by Vidur SethiFeb 15, 2022
Is the current day art practice, dominated by the issues of climate change, a corollary of contemporary artists' response to climate change, or do the soaring environmental changes have been instrumental to bring about a modification in the making of an art form? Even if, on the face of it, the question reads rhetorical, it does register to break the public consciousness to elicit information on the intensity of the alteration humans have incurred to the planet earth. The Danish visual artist and director Jakob Kudsk Steensen's sound and video installations carry a lyrical effect to open discussion on the dire state of natural phenomenon, otherwise immune from garnering the attention of the public.
A finalist for the Future Generation Art Prize at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Kudsk Steensen’s body of work, which he likes to term "environmental storytelling", highlights the best use of digital technology. For instance, the art installation Aquaphobia talks about the dystopian scenario of Brooklyn or The Deep Listener showcases the richness of flora and fauna at Hyde Park with the computational design techniques to optimise the public interest towards the soaring climate changes. The massive sound and immersive installations created with 3D animation are based on a series of extensive fieldwork along with collaboration with field biologists, music composers and writers. In an interview with STIR, Kudsk Steensen lays acute importance on the practice of fieldwork in his practice, “My work is based on long walks, circling the same areas, often over weeks or months at the time. This allows me to see unseen places and enables a way of imagining with the landscape, seeing, sensing and creating often quite sensory and imaginative as well as deeply emotional experiences. Without it, I cannot exit preconceived ways of thinking within myself and imagining. No landscape, no artwork for me.”
He adds, “Your eyes start seeing things in the world you cannot notice right away. I then focus on those elements and digitise them and use them as blocks I can recompose in virtual space, in order to finally create creative emotional immersive worlds. It also allows me to play with boundaries between cartographic, mappings, extracting, and more scientific rational ways of navigating space, versus intuitive, sensory and expressive ways as a human. My work often oscillates between these different ways of relating to a place.”
The 18-minute-long video Liminal Lands, commissioned by LUMA Arles, is based on the research Kudsk Steensen first did about wetlands. They cover one per cent of the planet but account for 10 per cent of all biodiversity. They are also where freshwater is generated and the soil is like a liver or a membrane, able to filtrate toxins and transform dead matter into new energy. All major civilisations, unless nomadic, are built on wetlands that humans cannot survive without. But in the 1700 and 1800 most wetlands were destroyed or paved over, as means of rationalising space into cities or farmland.
As someone committed to reviving fascination and interest in wetlands, and their life forms, Kudsk Steensen explains, “You start by sensing salt and humidity levels different across the wetland Camargue I worked in. Sounds become more present. The wind is felt in a different way. I then attempt to become fully immersed, in this case spending an entire year exploring the site, which triggers a variety of memories and sensibilities in my physical body and intuitive parts of my brain. A new kind of neural network is formed within you - sensing, seeing and noticing elements in greater detail. The Camargue is very flat land, so the usual way of looking directly ahead vanishes from your behaviour.”
“All these changes influenced the making of the VR artwork and what it introduces to the audience, as they sink into the virtual soil. The digital world responds to their movement and sounds change when your body changes location. So, you sort of perform with the landscape as an audience, similar to how I did on-site. This is a different, more human, holistic way of relating to the place than the initial wetland-based research behind it,” he says.
The latest vast digital installation Berl-Berl, displayed at Berghain in Berlin, takes the viewers onto a journey through a virtual wetland. The installation aims to indicate the condition of wetlands is also determined by the current marshes of Berlin, extinct species, and ancient swamp mythologies.
“Berl-Berl is a song and an organ for swamps, mourning the lost and embracing the new (being in the moment of transition), reviving wetland sensibilities and perspectives, making people appreciate the complexities and beauties of swamps around Berlin. ‘Berl’, the Slavish word for the swamp, is thought to be the origin of the word ‘Berlin’ and gives the exhibition its name.”
To create this work, Kudsk Steensen documented local wetlands using macro photogrammetry, which allowed him to 3D scan flora and soil in ultra-detail. Furthermore, the artist partnered with the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin to use their research material on the specimens and animal sounds, including those from the Brandenburg region. Kudsk Steensen combined these files with his recordings from the wetlands in an effort to forge a relationship between the past and present. The site-specific soundscape is produced in collaboration with musician Arca and sound artist Matt McCorkle. It brings together the samples of Arca’s voice with archival records of wetland sounds, also sourced from the Museum für Naturkunde, and spoken examples of the numerous different words for ‘Berlin’ over the centuries.
The network of LED screens and speakers simulates the physical landscape as it shifts the arrangements of visual imagery from the hyper-realistic to fantastical and futuristic. The immersive experience for the audience opens a world which remains hidden to the naked eye.
The experience of living through pandemic has been an eye-opener: to see nature as both preserver and destroyer, and its power to be merciful and healer. Kudsk Steensen enunciates, “During the COVID lockdowns, I have been focusing on making work that I hope people feel is for them, like a gift …. For now, I have been wanting people to sense the soil and worlds beneath our feet in new ways. Worlds we have forgotten about, places that need attention, detailed care.” This is what is lucidly reflected in Kudsk Steensen’s works - an organic reconnect with nature.