Ones to Watch: Jakob Kudsk Steensen
To kick off Climate Week, Milk sat down with a previous artist in residence at Mana Contemporary, Jakob Kudsk Steensen; the Danish artist is currently part of the residency, RE_ACT, on the Portuguese island of Azores, where he is collecting photographic textures and audio for an ocean-themed project.
Typically based in NYC, Steensen’s video and installation works pull from organic material that is digitized to create virtual environments. His landscapes educate people on climate issues by depicting the beauty and mystery of the world around us. “I am trying to connect quite serious climate issues with human emotions, imaginations, and increasingly – a sense of wonderment and appreciation,” he explains, “There is a lot of touching beauty and poetry in remote, niche, ecosystems. I am drawn to those places and I hope the work I create can make people feel new things and influence how they relate to the natural world.”
Most recently, he was shortlisted at the La Biennale di Venezia for his project, RE-ANIMATED, which was based on the extinct Kaua’i ʻōʻō bird. The installation featured both video and VR, and was paired with interactive audio composed by Michael Riesman, the Musical Director for the Philip Glass Ensemble, to highlight how humans interact and alter nature. If you’re in London, make sure to check out his project, The Deep Listener, that closes next week at Serpentine Galleries.
Tell us about the project you are working on right now on Azores.
I am currently on the Azores as part of the residency RE_ACT. It is a lovely program run by artists Paul Avila and Paul Arriano from here, and it focuses on environmental projects. Artists Regina De Miguel, Paul Rosero Contreras, as well as curators Irene Campolmi and Angels Stena are also joining me.
I am here with my wife Elizabeth Kircher who is my collaborator on a new ocean-themed project. Together we are working with marine biologists on the island of Faial. The island has a large community of marine biologists, who all gather here to study deep-sea life, whales, sharks, underwater volcanic organisms and much more.
I have been diving and living by the ocean for most of my life. We have been working on deep-sea research and building networks around the theme for a couple of years. We are on the Azores as a preliminary field trip, networking, meeting people, and diving underwater landscapes with volcanic activities. It is very alien, otherworldly and inspiring because life in those areas follow different rules of life than most other organisms.
We are currently spending most days underwater where we are collecting textures through photography and audio. I have a large digital library of textures from plants and species from around the world, and it is the first time we have collected material underwater. Our purpose here is to be inspired and to be immersed in the deep blue.
Describe your practice, what are the main components and ideas that give structure to your work?
I am inspired by conversations with field biologists, and the passion and stories they have about environments they often spend decades of their lives exploring, documenting, and writing about. All the work I do is based on such conversations. From them, I draw specific perspectives, ideas or sensations, and imaginations, which feel powerful and relevant to me.
From there I go and spend weeks or months in landscapes to become immersed and sense what the space, weather, and colors are like in a location. I then start to design entire virtual landscapes, informed by the stories and places I have visited.
Immersive media (VR, AR, video installations) are powerful tools to convey new ecological perspectives and imaginations because they can be used to transform time and space in new ways. Much of the work and ideas generated by field biology can be quite abstract to many people because it goes far beyond what most of us were taught in biology in school. Most people have a very basic understanding of biology. Within a technology and media-saturated landscape, I strive to introduce a sense of mysticism, wonderment, and curiosity for a different kind of life.
How does the visual component of your art lend itself to conveying the underlying message of what you are trying to say?
Everything you see in my work is, in its essence, based on photographs I take of plants and species. This engagement with “reality” infuses itself into the final expression of my work and what I am trying to say. I think that we live in times of transformation, where things are changing at planetary and microbial scales simultaneously. No one really is able to determine what the future may be like ecologically speaking, and there is a lot of room for imagination.
I am trying to connect quite serious climate issues with human emotions, imaginations, and increasingly – a sense of wonderment and appreciation. There is a lot of touching beauty and poetry in remote, niche, ecosystems. I am drawn to those places and I hope the work I create can make people feel new things and influence how they relate to the natural world.
What has lead you to incorporating sustainability into your work?
This was never a conscious choice. I grew up close to the ocean, and I started spending long periods of time immersed in landscapes, underwater, in caves, in trees and so forth, from a very early age. With the emergence of immersive media, I have found a form that truly feels natural to me because it allows me to submerge my audience into ecosystems and perspectives on nature they are foreign to.
I am also inspired by concepts of animism and sacred spaces that are connected to environments. I think we are in need of intuitive, holistic and imaginative uses of technology that is capable of making us relax and feel connected to the natural world.
What does it mean to be sustainable as artists, to you?
The concept of sustainability itself is complex to me. On the one hand I think we need to consume a lot less technology than we do, but on the other hand, it is a mobile, transformative, and translucent medium able to be distributed far and wide and in many forms; from phones to public spaces, and from VR to full-scale location-specific installations.
Digital technologies can share new perspectives on ecology and sustainability to many people. When a VR work of mine goes on tour, it has about 100,000 people seeing it, and the amount of resources it takes to show once created is minimal when compared to large sculptures, installations and physical objects that need shipping etc.
On the other hand, the work I do with digital technologies might inspire younger people and artists to also go the route of producing digital formats for commercial digital industries. The mount of material we consume today in digital media is more than it has ever been, and most of us are pseudo addicted to it (Another reason we do projects immersed in landscapes is to free the mind and eject a bit from mainstream ideas circulating art and on social media).
I am not quite sure what it means to be a sustainable artist, but it is something I increasingly think about.
The environment and climate change issues can oftentimes feel very daunting. How do you take environmental issues and make them digestible?
The planet is changing and there is no doubt about it. When you are on a location like the Azores you feel it even stronger in the ocean because it is in the middle of streams connecting Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It is literally on three tectonic plates connecting three continents. So here, climate change is felt much stronger than on the mainland, with winds, currents, temperature, and species migration changing.
However, what motivates me is more the emotions and imaginations connected to stories of climate change. I want to make people able to perceive, with their bodies and emotions, that the climate and world is transforming.
The way I make it digestible is to focus on very specific stories about one specific bird, a single organism, a single place, and from that I extract grander and wider stories and imaginations that can appeal to more everyday things as well. My work RE-ANIMATED is based on the recordings of an extinct bird for example, but it also explores feelings and notions of loss in a digital age. How do we cope with the fact that life can vanish completely in an age of control+z? In a digital age where things can be instantly loaded, stored and distributed? – All my works are about specific ecological changes but they are also about much wider human emotions and conditions we live under.
Images Courtesy of Jakob Kudsk Steensen.
Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.