Jakob Kudsk Steensen

in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

HUO: We are engaging in conversation a few days after James Lovelock passed away. In Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, he suggests new beings will emerge from AI systems. Nonethless, Nick Bostrom argues that if machine brains surpass human ones, such new superintelligence could replace humans as the dominant lifeform on Earth. What is your take on AI?

JKS: AI is built on prescribed systems: you feed it, it learns, and enforces its logic. In the frame of Liminal Lands, commissioned by LUMA Arles in 2020, I inserted my body into the landscape to challenge such computational systems. I 3D-scanned a glacial cave with cameras by moving my body throughout it. In the studio, software trained on machine learning transformed the 1800 images I shot into full 3D. The result is fed on images outside of technological or even art realms, as another physical rhythm has been put forward.

HUO: What are currently you working on?

JKS: With Liminal Lands, I discovered a lot of the wetlands we have in Europe—which give us fresh water and avoid droughts—stem from past glaciers. When scanning the cave, I noticed a particular lichen shares its name with the glacier’s and the region’s ones. I then merged languages and landscapes with technology, creating a virtual environment where these names, words, and codes interact. In Berl-Berl: The Singing Swamp, currently on view at ARoS Museum of Art, Denmark, I expand on words and lost mythologies. I produced a digital living landscape with musician and artist ARCA singing and interpreting folklore used in the past to describe the region, its rivers, mud, and water. As Melanie Challenger suggests in On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature, giving names to beings is a way to acknowledge and safeguard them.

HUO: You are neither stranger to nature nor to video games. How are they entangled together in your practice?

JKS: I investigate how video games enable us to develop a sensibility of the environment. Natural spaces influence us in a deep psychological way. How, then, to expand our perceptions through technology? By way of an example, researchers have noticed sperm-whales are not only able to use echolocation to memorize entire regions but also to communicate through space. As humans, we might actually do it with video games, whose potentials are largely underrated.

HUO: Could mainstream games be a significant world leverage?

JKS: I have been working in the game industry for many years prior to turning to art. It is a rigid system where it is hard to create something allowing you to explore beyond. Nonetheless, Death Stranding has for instance a very different sensibility compared to what games normally have. Perhaps our culture can do something at a different scale. There is a new generation of artists evolving on a different use of technologies and networks.

HUO: Many games bring physical and virtual reality together, allowing for bilateral collaborations as opposed to top-down hierarchies.

JKS: Three things interest me about gaming. The first is the environmental storytelling, through which one is able to play with space and have an impact on gamers’ perceptions while building memories of unique places. Thus, games are tools to re-distribute sensibility, opening up little portals into remote regions people are forgetting. The second thing is gaming as an orchestra with musicians playing either harmoniously or chaotically. In my works, I involve scientists or authors to play perspectives against each other. It recently happened with Johannes Helden, who introduced me to a less rational but dreamier relationship with the world. The third aspect is morphing inputs and traces from the world at different time scales. As in RE-ANIMATED, I can merge the sound of an alive bird with one from sixty years ago or even have it influenced by a human voice.

HUO: We are currently experiencing the climate crisis. In fact, we address such concerns even in the exhibition Worldbuilding: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age at Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf. Can gaming improve the world and foster alternative ways of connecting to each other and the environment?

JKS: I am actually excited to see young artists adopting video games as their lingo. I admire a few artists featured in your show. Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley explicitly deals with politics in a confrontational exchange with the audience. There is also Keiken, who adopt a morphing way of collaborating and playing with non-hierarchical worlds. There is not a singular way of using games as an art form. As for your question, I am intrigued by strengthening audience’s ability to perceive environmental spaces and to experience synesthesia through gaming. In exploring alternative forms of collaborations and sensibilities I take the cue from novels, as writing is the strongest virtual tool we have. One can imagine something, write it down, and thousand years later a person is entering another’s mind, building spaces and tuning emotions to their own code.

HUO: I have just been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future and The High Sierra: A Love Story, which are among the greatest books on climate change. Which books would you recommend?

JKS: I would suggest Origins. How the Earth Shaped Human History by Lewis Dartnell. But also Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. As for novels, I have recently been reading a lot of China Miéville. He creates fictional worlds about class, imagination, and conformity, inviting the reader to consider the world as an animated entity. In Kraken, he stages outcasts in London. He reanimates and turns them into gods and mythological beings who live a parallel life in unexplored suburban places. Miéville’s words can be extremely pervasive, as much as I would like video gaming to be. One can close their eyes and sense the whole story in their mind.

HUO: Last time we met, you told me about an unrealized work connected to the Anthropocene. Can you expand on this?

JKS: Playing video games is like reading a novel: one really enters a deeper psychological level. With my new project, I attempt to reach for overlooked environments and turn them into songs on our conflicting origins. A human narrative coexists with strange creatures from worlds beyond the familiar, as in books by Jeff VanderMeer or N.K. Jemisin. When working on an exhibition, one has to open to environments to be linked together via different tiers of experience. I do so by collaborating with young artists as well as with senior professionals in the game industry, fostering different dialogues, rhythms, and sensibilities to connect to the environment again.

HUO: Etel Adnan once said that in the Anthropocene we impose things to the world; we need to learn to listen again. The Deep Listener is exactly about that. Can you tell us about this extraordinary project, which allowed us to overcome Serpentine’s footprint?

JKS: Designed as an augmented reality and spatial audio work downloadable as an app for mobile devices, The Deep Listener allowed us to experience sounds of nature at a different scale, emphasizing spatiality in a way that no other medium can. One could wander in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and unlock ones’ senses to listen to plane trees, bats, parakeets, azure blue damselflies and reedbeds in an unexpected physical expedition.

HUO: Soon after that, we collaborated for Catharsis, in the frame of the global public art project initiated by South Korean supergroup BTS titled Connect BTS 2020. You built a virtual ecosystem and synchronized spatial audio from 3D textures and sounds collected in a number of North American forests.

JKS: Yes. We created a virtual forest by combining multiple different North American trees and recording different winds, rivers, and species with the sound artist McCorkle. It seems like a single shot through the forest from morning to dawn when in fact every different element in the forest—the weather, the wind, the water, the rain, the sun—play at a different pace. Suddenly millions of people watched the video online and thousands of people joined us to the gallery. We played with an erratic and chaotic approach and reached unusual audiences.

HUO: Technical and industrial advancements are in part responsible for the destruction of nature and extinction of species. How do you deal with it?

JKS: We are living in a time where we are trying to bring back extinct species, in a whole de-extinction movement coming out of anxiety of nature decay. Ted Chiang asserts we are moving into a future where technology is going to make memories of what we have lost more objective. In RE-ANIMATED, which is a video and VR work that meditates on our paradoxical techno-scientific trajectory, I deal with extinction but above all with the acceptance of vanishing lives into cosmic dust.

HUO: What advice would you give to a young artist?

JKS: Coming from digital art, I would suggest to never expect a given system to be fixed in time. If you are working with a peripheral or unaccepted format, look at it from a unique perspective. Embrace it and build upon it rather than try to adapt it to an existing format.

HUO: That is a great answer. The challenge of the Anthropocene also relates to the notion of collaboration—between different species and plants not necessarily only between humans. All kinds of new collaborations are progressing and set new alliances.

JKS: I bring together collaborators with overlooked perspectives on ecosystems. They might be allowed to share just one perspective through official channels. I pull singers, video game developers, other professionals together to create something outside the accepted codes. The ultimate challenge is trying to instigate a structure for making something not yet imagined. The best way of doing this is to create a different space with different participants in it. It is my job as an artist to find ways to connect each other. Once you do that, you can achieve something beyond your own imagination.

HUO: Thank you, Jakob.

Lands, 2021–2022 (ongoing), installation view, Luma Foundation, Arles, 2021 Commissioned by Luma Foundation Photo: Marc Domage

Portrait by Bastian Thiery

Jakob Kudsk Steensen
in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

CURA. 39
Are We Eternal Beings?
Fall Winter 22-23

All images: Courtesy: the artist

Jakob Kudsk Steensen (b. 1987, Denmark) is an artist working with environmental storytelling through 3D animation, spatial sound and enveloping 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 musician ARCA, composer and musical director for the Philip Glass Ensemble Michael Riesman, ornithologist and author Dr. Douglas H. Pratt, architect Sir David Adjaye OBE RA, BTS, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Natural History Museum Berlin, among others.

Hans Ulrich Obrist (b. 1968, Zurich) is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than three hundred shows.