Future Narratives: In Conversation with Mark IJzerman
Questioning our human relationship with technology as a collaborator.
From 9 to 13 September 2019, the Cartographies of the Vanishing Now Lab took place in Amsterdam, organised by FIBER Festival. This five-day art-science laboratory investigated how sensory art, cartographic design and speculative storytelling can contribute to a better understanding of a new unstable world under the influence of climate change.
More than 40 makers and thinkers — artists, designers, scientists, creative coders, performers, scholars and speculative writers — came together to work on new knowledge development and artistic prototypes. The Lab set out to capture the impact of the growing ecological instability on the way we organise and model our modern world, trace the forces behind environmental change and shift perspectives to relate differently to our past, present and possible futures. This is the fourth interview in a series of COTVN interviews and essays.
In conversation with Mark IJzerman
Mark IJzerman is a Dutch media artist and designer making installations and audiovisual performances. In his work he explores interaction between sound, light and the physiological effect on the body. Most recently, his works have been exploring the way we experience and relate to our ecology and atmosphere. Mark is one of the co-creators of COTVN, alongside Xandra van der Eijk and Jarl Schulp.
In an interview, Michelle Geraerts spoke with him about the role of art in mediating scientific developments and storytelling as a human need.
MG: How did you get involved with the Cartographies lab?
MI: My practice is mostly in sound and media art. Last year I got very interested in satellite imagery within my own work. Firstly because there was a visual similarity between my work and satellite imagery, and when I started digging into it I found that this would give me possibilities to tell a story with my work which used to be mostly abstract visuals. For some time I thought that I could tell a story with just the satellite imagery, but when I did a residency in Chile with Valley of the Possible where I researched deforestation in that area and how it relates to the local indigenous people, I found out that you cannot tell a story with that kind of data at all — with just solely satellite imagery.
Coming from a quite technological background, it took me some time to realize I needed to look at it from different kinds of levels and viewpoints; from the way the landscape changes to societal shifts. At the same time I was talking with Jarl Schulp (FIBER) about new narratives for the future while we were reading a lot of science fiction, which is often quite dystopian. We were thinking about how these dystopian narratives influence the way we think about the future. In my personal life I found myself talking more and more to people who were talking about non-anthropogenic communication, so communication with non-humans. This lab is where it all collided for me: communication with non-humans, visualising data and media art.
MG: Obviously satellite data is not as objective as we always hoped. That’s the big question of technology, if it can ever be neutral… In this lab we also reflect on the role of technology. You work with sound and image, what is your relationship with technological means?
MI: During this lab I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to technology, and relationship of participants to technology as well. There was quite a big difference between the field trip where everyone was out in the open exploring the surroundings, and the next day when we went very deep technologically. There is a friction between these two modes- most of the participants are working on at least partly technological outputs. The tendency of working with technological means also says something about how we understand, or want to understand, our environment. I haven’t completely processed it but it seems to be climate change is such a big problem that you want to outsource a bit of thinking to machines. We also saw a bit of that with Tivon Rice’s AI to create narratives or co-write something. It’s almost like you need extra brain space to process these problems or to make a statement about these problems.
MG: So it’s about having a computer as a collaborator to integrate these complex layers?
MI: Machines can hold multiple “layers” at the same time, and you can juxtapose different layers together, make a collage of this hyper-object problem. You can pick and choose, and try what works best to tell a layered narrative.
MG: What do you think is the value of art when you mediate scientific data?
MI: Mediating scientific data can break open the conversation of bias. If you use data in your art project, it of course has to be valid — but you can be speculative about what it might mean for the future or in different contexts. This breaks open the conversation of why, what and how the sciences are going about their business… Why do these satellites have these specific sensors? Why is their data accessible to groups with specific knowledge and not others? What are the methods that are being used — are these indeed the right methods? Can we come up with new speculative methods?
MG: What do you think science can contribute to art?
MI: The realm of science is guarded with specific rules on how to conduct science. This is good, but not for communicating research to audiences. You could say that art and science can review each other, I hope that scientists can see it like that. It would be great if that would happen more — what is the validity of the data, what is the bias, what is the discussion which the data can bring to an audience?
MG: Getting out in the field can help make sense of these questions — what did you take into account making the choices for the fieldwork?
MI: In co-organizing the field trip with Xandra van der Eijk and Jarl Schulp, it was very hard to find the right place to go to. There are a lot of issues surrounding the climate emergency and it was hard to find the right place where we could go and point to a specific thing and say ‘this is what it’s all about’. It’s embedded in everything. We tried to find a place where the anthropocene and the non-anthropogenic meet each other in an interesting way. In the Netherlands, the Oosterschelde is such a place. We built these storm surge barriers to keep out the sea: a very clear narrative from a simple, anthropogenic feat or engineering perspective. When you’re there on the ground you start seeing this in another way. You see life forms which have changed in the past twenty years because of the construction of the storm surge barrier. I think having this multiplicity of all these reactions to this anthropogenic structures we built is providing us with another story.
MG: Do you think you will extend the work you’re doing in the lab after the lab is done?
MI: My new audiovisual work (“As Above, So Below“) came out of a research on deforestation in La Araucania, Chile, and I’m still working on that. This lab has given me a lot of insight and some different perspectives on how to approach this subject. We saw the talk of Shailoh Philips on Wednesday who was talking about ‘start with the seed, start simple, don’t try and want to talk about the whole subject but focus on one part of it and start there’. This was really useful and I think a lot of participants took something from that.
Apart from co-organising COTVN I also decided to do my own short project. As a kid I was always fascinated by barnacles, the sea creatures you find by the coast growing on stones. I would often put my ear to them to listen. So I decided to look at the world from the barnacle’s perspective and see how they view their surroundings. I used some of Tivon Rice’s AI to co-write how a “barnacle researcher” would look at humans and their surroundings. I’m making a very short clip of that as an outcome. For the rest I’ve been having lots of fun helping out the participants and seeing what people come up with. One of our participants, Vinny Jones is working on ways to experience climate data of longer timescales through a light installation. A lot of the other projects are very narrative, they’re heavy on storytelling. Telling stories on a small scale which relates to a bigger scale. I think it’s in the human condition to tell stories, and to carry stories on and to make people think. This is something which is happening in the projects being made.
MG: The lab is called COTVN; how does storytelling relate to mapping?
MI: Through the lab we found out that mapping is often an extractivist action, as it’s often related to ownership; it’s about who owns what. I think this might be why a lot of participants chose a narrative route: often starting from their own perspective. I think that could be an alternative to ‘hard-mapping’ in the sense of drawing a border. By telling a story from a specific perspective, whether it’s your own or by empathizing with another perspective, you weigh in the subjectivity. This gives the viewer the freedom to interpret a depiction of the landscape instead of presenting it as a deceptive truth.
Interview conducted by: Michelle Geraerts | Edited by: Rhian Morris