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Bas Vroege: Unassuming Skillsman
He can't use PowerPoint, but he'll get you thinking visually.

Before he even began his lecture, Bas Vroege had something to get off his chest: “One thing I still can’t do is PowerPoint presentations,” he confessed to his audience at Ryerson University with a laugh, “We live in the era of non-linear storytelling and so will my lecture.” 

Such struggles may come as a surprise after a quick glance at Vroege’s resume. But it was in line with his talk, which looked largely at the struggles of curation and the future of multimedia projects. Appearing last Thursday before a packed room of students, professors, photography colleagues and members of the public who were simply curious to hear him speak,  the talk was presented by the Ryerson Image Arts Student Lecture Series and the Kodak Lecture Series.

Vroege studied economics and photography in the Netherlands, before co-founding and directing Perspektief, a centre for photography in Rotterdam, and the Fotografie Biennale Rotterdam from 1980-1992. He also acted as the director in chief of Perspektief from 1980-1995, which lead to Vroege’s first trip to Toronto, where he forged relationships with Canadian artists, including Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge. In 1993, he founded Paradox, an organization that produces photography-related multi-platform projects that look at social issues like global warming, migration in Europe, the effects of globalization.

“There is a battle going on to grab people’s attentions,” said Vroege, “We receive between 2,000 and 3,000 commercial messages per day, most of which we trash immediately. How do you keep an audience engaged?” He proceeded to discuss several exhibitions that he’s been involved with, including the Dutch-Chinese collaborative exhibition We Are The World (yes, named after the 1985 song written by Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson) and The Last Days of Shishmaref, a 2008 web-documentary looking at an Inupiaq Eskimo community in northwest Alaska. As a result of global warming, Shishmaref’s 600 inhabitants have been consistently forced to relocate their homes. Besides the documentary and the website, the project also included a book of photographs being published, an educational course developed for schools and a traveling exhibition organized that combined pictures, text and video.  

“An exhibition is a place where you can bring these components together,” said Vroege, “The goal is that when people go home, they carry something with them and are motivated to find out more.” He says that Paradox aims to exist as an alternative platform in a changing world where the press is no longer the main gallery for photography like it used to be. By way of  pointing out newspapers’ growing irrelevancy, Vroege referenced the European tradition of wrapping fish and chips in the day’s paper. “There needs to be a physical space,” he said. 

He isn’t the only one suggesting that there needs to be more of these spaces. Just down the street from the lecture hall where he spoke, stands Ryerson’s new School of Image Arts building, which is home to film, photography and new media students. After a fourteen month construction delay and a $70.92 million budget, it finally opened this past fall. The building will also he hosting Ryerson’s Black Star Historical Black & White Collection, a collection of over 300,000 original black and white photographs chronicling historical events from the 20th century.  

Vroege is also looking ahead to the future. Paradox recently launched its first iApp, Via PanAm, in collaboration with Dutch photographer Kadir van Lohuizen. Pulling up Van Lohuizen’s interactive photo blog, which tracks his trip from the South America to the United States while looking at the various issues surrounding immigration into America, Vroege demonstrates how the iPad is the perfect tool for viewing this project. “There’s something about holding it,” he says of the device, “You can lean back and immerse yourself in the content.” In collaboration with industry partners, Paradox also launched Y this year, a platform that Vroege says was designed for creating a database for existing and future documentaries. Not only does he feel that these new tablet apps will provide young filmmakers, image makers and journalists with “alternative ways of storytelling”, but the curator sees this as a new way of doing business. “How much are we willing to pay for an app? We started at $2.99, then $3.99, now it’s $5.99,” said Vroege, “Hopefully there’s an earning model there.”

Though he may have had reservations about his PowerPoint skills, rushing through several slides towards the end of the lecture in order to discuss as much of Paradox’s work as possible, Vroege and his organization are on the edge of technological developments that will positively change how multimedia projects are archived, exhibited and sold. And that’s good news for everybody involved.

Max Mertens writes stuff for Toronto Standard (and lots of other publications). Follow him on Twitter at @Max_Mertens.

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