Ronen Tanchum: reality interpreted

Pau Waelder

A contemporary artist, developer and an interaction designer, Ronen Tanchum has developed a body of work that explores the representation of natural phenomena and our perception of reality as it is mediated by the entertainment industry and digital media. At a time in which the attention economy fosters a visual culture based on spectacularity and evasion to fantasy worlds, his work draws attention to how digital technologies, from 3D modeling to machine learning, reshape our perception of the world around us.

In his long-time collaboration with Niio, Tanchum has presented numerous artworks that we are now gradually collecting in a series of solo artcasts, offering a glimpse into the many facets of his artistic practice. In this interview we dive a little deeper into the main subjects of his work.

Ronen Tanchum. Particle Forest, 2022

Your work is characterized by an interest in nature and natural phenomena, particularly the behavior of fluids. This is obviously related to your work in the film industry, but if you look at it from the perspective of your artistic research, what does nature as a subject and fluid mechanics as a tool bring to your art practice?

Yes, this is the DNA of my artworks and what they convey. Ever since I learned computer graphics for the first time and had access to 3D software, some 20 years ago –when I was 16– I was trying to learn the software and to make the computer create something that is believable. This notion always brought me back to study the real world. So, I had to carefully observe the world around me, from the little imperfections of a corner of wall that needs to be reproduced synthetically, to complex natural behaviors that need to be recreated digitally in order to create realistic content. This required a lot of work, but additionally it was not only about making the recreation realistic, but rather a hyperreal, exaggerated reality that made the content visually attractive and engaging. 

“Instead of starting with nothing (a blank canvas) and adding on to it, I start with a lot of chaotic data and I shape it little by little, tweaking the algorithms, refining, and testing again and again until I reach a result that I’m satisfied with.”

During my whole career as a specialist in 3D technologies and simulations I had to recreate a lot of natural effects synthetically, so that they are used in key moments of Hollywood films, where reality is presented as a spectacle. For instance, an effect of clouds covering the sky and then dissipating, that has a narrative role in the film, so it has to be created in a way that looks as realistic as possible while also supporting the narrative. I worked with many natural phenomena, like waterfalls and tornadoes to rain, snowfall, and fire, and I found that the possibility of reproducing these phenomena synthetically within the machine was fascinating. So I continued to explore these technologies while also playing with the boundaries of what is real and what is not, and the way that natural forces and elements behave. Exploring these techniques led me to a deep understanding of the human role in the synthetic reproduction of nature, and how we do not simply reproduce what we observe, but we interpret it. We play with it, we make it more expressive, we manipulate the behavior of the elements, time, and natural forces to give a dramatic quality and visual appeal to something as mundane as a splash of water from a bucket on the floor. 

So my artistic practice has focused on exploring the creative possibilities of reproducing natural elements and landscapes, flora and vegetation synthetically through different technologies,  programming languages, and mediums. Using computer algorithms to create these simulations of nature is quite a challenge in itself, because instead of starting with nothing (a blank canvas) and adding on to it, I start with a lot of chaotic data and I shape it little by little, tweaking the algorithms, refining, and testing again and again until I reach a result that I’m satisfied with. I find this practice very challenging and encapsulating in ways that I could never do with a pen, paper, and ink, or with a canvas, a brush, and paint. I design systems that have a life of their own once the program starts running, so there is also a sense of creating a situation with a certain degree of control, and also letting go.

Ronen Tanchum. FEELS I, 2021

You have mentioned how the depiction of reality in films leads to spectacularity, and that is also something we frequently find nowadays in digital art, with large installations and projections in public spaces, that lead to equating digital art with a visual spectacle. As an artist, how do you see this expectation of digital art being eye-catching?

That’s an interesting question. Certainly, spectacularity is a tool to tell your story and convey or emote feelings. I do believe that art needs to be felt more than understood, and I also see that the spectacular aspect of digital art is there by choice. As a medium that is relatively new and exciting to a large audience, digital art is often perceived in this way, as something that catches your attention, and for artists that is a powerful tool to have in their hands. So, I understand the pull, both for artists and the audience, to expect spectacularity from digital art, but I also don’t feel that this is a necessity. Digital art doesn’t always have to cause a strong visual impact or be displayed in large LED screens. Of course, screens are its habitat, it is where digital art is meant to be experienced. We’re moving into a new age where art is no longer only on canvases, or sculptures, but on different mediums, and also everywhere. The screen is often understood as a digital canvas, but that is only the beginning, there will be many more ways to experience art digitally. 

In my practice, I would say that it is not so much about making art that draws attention, but using the medium in interesting ways. Exploring the possibilities of software, of generative algorithms, 3D modeling, artificial neural networks and so on, to question our reality and our experience of nature is what feels interesting to me.

“Certainly, spectacularity is a tool to tell your story and convey or emote feelings. But digital art doesn’t always have to cause a strong visual impact or be displayed in large LED screens.”

Another aspect that you’ve mentioned is the idea of control. You sometimes work with software that lets you control every element, every detail and behavior. But you also work with generative algorithms and machine learning programs, with which there is more of a “dialogue.” How do you balance your creative authorship with the outputs of these autonomous systems?

A lot of my practices are procedural and generative in nature. So even when I want to create a specific thing and aim for a certain output, I test a lot of methods to get there, naturally. I’ve been building systems and algorithms before releasing them as long format and as something with the aspect of randomness in them before, and I often work with JavaScript, and GLSL, to create long format, generative art, which is not AI. It is a way to release control and let go, so it’s interesting, because at first, I start building towards something and then I find myself thinking about variations of that original intention. To give you an example: a random function gives you a different number every time and then you can use that number to perform visual modifications on the artwork. So, for instance, every time some element appears, it can have a different color or a different size or a different shape. And then I use these somewhat random functions in order to create the output. But this output that you’re looking at lives in a spectrum of outputs: every time that you iterate on the algorithm, there will be a different output. How different that new output can be, of course, depends on the degree of so-called “randomness” you give to the system. So, if I want to get a certain degree of control over this spectrum of outputs, I must limit the amount of unexpected results that might come out of it.

“Generative art on the blockchain is a match made in heaven because here the algorithm is not only producing an endless amount of random outputs, it is creating a series of artworks that people can own and say «okay, this one belongs to me.»” 

I particularly like this method of working, to experience and be surprised by the interaction with the machine. Working with algorithms gives me an opportunity to do something that is not necessarily static. It could be dynamic, or it could be influenced by something and become interactive, or it could be a data sculpture, using real time data, or a data set that you train, and then play with. This is a really powerful tool: generative art and algorithmic art on the blockchain is a match made in heaven because here the algorithm is not only producing an endless amount of random outputs, it is creating a series of artworks that people can own and say “okay, this one belongs to me.” And that  is really interesting because the outputs become unique, but also part of a series, and the owners of these artworks become part of a community. This generates some very interesting dynamics between the pieces of a collection and the owners of those pieces.

Ronen Tanchum and Ori Ben-Shabat / Phenomena Labs. Rococo, 2023

Continuing with the subject of generative art on blockchain, can you tell us about your experience with the series Rococo? How was the response to these artworks?

Rococo is a project Ori Ben-Shabat and I developed together. It is an exploration of how we can reproduce synthetically digital paintings that represent flowers. Flowers, as you know, can come in many shapes and colors, for instance with six or fifteen petals, and that gives us a lot of possibilities, in the form of functions and numbers for the algorithm. Working with the algorithm we created a type of flower that we liked, and then duplicated it a number of times, introducing variations in the number of flowers, petals, and colors. The code itself describes a bunch of spheres that move in space, and while doing so they draw and create the final painting that you see. It is a similar approach to that of a painter who would choose a brush, and a bit of paint, and then perform a series of movements spreading the paint on a canvas with the brush in order to create the image, the gestures of his hand determining the particular shape of the flowers and a certain style of depiction. 

The response was very good. As you know, when you present generative art on an NFT marketplace, you put the code of the system that creates the artwork on the blockchain, then people can explore what the algorithm does prior to minting. Usually, they can explore and see the spectrum of outputs that the algorithm creates, and then they decide if they want to buy it or not. But they actually don’t know exactly which composition they will obtain, which is in a way the opposite of buying a painting. This process becomes very engaging and very surprising and personal, both to the artist and to the collector. It introduces the element of luck and chance into collecting artwork, which is an interesting way to release art. And it also creates a dynamic within the collection: some will be worth more than others, just because more people like them. This is really interesting, and it could be explored endlessly. So for instance, you can have an algorithm that creates an infinite number of outputs, but then only X amount of them are locked to the blockchain, and only those are what collectors can own. 

Your work easily transitions between photorealistic 3D animations, abstract compositions, and what could be described as digital painting: artworks that explore painting as a compositional and stylistic reference using digital tools. Which of these approaches is more interesting? Which is more challenging?

What interests me is to work with the edges, to play with all of them and transition between them. I am very influenced by both traditional art and contemporary art. So in projects such as Rococo, a major goal was to find a way to use code while simulating something as materially specific and expressive as a brushstroke. This could have very well become a generator of perfectly identifiable, realistic, 3D looking flowers, but with Ori we decided that it was much more interesting to explore what the act of painting looks like and find out how to evoke the level of expression and abstraction that a painter achieves applying painting on a canvas, but using computer software.

Ronen Tanchum. The Expressionists ~ Couple #2, 2020

You have mentioned your collaboration with Ori Ben-Shabat, with whom you work at Phenomena Labs, a studio that creates immersive art experiences. How does the work at Phenomena Labs differ from your individual work as an artist?

I founded Phenomena Labs almost 10 years ago with a mindset of collaborating: on the one hand, to develop a collaborative approach to creating with my friends and on the other hand, to collaborate with clients and art collectors in commissioned work. Basically, anything that I do collaboratively takes place in the context of the studio and is presented under Phenomena Labs as a brand and identity. Ori and I frequently work with other artists, designers, and architects to create immersive installations and generative art. This work is generally addressed at public spaces and large audiences.

Phenomena Labs. Moments in Time, 2023. Jönköping (Sweden)

Moments in Time is a fascinating project from Phenomena Labs that connects an architectural space with its environment through real time data animations, in which we see several recurring elements in your work. Can you tell us more about this project and the possibilities of creating art with real time environmental data?

This is a unique project we’ve worked on throughout 2023. The objective was to create a mirror for the vibrant community that is about to inhabit a building in Jönköping (Sweden). We were approached by our client and the architects and we thought about a piece that is alive, and is inspiring the startup community allocated in that building. On a large screen in the lobby, the artwork displays a series of chapters, different compositions that use data in real time. We chose to use a few different metrics and data points for different visual chapters of the piece. Each data point refers to an aspect of the building and its surroundings, as well as the people inside, in order to visualize how the environment and the human activity in the building can change and evolve over time. We used motion sensing to create visual trails from the movement of people in the lobby, and turned it into a paint brush effect where people apply brush strokes on a digital canvas by walking through the lobby, thus creating a visual composition in real time. Then we used weather information to apply wind turbulence on a set of particles displayed on the screen. And we also introduced real time energy data from the building to create a virtual waterfall that becomes a sort of data visualization of all the energy that is being consumed in the building every day. It was really interesting to see that, for instance, the waterfall flows faster and has a higher volume of water when there’s people in the building, and when they go home, it settles and slows down.

Phenomena Labs. Still from a chapter of Moments in Time, 2023. Jönköping (Sweden)

You state that your work is about trying to connect humans and machines, and reflecting on our dependence on technology. Recently, the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro was greeted by enthusiastic customers who gave the world a glimpse of what is to come: more dependency on our devices, that increasingly shape how we perceive reality. As an artist and professional creator of fantastic digital realities, how do you see this relationship evolving in the future?

The launch of products like Apple’s Vision Pro remind me that in our relationship with technology, there is a constant tension between what we are familiar with and what level of innovation we are ready to adopt. This tension oscillates in cycles, so that when something pushes too much into the unknown or becomes uncertain, such as this possibility of really isolating oneself from the world, then there is a backlash. At this point, people long to go back to a simpler relationship with the environment, and instead of adding more layers of digital content to their surroundings, reconnect with nature, or at least with a calming and comforting view of nature. Finding a balance between the two and making the digital environment more familiar is a challenge that may take more than a generation. 

“For me, the question is how to embrace the better aspects of digital technologies without letting them alienate us from the real world or shape our perception of the environment.”

For me, the question is how to embrace the better aspects of digital technologies without letting them –or those who market them– alienate us from the real world or shape our perception of the environment. In this sense, I intend to explore real time data in my work to let people understand and appreciate the world around them, and at the same time visualize the systems and networks that provide that data. It is important to understand that we live surrounded by systems (natural, legal, informational) that we have to think in terms of the environment and our interactions with others and with these systems. Often disruptive technologies are created thinking only in short-term solutions and specific goals that do not consider the world they will have an impact on. But there will always be a reaction from the world, society, systems, etc. Within this constant tension, and back-and-forth reactions in where gradual change, maybe progress, happens. 

Kian Khiaban: building a space of peace and clarity

Pau Waelder

3D motion designer and visual artist Kian Khiaban has had an outstanding trajectory since he graduated from UCLA in 2015. Working early on with fellow artist Refik Anadol, he has closely collaborated with him in some of his studio’s most spectacular projects and is now part of the team at the world famous Sphere, a groundbreaking spherical screen with 580,000 sq feet of LEDs. Khiaban’s artistic work focuses on nature and abstraction, conceiving art as a way of addressing human emotions and engaging in healing processes.

The artist has recently presented a solo artcast featuring five artworks in which he creates fantastical landscapes that depict different emotions. In the following interview, he dives into what these imaginary spaces mean to him, as well as his creative process and his views on the current state of digital art. 

Dive into Kian Khiaban’s Emotional Landscapes

Kian Khiaban. Floater, 2021.

How did you get started in 3D animation? What interested you about this particular aspect of digital creativity?

I started doing 3D when I was thirteen. I got introduced to it through anime forums, actually. In the anime forums, every user would have their own design, which they called a signature, and they would teach people how to make their own signature. So through this I got introduced to Photoshop and 3D, and then when I went to university, I already had a whole portfolio of still images. They weren’t animations, they were just art. There I started to learn how to move the things that I had made. At UCLA I met Refik [Anadol], who was a grad student. He was using Cinema 4D, a professional 3D modeling, animation, simulation and rendering software. It was a good match between us, because we were both heavy C4D users, and then at some point Refik had an exhibition and I offered to help him, so we started collaborating and I worked my way up into his company and was part of its early establishment. This was around 2015, when I graduated.

“The way we worked [with Refik Anadol] is that he gave me a lot of freedom, maybe throwing an initial idea, and then I would go crazy with it.

You have created numerous animations for the studio of Refik Anadol. Can you tell us about your creative process within this context? What have you contributed and what have you learned from this collaborative practice?

Working with Refik mainly consists in that he would come to me with an idea, especially a visual idea and would say: “this would be really great if you can make something like this.” I was very good at iterating, so I considered myself, especially at that time, a remixer. I created a lot of the visuals of the projects we were doing at his studio. For instance, we had a project called Infinity Room. Refik said he had the idea of a room with mirrors on the top and bottom. So I experimented a lot, I did the sound design for it, made some animations, and gave it a particular character. Then Refik added some visuals onto it. In some projects he would take the lead, while in others I did for particular things. But the main characteristic of the way we worked is that he gave me a lot of freedom, maybe throwing an initial idea of what he was looking for, and then I would go crazy with it. Sometimes the project would develop in a totally different direction, but always with this ongoing conversation between us.

Kian Khiaban. An Open Heart, 2021.

On the other hand, I have also learned a lot from my commercial work, where I am given a style frame and I work on that, building an entire animation, and remixing it. I’ve gained a lot of technical knowledge and benefited from working with a team, which is something I love because it brings me multiple perspectives that widen mine. I would say that I’ve been lucky because in these jobs the clients have trusted me and given me a lot of freedom, and even allowed me to have some of my personal themes in my work. What I learn in my commercial work I later on apply it to my personal work. Working on one of these projects for eight hours every day, you get to experiment so much, and so I often develop things that seem perfect for one of my pieces, and then of course my personal work also inspires what I do for different clients.

“I love working with a team because it brings me multiple perspectives that widen mine.”

Currently I work at the Sphere in Las Vegas, in R&D and building the animations, and this is a very challenging type of shape because it is seamless. And you know, 3d animators don’t design in a seamless way. In addition, the form has to be a spherical camera, so there are a lot of little things you have to adjust for. But to be honest, I’m good at coming up with a lot of ideas, and then making things a bit prettier with each iteration. That’s what I do.

3D motion design by Kian Khiaban at the Sphere, Las Vegas, 2023.

The animations you have created have been displayed in very large installations and on the facades of famous buildings. How do you work on them when considering such a large scale, and an interaction with architecture?

The process starts by making a 3D model or a miniature of the building, because you need to be able to feel what you’re doing. If we don’t have the possibility of building a miniature version of what we’re doing, we do a VR version, building the space in 3D and then applying the projection. That gives you a starting place to experiment. But besides that I like to first consider where the building is located, in what city, what kind of environment is there around the building, what form does the building represent, and so forth. Then I try to build on top of that, but it depends on the project.

For instance, in WDCH Dreams, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, there was the almost impossible task of mapping the shapes of Frank Gehry’s building, for which they had had developers working for years. We used 42 large scale projectors that were able to display 50K resolution images. We used the entire facade as a screen, applying the visuals I created to a 3D model in order to adapt to the undulating shapes.

Kian Khiaban. Long Walk, 2023.

Your personal work is often characterized by an interest in nature (real or imagined) and mesmerizing visual effects in which light has a critical role. What attracted you to creating these fantastic worlds and the lively activity that takes place in them?

I’ve always liked hiking a lot. When I was a kid, there was this one place I went to that brought a lot of peace in my mind. When you go into a natural setting by yourself, it becomes a way of finding yourself because you’re getting this new clarity and simplification. You can actually hear your own thoughts, and to me that is very relaxing. So I like nature because it has that healing quality of bringing clarity, lowering the volume and allowing a space for reflection.

As for the dream-like quality of my work, I believe it is related to who I am. I was a big daydreamer as a kid. I would play out scenarios a lot in my head, and I also spent many hours, year after year, in front of the computer. Playing video games and searching the Internet took me to a distant place, away from daily reality, and I think what I do now is a more sophisticated version of that. I’m building this space for myself to bring me peace and clarity, the same way when there was chaos around me, I could go to a video game and be taken into that fictional world.

“I like nature because it has that healing quality of bringing clarity, lowering the volume and allowing a space for reflection.”

In the artworks we now present on Niio, a common denominator is the depiction of emotions through digital landscapes. What do you find interesting about representing emotions in this way?

Maybe I should talk about why I always have a light in the center of each artwork. I don’t want to impose my intentions on the viewer’s interpretation of the artwork, but I think it is worth explaining this. The light represents the hope of getting out of a hard situation, the objective you try to follow to achieve that, and that makes you very focused. I feel that what has helped me survive in my chaotic environment all these years is being really focused. The light obviously has other meanings, it can be the sun, that so many civilizations have praised as a God, or the light that people having near death experience say they have seen in a pleasant field, and that has brought them the most peaceful feeling they’ve ever felt in their life. So what I mean is that these artworks are for me a way to express something personal, even intimate, in a more abstract form. For instance, one of my latest pieces is called Adrift at Sea, and it refers to the feeling of having to choose among different values and not being sure what to pick, which made me feel a bit lost.

Kian Khiaban. Wisdom, 2020.

Despite this personal connection with a human experience, there is generally a lack of human figures in these landscapes, why is that?

I want it to feel lonely. It’s that feeling I get when I go into nature, there’s no one around me. But it is not about loneliness: I can think of having people there, but it would change the whole dynamic of the piece. It can become about them, and I am not interested in representing people in these landscapes, which would take you into figuring out what they are doing, but rather to express a feeling that you can only experience looking at this landscape where there is no one else but you.

“These artworks are for me a way to express something personal, even intimate, in a more abstract form.”

From your perspective as an artist involved in acclaimed large scale projects, what is your opinion about the current perception of digital art? Do you think it has finally become a widely accepted form of contemporary art?

Generally speaking, it is much more respected than before, partly because of the NFT boom. However, NFTs also brought negative associations, with purely financial speculation and lack of quality. On the other hand, 3D animation is now much more popular because it is widely used in advertising. Another thing I find that is more present in digital art is this blending of fine art and commercial creativity, which is pretty much connected to what Andy Warhol did, or now Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, for instance. For someone like me, who works with commercial projects as well as my own artistic practice, this is quite interesting, and to be invited to a fine art exhibition as a digital artist is something that the 13-year computer gamer in me finds really amazing. Digital art is definitely becoming art. It should have happened 20 years ago, but it’s okay.

“I think Niio is great. I feel that you have a deep appreciation and understanding of art.”

How do you see a platform like Niio contributing to this popularization of digital art?

I think Niio is great. I’d say that’s why we connected so well early on, because I felt like you had a deep appreciation and understanding of art. And if you’re guiding this platform, you’re gonna take it in the right direction. The way the artwork descriptions are written, the way everything is laid out, is the way a gallery would lay it out. I also value that the artist’s opinion, or vision is involved in the process. I’ve been approached by other platforms, but I didn’t say yes to a lot of things because I felt like they were mainly a business. Too much of a pure business approach to art. And I think that what you all are doing at Niio is really what the artists are trying to do.

Kian Khiaban. Lone Night, 2021.

Laura Colmenares Guerra: fractured landscapes

Pau Waelder

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #3, 2023

Over the last two decades, Brussels-based Colombian artist Laura Colmenares Guerra has carried out a consistent body of work in the form of interactive audiovisual installations and live performances. Her work is characterized by a research-based practice that requires long processes and interdisciplinary collaborations, focusing on the difficult relationship between our industrialized societies and the living ecosystems we are a part of. Since 2018, Laura is engaged in a series of artworks exploring the environmental impact of neo-liberal extractivist practices in the Amazon basin. 

Niio is proud to present a series of videos from this recent work, that illustrate her conceptual and aesthetic approach to this subject. In this exclusive interview, the artist elaborates on the production of the Rios Trilogy and the key elements of her artistic practice.

Explore Lagunas by Laura Colmenares Guerra, a narrative around the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing.

In your work, one finds a growing interest in the concept of landscape, from a more general or abstract perspective, to the specific region of the Amazon basin. Can you elaborate on your interest in landscape as a concept? Has the change of landscape from Bogotá to Brussels contributed to your ongoing reflection?

The concept of landscape holds a pivotal position in both my research and artistic practice. My master’s thesis was dedicated to the exploration of landscapes within video games, and ever since, the notion of landscape as a means of structuring our perception of the world has remained a constant presence.

“Western societies’ relationship with nature is characterized by distance and objectification.”

The concept of “landscape” finds its origins in the Dutch term “landschap.” The etymology of the word “landscape” can be traced back to the 16th century when it was used to describe paintings depicting rural scenery, defined as a “painting representing an extensive view of natural scenery”. This meaning occurs at a time when distance observation from a fixed and dominant position is the symbolic form by which reality (perspective) is measured. Perspective allowed the modern individual to become a contemplative observer, establishing a distinct separation between the subject and the object observed from a distance. This conscious acknowledgement of distance transformed the relationship with the environment into a reflective and contemplative one. It implies the need for a conceptual apparatus, category diagrams, and concepts that make this experience possible. This dual perspective, characterized by both distance and objectification, fundamentally shapes Western societies’ relationship with nature.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #4, 2023

A certain tension or equilibrium between control and spontaneity can be found in your work, for instance in the use of cartography, data analysis, and 3D scans as a form of capturing the landscape, as opposed to introducing audience participation or creating live performances where there is more room for the unscripted. How do you feel about the notion of control, particularly in relation to our environment and the natural systems around us?

My work involves a range of processes, transitioning from analysis, tools and methodologies from other disciplines to more speculative and experimental procedures. I enjoy being in control as much as I enjoy surrendering it. As a result, my creations often exhibit multiple layers, occasionally presenting significant contradictions.

“My goal is to provoke questions rather than provide answers”

For example, in Chapter N.2 of the Ríos Trilogy, I fragment the territory of the Amazon Basin with hydrological parameters. Yet, I know that the fragmentation of ecosystems is one of the key problems when preserving the connectivity between biomes. I prefer to maintain a sense of ambiguity, allowing the viewer to approach my work from various perspectives. My goal is to provoke questions rather than provide answers. Likewise, when I grant control to the audience, I willingly surrender it myself. This aspect of my creative process is deeply intriguing to me.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Ríos Trilogy. Installation.

You carry out your artistic projects through long term processes of creation and transdisciplinary collaborations. Can you briefly walk us through the main phases in one of your projects, the time frame, and comment on how these collaborations arise and develop?

I enjoy writing, even though it can be extremely painful; it’s essential to my work. I’ve never published, but I have a collection of texts that I write through the creation process of each piece. I keep track of all the versions as a way to keep track of the ideas and strategies that lead me to give a specific form to the work. Most of the time, I start from a basic or simple concept. In the case of the Rios Trilogy, it all started from the #AmazonFires. The day I started researching this hashtag, I would have never imagined that I would be engaged with this research for five years (and counting). Now finished, the Ríos Trilogy seems like a solid three-chapter project, but when I started, I was not sure what would be the final output. 

“Experimenting implies pushing the limits of media or techniques, so I always have to make sure I work with experts who feel comfortable engaging in experimental methodologies.”

Once I feel a concept is solid enough, I decide to give direction to it and see how to make it evolve into an artwork. Often, the next phase implies finding experts in the field to start grounding the ideas into possible outcomes. That process includes budgeting and finding subsidies to pay the people involved in the project, to pay myself and to find the money to realize the ideas. I define objectives, yet I generate a framework in which the process can permeate the outcome. Collaborating with people from different fields is extremely interesting. The process always includes experimentation; often, many failures happen before the final pieces come to life. For both the experts I collaborate with and for myself, experimenting implies pushing the limits of media or techniques, so I always have to make sure I work with experts who feel comfortable engaging in experimental methodologies.

Laura Colmenares Guerra directing the shooting of the underwater video sequence in Lagunas.

I often spend more time than I’d like dealing with administrative and production tasks, which can be frustrating. I sometimes have to hire people to do part of the work, but I also give myself enough time to do aspects of the work that I don’t want to delegate. For example, the porcelain 3D printed sculptures of Chapter N.2 of the Ríos Trilogy. I took pottery lessons for over a year while, in parallel, experimenting with the 3D printer in my studio. It took me around two years to achieve the results I had in mind. Many failures and doubts often accompany the process. Still, it is extremely satisfactory when you start having good results, and suddenly, you look back and see how much skills and knowledge you’ve learned in the process.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #5, 2023

You also work as a VJ and have collaborated in numerous live audiovisual performances. How does your experience in this field inform your installations and videos in terms of the process, dynamics, and aesthetics? What is the role of sound and music in your work?

Sound and music have consistently held a central position in my works, although it’s only recently that I fully embraced this passion. Throughout my journey, I’ve collaborated with musicians, composers, and record labels, yet I never quite ventured into creating music myself. However, in 2023, I decided to delve into this realm independently. Techno music has been a steadfast companion throughout my life. It was my gateway into VJing in the past. This year, I made the leap into DJing and have been sharing this passion with my son, as we’ve spent the last few months mixing together. We’re preparing for a duo project set to be released in 2024. Simultaneously, I’ve been quietly immersing myself in the study of electronic music production; I might share some of my own compositions with the public in the coming months.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Variations of Dissaray, 2016

Your work involves both installation and video as well as sculpture and VR environments. What drives you to choose one format/technique over another for each project? In the Ríos Trilogy, for instance, we find data visualization and analysis as well as 3D printed sculptures and a VR environment; how do they complement each other?

I consider myself an idea-based artist rather than a medium-based artist. That means that even though installation is a constant in my work, the components included in the installation work are subject to change from one piece to another. My main creation tool is 3D, but 3D can be used in many ways, from printing to VR, animation, still images, augmented reality, etc. I like combining techniques and tend to incorporate material and non-material elements. Each media has its language. I explore paths to generate dialogues between different media.

“I consider myself an idea-based artist rather than a medium-based artist. My main creation tool is 3D, but 3D can be used in many ways, from printing to VR, animation, still images, augmented reality, etc.”

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #1, 2023

As a Colombian, I imagine that you feel a closer connection to the exploitation of natural resources in the Amazon basin in neighboring Brazil. How do you see the societies in the Northern Hemisphere, and particularly European societies, react to this issue? Do they see it as a remote problem? Does your work aim to bridge this gap of awareness? 

The glaring disparity between the Northern and Southern hemispheres evokes strong emotions in me. I am profoundly critical and sensitive when it comes to this issue. Growing up in Colombia, a country tormented by civil war and influenced by the United States in its perpetuation, I realized at a young age that in the realm of geopolitics, the wealth of some often rests upon the suffering of others. I adopt a critical perspective towards European politics, despite the veneer of democracy; beneath the surface lies the pervasive corruption of democratic processes, fueled by ruthless corporate lobbying. What Indian activist Vandana Shiva aptly identifies as ‘the corporate control of life’ is responsible for the spread of neoliberal globalization, international trade policies, unchecked environmental exploitation, the privatization of natural resources, and the patenting of biological material. I undoubtedly address these problems through my work. 

“Despite the veneer of democracy in European politics, beneath the surface lies the pervasive corruption of democratic processes, fueled by ruthless corporate lobbying.”

Lagunas addresses the issue of fracking within the different extractive practices that currently poison the natural environment. Within the context of your ongoing exploration of the landscape, why did you choose fracking as a subject? Why did you choose the Chingaza Natural National Park in Colombia as a source of some of the images in this project?

Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) represents the primary driver of global climate change, responsible for more than 75% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of carbon dioxide emissions.

As we approach the shortage of conventionally accessible fossil fuel reserves, hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has gained greater prevalence. Fracking entails fracturing reservoir rocks by injecting toxic fluids at high pressure and keeping the split (the fracture) open by placing sand or similar in it. This process carries significant environmental repercussions; one of them is the contamination of the water sources in the subsoil of the Earth. In addition to the already evident pollution of the atmosphere, we must weigh the duration of fossil fuel extraction and our readiness to confront the consequences of polluting underground water sources on Earth.

“We must weigh the duration of fossil fuel extraction and our readiness to confront the consequences of polluting underground water sources on Earth.”

Lagunas delves into themes of water contamination, water scarcity, death, and memory. These concepts interweave within an interactive scenario featuring computer-generated imagery (CGI) combined with onsite images captured at Chingaza Natural National Park in Colombia, as well as underwater footage. Through these landscapes, I aimed to create an atmosphere that evokes both prehistoric and futuristic elements.

I selected Chingaza Natural National Park as the backdrop for this project due to the unique characteristics of its ecosystem, known as ‘Páramo’ in Spanish (for which there is no precise English translation). ‘Páramos’ are ‘Neotropical’ high mountain biomes in South America. They are primarily characterized by the presence of giant rosette plants, shrubs, and grasses. These giant rosette plants play a crucial role in capturing atmospheric water, which then travels through the soil, accumulates, and nourishes underground water systems. ‘Páramos’ ecosystems hold immense significance, notably in the formation of the rivers that comprise the intricate water network of the Amazon Basin.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #6, 2016

You state that the interaction between the audience and the installation aims to create a direct implication of the viewer in the processes that are described in this piece. Can you explain the type of interaction you chose and how it creates this implication?

When I incorporate interactive elements into an installation, I seek out devices or objects that I can modify/hack to serve as interfaces for the audience. These interactive devices are chosen based on the potential of mediating the experience for the visitors. Such is the case of Lagunas, in which I created an interactive interface by hacking water industrial valves with optical sensors. The spectators interact with these valves, which recall the gesture of opening the water tab, as well as that of operating a steering wheel.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Still from Ecdysis, 2023

You filmed the landscapes of Lagunas in Chingaza and have also participated in an art program at the Brazilian Amazon, from which emerged Ecdysis and the Ríos Trilogy. How was your experience of working on site and the collaborations that emerged for these projects?

I enjoy working onsite. Immersing myself in the very landscapes I’ve researched from behind a computer screen enriches my perspective significantly. What I find most rewarding, though, are the human connections forged during these journeys.

“In the upcoming month, I will embark on a new project centered around the chanting traditions of the Amazon People.”

In the upcoming month, I have an exciting journey planned to the Amazon, where I will embark on a new project centered around the chanting traditions of the Amazon People. Collaborating closely with the indigenous communities, we will explore sound and experiment with various methods of visualizing sound frequencies. It’s the first time I’ll work directly with communities, and I look forward to having a direct dialogue with the guardians of such an amazing and important territory.

boredomresearch on the poetics of natural systems

Pau Waelder

British artists Vicky Isley and Paul Smith work collaboratively as boredomresearch since the late 1990s, creating interactive and generative artworks, animations, and films inspired by natural environments and living systems. Since 2014, they have collaborated with scientists in the making of their projects about the diversity of natural systems, and the health of both our planet and our own bodies. Their work has been exhibited worldwide, in art and science museums, symposia, festivals, and art galleries.

On the occasion of the launch of their solo artcast Still, Life, curated by DAM Projects, the artists spoke about their work and their particular approach to scientific research through artistic creativity.

Explore the beauty of natural systems in boredomresearch’s artcast Still, Life

boredomresearch, Robots In Distress, 2017

Why boredom research? The combination of both words is humorous and intriguing…

Paul Smith: We came up with the name, around 1998-99, as an umbrella term for our collaboration. Initially, we felt it implied playfulness, but also referred to serious research. More recently, it has grown into the idea of exploring the world in one’s own terms, being creative without the pressure to provide a solution to a problem, as scientists are expected to. So boredom is about having the freedom to be interested in something on your own terms.

Vicky Isley: Boredom is also about unpredictability. In our early works, it was very much about what could be driven through computation. And that led to things emerging that were quite unpredictable, which is what you experience in a state of boredom as well. On the other hand, we carry out serious in-depth research to produce these computational artworks, so it is a combination of study and play.

“Early in our career, we read that the time people spend with artworks in the gallery is about 5 to 30 seconds. So we wanted to reverse that paradigm, to have people spend months experiencing our work.”

You both have a background in Fine Arts, where does your interest in biology and natural systems come from? 

VI: We’ve both always been inspired by natural systems. We love being immersed in nature. So to us, that’s really an integral part of our work. That’s where our passion comes from.

PS: Very early on, we became very interested in the computer as a tool. We had the opportunity to work with computers during a residency at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada, back in 2001. We had been focused on human computer interaction, but there we created our first computational artworks that had no human interaction. They recreated beings that interacted with each other.

VI: We also became interested in artworks that were not linear and ran in real time, creating unique experiences for the viewers. Observing a system instead of interacting with a program is like observing nature, and that led us to look around and ask ourselves which are the rules in all these natural systems, why do living creatures behave like they do?

boredomresearch, Biome, 2005

You have often worked with scientists and mentioned “negotiating that space with the scientists.” How would you describe these collaborations and the role that art plays in scientific research?

PS: We started originally working with scientists that were interested in creating models of systems, the first scientist that we worked very closely with was working in the field of epidemiology. We became fascinated with their work because there was a huge similarity between what we were doing as artists and what he was doing as a scientist. We spent a lot of time talking about motivations, methods, ways of doing things, and we found that we had a lot in common. We found it hard to separate the space between scientists and artists, and I suppose to some extent, we’re still exploring that now.

VI: We understood that mathematical models are almost like fictional worlds as well because they are very contained in what they can visualize, which is very similar to an artistic model that creates a fictional system. Still, I would say that all the scientists that we’ve worked with, we’ve had to build up a trust relationship with them, to the point where they feel like they can trust us in their lab, because early on in the collaborations, they can be much more rigid.

boredomresearch’s Real Snail Mail (2006) is an installation that uses snails equipped with RFID tags to deliver email messages.

Time, duration, and real time processes are key to your work. How do they shape the conception and development of each artwork? How do you imagine the reaction of viewers will be?

VI: Very early in our career, we read an article about the time people spend with artworks in the gallery. And we found it quite shocking, because it’s mostly like 5 to 30 seconds. So we wanted to reverse that paradigm, which is something we very much did with Real Snail Mail: we took a technology that is about efficiency and speed, and then completely reversed that. So that has been present from a very early stage in our careers.

PS: We consciously wanted to create something in reaction to this idea of a seven second viewing time: we wanted to create something that would last six months. So we had this process where someone would create an entity which then haunted their computer and would develop slowly over a period of time. It worked a little bit like a virus running in the background, which used operating system components such as alert windows to communicate with its “host.” The program would ask for a file that was generated on another host’s computer, and so they would have to look for that person and get the file for the whole process to end. This took around six months.

“For us, it’s really nice to know that the collectors are living with these artworks on a day to day basis, because then they will experience them in the long term. They will be able to see different forms being generated from time to time.”

VI: We were surprised to find that quite a number of users would go through this process and that made us realize that there were people willing to have this kind of extended relationship with the artwork, that goes well beyond what you can experience in an exhibition. This is also one of the reasons why we wanted to create objects that would be owned by people and added to their collections. For instance, Lost Calls of Cloud Mountain Whirligigs (2009-2010) is a generative artwork we created in an edition, and a number of them are already in private collections. For us, it’s really nice to know that the collectors are living with these artworks on a day to day basis, because then they will experience them in the long term. They will be able to see different forms being generated from time to time.

boredomresearch, Lost Calls of Cloud Mountain Whirligigs, 2010

In some of your artworks the subject of the endangerment of biodiversity and the effects of climate change comes up. How do you deal with this subject, and how do you think art can contribute to environmental awareness?

VI: Since we observe natural phenomena, and there are quite worrying things happening in our environment, our work can be quite melancholic. Recently, we’ve been looking at scientific topics like cancer, malaria, and things that perhaps people wouldn’t want to see in an artwork, which is quite interesting. So I think when we do create systems, like Afterglow (2016), for example, which was about malaria, or In Search of Chemozoa (2020), that was about cancer, there is a beauty and poetics to those systems, that draws people into a topic that perhaps they don’t really want to explore. And also, we don’t dictate that you have to know that they’re about. Sometimes people watching the artworks don’t really know that it’s an infection transmission scenario that is playing through, they might just be watching something that is visually more complex to them, or seeing the complexity of that system.

boredomresearch, Infection 626,239,238 Plasmodium Knowlesi, 2016 (video recording of Afterglow)

PS: Another aspect of this is that often scientists are interested in collaborating with artists because they see it as a potential means of communication. But we don’t see our role as being there to offer a way for the scientists to communicate their research to an audience. Our approach is not about communication at all, but rather about experience. An experience in which the viewer is an equal party, not just a non-expert who must be told things in simpler terms. So when we work with scientists we try to create an expression that is closely related to their research, but it is not an illustration of it. 

“There is a beauty and poetics to natural systems such as the transmission of malaria or the evolution of cancer, that draws people into a topic that perhaps they don’t want to explore.”

Your work combines installations, generative artworks and also films. How do you work in these different forms of storytelling? You have stated that you are interested in the language of documentary, has that also permeated into your installation and generative work?

VI: Our interest in the language of documentaries first emerged when we produced Afterglow, because that was a commissioned project, and they asked us to produce a generative piece, but also a film version of the artwork as well. That was quite interesting, because the film version took you through the different infection scenarios which you wouldn’t see in the real time version in the gallery. So we had to think differently about the single screening version of that work and we learned a lot through that process. Now the narrative aspect is emerging more and more in our films, particularly in Chemozoa, where we added a godlike voice to bring together the voices of around 25 scientists from different fields.

We’re  finding ourselves more out in nature with our work. Participating in artist residencies has allowed us to do field work which has led to our practice becoming more immersed in nature, whereas our early works were purely in front of the screen. I’d say that this has contributed to having a different involvement in what we observe, a kind of experience that we can communicate better using the language of documentaries.

“When we work with scientists we try to create an expression that is closely related to their research, but it is not an illustration of it.”

The sounds, or might I say music, in your generative works and films plays an important role, it creates an ambience. You have stated that “the sound comes at the end”, can you elaborate on the role it plays in your creative and production processes?

PS: Actually, in early works like System 1.6 we sampled sounds from the Rocky Mountains and then we thought, what visual being could actually represent this sound? So in that case the order was reversed. In our film work, this is more challenging, because while we keep recording sounds from the environment, these come later on in editing. But in general I’d say that sound in our work has become something that gives things a voice. We usually conceive the visual aspect of our generated creatures before we introduce sounds, but then when we collaborate with scientists, there is sometimes the challenging question of finding sounds that represent the beings and processes we are making visible. 

boredomresearch, System 1_6, 2001

VI: In our generative artworks, particularly those we want people to spend a lot of time with, we look for a background sound. And there is a very fine balance to achieve that, because you don’t want it to be annoying, but at the same time you want it to create an ambience, and communicate the idea that the creatures are alive and active. The Whirligigs, for instance, can be quite chirpy, and then they go through periods of silence, so there are different moments in the artwork that are expressed through sound. 

PS: Actually, in our generative works we do not create soundscapes, we create a mechanism that produces sounds autonomously, and that becomes a soundscape. But lately we are increasingly taking responsibility for the quality of the sound and integrating a sound design process in the creation of the artworks, even with musical scores, that we develop in collaboration with professional musicians. The themes we are dealing with are also more serious, so there is probably a certain darkness in those sound pieces as well.

Eelco Brand: landscape as fiction

Pau Waelder

Eelco Brand (Rotterdam, 1969) creates virtual 3D models that resemble beautiful natural environments full of lush vegetation, bathed by the warm light of the sun or entrancing moonlight. While photorealistic, his artworks are not based on photography or 3D scanning. They are painstakingly created from scratch, layer by layer, with the patience of a devoted painter. The scenes he creates have no conclusion. They simply play out endlessly in seamless loops, depicting a surreal activity that, by repetition, becomes natural.

Brand is represented by DAM Projects, the pioneering digital art gallery funded and owned by Wolf Lieser in Berlin, which is presenting its most outstanding artists on Niio. Our recent artcast Sprout features a selection of artworks by Brand that depict scenes of nature with a mysterious twist. We sat down with the artist to discuss the concepts behind his 3D animations and the techniques he uses to create them.

Eelco Brand. WT.movi, 2019

Can you take us through the process of creating one of your animations?

A project starts with small pencil sketches. Followed by animating the movements in simple test scenes with dummy objects. When things seem to be possible technically and it might become an interesting work, I start building with 3D modeling. Then I import the 3D objects in a construction that could best be described as a virtual film studio. Lights and a camera are used as in a real film set. Only the area within the viewport of the camera is relevant, zooming out would reveal it is an illusion, as in a studio scene of a feature film.

At the same time it is often impossible to build a whole scene in one construction because of the limitations of computer memory and render power. So I use separate rendered layers and place them on top of each other in a film editing program. Which gives additional tools for adjusting image details.

From beginning to end, to every detail, it feels important to construct everything myself. It would be very well possible to obtain existing 3D objects, but that feels as cheating.

Your artworks integrate elements of the languages of both painting and cinema. Which role do these elements play?

In my animations there isn’t a narrative, no story development. Shown within the edges of a screen hanging on a wall, the similarity with a painting is obvious. It doesn’t matter when you start looking at it. This can be bothersome in a video art exhibition, when it is unclear whether you are at the end or at the beginning. A painting, on the other hand, is static and is often looked at for just a brief moment, trained as we are to see and judge an image in a split second because of the visual bombardment we are subjected to each day. So, as a painter, to be able to use movement to attract and hold the attention of a viewer has always felt as a powerful quality. In maintaining the resemblance with a painting I prefer to use slow movements or keep the camera standing still. For me, the slow rhythm and iterations are a welcome opposite of the constant flow of images in a fast, hyper tensed society. 

Light and colors in the animations, as well as camera angle and depth of field are mostly a consequence of the scenery. The most attractive way of working on an animation is when the whole construction seems to take over and evolves by its own logic. 

Eelco Brand. HH.movi, 2017

You do not use photographs or scanned objects in the making of your artworks. Why did you choose this method of creation? Do you keep libraries of elements that you can re-use in different artworks?

Yes, I re-use objects when I can. The sculpting and texturing of a 3D object is quite a lot of work each time, but the handmade aspect is essential in my opinion. It would be very well possible to obtain existing 3D objects, but that feels as cheating. From beginning to end, to every detail, it feels important to construct everything myself.

At the same time, I find it interesting to question to which extent the 3D software is only a technical toolset and whether you can consider yourself as the creator of each and any aspect. It can be said that there is a sort of anonymous collaboration between the designers of the software and the artist, particularly when certain typical effects are applied. I always try to be careful and avoid using the newest effects of 3D software, because there is this point that it is not so much the artist just using a toolset, but you see in fact the coolest new wizardry made by software designers.

And nothing is outdated as fast as the newest, flashy techniques.

Eelco Brand. OBJ.movi, 2021

You underscore the fact that landscape is a fiction, and so your depiction of nature is at the same time photorealistic and playfully fantastic. Is this your intention, to lead the viewer to question their perception of reality?

Nature is, on the one hand, an infinitely refined machinery. A biochemical machine. Up to the tiniest protein and molecule behaves according to the laws of physics. And, on the other hand, nature is mystical, magical and divine. Or is that the human mind, projecting its thoughts and feelings? Indeed a landscape is fictional. It is our perception that creates a landscape out of trees and rocks and fields that are just randomly placed. 

For me the fascinating quality about 3D animations is its immaterial aspect. It can be compared to the substance that dreams are made of. While fully virtual, it can be convincingly real. And with VR techniques rapidly evolving using virtual environments, the boundaries between fiction and reality will fade more and more.

For me the fascinating quality about 3D animations is its immaterial aspect. It can be compared to the substance that dreams are made of. While fully virtual, it can be convincingly real.

One would say that some of your animations depict particular moods, such as joy, longing, or sadness. Is there an emotional dimension in these landscape and still life compositions?

I think that the works can have a certain atmosphere depending on the interpretation of the viewer. I entertain the idea that it is a personal issue. Nevertheless, the fact that a scene could trigger a certain emotion is very welcome.

Eelco Brand. KB.movi, 2021

The titles of your artworks are particularly puzzling, since they are reduced to a string of letters and the file extension. Is this a way to remove all possible interpretations of the artwork beyond the fact that it is a 3D rendered animation?

Exactly. They could all be named N.T., but the different letters help me organize the artworks. They are often just abbreviations of the project map on the computer. For example ‘Fir Tree Project’ would be FT.movi.

Eelco Brand. QTQ.movi, 2018

Since you create such detailed scenes with 3D modeling, have you considered expanding your landscapes to immersive 360 environments for virtual reality? Or do you prefer the image to stay inside a frame?

I have tried some things with Unreal Engine and it is fascinating. The visual impact of a VR environment is huge and a big promise for the future. But still, to put a device on your head isn’t that ideal. Especially in an exhibition surrounding, I don’t think it works very well.

Eelco Brand. The Act of Bringing To Life. 25 Frames per Second and More. Solo exhibition at DAM Gallery, 2013. Photo courtesy of DAM Projects.

Your sculptures seem to go in the opposite direction of the animations, as they are artificial objects that seem extracted from a 3D rendering process and placed in a world where they don’t belong. What is your main interest in the creation of these pieces?

Because of the immaterial quality of 3D modeling, it felt almost magical to touch a real sculpture after production, designed on the computer as an intangible object. In several pieces I have an animation in which a shiny, unnatural shape moves. And in the exhibition the sculpture lies materialized next to the monitor as the actor out of the movie. It was interesting that there were people convinced to see the sculpture moving after watching the animation.

The Role of Art in a Climate Emergency

Pau Waelder

On 13th October 2022, two climate activists from the environmental group Just Stop Oil, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, threw two cans of tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Sunflowers (1888), on display at the National Gallery in London. They glued one hand to the wall under the painting and sat on the floor. Phoebe Plummer then said: 

“What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food, worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people? The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of the oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup. Meanwhile, crops are failing, millions of people are dying in monsoons, wildfires, and severe droughts. We cannot afford new oil and gas, it’s going to take everything we know and love.” 

The young woman’s passionate statement was cut short by a security guard who proceeded to remove them from the premises. The activists were brought to a district court and charged with criminal damage. Van Gogh’s painting, protected by a glass, was not harmed, although the frame suffered minimal damage, according to the museum.

The protest has sparked widespread outrage at what can be seen as an act of vandalism. Attacks on artworks at museums have been perpetrated many times by individuals for a variety of reasons, sometimes political, sometimes to draw attention to personal issues. Often, the perpetrators have been described as insane. It is therefore unsurprising that the act carried out by the two young activists has been perceived as criminal, deranged, and appalling, or simply dismissed as stupid. This type of protest is not new, it has been taking place over the summer by Just Stop Oil and then by climate activists in Italy, in actions that mainly consisted of gluing their hands to the protective glass or the frame of a famous painting depicting nature. The activists have taken precautions not to harm the artworks, and therefore cannot be considered to vandalize them, although they have at times caused damages to the gallery walls or the frames. However, no other protest has caused such strong reactions as the one carried out by Plummer and Holland, probably due to the aggressiveness of throwing liquid over a painting (which would normally cause irreparable damage), and maybe also due to who carried out this action. Two young queer women, Plummer and Holland have increasingly become the target of critics who have questioned their sanity and intelligence, and ridiculed everything in them, from their names to the color of Plummer’s hair and her accent. 

An artist’s response

Among the few in the art world who have expressed support for the protest is artist Joanie Lemercier, whose work is often inspired by nature and the representation of the natural world, leading him to address climate change and environmental degradation in artworks and performances that document and support the work of climate activists. In a video posted on social media, Lemercier states:

“Paintings are often the representation and celebration of landscapes, nature, and life. But we don’t actually give much value to these subjects or to their protection. So we are in the process of losing the conditions of habitability of the planet, yet a lot of people are outraged about a symbolic action that didn’t even damage the painting.” 

Addressing the subject matter of the painting, Lemercier points out that the sunflower fields that inspired Van Gogh in Verarges have recently reached the highest temperature ever recorded in France. “We are irreversibly losing these landscapes that Van Gogh loved painting so much,” states Lemercier. The artist suggests that, instead of focusing on the apparent attack on the painting, the public should pay attention to the message that the activists are trying to communicate. He concludes: 

“How do we protect, not just the representation of a landscape on a canvas, but the very landscape that is being annihilated? If we listen to the activists, the message is very clear: we need to stop oil, gas, and fossil fuel extraction.”

Joanie Lemercier makes a good point by presenting a documented, reasonable take on the protest and its meaning, that is arguably more convincing than the protest itself. He does not approve the attack on an artwork, but rather emphasizes the fact that this is a desperate measure to get a message across, and makes it clear that the painting was not harmed. However, it is hard to support the idea that good can be done by attacking cultural heritage, and it is dangerous to simply expect activists around the world to diligently inform themselves of the ways in which an artwork can be exposed to liquids, glues, or other substances without causing permanent damage. 

We care more about representations of nature than about nature itself. We have made cities and virtual spaces our habitat, while using natural environments as sites of leisure, or even just as an image to be displayed on the computer’s desktop. 

Personally, as a curator with a background in art history, I feel a natural aversion to any form of attack to a work of art (including the practice of burning prints and paintings to sell them as unique NFTs), but I understand the urgency expressed by the activists and the fact that collectively, we care more about representations of nature than about nature itself. We have made cities and virtual spaces our habitat, while using natural environments as sites of leisure, or even just as an image to be displayed on the computer’s desktop. 

What is the role of art in our present climate emergency, then? Maybe something more than becoming the backdrop of climate activists’ demands. The controversy around the soup thrown at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers has focused on the act of attacking a famous, and very expensive, painting, as well as in the activists themselves, but no attention has been paid to the connection between the life and work of the artist and the land that he loved, except in the reading presented by Lemercier. Living artists are now responding to climate change with artworks that speak to our present and address those same issues laid out by the activists, so it would be wise to listen to them too. 

Marina Zurkow, OOzy#2: Like Oil and Water, 2022

Art in a climate emergency

Artists addressing climate change in their work face the challenge of creating art that is engaging in itself, that responds to aesthetic considerations, but also manages to get its message across. This is not easy to achieve, particularly at a time when people consume large amounts of visual material and read the messages that get to them quickly and superficially, as the Just Stop Oil protest and its reactions clearly show.

Transdisciplinary artist Marina Zurkow points to the need to look beneath the surface by taking as a reference a diagram created by Donella Meadows in the 1970s, which uses the image of an iceberg as a metaphor of how difficult it is to change the mental models (the hidden part of the iceberg) that shape the visible actions and their consequences. She applies this concept to our understanding of climate change: 

“Honestly, I feel like if we can’t have an emotional relationship to the material of our planet that is at great risk, we can’t change the way we think about the world. And so anything like «don’t take a plastic bag,» or «get an electric car,» all the moral imperatives that are put on us, if they don’t come from the heart, they’re not going to stick, they’ll just be gone in the next election cycle –at least, in the United States. And so what I am committed to do with my work is to create emotional connections to this material and the ocean.”

Tamiko Thiel, Unexpected Growth, 2018

The pollution of the oceans is an aspect of the impact of human activity on the planet that relates to the climate emergency, as well as with our contradictory relationship with nature as an idealized image and a neglected wasteland. In an interview with Helmuts Caune published in Arterritory, artist Tamiko Thiel recalls her experience with the reality of plastic pollution:

“When my husband and I would vacation in Greece, Indonesia or Malaysia over the past number of years, at some point we started to realise that the sort of pristine beaches that are everyone’s dream of a tropical vacation is an artefact of beach-side resorts. They send out their staff in the early morning hours, before everyone wakes up, to collect all of the plastic that’s accumulated.”

She created the artwork Unexpected Growth (2018), commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, that addresses this issue by placing the viewer in an immersive scenario in which the 6th floor of the museum is under water, populated by plants and creatures formed of plastic debris. The experience can lead a visitor to think about this reality, but at the same time, the piece is quite beautiful, its aesthetic qualities possibly causing more delight than awe.

Balancing environmental concerns and aesthetics is particularly difficult. Marina Zurkow points out that addressing a subject in a manner that is too shocking can lead to rejection:

“The brain wants to categorize what it receives and put in boxes and dismiss those ideas that seem dangerous, depressing or disturbingly radical. Presenting an audience with an impactful idea will attract their attention, but it may also lead them to reject the idea because it is too disturbing and just move on. Our brains want to take a nap, and have a difficult time dealing with uncertainty.”

Kelly Richardson, HALO I, 2021

Artist Kelly Richardson deals with climate change in her work by creating imaginary futures that prompt a reflection on our present. In this way, the message is placed at a certain distance in time that does not produce anxiety and allows a space for action: 

“Until this point, on this precipice, we’ve allowed terrifying futures to be ushered in despite the predictions of so many. Perhaps we have allowed this in part because we couldn’t visualize or understand these futures from an experiential point of view. I try to offer this window of understanding through my work. I create potential futures for people to experience, to encourage reflection on current priorities and where those are leading us as a species.”

In HALO (2021), Richardson depicts a red moon distorted by heat rising from a campfire, a scene from her summer evenings in British Columbia that now takes a different meaning as the rising temperatures have led to banning campfires due to the risk of wildfire. “Summers now bring a mix of joy for its promised, remaining riches and genuine fear associated with what else they will bring,” states Richardson, “I now look out my windows towards a tree-covered mountain and think, «that’s a lot of fuel».”

Diane Drubay, Ignis II, 2021

The scene in Richardson’s video is relatable and in this manner makes its message stronger. This approach to what is familiar and close is also mentioned by artist Diane Drubay when addressing climate change through her work:

“We need to reconnect with what surrounds us on a daily basis in order to better understand and respect it. Having grown up in the middle of nature but having lived in the city for the last 20 years, the only element that has allowed me to feel connected to the grandeur and sublime of nature is the sun. I, therefore, assumed that if everyone could reconnect with the sun in a subconscious and transcendental way, a new relationship between humans and nature could be sparked.”

Her work Ignis II (2021) shows a beautiful summer sky that turns into a menacing red storm in just 14 seconds, which refers to the 14 years left until, according to several scientists, the Earth would reach a point of no return in global warming. Again, the image can be easily connected with a personal experience and suggests a reflection on a future that is not immediate, but is close enough to require immediate action.

Alexandra Crouwers, The Plot: a day/night sequence, 2021

Personal experiences can have powerful narratives, particularly when they bring a more intimate perspective to climate change than the global views offered by scientific reports. Artist Alexandra Crouwers focuses her work in the creation of virtual environments that reflect on our relationship with nature, landscape, and architecture. She speaks of feeling eco anxiety for more than 20 years, which has brought her to consider the climate emergency from a more personal point of view. 

“There is a kind of innate longing for landscapes that are not there. This is connected to the idea of escapism; to escape from where you are at. The word nature has become very problematic: what we refer to as nature is quickly deteriorating in all kinds of senses. To me, simulating this idea of wilderness is like a twisted sense of digital nature, of purpose preservation. It is a way to deal with the idea of loss.”

In Diorama. The Plot: a day/night sequence (2021), she depicts what is left of a small family forest that was cleared due to a climate change induced fatal spruce bark beetle infestation. The 3D rendering of the real space becomes a sort of memorial and a tool for the artist to investigate how to deal with eco anxiety and ecological grief.

Katie Torn, Dream Flower I, 2022

Depicting remnants, ruins, or debris is also a powerful way to create awareness about the ongoing destruction of our natural environment. Taking this idea to a different context, artist Katie Torn has addressed the possibility that we as humans have become incapable of understanding nature without our intervention, and can only envision a hybrid world in which natural and artificial merge into one. The classical concept of beauty plays a pivotal role here, as it confronts us to our distancing from nature:

“Destruction and decay are frightening but it can also be beautiful on a purely aesthetic level. Like watching a forest fire from your computer screen. It is awful and heart breaking but can be watched slightly removed like an explosion in an action film. My work stems from the ironies we see in industrial disasters in nature like the most beautiful pink sunset that is caused by pollution or being awestruck by the colorful beauty in an oil spill.”

While works such as Dream Flower I (2022), cannot be said to address climate change, they do point out our relationship with nature in a wider sense, the mental models to which Marina Zurkow has referred, and that form a society interested in its own comfort, regardless of the consequences to our planet.