How Thijs Biersteker creates space by making you feel facts through art

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Marcel Kampman
Happyplaces Stories
17 min readDec 24, 2023


Thijs has successfully shifted from causing a stir for brands to stirring causes (and people to action) worldwide as an ecological artist, seamlessly combining scientific research and new technologies to deliver empowering experiences that are accessible both intellectually and technologically. In his immersive art installations, often described as eco- or awareness art, he turns the impact of climate change, air pollution, ocean plastic, diversity, and data misuse into tangible experiences. He uses a fluid mixture of data, nature, kinetic motion, water, digital visualisations, analogue elements, and the virtual and real worlds.

Thijs has numerous awards like the prestigious Lumen prize for digital art, got nominated for the Stars Prize from Ars Electronica and the New Technology Art Award and has exhibited at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain Paris (FR), Today Art Museum (CN), Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (NL), Science Gallery Dublin (IE), SXSW (USA), Science Centre Kuwait (KW), MU Gallery (NL) and has been featured in Wired, New Scientist, Financial Times and Discovery Channel.

We met at his studio; just after his return from his dream visit to the Amazon rainforest. He has created art installations inspired by Amazon deforestation for years but has now finally witnessed the rainforest’s breathtaking beauty and fragility firsthand. After a studio tour, we discussed how he creates space as an artist, as a father and for and with his team and watched some amazing footage and enjoyed some Brazilian coffee he brought back from Amazone over a wonderful lunch.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Space for science in culture

When I talk about space, I always focus on how I can give space to science, especially in this time of climate change, biodiversity loss, and all the other issues happening in the world. The data, the warnings, the reports, and the research are there. However, in culture, there is no space for these facts in a way that relates to us, our emotions, and our core being. There’s a big disconnect, and I want to fill that communication gap. I want to fill that space by using and creating works that bridge the gap between our emotions and science.

If the research does not reach us, how can the research teach us? Art helps to make you feel the facts, to see the bigger picture.

As somebody from a communication background and an art background, I started to combine those two and figure out where and at what moment I could amplify my works to fill that essential gap or void, what I perceive as the essential. I use my talent and inspire others to embed science into culture because I believe the only change we can make is by bridging the gap between knowledge and the required actions. We need an emotional bridge and understanding to do that, and those two will lead to action. Because facts don’t move people, emotions do.

That is the most important space I want to fill in my life with my work. It’s something that I perceive as the essential missing piece in this time and age. Because if we do not understand the challenges ahead, there’s no way we can survive as a species. In that sense, it’s also a personal drive. Once you have a family and see the people around you, that’s the moment you know change is necessary. As somebody who knows the game of emotions and aesthetics, I think I can fill that gap by combining those two. And we need it at all levels. I do this through art by making interactive art pieces that translate scientific data, bring it alive, and make it aesthetically appealing, like a fly trap. When people approach the works, they first see its aesthetics and beauty. However, their perspective changes when they understand the message and its scientific background.

When people approach the works, they first see its aesthetics and beauty. However, their perspective changes when they understand the message and its scientific background. That first moment is the moment they’re open; then, they have already created this space in their mind for something new, open for something that makes them subservient, open to new ideas.

That first moment is the moment they’re open; then, they have already created this space in their mind for something new, open for something that makes them subservient, open to new ideas. That moment is my chance to tell them the hard truth about the challenges our planet is facing. In that sense, I think my job is to create the gateways, to create these fly traps, and to figure out a way to get science in there so that it feels natural, relatable, understandable, and provokes emotion. A lot of the works that I make provoke that personal emotion.

I play with scale. For example, I make these giant data slices about how much rainforest disappears each moment small and understandable and make that rainforest disappear before them. I think that’s the power of art. It can make these big challenges small and understandable, and by doing so, it can help us see the bigger picture. In my belief, this is the core void we need to fill. It opens up a gateway to seeing your place in this world again. That is what I try to do with all the work I create. To bridge that gap between the high-level scientific data about planetary boundaries, like climate change and biodiversity loss and make it small and relatable again. And then, in the end, to make you see the bigger picture.

Art meets science, artist meet scientist

I start projects by always working with scientists and environmental scientists worldwide. I work with partners like UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA), using their data sets and translating them into art pieces. Sometimes, the scientists come to my studio and don’t feel comfortable because they leave their lab and go into this art space. It’s a challenge we both have. When they visit my art space and when I visit their labs to observe what is happening in their space. Here, we need to bridge the gap between art and science and between a scientist and an artist. In theory, everybody wants this, but in practice, it is different. We must build that bridge between how somebody who’s overly structured and pressured in time, like all the top scientists we work with, who work with 15-minute slots that fill up their days, feels welcome in this art space. We do this by providing them with a detailed PDF of the program when they visit us so they know what to expect step by step, how the process will work and when they need to be present at work. They can stay and play as long as they want to. This little PDF program helps them know what to expect and sheds some light on the outcome and results, providing them with the needed structure. That’s where I step into their space of structure and comfort zone by setting clear boundaries.

I will never enter the space of research. I’m not a researcher. I’m not a scientist, either. I don’t work with peer reviews. I work with emotions and physical materials. I will never judge their science; I will never doubt their science. I will ask questions as far as I can, but we have to generate a common space of trust at a certain moment. I trust them and their science; they must trust me and my emotional amplification of their message and the core of their research. We have to meet in that space in the middle, which is interesting because artists and scientists overlap initially. When they hypothesise or discover ‘what if this could be possible’ or ‘if that can be possible’, then arts and sciences are the same. But then they move into a research structure where peer reviews and all the official channels kick in, and we, as artists, go into this dreamscape where we start prototyping, playing around, and assembling a team to get these works done. We go two different ways. But in that space in the middle, we meet again.

When the scientists come in, it becomes interesting for me. I’ve read their research and papers so that we can look at their results together in-depth. I filter a few things out of their work that are interesting enough for the general public to know and will help build the bridge for understanding. For example, when working with plant neurobiologist Stefan Mancuso, I learned how plants communicate through the flow of nutrients in the soil. It could be that bridge between my understanding of what he discovered. Like you’re sucking on a straw or how electric signals behave. I can imagine that a little bit. All the other research, for example, about how frequencies influence root growth or how certain nutrients are getting in there by selecting the roots in certain areas, is too much information for me. I have to eliminate the layers of his years of research and translate it into something I can understand and start building on. That’s where scientists have to give up some space and where I have to take the space to filter out a storyline from their research and amplify that.

The result of this specific example became a work as a giant glass root structure where the nutrients flow and electric signals pulse from one side to the other. It shows you how trees communicate under the ground like you were there.

When I start prototyping research, we involve the scientists again to make it scientifically correct. You get these boundaries of space, like how scientifically correct things can be, where I can take my artistic license, and where it has to be factually correct in what happens. That is a great, playful exchange. Most of the time, it’s easy. I’m flexible because I’m just translating their data sets, and if something’s incorrect, it will make me or them look bad. But at the same time, when I think something works way better to get the message across, I will adjust accordingly. In such a tree system, for example, nutrients flow on all sides of the tree. But if you see one clear line, it speaks way better to the imagination than when it’s some chaotic system. Then I push it in conversations, asking: ‘Could this be a possible way of visually manifestating it?’ And if the answer is yes, we stretch the boundary between what is physically, aesthetically appealing, and scientifically correct.

I think that the space of play is a fun space to be in. My job is to connect people emotionally to these hard topics of deforestation or how plants communicate to represent a better society than we have now. Simultaneously, I want people to know that if they have an urge, need, or hunger to know more, the work is scientifically correct, and they can look into the research and go down the rabbit hole. So, in that sense, I see my job as providing a scientific data visualisation and a gateway to the rest of that research.

The collaboration between the artist and the scientist has several layers. It is about respecting each other’s place and trusting each other with their professionalism. It is about finding common ground in that middle ground, about play and seeing where you have to speak to your imagination. But also when you have to tell the hard scientific truth. Overall, I think there’s one clear thing that science and great art do: they don’t compromise on both sides. There can be no argumentation against facts, and a good work or art can’t have compromises. A clear vision and clear scientific facts combined are really powerful. But if one or the other tries to overrule the other, then in the end, you’ll get mediocre work. The practice we have here with our team, with me, and with the scientists we work with is built on mutual respect, where we know what we’re doing and respect each other.

Accessible and layered

Many of the works we produce are about interaction and communication. We adjust the work at the end, where we test it and discuss it with people outside the studio. A group of students who visited our studio asked us if we invite people to give feedback on our work during our process, which we take into account. We don’t do that. I mean, the team has seen so many artworks, interactive pieces, and interactions; they know which triggers to hit to make an installation accessible and find that right balance. I believe we don’t have to do much of the testing. But we test the messaging, the movies we put out, and the museum text that goes with it. The locations, the location design, and the scientific layers we provide are tweaked to the bone until they balance the scientific research we try to communicate and the emotional impact we’re trying to make. To make it accessible to children from six to 600 years old in the future. I want to make work that is easily accessible for everybody at every age, speaks to everybody’s imagination, and has the depth and layers for each audience to relate to.

If a kid comes in and we show work like The Voice of Nature, visualised as digital tree rings as a metaphor for growth, it should be easy for a child to understand. Then, they should be able to see that a tree is doing well easily. For example, when we showed the work in China, a little Chinese girl came to us and said: ‘I can see the tree is angry right now because of the traffic.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, exactly!’ Then her mom says: ‘Hey, this is dendrology; I can read tree rings now.’ Then, I know that a work is suited for different generations because we communicated the facts on all these levels, and I did my job right.

Space for understanding

We had a remarkable experience at COP15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference focusing on biodiversity loss. COP15 was crucial as it aimed to establish a framework dedicated to preserving nature for the next 30 years. I was the sole artist featuring a work of art called Econario, a colossal robotic plant acting as a live thermometer, depicting the ongoing progress of the conference. We set up Econario in the negotiation room, enabling attendees to monitor discussions. The observers in the room sent their data to two on-site scientists from the Natural History Museum, who compiled the dataset for us. These scientists flew in to deliver keynote talks at the conference and spent two weeks with us. They recorded data daily, and we adjusted the artwork whenever a significant event occurred. The plant’s growth or decline visually represented the impact of negotiations on global biodiversity. This unique approach garnered attention from world leaders, ministers, top biologists, and negotiators from every country, who visited our display daily. The head of UNESCO, the Director-General, even inquired about the plant’s well-being. A leading biologist asked about the plant’s species, to which I confessed ignorance as an artist appreciating its form. However, he thoroughly dissected the plant, determining its species based on canopy thickness, leaf shape, and stem type.

Spending two weeks with this artwork alongside the world’s brightest minds provided valuable insights. Typically, an artwork is showcased in a museum, celebrated briefly, and left alone. In contrast, during this event, we received continuous feedback from a highly educated, engaged audience at all levels. We engaged in meaningful conversations with indigenous leaders who connected with the work emotionally and with hard-factual biologists from the United States who delved into data before observing the plant’s movements. The interaction with the audience came throughout the process, not just at the presentation’s end.

The works are perpetual works in progress. They remain open to alterations, recycling, and reuse. The current manifestations may reappear in slightly different forms and interactions, mirroring the evolving nature of the works and ourselves as humans.

Despite understanding which triggers to activate, adjusting the work based on location, audience demographics, and nuanced feedback is crucial. Sometimes, animations need pacing modifications, shapes or interactions require sharpening or adjustments are necessary for different audience demographics. We tailor soundscapes and interaction levels accordingly, recognising that the works are perpetual works in progress. They remain open to alterations, recycling, and reuse. The current manifestations may reappear in slightly different forms and interactions, mirroring the evolving nature of the works and ourselves as humans.

Art as a collective effort

There’s another space that I want to talk about. There are topics that I want to bring across, like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and how they influence us. The works we create are highly communicative, and I orchestrate them in a way that fills a space with a topic. They enchant you and are at the centre stage of communicating scientific facts. Sadly, people still want to see and meet the artist, while the art piece should have the centre stage. They still see the artist as the genius, the one person who came up with it. This is such an old idea. The same goes for science, where 40 or 50 scientists work on a paper, while only two of them are featured, and the rest end up in the footnotes. It’s a tough structure that’s hard to break, but I notice it’s still present in this short career that I have until now. Art is still a space where the art needs to have a single voice and face. But the reality is, in the end, as an artist, you do this work with a lot of people, a lot of scientists, and a lot of people on a large variety of levels. From the person who glues the mushrooms to each other, to the person who does the spreadsheets, to the person who does the welding, to the person who does the sketching. Everybody in the chain of creating something has their place and moment. It’s nice that our art is created with scientists because sometimes, when I get difficult questions about scientific data, I can say: ‘Look next to me; there’s the scientist; he can answer that in depth with you.’ Those are nice interactions. But not everyone on the team is as comfortable communicating or taking that central space as I am.

On stage, I can clearly distinguish between art and science. I don’t appreciate taking that space because it’s always a balance between not standing in the centre of attention the whole time and knowing that the world still has this idea that it is the effort of just one person. It varies in different places in the world. And sometimes, I have to do it because the rest of the team can focus on getting things done. Which is fine, because it helps me to train and work on that role, perfecting my one-liners. In the end, it’s part of my job in the team. I don’t want to make it 90% of my job, so when planning those moments, we try to squeeze in as much of them as possible in as little time as possible. I know by now what to do so that I can do them on automatic pilot.

Team dynamics

I notice that it’s really important to make distinctions in this time and age and this game we’re in as artists. In my team and how we work, we never brainstorm together. I keep my ideas and the practice of coming up with ideas as a solitary experience that I do together with the scientists. I make the sketches. I make the drawings. Then we go to the rest of the team, where they all have the speciality of knowing what to do and building the artwork as a whole. I believe in something really simple. I don’t feel well when we start brainstorming, and I have to work on somebody else’s idea while my skillset is ideas. They don’t feel well with that either because I have to be the face of it eventually because the work will be under my name.

Immediately, this leads to a conflict. It’s my job to get the ideas. It’s my job to get the interactions right. Then, all the professionals we work with bring it to life. The moment the sketch is on the table, it’s not my idea anymore. Then we work as a collective to get this thing done. And then it becomes really practical. Everybody has their space in the chain, and I respect Tom, Sophie, or whoever works on these projects, especially in their space. I don’t want to touch that. That’s their way of working. I know a bit, and I will throw in my knowledge, but they are a specialist in their specific field. When you do everything collectively, it can also be frustrating for a collective. That’s why collectives never survive for really long. Everybody has their role to play, which makes it nice. It’s not that we don’t learn from each other, it’s not that we don’t inspire each other, but it’s really clear who has what responsibility and who can take up what space in a conversation.

Worlds apart together

It’s really weird to live in different worlds. One day, you’re with researchers in the Amazon, looking at caves, the smallest orchids, or deforestation. Two days later, you’re shovelling with your daughter in your garden in Zaandam in the Netherlands, which is a big difference. One day I’m on a TED stage, speaking with the inventors of the vaccines for Covid. The next day, I’m here in the studio screwing in a few screws, knowing I cannot do anything more than that because the rest of the team is way more skilful than me. There is a big disconnect between meeting the Director-General of UNESCO, and the next day meeting with the teacher of your six-year-old daughter. That contrast is conflicting, but it’s fun. It keeps me grounded.

I don’t experience highs and lows as much anymore. It’s not a form of numbness or self-preservation, but it helps to see that the highs are as low as the lows and the lows as high as the peaks because they’re the same. They evoke the same emotion as two extremes justified in the moment, but that never lasts long. To me, being on stage and having boots on the ground is the same high or low. Of course, I’m just as nervous for a conversation with my daughter’s teacher as with the CEO of one of the biggest luxury brands in the world or with the biggest scientists I have met. I prepare equally. I spent three weeks reading into how dark matter is mapped in the universe when I met with ESA, and I’ve researched for two weeks how children develop and how I can optimise the playfulness of my daughter while she’s in the educational system to meet her teacher. For me, it’s the same system. It is also fun to appreciate the contrast. I received a text message from my daughter pulling a worm out of the ground in the garden while I was in a cave in the Amazon, face to face with scary big spiders.

It is a beautiful contrast, knowing that you can only be in a few places in the world and only with a few people simultaneously. I don’t see them as one, they’re all different people. I see the stage guys, and I see the person that walks around and does their stupid shit. That’s important to me, because the moment you start believing that you are a genius, this artist on the stage, or that one person is stupid, that’s not true. That’s just living in your Instagram profile or your TikTok videos or whatever you want to show the world versus how reality is. The reality is that 90% of my time, we’re just discussing how we can survive as a company and get prototypes done that don’t leak all over the floor — or how to water the plants at the studio. I think that’s the part you will hardly ever show or see, while it is more fun for me because it’s more realistic and nicer. And sometimes, you have to put on the face of the artist and do your presentation and pretend that you have an ego and go on with that. An interesting conflict, but I enjoy it immensely.

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Marcel Kampman
Happyplaces Stories

Creates space and matter, and places that matter, in the universe of infinite possibility. Founder of Happykamping & Happyplaces Project, author, sense maker.