Berlin based artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen is a world maker. He works primarily with digital media to create pieces that are deeply engaged with the natural world. Through the use of 3D animation, sound, and immersive installation, Steensen draws attention to dynamic connections often overlooked in environments. His work has been exhibited at Halle am Berghain in Berlin, ARoS Museum of Art in Denmark, the Serpentine Galleries in London, and the Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon. In addition to being awarded several prizes for his work in VR and animation, Steensen was a finalist for the Future Generation Art Prize at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
In the following conversation I talk with Jakob Kudsk Steensen about his practice; where he started, what he's motivated by, and how he approaches his work as his career develops.
ML: You’ve stated that you’ve always wanted to be an animator but that life led you to a brief education in social anthropology and an advanced degree in art history. At what point did you start creating digital media works? What was the first piece you made where you felt like you needed to continue making this type of art?
JKS: I would say the first virtual worlds I encountered that gave me a deeper interest in this medium were Peter Molineux Black and White, or the games Citizen of Kabuto, Sacrifice, and Fallout 1.
But it was really when I was around 11 when the online multiplayer map Facing Worlds in UT99 (Unreal Tournament '99) became available that I had a strong creative feeling stir in me. This map has been remade many times over the last 20 + years. It's two floating islands overlooking earth, as two teams, all playing online, need to capture the other team’s flag. Very basic. But, the level design is so powerful, there is something about it. Because of it, I started modifying UT99 and slowly it became a hobby of mine to remake game worlds in it, share them online, and play with friends. It was a very organic thing to me. Just a natural part of my life, never a rational choice of "working with this medium is a good decision". It just feels like a natural medium, like video is to many artists a little older than me.
Images from Primal Tourism (2017). Courtesy of artist.
Steensen’s Primal Tourism (2017) shows how the natural, creative inclination toward virtual world building developed into a multifaceted art practice. Primal Tourism can be set up as a single or multi user virtual reality (VR) experience. The setting of this VR is on an island which is an exact, full-scale replica of Bora Bora, French Polynesia. Within the experience are a series of narratives based on tourist photos from online spaces like reddit, as well as drawings from Dutch East India Trading Company’s explorer, Jacob Roggenven. As the viewer moves through the virtual landscape they encounter ideas around ecology, history, tourism and climate speculation.
Primal Tourism (2017). Courtesy of artist.
ML: It seems that you’ve also been drawn to the idea of “environment.” Can you talk about where this interest stems from?
JKS: I've come to realize I'm driven by a connection between external worlds, environments, inner mental landscapes, and what can function as a kind of navigator between them. It's a deeply personal process for me to make art. I think about it all the time-it's ingrained in me. So the places I travel to become part of my sense of self and how I view the world, and I then channel that for others to encounter. I've come to learn lately this is the deeper core of what it means for me to be an artist. It's a kind of spiritual thing; a way of exploring senses of belonging.
ML: So as an artist, you see yourself as a navigator between outer and inner environments, as an individual who must translate their lived experiences into something that can be witnessed and interpreted by others. I appreciate this concept and like how you see it as a way of exploring “senses of belonging.” How do different environments engage certain senses for you?
JKS: I grew up in the countryside and also visited the Krüger National Park while living briefly in Mozambique as a teenager, in Maputo, with my mom who is a researcher. My dad comes from a family with 7 siblings- they lived far out in a very rural area with very low income. Because of that, everyone on his side of the family knows every flower, bird, mushroom- anything in the environment you can make use of because it was necessary for them growing up. It's just kinda part of me to be in the natural world, but equally, natural for me to live in virtual space. I don't see them as separate. The virtual is just another medium for us to interpret and understand our relationship to the world. Throughout the years I’ve become friends with different writers and biologists, and through them, get ideas about places and new perspectives that I feel drawn to make art about.
ML: There is a tendency (maybe it's generational) to think of the digital/virtual world as opposite to the natural world. However, they both play a part in composing our reality. Rather than creating conflict between technology and nature, you fuze them and allow the audience to thoroughly engage with their surroundings, environment, and overall sensorial existence.
Your recent work Berl Berl (2021) is an example of this. You use advanced gaming and photographic technologies to recreate Berlin’s ancient ecological and mythological history in a fully immersive installation. Can you talk about this work and your process? What was the research like? How did research evolve into the audio & visuals used in this installation?
Trailer: Berl-Berl (2021) at Halle am Berghain commissioned by LAS. Video courtesy of artist.
Images from Berl-Berl (2021). Courtesy of artist.
JKS: Berl-Berl was born out of the concept of polyphony i.e. many voices. I felt at the time a need to weave many timescales and voices together - human, animal, environmental, past and present, both visually and sonically.
I collaborated with the singer ARCA, and the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Archival sounds from swamps around the city combined with the contemporary field recordings I worked on with Matt McCorkle. I also digitized fungal networks, leaves, mud, branches, around Berlin in the swamps, as well as specimens from the Natural History Museum, some hundreds of years old. ARCA improvised songs, informed by folklore I researched with Sabine Asmus and Dane Sutherland, into past songs and mythologies in the region of wetlands. Berl is the original name of Berlin in Slavic, used 1000 years ago, and it means swamp. Berlin is built at the edge of an old glacial valley across a swamp.
So the final artwork mixes all this material together in a video game I made, which shows across 9 screens and 30 speakers. I also embrace architecture a lot, which is one of my favorite elements. Playing subtly but powerfully with architecture, not hiding from it but embracing it, is one of my favorite elements of making exhibitions. I design all my installations on my own, so their setup feels very personal. It also makes the technology feel more fluid and seamless.
ML: Knowing that much of your work is site specific, how do you typically approach a project?
JKS: It's a combination of feelings- something I sense in the zeitgeist which I think intuitively is important to express. A mood. A sensation. Something sensory. Then I pair this with a natural story, somewhere I've been, read about, or someone told me about. And one thing just organically leaps to the next, never fully knowing what the next project entails. I think as an artist the use of an organic approach and intuition is important.
ML: You often work with individuals from various academic and professional backgrounds. How do you go about constructing a team of collaborators?
JKS: This also happens organically. I just meet different writers, artists, programmers, or have an idea and ask around. There really isn't too tight a structure. It can, very, very quickly, turn into familiar virtual production paradigms and processes, and I find that pretty boring and industrial. Keeping an organic flair and flow is important.
The making of Steensen’s Re-Animated (2019) was a collaborative effort on several levels. Steensen worked with the American Natural History Museum, ornithologist Douglass H. Pratt, composer Michael Reisman, and others to create a response to the haunting mating call of the last living Kaua’i ʻōʻō bird. The Kaua’i ʻōʻō’s song was first recorded in 1975, but has since been digitized, published to YouTube, and played hundreds of thousand of times since the bird's extinction. Through extensive archival and field research, Steensen and his collaborators virtually recreated the Kaua’i ʻōʻō, its original habitat, and mating song. This piece is a poetic resurrection of an extinct species that will forever exist and sing in a digital environment experienced through video or VR.
The sonic element of Re-Animated in its VR form amplifies the audience’s (or user’s) sensorial engagement and allows them to actively participate in the Kaua’i ʻōʻō’s new habitat. As the user moves through the VR, the entire ecosystem responds in real time to the pulse of the algorithmic composition by Michael Reisman and the user’s own breath and voice.
Image from Re-Animated (2019.) Courtesy of Jakob Kudsk Steensen's studio.
ML: When did you start to incorporate sound into your work? Can you talk about some of your sound collaborations?
JKS: I've always included sound. I just used to do it on my own. As I got more known and got better opportunities, others became involved. The first big step for me was working with the musical director of the Phillip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman, on my work Re- Animated from 2019. He came to one of my shows and hung out watching the same video work loop over and over. We became good friends. He is dear to me. Riesman then made music for the work and we also made an LP "Flow: A meditation on extinction.”
ARCA was also amazing to work with. Pure raw energy. After working with them, I think my practice has completely changed into something much more organic and orchestral. I've become obsessed with the concept of polyphony. Many voiced beings, and places. Sound is very exciting to me and is a collaborative realm where it’s easier to play with morphing worlds than in 3D, which is so heavy and complex. I like directing sound and thinking ahead - my work is going to be based on that a lot more.
ML: Can you speak to that idea a bit more - how sound and rhythm can be used almost like a language in morphing worlds?
JKS: I think everything exists in rhythms. The universe. Life. You. Me. Our emotions. Things come and go, evolve, in certain patterns, as nutrients, minerals, DNA, technologies, the weather, all interwave. Thinking in rhythms allows me to open up for more playful and less didactic, less linear, ways of imagining and combining things.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen has participated in several artist residency programs including BRIC in Brooklyn, Luma Arles, La Becque, and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Steensen is currently showing work in Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, China, and Italy.
For more on Jakob Kudsk Steensen visit: