How an Art Joke Dragged Constant Dullaart through Hardware Hell

An interest in understanding where hardware really comes from took him on an adventure that’s still unfolding. Here, he shares what’s he’s learned so far.

Dullaart in his Kickstarter campaign video for DullTech.

“My life is a joke,” says Constant Dullaart. “I feel like I’m entitled to take other people with me in the joke.”

English speakers sometimes assume that the Dutch artist adopted a pseudonym as part of his practice. He didn’t, but he can see why they think so: his art often relies on subversions and pranks. (Plus, it just sounds fake.) Dullaart’s made websites like untitledinternet.com and therevolvinginternet.com that mutilate the Google search engine and created performance pieces in which armies of bots like and comment on social media posts.

One of his most ambitious projects, which he’s been working on since 2015, started as a joke, but has since grown into an original hardware product, a successful Kickstarter campaign, and a budding startup. DullTech, a simple video player that displays media from USB drives on loop, forced Dullaart through many of the very real lessons that creators work through as they launch hardware projects on Kickstarter.

DullTech devices make it easier to plug-and-play new media artworks.

DullTech is an exercise in “participatory anthropology.” Dullaart had been working with technology for years, but he had never set foot in a production facility or dug into the mechanics of scaled manufacturing, and he knew few of his peers or audience had either. He wanted to see the process for himself.

“I felt like I had a responsibility, as an artist working with all this technology and commenting on the distribution of wealth, to visit the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — and research each culture. I considered it my Grand Tour, in the tradition of artists going on their Grand Tour in Europe during the Renaissance.”

He was awarded an art residency in China, and started trying to get into the factory ecosystem. He was doing this shortly after Mike Daisey shared damning accounts of factory conditions on This American Life, and although Daisey’s story was ultimately retracted on account of falsifications, factory owners were on high alert and didn’t want to talk to journalists or artists. So Dullaart had to adopt the persona of a tech founder. He proposed a real product, the DullTech looping video player, and set out to meet manufacturers who could help.

Dullaart quickly learned personal relationships were essential for Chinese manufacturing projects.

Navigating relationships with factory owners was his first lesson: he saw the degree to which personal relationships make or break hardware projects. He connected with several manufacturers and, after a long courtship involving elaborate business dinners, tea ceremonies, and drinking sessions, a company called Better Friend agreed to take on his project.

Dullaart liked the idea of producing his artistic ideas at industrial scale. “How much influence can you make on culture if you make only luxury art objects?” he says. A hardware product for digital art was an opportunity to “author by way of tool.” And he could program his own video art into the opening credits that played whenever a user started up one of his players.

A DullTech device playing video art (credit: @bitnk).

But he was slow to embrace the role of a tech entrepreneur. “People started to say that they wanted to [invest in the company]. I thought this was just supposed to be an artwork, so I felt weird about that.”

“I was really hesitant to completely become complicit in this whole infrastructure, but looking at a process is different than participating.”

He really started to participate when he was featured in an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam — “a rite of passage for artists in Amsterdam at that time.” The opportunity got him thinking about how he could expand the scope of the project to put the technology deeper in the context of entrepreneurship and product development. He decided that “the next medium would actually be doing a Kickstarter.”

He got some video help from illustration freelancers and enlisted a few friends to help with campaign logistics, but for the most part, Dullaart considered his own active participation in the project as a form of artistic engagement.

“I felt like I needed to see it through, chapter by chapter. I wanted to consider everything an artistic gesture.”

“I did all the consumer help-desk stuff — I would personally respond to emails and phone calls in the middle of the night when people couldn’t differentiate a VGA cable from an HDMI cable and their exhibition was about to open in 45 minutes. I mailed all the packages — and learned DHL loses packages all the time.”

And despite carefully researching the hardware landscape and embedding himself in manufacturing systems in China, he learned lots of frustrating and costly lessons as he went. The hardest part was feeling personally responsible for any failures. “That was hell.”

Looking back, Dullaart advises first-time makers to arrange for factories to do the certification paperwork and check firmware bugs before shipping products out. He encourages padding delivery schedules for inevitable delays, finding locals who can help with drop shipments, and minding all the little details, such as adding silicon beads to packaging in order to keep units dry.

He overcame delays, faulty firmware, and lost shipments, and finally got DullTech devices out into the world. “I was mesmerized. Here’s the actual thing, my work. It was a holistic venture, not a single point of criticism. There are so many layers to this kind of distribution and technology. Seeing this brutal, squarish little box actually work was so much fun. Once in a while, somebody can screw around with this and make their own signatures in this technology.”

“It felt like graffiti in a place that’s really hard to reach.”

But even with those successes, DullTech faces a very uncertain future. After his first project broke even, he got an investment for an updated version of his first DullTech model. Then his engineer’s kidney failed. A collaborator stole his IP to create a spinoff product. Dullaart is working to release updates and improvements like the ability to pause, disable music, and play 4K video, but can’t yet make promises on timelines.

But he doesn’t seem too worried about it. “I mean, this was never meant to be serious. So everything about it is… there’s probably a really nice American expression… everything that worked was a cherry on top.”

—Katheryn Thayer