The Fantasy Man

Amsterdam-based artist ERIC STALLER has come to hope for a future that is technological yet human. Among his works, which range from large-scale architecture to whimsical mini-sculpture, there is a strong pedal-powered element, closely allied to his personal philosophy.

Why I do what I do is something of a mystery to me. I was born in 1947 but I was re-born as an artist in 1970. That was when I got what I call my nature-given calling. That was when I began spontaneously to get ideas that would cause me to say to myself: "I've just got to see that!" I suppose I'm addicted to surprising myself, to exploring the unknown, producing different sensations. My ideas come from my subconscious: they come into my head during brainstorming sessions in which I daydream the impossible, the outrageous, the irrational. The idea that makes me laugh involuntarily and often over the next weeks is the one that begins to obsess me. It calls my name: "Eric, build me!" until I give in. That is the only way to exorcise the fantasy.

My outlook on the world was shaped in the 1960s by the space programme and its seemingly limitless promise. School classes were interrupted for every take-off and landing. There seemed to be the expectation that every American boy could (and must!) invent a better mouse trap. The promise of a utopian world through technology was all around us. I was especially impressed by the 1964 New York Worlds Fair with pavilions called Futurama, Progressland, The MoonDome, displaying futuristic architecture by Eero Saarinen and Buckminster Fuller, dazzling multi-media theatres and a working car engine you could walk through.

From 1971-91 I lived and worked in New York, a constant inspiration with Rauchenberg, Warhol, avant garde theatre, surrealistic sound and light at night clubs. Risk-taking seemed a way of life, and life-affirming: My art was photography and sculpture: other-worldly fantasies of light, space and motion. I wanted my work to transport the viewer to a dream-like unreality, a respite from the real world. In the 80s I began to feel disillusioned by the Art World. It seemed dry and joyless. I asked myself if I wanted to go on preaching to the converted. The answer came to me in 1985 with the creation of my Lightmobile, a Volkswagen Beetle covered with 1659 computerised lights. This took five months and all of my savings to build. But from the first moment I drove it out of my studio and through the streets of New York, I knew I was onto a powerful expression. This was some kind of magic wand; I could see an instantaneous surprise and delight in the faces of thousands of people.

I started to be interested in people's response as a kind of raw material for me: in a childlike way, people are touched, disarmed. I find this inspiring, and watching this collective response helps me to shape what I want to do next. The Lightmobile made everyone laugh, but I then wanted to evoke another emotion. So I made Bubbleheads: four riders on a quadricycle, dressed in black, each wearing a lighted sphere on his/her head. The lights are computerised to give the illusion of the heads spinning, as if in conversation. People involuntarily gasp, hands reach for their hearts; I can read on their lips: "Oh my God! What is it?" It aggressively interrupts their private space. It's a little unsettling, other-worldly. But a second later they realise that it is harmless and rather vulnerable: something out of a dream. And then they smile, for they have been caught off-guard, goosed into enjoying a lovely sensation.

It became my goal to keep moving my art further from people's sense of reality. We are socialised out of having child-like responses; we need to quantify and explain everything. We embrace every new technology while warning of its de-humanisation. I am interested in projecting a 'nostalgic view of the future'. I create metaphors for future travel and communication that say: 'Yes, the future will be more technological, AND it can be human and humorous.'

Communication is what the Conference Bike is about: seven people sharing an experience, communing with one another and with the astonished passers-by. It's somewhere between art and industrial design. It's practical-ridiculous. It's a twist on other multi-person bikes. All seven riders contribute to the forward motion while sitting elbow to elbow in a two meter-diameter circle. Six of them face each other, as if at a round table, while the seventh faces forward and steers. The feet of the riders can be seen pedalling up and down in the middle, as if mixing an invisible substance. I find it interesting to dream up a confection like this and then work with an engineer on the give-and-take process of marrying aesthetics to physics.

I am also very interested in devices for stimulating community. People are driving to and from work alone. They go to a fitness facility after work and ride a stationary bike to nowhere while talking to no-one. Yet we can have social lives, fit bodies, shared experiences, while going places, and without poisoning the air. I am now engineering and promoting human-powered trains and boats. They are designed with a blend of form and function. Like sci-fi films, they are suggestions of how the future might look. And I hope they suggest that the future just might be something to look forward to.

All images © Eric Staller

Read More: Eric Staller's pages on Cyclorama