Header Image: Jakob Kudsk Steensen, RE-ANIMATED, 2018.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Ben Vickers: Throughout your work there exists an implicit and explicit challenge to assumed notions of the “natural”; whether that be in the entire construction of an existent island from online material, in Primal Tourism or the hybrid synthesis of real-time data flows and photographic textures ported into a simulated environment, in the case of Pando Endo.
Haraway once stated in her now epochal A Cyborg Manifesto “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum [..] Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.” Could you speak to these “natural” antagonisms in your artworks, both in subject matter and their physical presence as matter in the world?
Jakob Steensen: My primary interest as an artist is how we psychologically and emotionally relate to the climate.
Ether has historically been used to think about everything from radio waves to gods, clouds and chemistry. I like the word because it has a ghost-like ring to it, and it can refer to something that appears both material and immaterial. In comparison, my projects are based on real world organic material, which I digitize with 3D scanners, photogrammetry, satellite terrain data and photos of organic textures I take while immersing myself in environments—often for months at a time. In the studio, I reassemble the virtual source material into new worlds that people experience in my exhibitions.
I show my virtual environments within larger physical installations, which mimic the ambience and material of the digital worlds. I do not see my work as purely digital, but as installations of landscapes where organic materials from the past meet the present, in physical and virtual forms. I am interested in how organic materials and infrastructures weave into our lives, and imaginations of our relationship to the world.
In Pando Endo, for example, I photographed several aspen trees across a mountain in New Mexico. What we perceive as individual trees composing a forest is, from a biological perspective, a single unified organism: the oldest and largest in the world. Aspen trees are clonal, so every tree you see in a given colony has identical DNA, and every tree is connected to a single ancient root system. In my studio I built an algorithm that remixed a number of my photographs of roots, bark, and moss of many aspen trees together into a single new structure shown as video and in virtual reality.
Primal Tourism, the other work you mentioned, is a digital construction of the entire island of Bora Bora in French Polynesia. To make the virtual world I sourced hundreds of images by visitors to the island, and from that material I created sceneries and locations on the island that people can explore through VR. In a sense, I built a reality sourced from tourists’ images of an island. When I show the artwork, the audience enter a physical space with wood, lights, sand, and postcards I made from screenshots of the virtual landscape. I think contrasting the physical and virtual locations makes it more immersive. I also make sure not to hide the technology used to run the art works. I want to emphasize that our perception of ecology today is informed by data and technology.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Pando Endo, 2017.
BV: This hybridization of technology and nature speaks very clearly of a type of synthesis in processes and materials that will only accelerate with the rise of biotechnologies and autonomous vehicles/entities intent on capturing, categorizing, and cataloging the world. I’d love to understand how this process evolved in your subsequent works?
JS:In Aquaphobia, which I made one year ago, I developed a virtual replica of Louis Valentino Park and Pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The digital reconstruction is inhabited by past plant and soil types, which were there before it was urbanized. In the piece, you follow a sentient water microbe reciting a poem around the landscape. The poem tells a story about how you, as the viewer in the VR headset, emotionally broke up with the landscape and the sentient water organism. To make the work I used satellite maps of the area, deep sea images of water microbes, and 3D scans of plants, soil, and rocks. As a result, the work appears fantastical and mystical, but it is de-facto composed of real-world digitized organic material.
The last time I exhibited Aquaphobia was in Trondheim for the Art and Technology Biennale. We had two tons of red clay, the same type that also existed historically in Brooklyn, dug up from an island near Trondheim and shipped to the exhibition space, RAKE. Visitors physically enter a space that mimics the virtual landscape of Aquaphobia, and the floor has the same materiality as Red Hook did in the past. It is interesting for me to work with this kind of geological, physical, and virtual displacement with enough room for the audience to feel that they are free to explore the real and digital landscapes.
When you take apart the concept of nature and reassemble it into something “cyborg” (to refer to your comment), then you open freedom to accept and explore new worlds and possibilities. To reference back to Haraway in your first question– I think Haraway gained popularity in contemporary art discourses after A Cyborg Manifesto because of how it abolishes classical dichotomies between nature/culture and technology/humans/emotions. When you move beyond the concept of natural, then you are free to rethink gender, ecology, technology, and these categories’ relationships with us. I’d like to think that I do this by literally collecting organic material, digitizing it, then rearranging it into new constellations. I think that we live in a time where technology and the climate transform at paces quicker than it is possible for the individual to truly perceive, and I hope that my work offers some form of new understanding of what it means to exist in a time where data and biology fluidly interconnect.
BV: In your early works there is a sense of isolation, at times desolation. In more recent work, this feeling seems to have transmuted into an exploration of loss or embodied grief. RE-ANIMATED, your latest work, sets out to answer the question, “How will future generations use virtual worlds to remember and experience species which have ceased to exist?”
How did you come to explore these questions personally, and what do you believe is at stake in answering them? RE-ANIMATED suggests the potential of revitalizing life lost, a resurrection, rather than purely memorializing something lost.
JS:My work started with a wide infrastructural angle and point of view in A Cartography of Fantasia (2015), a project made with the residency AADK in a desert of Spain. I spent two months driving around documenting the plant and animal life of derelict tourist infrastructures. I slept in a tent in ruins of desert resorts, immersing myself in the landscape. The fantasy of the landscape is a tropical climate, but it is, in its ecological reality, a red desert that has more in common with Northern Africa than tourist postcard visions of a beach landscape with a pool.
I realize that I have spent a big part of my life in relative solitude, working digitally, communicating with friends through computers, exploring landscapes through online worlds and so forth. Terratic Animism is a work from 2016 that specifically explores themes of isolation within grander technological and natural histories. To make the work, I spent two months exploring derelict energy infrastructures. My aim was to oscillate between something associative, personal, and discursive modes. I also showed Terratic Animism on video screens in Times Square for “Midnight Moment”. Sometimes something special happens when your solitary self meets with a large public space.
My new work RE-ANIMATED stems from real audio recordings of a bird that became extinct during the late 1980s. As data, the bird’s mating call lives on in a ghost-like condition. I heard the Kauai’O’o’s song two years ago on YouTube, and it has haunted me ever since. In the comments section I read thousands of burial memorials dedicated to the bird. The comments section almost became a form of altar, and with half a million views on YouTube, I started to imagine people sitting––like myself––staring in solitude at their monitor, looking for some sense of connection to a fleeting media world. The bird song also brings forth memories and emotions connected to past natural conditions. I think technological advancements, digital media and the internet, have transformed how we socialize, work and identify our individual relationships with our surroundings. However, the transformations have happened quicker than we can adapt. I wrote an article for Engadget on this theme back in May.
RE-ANIMATED is my artistic way of adapting to new ecological and technological realities. It explores a new form of existence, where species can live on as data. Memories of the past are digitized and transformed into archives, which are accessible online. Some future generations may only be able to access natural parks through virtual reality.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, RE-ANIMATED, 2018. Installation View: Tranen Contemporary Art Center, 2018. Photo David Stjernholm.
BV: What you describe and capture in this work is intense and illustrative of a process of grief that it feels many have disengaged from. I am myself deeply sceptical of the efforts of de-extinction projects, as an extension of the ethos of techno-solutionism, but I recognize that a process of thinking through and engaging actively with the issue of extinction is a fundamental call in this moment. I wondered in thinking through these subjects whether there are thinkers or theorists that have had a particular influence on your own thinking?
JS: Writer Britt Wray recently visited my studio. She published a well-known book titled Rise of the Necrofauna in which she interviewed many of the leading scientists, organizations, corporations and universities engaged with de-extinction. We circled around the subject of de-extinction ethics, and like you, I am critical of it. However, as an artist I am interested in underlying cultural histories, which motivate preservation and de-extinction both. It is the deeper psychological aspects that interest me. De-extinction is a theme that characterizes the present, I think. We are faced with future techno-utopian scenarios, and dreams, as well as tales of complete species extinction.
Sociologist Anthony Giddens gave a talk titled “Between Immortality and Armaggeddon: Living gin a High Opportunity, High Risk Society” a few years ago, and it has influenced my thinking greatly. Curator Toke Lykkeberg pointed me towards it, and we opened my first institutional solo show at Tranen Center for Contemporary art this November 8. Giddens says that we either face certain future ecological doom, or a new reality unbound by the biological limitations and infrastructures of the past. The catch is, he says, that we have no past historical situation to fully mirror ourselves in and thereby assess the risks of future actions. As a result, we are unable to project into the future, and we currently exist in a kind of hazy middle ground. It is this middle ground that I want to explore with RE-ANIMATED.
Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich is also of interest to me, because of the way he transforms biological studies of deep sea microbes into fresh ways of perceiving how our individual lives are connected to oceanic biomass transformations. Jeff Vandermeer, the author of the Southern Reach Trilogy is also inspiring, primarily for his highly imaginative and wild descriptions of individuals, infrastructures, and ecosystems intertwining.
BV: The scale and ambition of the projects you undertake in your work necessitate the need for a larger team, whilst many artists these days have large studios, these studios are predominantly understood as being composed of workers, rather than a team working together collaboratively to realize a vision. Could explain how your recent projects are realized as a team, and how this practice is informed by your previous experience?
JS: I have worked in creative industries before, as a producer and as a lead 3D developer. Many friends in my network work on AAA games or for agencies and brands. This is an amazing global and vibrant community of people that I love, but I have also seen it lead to burnout.
What sometimes happens is that a director walks in with an idea and a deadline. A producer is hired to execute it, and a team of developers are hired to execute the director’s idea on a tight budget and deadline. When I do commercial projects, I operate within these kinds of structures. But it is a model that limits true creative technological exploration, and you are, occasionally, feeding the ego and brand of someone else. As an artist I am interested in offering an alternative.
When I work with people it is because of something they are already making, something they are experimenting with and would like to share. Right now, I am working with Michael Riesman, Musical Director for the Philip Glass Ensemble. With Philip he had created an algorithmic digital pipe organ that continually evolves. It sounds like classical music, but it is, in fact, never the same and the melody changes all the time. The feedback Michael got from a concert hall was that it was not “musical” enough. Having spoken with him for a few years, I invited him to further explore his technology and have it become part of RE-ANIMATED. As a result, we have a digital algorithmic pipe organ connected to virtual plants and moss which react to his music. He gets to freely unfold his creative vision for the technology, and he is entirely credited for his part.
I also worked with Andy Thomas, a very experiential developer in New Zealand. He travels the world on a small budget recording birds and converting them into stunning fluid simulations. I invited him to make one of the bird calls from the MP3 song of the extinct Kauai O’o. Another friend, Todd Bryant, is making voice and gaze reactive systems, so that in VR your breathing and eyes influence the virtual landscape. Todd is an amazing friendly person, who is a big part of the NYC VR community. Lykkeberg has been a major help to this project, and Jazia Hammoudi, my studio manager, who helps with everything from research to writing and project realization.
As an artist, I try not to be too tightly strapped into specific patterns of production to streamline my work, because I want to be able to develop worlds which appear fresh and imaginative each time. Rarely do I hire someone to simply solve a specific task for me or to execute my vision. I aim to let people who are doing experimental ecology-oriented media projects unfold their passion projects, as part of larger conversations and collaborations I organize through my practice.
For my solo exhibition at Tranen in Denmark, I worked with the Museum of Natural History in NYC and Harvestworks in Manhattan for audio development, as well as Unreal Engine, Houdini VFX, Max MSP and Bidule. I have established relationships with these companies, and my work is shared across developer forums and communities too. I have found an increased interest from commercial 3D companies to support artists. Lykkeberg and I got support from The Danish Arts Council, Bikuben Foundation and Mana Contemporary to realize the work. I was able to pay all involved and my own salary while making the project. I am interested in developing a structure that allows both myself and others to use technology to imagine, conceptualize, and share something that you cannot imagine until it comes into being. Like an infrastructure for radical imaginations expressed through immersive installations.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Terratic Animism (still), 2016.
BV: You have said that a key aspect of your work is an experiential slowing down, the development of a slow media. Could you speak to this desire and why you consider it to be important in this moment?
JS: It is not easy to create room for contemplation and appreciation in a digital culture today that structurally (and financially) survives on clicks, likes, and spectacular effects. I have spent the past three years developing a model that allows me to realize large-scale projects, which are imaginative and emphasize intuitive uses of technology. 3D models are handcrafted and hand painted (I digitally paint on 3D models with my own photographs of organic materials), audio is recorded in the field and remixed digitally, and I work with friends to develop experiential technologies. I use sensory tools and methods from first-person computer game worldbuilding. I spend 3-6 months building each world, and every texture and virtual effect is included to evoke sensations of humidity, dryness, cold, warmth, muddyness, and so forth. The ability to evoke memories in your body of different elements is attractive to me, and I prefer to provoke sensory reactions, rather than discursive or interactive ones. Working in a way that is slow, thoughtful, and meticulous has become important to me.
There is something to be said about persistence and depth in our time of speed, hype, and commercialization of everything. When you read a book you enter a form of reflective solitude, where words appear within your own head, but the words are shared by another human. That to me is a beautiful intimate relationship. In many ways, I think literature is the most radical art form of the century. I hope my slow worlds feel intimate to people, and I hope they have sensory dimensions able evoke curiosity and corporal presence.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I started to modify a video game called Unreal Tournament as a teenager. It is essentially the same software I use in my work today (Unreal Engine) in a more updated version.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I studied fine arts at Central St. Martins in London and art history in Copenhagen for my MA. My undergraduate degree is in visual culture and anthropology.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I am fortunate enough to make a living from my art. When I need to work on other things, I work as a level designer, environment artist, and art director for video games and virtual reality productions. Before that, I worked in phone sales and car parking, and I freelanced editing books, curating, and doing small cultural gigs. It is my aim to keep building an infrastructure as a studio, that allows me to collaborate and build imaginative worlds for people to experience.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)