Meet iii-resident Geert-Jan Hobijn / Staalplaat Soundsystem

Founder of Staalplaat and Staalplaat Soundsystem, Geert-Jan Hobijn (1959) is an open-minded, enthusiastic artist with a boundless curiosity. Fascinating by sound and space and making use of pedestrian materials, Geert-Jan is constantly devising new creations to use in his experiments.

Cybil Scott: From the first impression of your works, it seems like you prefer to use audio installations and repurposed contraptions in some sort of grid-like system. What is it that you like about making multiples of things?

Geert-Jan Hobijn: It gives me the abilities to compose with them.

It’s almost like you build sound organisms with little cells that all play a part, and then it becomes its own entity.

Yes, like little acoustic chemicals!

What’s the difference between what you do as Geert-Jan the artist and what you do as Staalplaat Soundsystem?

Actually, I don’t like the “Geert-Jan the Artist” but the art world wants to put that label on me, you know, the artist as the individual creator, blah, blah. I want to make things, but its the result I focus on. I couldn’t care less on how to get there or who is making the steps. It’s nice to work with others, especially when they are better than I am. So to label the work with just my name is wrong. It doesn’t do justice to the creation, therefore, I prefer Staalplaat Soundsystem.

What gets you excited as an artist?

A good budget? But, more importantly a challenge such as a great location of a place or a country. To give you an example, I worked on a proposal for the Amazon rainforest.

Another incident might be worth mentioning:
One day I was picked up by a taxi for Today’s Art in the central train station. He asked me the standard polite question, “Why are you here?” My standard response was, “I have to do a show for Today’s Art”. Then the taxi driver tells me, “I know them, a few years back they had a insane sound installation with vacuum cleaners and kitchen mixers”. “That was my work!” I tell him.

This is something that excites me; the local taxi driver that talks about my work, and he loved it, it really doesn’t get any better.

How do you come up with new ideas?

They grow on you, so fuck the “light bulb” moment story. It’s more about evolution and not so much creation. Then again, sometimes it works really fast and sometimes I get stuck.

What’s the difference between an installation and an instrument to you?

The instrument is the component of the installation.

Why do you like to use the everyday noise of objects and appliances as one of your mediums?

With everyday objects you open people up; they can relate to it. In a east german small shitty place, we built an installation with seven refrigerators making electronic sounds. Old ladies and families came and loved it, for everyone knows the hummmm of the machine. So it helps making the work transparent and you open people up to sounds that are usually considered experimental for a small elitist group, etc.

I hate speakers, and I hate it when people work with microphones. I like it unplugged, and for the object to create the sound. Many people make an instrument and then step number one is to put contact mics on it, which destroys it, because then the sound comes from the speaker. So you just might as well buy a laptop.

Are you looking to get people fascinated again by everyday objects and tech?

Well, I like to show them that you can take any object that is right in front of you and make great sounds with them. Like a child that can take a electric plug and play with it as a spaceship.

Is it important for your artworks to have a sense of humor?

No, but it helps.

How did it start? Were you playing with household appliances and experimenting with their sounds as a child?

You would like that, wouldn’t you? The crazy artist from the day he was born.

Yes and No.

Yes: I did build things all the time, and liked to re-invent objects: like changing an airfix model of the classical sailing ship The Bounty in to a spaceship, because it was all made from the same plastic.

But No: I did not make music instruments when I was a kid.

Only a small percentage of an audience will have played, say, a violin; those who have appreciate excellence when they hear it. Most everyone has played a vacuum cleaner or honked a car’s horn; they too seek out their ensembles, their virtuosos. It is more than that. As babies we fall asleep to a clothes dryer’s white noise lullaby, as kids we become entranced by a lopsided spin cycle. As adults we may not be accustomed to seeing our toasters collectively express themselves, but when was the last time a violinist made you breakfast?
Douglas Kahn 2014
Meet iii-resident Geert-Jan Hobijn / Staalplaat Soundsystem

What’s your plan for iii?

The Kruithuis in Den Bosch is an old fortress where gunpowder and ammunition were stored. I’m using the inner courtyard. I was thinking if I make a powerful dense sound I can fill up the space, and it won’t go anywhere. There will be twenty-three boxes mounted in the upper windows connected by steel strings to eight wooden boxes on the ground. I mount the upper boxes with a wooden wheel so that it’s like a violin. The upper boxes have sanding machines inside so I can make the sound run around the people and fill out the space, or I can let it die, or build more rhythmic body. From the top down, I have a wheel that plays a snare and the boxes will be the resonators so that they amplify the strings. People can walk around, but you have to start the sounds slow or else you will scare the shit out of them.

Are you inspired by the purpose or history of the building?

It’s more the shape of the courtyard space than the history of the building. Usually it’s for me it’s the space that dictates the project, but sometimes people read the history instead. Like in Kiel, Germany, we used orange smoke signals and the public was watching this orange block of smoke, and then I started playing with large boxes which caused a loud rumbling. The sound was moving around and all the Germans related it to the bombing of Kiel since it was a harbor that built submarines in WWII, so the entire city was bombed and destroyed. They all thought I was referring to that. People can project things on it, but that wasn’t my purpose.

Meet iii-resident Geert-Jan Hobijn / Staalplaat Soundsystem
Plastic Souls – research and construction of the prototype for a floating musical instrument made from plastic waste.
Meet iii-resident Geert-Jan Hobijn / Staalplaat Soundsystem
Compose Nature Installation
From Composed Nature Installation tree motor side view
Bottom View

What does sound mean to you, is it always music?

No no definitely not, but we are very preconditioned in our listening. John cage worked on this and I do too (sort of, but different). I think our pre-music comes from imitating birds, so I want to do the same now. To use the sounds that surround us, which fascinate me, and compose with them. Sound is great, it is a universal language and at the same time, it’s part of local traditions.

Do you think people are surrounded by more consumer appliances than ever before?

We’re being digitised with the new ones.

How does this affect your ideas for works in the future?

It’s not my focus. Other elements in our future are far more dominant than this luxury problem.

Are you more interested in making installations in nature or in public spaces?

Nature is a public space, but I assume you’re referring to nature and urban space. I come from a city live and work in a city so urban space comes natural to me, therefore its more easy to work in a urban public space. Nature public space is more of a challenge, but an interesting challenge

I put the two most extremes of these projects on one LP:
side A – Composed Nature
Controllable mechanical vibrators are mounted on 64 individual trees and are operated through custom made software. The sound of each tree can vary from a barely audible noise to a heavy ‘Green noise’, thereby offering different sound textures to be played. To play the trees, many spatial sonic patterns have been programmed, and a musical composition titled ‘Shiver Me Timbers’ has been written.
side B – Yokomono-pro
This piece questions the noise of a horn as a social sound and communication. The incredible volume and size of Indian traffic and the sounds it produces, was the inspiration for this project. Their communication language seems to be spoken with the horn; signaling with it everything needed, much the way we use indicator lights in Europe. We seek to intercept this phenomenon of car signaling and overlay it within a so-called meaningful structure. 30 auto rickshaws were hired and prepared technically in order to remotely take over control of their horns.

So I like the two as a contrast, I am more interested in it than consumer appliances. I’ve made so many works in the public space that I would not know where to begin. Though, “street public” is nicer than a concert or an “art public”.

At the heart of all this work is a low-tech philosophy, the aim is to make installations appear simple, revealing rather than concealing how they are made, so people exclaim –‘I could do that’. In contrast to much media art, it is not the technique that is central to the work, but the ideas behind it.

Your projects are really like you have to be there to experience it. Do you like to catch people by surprise?

Yes, then people are more open to it.

I like to annoy my public, I’m not a public pleaser and you shouldn’t be. With most projects people do it because they think other people will like it, but because of that it all gets really boring. If you want to have a interesting discussion you should disagree. Experiences can be rough, but they are more interesting. If you challenge people it’s more exciting. Politicians want to please you, that’s why they are so boring and you don’t trust them. If the opinion changes they change.

I believe this, this is what I think and that’s why I do this, not because I want you all to like it, I want to try to create an experience, and try to experiment with how you can work with sound. The nature sounds, machine sounds, children’s sounds, moving sounds, physical sounds, private sounds, public sounds; all these sort of elements I like to play with.

What do you struggle with?

The danger that what you make becomes superficial, or just a nice aesthetic.

You’ve been an established artist for a while now, any cool advice for those up and coming?

Am I? It’s a matter of perception I think, I don’t feel very established.

Don’t pay too much attention to what people say, especially when they tell you “It’s been done before”, because that’s just a distraction. Also, ignore this advice too.


Geert-Jan Hobijn will be presenting new compositions during No Patent Pending #34 at iii.

iii is an artist-run-platform for research, production, presentation and distribution of radical interdisciplinary practices based in The Hague. No Patent Pending is their performance series presenting radical interdisciplinary practices that engage with sound, image, space and the body.