Bart Hess

The material mutator and artist on futuristic fur, latex skin and freaky feelings

Fashion Q+A
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Over the last few years, material manipulator Bart Hess has invaded the digital world with his human hybrids and latex mutants. Often contained within video works (which blur the boundaries of fashion film), his creations play with ideas of repulsion and the grotesque. He covered Lady Gaga in slime for her “Born This Way” video and album and created futuristic fur from thousands of needles in communal workshops. At the core of his work is an ongoing fascination with the human form. By distorting it beyond recognition with engineered futuristic materials, the body is rendered genderless, animalistic and often perverse. From his short film Mutants, which sees a withering body smothered in red latex, to Heart to Mouth, Hess’s erotic re-imagining of a “brain orgasm”, his work showcases the endless possibilities of moving image. His recent collaborations with Ruth Hogben, Nick Knight and artist Lucy McRae continue to push his 
ideas into uncharted territory.

Dazed Digital: You often manipulate materials until they verge on the grotesque. What’s the attraction?

Bart Hess: A big part is creating this moment where you’re not sure whether to touch it or how to interpret it. I like to play with the emotion of feeling a bit awkward. Your mind starts working really fast and you behave in a certain way. I try not to reference back to any other periods in time in, say, fashion. It’s about referencing the future – we’re not there yet so we have to come up with our own stories.

DD: So you want to craft an experience in which your audience become hyper aware of themselves?

Bart Hess: Yes! It’s about the moment where you almost hold your breath. You’re horrified and angry, but still in love with it. I want to make the viewers feel the materials themselves. Some people would love to have a latex suit and others would be offended by it. It’s the same work but people see it in very different ways. It’s quite nice to be able to look at my own work and not know whether it’s ugly 
or beautiful.

"As a child I was always dressing up as Madonna. I had this fluorescent green dress and my mother didn’t mind when I wore it out to the supermarket"

DD: Let’s talk about your film Mutants. how did that piece come about?

Bart Hess: I was trying to bring together the digital world and the analogue world. It’s a bit scary that we play on our phones all day without any structural feeling. Some scientists even say that soon children won’t be able to feel any more because of it. So with Mutants I wanted to create a tactile digital world through film.

DD: There seems to be a strong gender aspect to it. The forms are almost hyper human and devoid of sex...

Bart Hess: As a child I was always dressing up as Madonna. I had this fluorescent green dress and my mother didn’t mind when I wore it out to the supermarket. 
If you look back in history, what we wear now is quite boring. I’m part of it – I don’t really care how I look on a daily basis. At the same time, I don’t see why we should dress a certain way. We’ve lost it a bit. 
If you look at folklore or tribes they really decorate the body. Women wear make-up now but it’s not extreme. If it is, you only see it in fashion or on crazy people on the streets. 
It’s not standard any more to decorate the body.

DD: Is there also a social aspect for you?

Bart Hess: There’s a cultural aspect. For example, if I do workshops in South America, everybody’s like, ‘Yes! Let’s get naked,’ and it can become really animalistic. Here in Europe, everything is much more controlled. 
We all have different codes concerning beauty and how men and women should look. That’s why it’s important for me that my models have wrinkles. In Shave, the idea was to shave a person on film and in one stroke. It’s really nice that you see the irritation on their skin. It just wouldn’t be readable if it was smooth and polished.

DD: A lot of your time is spent creating new, futuristic materials, such as fur made from needles and skin made from latex. How did this start?

Bart Hess: A big part of it is my education. I studied at the Design Academy in Eindhoven in a department that specialised in looking at new materials and making imagery that’s related to fashion but isn’t fashion. Sometimes I have a vision in my head so I will try to guide my materials to that point; on other occasions I just start working with them and pushing it to the edge of not breaking – that really interests me. You can see the materials acting but they haven’t changed yet. Sometimes the material just does something crazy I can’t control. With the futuristic fur, 
I was really looking at skin. I wanted to make it as shiny as possible, 
so I sourced this foil that reflects 
99 per cent of light. I also approached it by imagining futuristic animals  and then putting the material on camera, shooting it and seeing what characters you can create.

Dazed Digital: Up close these materials can be quite seductive.

Bart Hess: That’s why I like to exhibit them, because some people are so attracted to it and others wouldn’t dare touch it. Then, at the last moment when no one’s watching, they build up the courage to touch it. Those moments make me really happy. Another big part of my work is that I try all the materials on myself first. I like to feel the weight of it. Sometimes when they make me feel quite uncomfortable it brings out a certain feeling or instinct that I want to enlarge in the final work. That’s why when I use models I don’t give them any direction on how they should act.

DD: Up close these materials can be quite seductive.

Bart Hess: That’s why I like to exhibit them, because some people are so attracted to it and others wouldn’t dare touch it. Then, at the last moment when no one’s watching, they build up the courage to touch it. Those moments make me really happy. Another big part of my work is that I try all the materials on myself first. I like to feel the weight of it. Sometimes when they make me feel quite uncomfortable it brings out a certain feeling or instinct that I want to enlarge in the final work. That’s why when I use models I don’t give them any direction on how they should act.

DD: What do you gain from experiencing the materials first hand?

Bart Hess: I will often record myself posing in front of the camera and just start moving and see how the material behaves. I just finished a project with hot wax and water. It took months to get the wax as hot as possible and the water as cold as possible. Then it took about 100 attempts of putting my arm in to feel the material and create the right shapes.

DD: Was it painful?

Bart Hess: It was on the edge of being painful. It almost becomes a performance. Even with the futuristic fur, for example, you’ve put in so many hours of labour that you don’t feel it any more. Sometimes you see the final piece and think, ‘That could’ve been made in a lab.’ I like to put a lot of references and research into my work, but in a way it doesn’t matter that it’s there because it turns into one big blur.

Let’s say in the future you’re not dying fur pink but you’re growing animals that are already pink. Imagine that we have farms where things grow in patterns or colours.

DD: How do you feel about the term ‘fashion film’? It’s an area you’ve sort of been thrown into.

Bart Hess: Each discipline I choose comes from the project itself. I won’t necessarily choose to make a fashion film but in a way, the materials I work with and the way they behave lead me to create one. I think that’s already a very different approach to fashion filmmaking. I remember there was a real shift – I was just making work alone in my studio and suddenly I was collaborating on a fashion film with Nick Knight.

DD: Did you know much about his work?

Bart Hess: No, I was quite naïve. I mean, I knew his work and his style but I didn’t know anything about what goes on behind the scenes. It’s quite funny because suddenly you get all these requests from the fashion industry. It’s really great that the same film can be on a fashion blog and in a museum. 

DD: What are some of those references that we might not immediately find in your work?

Bart Hess: I’ve looked at lot at the futurist painters, their use of rhythm and colour. I’ve researched a lot of rituals from all over the world. With the wax-dipping piece I looked at Christian baptism and Buddhism. 
You come across really crazy things in the world.

DD: Is there anything that makes your skin crawl?

Bart Hess: Working with living animals.

DD: What’s been the worst reaction someone’s had to your work?

Bart Hess: Oh, there are always lots of responses to my films on my website. People have said, ‘I’ve just seen this and I want to kill myself,’ ‘My child can do better than this,’ and, ‘This is not art.’ It doesn’t really bother me. It’s nice to see a discussion going on.

DD: How do you think clothing will change in the future?

Bart Hess: Let’s say in the future you’re not dying fur pink but you’re growing animals that are already pink. Imagine that we have farms where things grow in patterns or colours. It would be environmentally friendly, I think. Say if you had an animal that’s already in the shape of a sweater, you’d only have to kill it and then you could wear it. If you look at certain tribes they just make silhouettes based on the animal. I can imagine something like that will happen.

BART'S FAR OUT FAUNA 

THE HAGFISH

The hagfish is a fish that produces slime to protect itself against predators. Within seconds it can produce enough slime to fill up a water bucket. The slime creates a second skin, blurring the silhouette of the animal as if it's slowly liquefying. 

THE LEOPARD SLUG

Slugs making love totally sci-fi! The leopard slug leaves behind a trail of slime with a special taste to seduce potential partners. In the mating ritual, their bodies entwine, rolling around each other for an hour till the point where their flourescent male organs emerge from just behing their heads, creating a flowerlike globe. 

THE SALMANDER

The University of California, Irvine is looking into the possibilities of growing back limbs by studying one of the creatures that actually can: the salamander. Under anaesthesia a nerve at the base of the leg is removed and placed on the other side of the leg. The nerve and its associated tissue have been tricked into thinking they are amputated and start growing a new limb, resulting in a new anatomy like we've never seen before! 

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