in conversation with Ben Vickers
Jakob Kudsk Steensen is a Danish artist and art director based in New York City. He works with large-scale immersive projects that have a particular concern with ecology. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is an artist who examines our relationship with nature and technology. Over the last twelve years Daisy has been engaged in the field of synthetic biology, focusing on thinking through how new roles for artists and designers in this emerging field can be developed.
This conversation tackles themes such as extinction, technology, synthetic biology, and more generally the impact that new technologies are having on the arts today.
Ben Vickers: I would like to start our conversation by talking about the work Resurrecting the Sublime by Daisy: it is a simulated environment, part of a broader exploration that you undertook with the biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks. Daisy, could you give us an overview of that process and how you arrived at producing this particular work?
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: The video is part of a larger work called Resurrecting the Sublime, which is a collaboration between myself, the smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis, the creative director of Ginkgo Bioworks. The video is a reconstruction of Mount Haleakalā on the island of Maui in Hawaii around 1912, the year the tree that you saw in the video, the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus, was last seen. Resurrecting the Sublime is an investigation into the smell of extinct flowers. Ginkgo is a biotech company which at the moment is focused on COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics, but which normally, amongst other things, designs organisms to produce useful molecules. Ginkgo started the research project about four or five years ago: Christina Agapakis went to the Harvard Herbaria and started looking for extinct flowers. She found about 20 specimens and took samples of tissue, from which the scientists extracted the DNA despite the degraded tissue of the pressed flowers, eventually deciphering what smell molecules each plant may have produced. I say may have produced because it is impossible to really resurrect it in the way that we would imagine. The aim of the work at Ginkgo was to try to match the little fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle, against sequences that are already known that produce molecules that smell interesting to us. Once they had a series of predicted sequences, the next step was to synthesize or print the DNA, put it into yeast, grow the yeast and then work out if the yeast was actually producing the smell molecules. Eventually they ended up with a list of molecules from three different flowers, and sent them to Sissel Tolaas (who works with IFF, International Flavors & Fragrances), to explore their smell. She had to find comparative smell molecules, or find the exact same molecules if available, and rebuild the smell. I designed installations where the public could experience these smells once again. The most recent iteration of this project is at the National History Museum in Bern in Switzerland: it’s a giant diorama, the visitors walk in from the back, finding themselves in a bright white room filled with rocks and the smell of an extinct flower diffused around them. Then they leave the room through a hidden door at the front and can look back through the glass, watching other people coming in. The human becomes the subject of this extinction diorama. The three flowers are from Hawaii, Cape Town, South Africa, and Ohio. This project gives a glimpse of the past but it’s not a true reconstruction. Accompanying the installation were the digital reconstructions and a soundscape that was recreated with Sam Conran for each of the different flowers.
BV: Both of you consider current climate crises in your work and how we can think about that in relation to technology and rapidly changing conditions. Jakob, could you tell us about the process of making Catharsis, which was originally commissioned by the PinchukArtCentre and we restaged and extended online at the Serpentine at the beginning of this year as part of the CONNECT project with K-pop band BTS. Could you tell us about this work?
Jakob Kudsk Steensen: Catharsis is a virtual forest made in videogame software, simulated in real time, shown inside Serpentine Galleries, and streamed onto a website where people can experience the forest, live. The forest itself is based on different types of ecosystems and forests across north America, where I have gone and 3D-scanned various plants to get the textures from roots, trees and natural elements. I also recorded the sound with a collaborator of mine, Matt McCorkle. The forest seems like a virtual representation of something real, it’s photorealistic, but it’s an illusion, an imagined impossible ecosystem. The wind, the water and all the natural elements follow different time paths in the work. Through technology you can merge them together to something we humans can perceive. And the work also goes from a bacterial scale, onto water, flowers, then up into the trees and in the end you’re seeing an entire landscape. So there’s also this romantic scale, a holistic scale. A lot of the redwoods suffered from fires in California, this past summer, so this piece is an extension of a work I’ve been doing about extinction, natural history archives and digitizing different places in nature. I often collaborate with Natural History institutions and field biologists: we go for months into different landscapes, and I try to convert this body immersion in a landscape into a virtual space where I believe to make something really sensory in a digital space. I try increasingly to work between an inner, psychological landscape, and an exterior landscape, where things are vanishing because of extinction, and connect those two elements into immersive installations or live streaming.
BV: Your respective practices deal with issues of extinction. Could you speak about what you believe is at stake in the antagonism between the emerging fields of biotechnology and how they intersect with what the world is facing now through a moment of extreme encounter with other forms of biological life?…
ADG: I think the COVID-19 crisis is happening in days, in weeks, in months, and climate breakdown and biodiversity loss is not that far behind. We are getting to the point where it is also an imminent risk. Last year I produced a work called The Substitute, which was recently shown at the Royal Academy: it is a reconstruction of a northern white rhino. The last male of the subspecies died in 2018 and sperm and tissue samples were taken from him. The idea is to try to resurrect the subspecies either through some form of IVF or even to develop stem cell technologies that maybe would be able to bring it back. A nice example of some of the issues here is shown with the Leucadendron grandiflorum, which is one of the three flowers in the Resurrecting the Sublime project. Conservationists in Cape Town hope there may be seeds of this flower still buried in the soil of Wynberg Hill, a suburban area behind Table Mountain in Cape Town, which was the habitat of the lost flower. I have been working with these conservationists who have been planning to burn this hill to see if they could germinate any of the seeds (if they happen to still be buried in the soil) through a controlled burn. First that fire was postponed by climate change because there was a huge drought in Cape Town, then last year it rained the night before each time the fires were planned and finally this year it was all set up for March, when the pandemic hit. You have this imagined potential of a buried seed of a flower that was last seen 200 years ago in a collector’s garden in London, not in Cape Town. Again this loss is a product of colonial extinction. But what is essential to that seed and the possible regeneration of the flower is the rehabilitation of the landscape around it. You need the habitat. It’s the same with the rhino. Even if you could bring it back with technology, is it really a northern white rhino without its habitat or members of its species to be a rhino with? The solutions (if there are any) are complex social and ecological ones, not technological fixes.
JKS: My friend Britt Wray wrote a book about extinction where she interviews scientists all over the world working with a team. What she found out from discussing many different approaches was that none of them are truly recreating the species that were lost. Preservation is the most prevalent strategy, rather than trying to resurrect what is already lost.
ADG: I think we both have an obsession with natural history archives and collections… I completely agree that these rhino skin and tissue samples should be collected because otherwise there is nothing. And what is our responsibility to future generations? We are unable to look after what already exists, so looking to invest in what’s new is a very interesting human trait and it may not be possible to resolve that but maybe it’s a product of the modern human imagination.
JKS: Regardless if you are able to bring back specific animals, you are also engaging with the story of the animal, with its organic material. You are provoking some debates, some narratives, you are making people aware of it. Spreading ideas, emotions and information.
ADG: I think there is an interesting underpart of this whole conversation, which is about the sexiness of the technology that we work with being a way of getting interest and bringing people back into nature. I was watching the Catharsis video, while behind my screen I’m very lucky to be looking at a garden with trees and birds, and it’s a very strange juxtaposition. At the same time, when I saw it at the Serpentine in the middle of the park there was this very artificial nature… I feel the same with my work, creating artificial nature as a way to make people look at nature.
BV: One of the things I particularly loved about having Catharsis in that context on the large screen in the park was how it drew your attention to the simulated nature of the park itself. How do you imagine your work going into the future? Because presently it is presented within the context of art exhibitions, but you are hitting on subjects and utilizing technologies that open up the possibility of working beyond the institutions. Do you envision a moment in the future where your work might not be seen within a gallery, but it may serve another cultural function?
ADG: Yes, with my next project….
ADG: That’s a really important challenge that I face. I love working with museums and galleries, and part of the argument is that while these are privileged spaces, we are primed to be thinking differently in them. I think for me the next step is to actually engage with the outdoors, to bring some of these themes as a way to test moving into the next dimension. Not just inspiring people or connecting with them but actually finding ways to experiment with giving people agency.
JKS: I did another project a few years ago, also in Hawaii but about an extinct bird. We were working with an ornithologist who spent 40 years of his life studying this bird. It was a project based on his emotional connection to the loss of that species, of losing what he explored for 40 years. What I am thinking more and more about, especially with COVID, is this very human dimension among field biologists, whose approach is as experimental as a lot of contemporary artists. I see them as equal collaborators, similarly to when I work with a sound artist or something like that. Digital media can be highly collaborative and be shown across widely different fora, and they can be very engaging for diverse audiences. For my projects it doesn’t matter to me if it’s in a gallery, or if it’s an app, or a festival, they are just different platforms and avenues. What matters to me, is the concept, the collaboration, and their connections to the audience…
BV: You both have extensive skillsets and domain specific knowledge coming from other fields. For Daisy it is the design world and synthetic biology, whilst for Jakob is your expertise in the world of video games. In order to produce this kind of work right now you really need to have this diverse set of perspectives and be sitting inside different communities. Why does it end up in an art context? What is there in art that allows you to produce in a different way?
ADG: That’s a good question. Since 2008 I worked in the field of synthetic biology engaging very deeply with engineers and scientists, making projects and curating work within the field, which gave me lot of insights and left me with a lot of questions. I wanted to make larger projects and what I have learned from that is that you need a lot more people. My studio has been very affected by the pandemic, I had an amazing team, who I had to let go because all the work dropped off a cliff with all the exhibitions shut. But it was a team effort to make these projects. For a recent work called Machine Auguries, I rebuilt the dawn chorus using machine learning in collaboration with an incredible team of theorists, physicists, sound designers, naturalists, and curators. Now it is in an art gallery, but it could be in a cinema, it could be outdoors, it could be in a book, it could be in a podcast. At the moment the art gallery seems like a really good place, but it might be much more appropriate at a zoo or on Netflix. I don’t think it should be restricted and I’m really interested in different media.
JKS: I completely agree. I think what you are mentioning Ben is the necessity of building partnerships. It also means that as an artist you need to engage in different conversations. You need to be open to an entity or a person that might have a different approach to a theme, fields and another agenda. I find this kind of interactions very fruitful, as they create something that goes beyond the idea of the individual artist making an art work that is then presented to someone. When I go to museums and talk about a project, the first point of conversation is the concept, or the idea of an experiment. I think that’s a more dynamic process. When my first point of contact is in the tech world, they ask “Ok so, your project, how do we get it out to 10,000 people?” Then you construct the design around meeting that goal. When you go to institutions it’s kind of the other way around, which I find more meaningful. You start with the idea, the concept, the meaning of a work and collaboration. Institutions have key roles to play in making space for new collaborations. Institutions can instigate and facilitate. They can allow individual artists to enter into forums, where they cannot otherwise go.
ADG: After I finished my Masters I turned up with my collaborator on a project at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition at MIT with 5000 engineering students who were designing organisms. For me that opened up a world which was a very different way of entering, as an artist and practitioner, into the field of technology.
BV: You both have a very sophisticated practice where you’re able to communicate across different worlds, and interact with them in a research-oriented manner. One of the things that is interesting to consider in this moment is how can artists be a part of a larger process of transformation and what role could they play going into the future? We’re in a moment of history that represents extreme flux, the rules and systems of art are being dismantled and now facing significant change and recalibration. How are your practices changing at this moment?
JKS: My attention is on virtual collaboration with people I work with. I’m missing being in the environment: I’m artist in residence at Luma Foundation in the south of France, and for the first three months of this year, I was working specifically on documenting organic soil transformations in the landscape. Now I can’t go there anymore. I’m now working through this organic material virtually, and I think for me it is a way of connecting more directly to the landscapes. I collaborate with several people on the project through a virtual platform we have. Maybe in the future I will do more long-term projects in a specific landscape, with people in different locations.
ADG: What am I doing? Painting, writing. My studio in Somerset House is locked, I am at home and, as I mentioned, my studio is really affected by this situation. Many museums don’t know when they are going to reopen, projects are cancelled or postponed. But also this situation is giving me a chance to think about what kind of collaborations I have been running for two years. How do you make deeper engagements and actually allow people time to really engage with the content, that’s what I hope also changes with this…
BV: I pray every day that that is going to happen. I really believe that this is a moment in which to pause and reflect on what has gone before, to break away from the cycles of production that are now really out of sync with the present and future. I think it is going to be really critical to how art continues, that production slows down.
ADG: I’ve been reading The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. The question is how do we rebuild differently and as an artist, what can my voice do in helping tell stories to get people feeling empowered enough to demand change. So that’s why I think that the Serpentine Campaign movement Back to Earth is really interesting: how do all these things sort of interlock with what we are doing. Now we need to act appropriately, encouraging optimism and action as a way forward.
THE CHANGING WORLD
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, The Deep Listener, 2019 (Augmented Reality Public Artwork at the Serpentine Galleries)
ALEXANDRA DAISY GINSBERG (b. 1982, London, UK) lives and works in London, UK. She examines our fraught relationships with nature and technology. Through subjects as diverse as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, conservation, and evolution, her work explores the human impulse to “better” the world. Recent works include resurrecting the smell of extinct flowers, a simulation of wilding Mars, and rebuilding the dawn chorus using machine learning.
JAKOB KUDSK STEENSEN (b. 1987, Denmark) lives and works in New York. He works with environmental storytelling through 3D animation, sound and immersive installations. He creates poetic interpretations about overlooked natural phenomena through collaborations with field biologists, composers and writers. Projects are based on extensive fieldwork. Key collaborators include Composer Michael Riesman, Ornithologist Dr. Douglas H. Pratt, Architect Sir David Adjaye OBE RA, BTS and The Natural History Museum London.
BEN VICKERS is a curator, writer, publisher, technologist and luddite. He is CTO at the Serpentine Galleries in London, co-founder of Ignota Books and an initiator of the open-source monastic order unMonastery.