When developing his futuristic virtual simulations, Jakob Kudsk Steensen ventures into the real world in search of the organic material that will form the inspirational backbone of his work. The New York-based artist uses the source material from these intense excursions – from rare clay to a certain strain of sediment – coupled with conversations with biologists and ethnographers, and inspiration from ecology-orientated science fiction, to create his vast imaginative virtual worlds inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures. Through his practice, Steensen – originally from Denmark – is concerned with how imagination, technology and ecology intertwine. Specializing in real-time futuristic simulations of existing ecosystems exhibited as video installations and VR, his aim is to generate a new type of ecological awareness.
Jakob and I sat down for a conversation at NEW INC.
Brett: What was your origin in art?
Jakob: Originally, I wanted to be an animator, but there was a submission test where you had to draw the same figure 17 times in different expressions and poses, and I knew I couldn’t do it. So I went down the fine arts route instead. However, I didn’t get into the Royal Academy in Denmark – “the” art school in the country - so I spent the year studying social anthropology instead. Prior to that I attended an experimental art school in the city of Aarhus while working in phone sales, cleaning and by parking cars.
“Virtual fits certain ideas about things that can morph and change or things that are networked and collected”
BW: Not getting into that school sounds like it worked out for you.
JS: After studying anthropology for one year I spent three years studying art history, and then went to Central Saint Martins in London for a year, after which I returned to Copenhagen to complete my Master’s thesis. That was a bizarre paper on intuition and emotion and digital media. At the end, I went to Spain to make a project about abandoned tourist resorts. I showed that, and I made a living from art from then on.
“I also just want to emphasize that you can use this media to imagine different kinds of landscapes of the future.”
BW: Were there any specific artists that inspired you?
JS: When I was in art school in 2011, Ed Atkins started showing in London. I thought his work was really interesting. He’s more like a writer using the virtual as his avatar, as part of his writing. That inspired me a lot.
BW: Was your earlier work mainly painting?
JS: Paintings based on natural history. Alongside all of this, I’d also been modifying and playing games, hanging out with people building games in 3D. I was painting virtual ecosystems, and drawing people on the bus and their expressions and phones. I have 300 tiny ink drawings of people on their phones.
BW: Can you talk a little bit about how you got to the work that you’re doing today, which is very much based on both virtual and ecological ideas?
JS: Virtual fits certain ideas about things that can morph and change or things that are networked and collected. People who do animation really well in games have studied something else as well – observed bodies, humans, plants, landscapes, animals. They know all the muscles and the physics. You have an element of observation when you work with high-level simulations in animation. In Aquaphobia for example, I discovered a type of red clay in the soil. I ordered it to my studio to photograph to use as texture. I go on long excursions to landscapes.
BW: You were photographing moss trees down in Atlanta recently.
JS: I’m fascinated by the concept of a swamp right now, because the swamp is many species and DNAs. If you throw anything in these ecosystems, for example, in Florida, it would just spread. The idea of living in a swamp future and everything combining to create new kinds of structures and relationships of power is really interesting. I think about all those things when I build work. It’s not always what the audience thinks of right away when they see it, but the process is very important in terms of ending at a result.
BW: The human footprint on nature and our relationship through technology to the natural world seem like big concepts in your work.
JS: In Aquaphobia, you start in a room surrounded by electron microscopes of water microbes. Those are actual photographs around you. I put them in there because I’m thinking about some camera that went through technology from your eye, through lenses to see something, somewhere, but all of a sudden it’s on a one-to-one human scale. It’s an extension of senses and how you perceive things around you. Those are quite common concepts. I try to think about all these scenes and faces in my landscapes in between something that feels like you’re still within the human body.
BW: How does your process of discovery inform your work?
JS: When I go on excursions, I usually spend two months in some landscape, and I research the geological and cultural history, maybe speak to a biologist. Based on that, I arrive at some core concept to explore within that specific entire landscape. That core concept is then reflected in each design principle, and the total layout, the materials used, pace, speed, color, everything is surrounding a simple concept. I approach the landscape really open, just looking at different perspectives. And then something there is relevant in terms of imagining some different future structures.
BW: What are the landscapes that you’re most drawn to? Or does it start with a conceptual idea and then you find the right landscape?
JS: It depends on conversations with institutions or places interested in my approach. I have certain ways of working and thinking, and then there are places that might find that applicable, to find some natural conversation. I want to let it evolve through the process. Usually I start with a grand implication and everything’s written down, but once I go, if I get an idea, I just fully accept it and make it. There’s a lot of chaos once I’m in the process of making.
BW: So, the work is largely site-specific or site-derived?
JS: Yeah, otherwise I’m not inspired to make it. Every single plant and rock and the soil you see is derived from something that has, at some point, been in that landscape.
In this one landscape, in Aquaphobia, there are five rooms. I interviewed a psychologist that treats people who fear water, and each of those five locations reflects different steps [of that treatment]. So the first step is to rethink what the organic matter of water is. The first one was just microbes all around you.
Then, the next one is to dip your toes in water, so the next room is kind of muddy. The narrator is saying, “Look down at your feet and see them inch into the mud.” And then you go through a post-modern concrete tunnel up to the park that’s an archeological site. This water blob is talking about why you keep digging in your mutual past, as if you were never mutually exclusive and then it grows stronger and bigger, until you have to be on your own in the end of this piece.
BW: How do you theorize the work?
JS: I think it’s about being together with an understanding of some of these elements and histories and landscapes in ways that are pretty hard to explain. It’s also based on feelings, how you react to the different elements. I’m so elaborate in my pieces. I spend four or five months making each one, including research. If I don’t have that element to it, I don’t feel inspired. I don’t want to sit in my studio and just build it. I can’t.
It also comes from all the representations we have of the future and VR and digital media, much of which is commercially based. I want to emphasize that you can use this media to imagine different kinds of landscapes of the future, if you dare. On its own, it’s enough motivation for me, especially when I present this work and do talks at a university, and I say that to students. I feel like there’s some interest or glow in their eyes. You can embrace this media on a very human level, just like having a conversation or listening to music. I mix it all together.
BW: How do you think about your materials in connection to gaming companies and game engines used for commercial means? In a way, you are subverting the use of these game technologies.
JS: I played a lot of games and used these tools when I was growing up, so it feels natural, but I’m also very inspired and fascinated by the methods of building massive wealth production, like games where there are 200 people working for four years. Or you see something that has sold 12 million copies. All of those are just guns and shooters and entertainment, but I think the method itself is fascinating, and I think there’s something deeply poetic in that way of making work.
I’m interested in those methods, but also in developing totally different content that perhaps comes from drawing or painting. I think of how you perceive space, color, senses, and I play with them. If I hadn’t grown up with 3D games, I’d probably be building some kind of installation.
BW: Your studio feels like an ingestion process filled with both digital and raw materials fueling the work.
JS: I have organic material in there sometimes and other times I feel like building a costume. I film myself in the studio in these costumes and perform. The studio is a safe space to me where I can do all that.
I made this virtual plant that I called Pando Endo based on an aspen colony of clonal trees in Santa Fe. There are 40,000 trees, 80,000 years old, and it’s one organism. Each tree is genetically identical to the next because they’re all connected. We think of it as trees in a forest, but it’s actually more like a mushroom. It’s one thing. I went and photographed different groups of trees and textures, and then I built a set up for my computer that builds the plant dynamically for me based on variables and 30 photographs.
The pure materiality of it starts to become interesting to me. I feel like this kind of self-reference with costumes and fantasies and sci-fi dimensions are subjects I’m working through, approaching something that’s more about a pure mix of materiality – like collaborations with other’s perspective, such as a biologist‘s, trying to take their world, their feelings about something, and blow it out to some huge scale.
BW: It reminds me of so many things – like personas, dressing up as personas, which little kids do so often. They immediately jump to another character and completely embody it.
How does writing influence your work?
JS: During these excursions I go on, I spend a lot of time on my own, in my mind. In my VR works, when you walk around in the worlds, there’s no cut – it’s just one long sequence. That’s the feeling I get when I read literature: Your mind journeying through some kind of place or landscape.
When I’m in the middle of producing a piece, I read a lot of books to be in that world. Literature is – for my interest – the most progressive discipline, more than films or games. “Frankenstein” was written a long time ago, and that’s science, body modification, love, humanity, death, and AI, which we’re just trying to grasp now. The books behind “Blade Runner” go way back. And now you have these books on eco sci-fi that are super-progressive. Literature and fiction is a big inspiration.
BW: What’s next for you?
JS: I don’t want to say too much, but I’m trying to build an ecosystem that’s on a warehouse-scale, where all the different things are alive, like VR/AR installations, light refractions and sculptures, and then try to work with these specific biological regions, some laboratories.
BW: A large-scale production like a trilogy?
JS: If I still have this feeling of raw intuition and imagination when I do a project, I have to obey it, but with this warehouse scale project, it became more about the landscape and the full on materials and the histories. That was really rewarding and interesting to work with. So that might be a direction I go on. I think there are more options for collaboration with institutions because then it’s not just about my fantasy of a landscape.
I think the hardest thing for me as an artist is there’s an economy in art where things need to be clarified intellectually, like discourse, to be branded and sold to museums. I think my work makes sense to people when they experience it, but it’s hard to summarize all these aspects into something short or specific.
BW: That’s probably one of the strengths of your work is that it’s not easy to define or codify. But you’re an artist’s artist for VR in that regard.
JS: That’s also my approach to science, to technology, to everything. It’s just as much a feeling people have about ecology or destruction in relation to themselves. Those are elements that I think about.
Jakob Kudsk has recently exhibited at Jepson Center for the Arts, Time Square for the Midnight Moment, at Carnegie Museum of Art, The Moving Image Fair, NYC, MAXXI, WIRED annual conference, FRIEZE in London, Podium in Oslo, Ok Corral in Copenhagen, 86 Project Space, Brooklyn, Sleep Center, Chinatown and at London Science Museum. As an art director on the VR project TREE VR, made with The Rainforest Alliance and NEW REALITY CO, Steensen’s has shown at Sundance and TriBeCa film festival. His work has been featured in MOUSSE Magazine, Artnet, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Spike Art Quarterly, ARTREPORT, Politiken, Information, Worm, NEO2, VICE, NY Times, WIRED and TSOEG. He has received awards from the Danish Arts Foundation, The Augustinus Foundation, and Lumen Arts Price. He has been artist in residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, AADK, Centra Negra, MASS MoCA, BRIC and Mana Contemporary.