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The Art of Change

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl, 2021, Courtesy of the artist | Find out more

BEYOND THE LIMIT/
interview

The Art of Change

Emma Enderby on Arts and Speculative Scenarios

Let’s start with a personal question: what drives your work as a curator?

As a curator I can be a bridge, or mediator, between artists and audiences, and allow artists to translate their ideas.

You concentrate on the entanglement of science fiction and arts in your work. Why?

It’s a current research topic of mine, yes. I have seen a rise in thinking about future scenarios, in using tools that science fiction and speculative fiction offer to think about different worlds. What I find particularly interesting about the artists working with science fiction is that their work is equally rooted in reality. It’s not disconnected in terms of being completely fantastical; their scenarios often feel strangely real and possible. And I think artists allow us to see these possibilities; they open up people’s perspectives.

Portrait of Emma Enderby, Photo © Bastian Thiery

Which artists come to your mind?

Tomás Saraceno is one example, and an artist I recently worked with. He proposes a different way of existing together on this planet. What is so brilliant about him is that his propositions of floating cities may seem like an unrealistic utopia, but they’re actually rooted in his own scientific research and his thinking about flying or cooking without using fossil fuels. It’s possible. It just requires a different form of collaboration, different ways of thinking and moving in the world.

Can you give an example?

He developed a flight predictor with his Aerocene community and MIT. It will show you the air currents that you would need to reach a desired destination. It’s flying without burning fossil fuels by using the air and the heat of the sun. What I think is really illuminating is if you select a different day to fly, you might get closer to your final destination or it might take less time or take longer but be more accurate. Hence, it’s a recalibration of expectations for air travel—to fly sustainably we can’t expect immediacy or speed, which we really do at present.

Tomás Saraceno, Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, 2022

The Aerocene Float Predictor (2020) has been developed by Aerocene Foundation in collaboration with Studio Tomás Saraceno and MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). Courtesy Aerocene Foundation

Visit the app: https://app.aerocene.org/

What other artists work in this spirit of the twenty-first century?

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, for example. He’s an artist who uses both the analogue and the digital to create his work. He applies a new type of photography process, macro photogrammetry, and he visits different landscapes and photographing everything in incredible detail in 3D, for instance, a root structure or a leaf or a patch of mud or even an animal. Based on these photographs, he then builds a virtual, three-dimensional world within a game engine, called “Unreal Engine.” Within that world he then inserts animals that have been extinct in those landscapes. While it does take place within a digital space, it also helps people to connect back to a real, nonfictional history. I think that bringing those swamps and lost species back to life can trigger a more profound relationship to what’s left and have it preserved.

I understand there’s a tension in his work between dystopia and utopia. Do you think his work also creates hope among visitors and spectators?

There’s a lot of hope in his work, if we’re able to adapt and change some of our expectations. And I think it sparks hope, because it allows a kind of reentanglement with nature through technology. In a way it’s using technology as an interlock. I often think of this example of the wizard and the prophet where the prophet argues that we need to consume less, cut carbon emissions, et cetera, spreading kind of a preglobalized love. And the wizard says we can use technology and innovate our way through the crisis. In the end, I think both are required to tackle the climate crisis. So, there’s a hope in technology as a tool to save humankind, as long as it’s used in the right way by the right people.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl, 2021

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl, 2021

To what extent do the artists you mentioned have an impact beyond the art scene? Can they actually contribute to a mind shift that makes people realize and feel the urgency?

Many artists can connect outside of the art audience—through collaboration. Driven by ecological concerns, artists such as Fujiko Nakaya, who currently has an incredible retrospective exhibition at Haus der Kunst in Munich, was a member of Experiments in Art and Technology, and has collaborated with scientists, engineers, and other artists to think about how to reach across disciplines and to connect to broad audiences. Meanwhile, Saraceno collaborated with the academic and medical writer Harriet A. Washington, who wrote a seminal book on environmental racism and brought a lot of her research and her work into the exhibition at the Shed in New York. Together, they created a bridge between the academy and an art center. If we truly want to enact change, we have to break down those silos. As Bruno Latour states, there needs to be collaborations with artists, theologists, scientists and musicians, to name just a few disciplines. That’s the gift artists can offer, as they have always collaborated with other disciplines.

Would you say the arts have another potential to anticipate future scenarios than the sciences?

Maybe they do so in different ways. My father was a physicist, so I know that the sciences are highly important, and they have been alerting us for some time about our climate reality. However, different forms of knowledge are needed, and the arts have freedom to be more speculative than the sciences. But a change is happening: more and more scientists are not working in the ivory tower and collaborate with other organizations that do more community-based or citizen science that is more activist in character.

Let me give you an example: there is a machine called the Beta Attenuation Mass Monitors that is utilized and overseen by state and local air environmental agencies. It monitors air pollution (the toxic particle PM2.5) by sucking the air and filtering it onto strips of paper. It’s an incredibly important tool to capture air quality for different areas and helps the environmental and scientific community. However, the data isn’t always accessible to a general public, or sometimes it only monitors air that’s high above the ground level. And so, to expand our knowledge, community-run organizations such as El Puente in New York started an initiative called Our Air! / ¡Nuestro aire! to engage youth organizers, school groups, et cetera to address the environmental crisis of toxic air quality. One way was to equip children with handheld pollution monitors that capture the info on a ground level. So there are different ways of recording, translating, and using scientific data. And that’s why we need to unite scientists, activists, and artists.

Fujiko Nakaya, Nebel Leben, 2022

What can the arts and sciences potentially learn from each other?

Scientists and artists are constantly learning from each other. In academia there’s this constant pressure to publish papers. Collaborating with someone outside of your field as a scientist normally doesn’t really help your academic career. That’s something that needs to change and where the sciences can learn a lot from the arts. You just need to match people like Washington, who is a brilliant academic thinker and professor, with someone like Saraceno, who both see the importance of that connection between the arts and the sciences.

One of the proposed “solutions” to halt the climate crisis is to turn towards Indigenous knowledge systems. What role do artists play in accessing and sharing this knowledge?

There are many Indigenous artists working at the intersection between Indigeneity and ecological concerns. One is Suzanne Kite, who’s a member of the Initiative for Indigenous Futures, asking how to operate in the world in a “Good Way” according to Lakota principles. For example, she and others are thinking about how AI can be developed alongside Lakota ontologies, using contemporary Lakota epistemologies to map a process for ethically built computing devices, hardware, and software. Part of the ontologies that they reference is that everything around us, from stones to algae to clouds, can communicate their own volition. So, by considering how Lakota form relationships with stones could inform our relationships with AI hardware, which is made from mineral. In creating an AI, we need to make it operate in an ethical way. It’s a kind of an object-oriented ontology as well.

Suzanne Kite and Devin Ronneberg, Íŋyaŋ Iyé (Telling Rock), (2019), Photo courtesy Bemis Center of Contemporary Art

When you look at the current discourse on climate crisis would you say you’re rather pessimistic or optimistic?

I go back and forth between pessimism and optimism. It really depends on the day you catch me on. Sometimes, it’s really hard. I’ve read a lot about the Anthropocene and how the rise of capitalism has resulted in the climate crisis we are facing today. And it’s very difficult to create that change on an individual level. It needs to happen on a corporate, on a governmental level. And sometimes it feels like so much needs to change for us to break this system. But then I also feel optimistic when I think about how important this topic has become to so many people, to young people, to people in different fields—it’s impacting conversations across the board. People are asking how to make exhibitions more sustainable, how to run companies more sustainably, et cetera. It feels like it’s being brought into every sector of life and so many brilliant people are pushing for change. I hope that humanity will eventually band together. We need to stay optimistic because we cannot afford to have that pessimistic state of mind.

Finally, could you complete this sentence: “For me, this is personal because . . .”

I think it’s personal for me, because I live and breathe by making exhibitions and working with artists. I truly and profoundly believe in arts and artists’ power to create change, but I think change will only happen through interdisciplinary collaboration.


Questions by Antonia Lagemann

ARTWORKS

Jakob Kudsk Steensen is an artist who uses both the analogue and the digital to create his work. He applies a new type of photography process, macro photogrammetry, and visits different landscapes, photographing everything in detail in 3D, for instance, a root structure or a leaf or a patch of mud. Based on these photographs, he builds a virtual, three-dimensional world within a game engine, called “Unreal Engine.” Within that world he then inserts animals that have been extinct in those landscapes. While it does take place within a digital space, it helps people to connect back to a real, nonfictional history. Thereby, it triggers a more profound relationship to what’s left and have it preserved.


Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl (2021). Live simulation (still). Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by Light Art Space


Tomás Saraceno, Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, 2022. Custom steel, wire net, wood, light, LFE, shakers, fog. Diameter: 95 feet. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno. Commissioned by The Shed, NYC. Photo © Nicholas Knight


Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl. Commissioned by Light Art Space, installed at Halle am Berghain, 2021. © Timo Ohler


Fujiko Nakaya, Nebel Leben (2022). Installation view: Haus der Kunst, München. Photo © Andrea Rossetti


Suzanne Kite and Devin Ronneberg, Íŋyaŋ Iyé (Telling Rock), (2019). Translation By Alex Firethunder. Song, Power, Sound, Processors, Machine Learning Decisions, Handmade Circuitry, Gold, Silver, Copper, Aluminum, Silicon, Fiberglass. Photo courtesy Bemis Center of Contemporary Art

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