Worldbuilding in the Anthropocene era. A conversation with Jakob Kudsk Steensen

More and more artists are turning their attention towards environmental issues, from climate change effects to the need of repositioning the human role in our ecosystem. Working through new technologies, many artists have identified an emotional potential in the digital medium, conceiving immersiveness as a key triggering factor. Among them, Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen (b. 1987) uses 3D animations, soundscapes and immersive installations to experiment with emotions, collective memory and ecology through environmental storytelling. Fascinated by nature and its phenomena, the artist tackles the Anthropocene; the massive extinction of animals, vegetation and entire ecosystems, due to the irreversible changes in environmental conditions committed by humans. In his practice, Kudsk Steensen uses computer graphics, 3D scanners and virtual reality simulations combined with pieces from natural history archives to build reconstructions of environments or simulations of past, present and future worlds with which to rethink the reality that surrounds us. Art-frame had the pleasure of getting involved in a conversation with him.

Based on your experience, what is the importance of “worldbuilding” in the Anthropocene era?

We are stuck in our rhythms of thinking most of the time, not questioning the deeper roots of our beliefs and behavior patterns, simply reacting to them, expressing them. Worldbuilding allows us to play with deeper ethos, ideologies and belief systems. Values can take any form. Cause and effect of actions, socially and environmentally, can playfully be explored. Games love worldbuilding exercises because they can create realms of critical thinking, open unexplored vessels within our minds. Worldbuilding allows us to create new conditions for life, and our engagements with the planet. I am currently obsessed with climate fiction stories, back to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein from 1818, which starts with experiments on frogs with electricity, or back to ancient fictions with water spirits, morphing creatures, mythologies, songs, verses. I think her book is the first true tech-eco-fiction. Fantasy in RPG (role playing games), where elves, typically, protect the woodlands and you have to question society’s belief in progress. But when does worldbuilding become surface level entertainment, remixes with no connection to the real lives, intelligences, of species far from us? When does it allow us truly to imagine, and connect somehow, with other species and natural histories? I am exploring these questions right now creatively.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, RE-ANIMATED, 2019, Venice Biennale © Maksym Bilousov

Can you tell us about your concept of “slow media”?

Much of what we consume today is created by algorithms, or by humans for algorithms. This is a fast cycle paradigm, triggering quick visuals and auditory satisfactions within us, binge watching, liking images, sending signals of digital media through our minds and bodies. Quite fast. Slow media is a way of working quite differently. While my works can be seen on social media and my website, what you experience there is really far from what it is like entering the work in real life as experiences. They are extremely slow, and audiences typically stay 45 min-3 hours inside of an installation. They are hypnotic, slow, and sensory. But also each takes a long time to make. I create about 1 artwork a year, which then travels, and is shown physically. To me, right now, the physical sensory experience is really important. You can slow down there. I also sell some of my artworks as short video games on the platform steam. I have a kind of “label” called Erratic Animist. It is small. But very passionate. I have a few thousand people buying and downloading my works there. It’s a completely different audience than the artworld. But I like it, because in video games, people take their time. Games and novels are, as I see it, the last long format, slower, experiences of culture we have available today.

In Re-Animated, you bring extinct species to life. How can memory and visual archives act on the concept of loss from an ecocritical point of view?

Re-animated is based on an interview I did with ornithologist Douglas H. Pratt, who spent 40 years of his life studying, in real life, the song birds of Kauai. Most of the species are now extinct. He told me of the last time he saw the iconic Kauai O’o bird. He then gave me sound recordings of the last time it was documented. It was a mating call. So the work deals with how we will have archives, digitally, of species that are now gone. But it is not just a scientific story. It is also deeply emotional. About how we deal with eternal loss in a digital age where we are used to controlling, saving, loading, sending, and receiving immediately. Things will vanish and living things die, a universal rule. For all of us. I think it’s a theme many have issues dealing with today. So the work is both environmental, and more human, psychological, while also technological. My newest work, Tongues of Verglas, documents a now collapsed massive glacial cave in Arolla, Switzerland. I 3D photographed it in 2022 with artist and writer Joel Kuennen. But it collapsed 10 months later, and I went again with artist Lugh O’Neil to recreate the soundscape of the area. So, I now am the only person to possess a full 3D environment of the glacial cave, which is gone forever. Our access to these “ghosts” will only increase. It’s sad. But a reality we have to cope with spiritually as humans.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Arolla Glaciers, Teylers Museum. Photographer Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

What value do you place on the emotional-empathetic dimension of your works?

I don’t think I deal with empathy as such, but more with concepts of memory, emotion and transformation. I don’t think my work will make you feel what it is like to be a bird, a tree or a landscape. But they make you imagine them, as humans, and what it means to share the world with them. The emotional level of my work is essential. Without it, I would not be making what I do. I think there is a strong difference between more explicit scientific or activist climate work, and what I do as an artist. It is connected, but, ultimately, I want people to feel and question what it means for them to live in a fast-changing world.

How do you address the relationship between “visible” and “invisible” in your research?

I treat them as conceptual terms, not purely in relation to what you actually can see, or not see. Conceptually, these terms deal with what we notice, and what we do not, with all of our senses. But also culturally. And technologically. Most worlds of life forms and non-human intelligences are entirely neglected, or forgotten, when it comes to the narratives we tell about the world through technology or AI. I think it’s crucial we pay more attention to life beyond us. Not for the sake of using it or creating philosophies about life. But for their own sake. For wonderment. For respect and a bit of magic kept intact towards what it means to be alive.

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Laura Cocciolillo
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