folkert can’t really imagine doing anything else or being anywhere else. But, he does have a very specific idea of a dream-like pursuit. He explains, with laughter peppered in between every few words: “I’ve always wanted to just wander off on foot and see what would happen, to just completely go, to wander into the desert. I mean, I would probably die fairly quickly; but, I love the desolateness, and being alone with everything.”
This raises a question: does that dream and its related geography represent the opposite of his Hollander roots? “Yes, I think in some ways, yes,” he explains. “It’s a great place, but not one square inch is uncultivated and it’s a super densely populated country: basically it’s full, at capacity. And everyone has something to say about everything, which can get on your nerves.”
One of the most appealing things for Folkert, like many, is the connection to nature and reality at large. “LA is like a wild West town,” he says, an outpost where you are in control of your own destiny.”
For such a forward thinker, what does the future hold? We asked him where he would be in ten years and, of course, the answer was not as easy as you would think and is greatly tied to technology. He explains, with a few laughs tossed in for good measure: “Ten years is a huge span of time: it’s like what a thousand years was a decade ago. To ask ‘What are you going to do ten years from now?’ is like asking ‘What are you going to do ten minutes from now?’ in today’s world. The general direction is to keep pushing things from the physical to the virtual. I like the idea of super-natural environments while being fully connected to virtual networks and communities. The Internet may be our best (last?) chance to manage our exit from the ecosystem.”
Soak that up as your New Year’s food for thought.