Søren pold

Søren Pold (www.bro-pold.dk) is Associate Professor of Digital Aesthetics at Institute of Aesthetic Disciplines/Multimedia, University of Aarhus, Denmark. He has published in Danish and English on digital and media aesthetics – from the 19. c. panorama to the interface. He is currently in charge of the research project, "The Aesthetics of Interface Culture" (http://www.interfacekultur.au.dk).

Imaginary Interfaces in the Blue Sky

Entering a completely blacked-out room at Transmediale 2009 (Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, February 2009), the audience are handed night vision goggles and subsequently move into the darkness. The work we are about to ‘see’ is called Post Global Warming Survival Kit and is made by the Bulgarian media artist Petko Dourmana. However, the darkness is thick, and one’s first experience is the feeling of being unable to see anything at all. Little by little one finds out how the goggles work and discovers a film featuring a coastal landscape, projected onto a back wall. The film is shown via infrared light which is invisible to the naked eye but can be seen through the night vision goggles. In the middle of the room one sees a small caravan from which infrared light emanates. On entering the caravan, one finds a handwritten book, some communication equipment and various other instruments for sustaining life in a post-climate catastrophe world. With one’s night vision goggles, and a good deal of effort, it is possible to read in the book which tells of life after the climate catastrophe, why it got dark and what the guard inhabiting the caravan is doing.

    Slowly the layers of the installation are uncovered and its narratives pieced together, but a large part of the experience remains the fact that one starts off unable to see anything. One moves about uncertainly and laboured, meets other viewers that one cannot see properly, with their infrared goggles, and generally feels inhibited and alienated. The installation is a post-climate catastrophic mystery that demands both intensive interpretation and night vision in order to be experienced. One leaves with the experience of the inadequacy of one’s immediate senses. The perspective of climate crisis demands fresh eyes and our ordinary senses are no longer sufficient.


Digital media art like Petko Dourmana’s installation offers the opportunity to experience another, new nature, or at least it gives us a new and up-to-date perspective on nature. In addition to being a crisis for the globe and for humanity, the climate crisis is also an epistemological crisis, and we need to change our perception of our environment in order to better understand and deal with it. In other words it is also a cultural, epistemological challenge.

    The nature, the weather, that previously we have regarded as something out there simply beyond our reach, as something that was in opposition to culture when we analysed poetry in high school, this has now turned into yet another structure of signs to be read and interpreted. We cannot see the greenhouse gasses or their effects directly with our senses so our understanding of the climate challenges are very much based on climate models, and we must act on this background in our daily lives as well as, obviously, politically and culturally. The climate crisis introduces us to the fact that our immediate surroundings are being mediated by complex visualisations, interfaces, statistics and carbon quotas – thus an imaginary computer interface lurks in the blue sky, even deep in the country with no computers in sight!

    Although it sounds very complicated, we increasingly experience it concretely. For instance as nagging doubts – perhaps a pang of bad conscience – when we are enjoying the unusually warm weather that perhaps, perhaps not, is a sign of climate change. Or as an extra worry when storms hit: Is this not only bad weather, but a portent of the future? It was probably easier to persuade each other and our politicians to change behaviour if it were easier to see – if the greenhouse gasses were visible as black smoke, smelled foul or were otherwise directly perceptible. It is harder to react to statistic predictions, scientific models and visualisations – to something that our indolence, lobbyists (and Lomborgians) try to persuade us not to take seriously. We are used to acting on what we can perceive directly – not on scientific predictions as to what will happen in the course of the next centuries. From being a subject of uncomplicated small talk, the weather has become a subject for political debate – something we should have an attitude to and do something about.

    Understanding and recognising this is a rather big challenge that demands a cultural process of change. What should we strive for when it is no longer growth, new holiday destinations and bigger cars? How should we learn to see the invisible balances in a nature that is no longer absolute and unspoilt? Here art can assist in confronting us with new ways of seeing, as in the case of Petko Dourmana’s installation.

Art has always treated how we see and take possession of our surroundings, nature – from cave paintings over centuries of traditions in landscape painting to the Land art of the 1960s/70s. Digital art joins this long tradition but with a special emphasis on how digital technology is a part of and influences sense perception. Increasingly nature and climate have been the focus at leading festivals for digital art such as Transmediale, Ars Electronica and Futuresonic. We live in a reality where gradually we are getting used to networks, data and communication overlaying our direct sense perception and presence, e.g. in the form of laptops and handheld computers with GPS navigation, internet access, mp3 players and access to posting images and messages straight to our social networks. Whereas fifteen years ago there was a lot of talk about the difference between Virtual Reality and reality, today things are much more interlaced; we are increasingly on the web, even when walking in nature, and increasingly we are also experiencing nature mediated through mobile digital devices. Whereas until a few years ago our digital media were more or less localised and stationary like the TV in the living room and the computer in the office, now they slip easily into the pocket and overlay our everyday life wherever we are. As the Paris based artist group HeHe (to whom I shall return later) phrase it in an interview: “We are the Google Earth generation. We need to observe everything from above, from afar, through the glasses of a scientific model.” (Neural 33, 2009, p. 40.)

    A few digital climate artists work closely alongside scientists to formulate the results of science in new ways, while also exploring what happens inside and around the laboratories. Here Marko Peljhan’s artistic labs are in a league of their own. Peljhan’s labs and expeditions are attempts at opening the scientific exploration and its techniques with hacks which demonstrate how the labs influence the places they are established. Peljhan and his collaborators establish labs in remote places, such as I-TASC (Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation) in arctic Canada, partly to research climate and environment, partly to explore and interact with the legal, bureaucratic and political problems raised when one starts establishing labs without the legitimacy and authorisations of the scientific world. The artistic labs and the works produced in them are highly complex but demonstrate in a thought-provoking manner how science and high politics interfere with the environment in often remote places. Right now the work on I-TASC demonstrates how the Arctic has become a charged political area, partly because of global warming which will give access to natural resources and navigation routes but which also threatens the life forms of the Inuit. At the same time the works expose the rhetoric and imagery of the scientific world – they are a form of artistic-activist science that shows ‘real’ science’s blind spots.

    The climate crisis removes the last vestige of innocence in our experience of nature and climate which we are now becoming aware are closely connected to carbon quotas, political decisions (or lack thereof) and all of our individual and collective behaviour. A work like Post Global Warming Survival Kit explores how our relationship to the environment has become complicated. The work gives the viewer the ultimate shock that after the climate crisis one can no longer use one’s eyes to see art or reality. HeHe have ingeniously commented on the fact that one can no longer see the pollution, the smoke, either. Whereas previously the smog from the cars was visible over the big cities, today we can no longer see the smoke which has been filtered and made invisible, but not, in the process, harmless. In various works HeHe have made the invisible pollution visible and visualised the ozone pollution in the sky over Paris’ Pompidou Centre (Champs d’ozone, 2007). In the work Nuage Vert 01 (2008) they projected a green laser-drawn cloud onto the almost invisible chimney smoke of a Helsinki power plant. The size of the laser cloud was contingent on the power consumption in the city and so the power production at the power plant, and thus the citizens of Helsinki could see their power consumption directly, and actually the installation resulted in a small reduction. However, the work’s significance can hardly be estimated in kilowatt but rather in how it makes us conscious of the relations between our energy consumption and carbon emissions as well as our collective possibilities for acting. The work belongs to a category of digital climate art that attempts to establish an interface for the climate problem in which the viewers are given the opportunity to see and influence it.

If acknowledging the climate problem is difficult, it is even harder to find out how to deal with it and act politically. Who wants to do something about the problem, and who is merely pretending? The politicians? The business industry? Net art activists like The Yes Men expose hypocrites and frauds of all kinds by kidnapping companies’ brands, events, websites, press releases etc., and worthy opponents include Exxon Mobile, Halliburton and former president Bush’s (lack of) climate ambitions. They lay bare green washing and empty rhetoric in some of the people who behind the façade are trying to prevent binding climate goals.

    There exist many frauds but at the same time there is a need to mobilise support to carry out changes. The politicians and companies cannot do it for us; we need to commit to the solutions ourselves. Planetary Pledge Pyramid (part of the RETHINK exhibition) is a project that delivers an interface for change through collective idea generation, fundraising and online demonstration. Where social media have often been utilised for a quick demonstration of how many we are who support a specific cause, this project will take the next step and use Facebook to recruit and connect people in debating pyramids, all of them pledging to contribute a small amount of money. In pyramids of six, people can suggest ideas, discuss and by voting decide which ideas to promote. At the same time groups will be able to debate in talk show-like round table talks (Talkaoke), and the final decision is taken by the audience in the final which takes place in a theatre in Copenhagen during the climate conference. The project will test whether online communities can negotiate solutions while raising the money and galvanising the people to carry them through, a new concept for political activism for the web 2.0 generation. The vision is that a large part of humanity all over the globe – at least the part of it that is active on Facebook and wants to join in – will be recruited and engaged in discussions on how we solve the climate problems when the climate conference is launched in Copenhagen in December. Planetary Pledge Pyramid is a project that believes that if one gives people the tools in the form of an effective interface for climate political activism, we will take on the task.

There is no doubt that the climate problem is also a cultural and artistic problem which art helps point out. The issue is not if climate change is coming but how we can learn to live with it and handle the altered relationship between us and our surroundings which it signifies. The astrophysicist Roger Malina argues for the importance of digital climate art from the position of the growing distance between science, technology and our everyday world experience. The problem is that ‘common science does not make common sense.’ We do use mobile phones, computers and many other results of modern techno-science, but we are unable to understand that technology, let alone its underlying cultural consequences. There is a need to open the scientific world’s institutional isolation and reach a deeper understanding of what goes on in the labs. We need a ‘toolkit for survival’ which the digital art is an important part of: “artists using new media and new technologies are not creating playthings for rich people but are part of the rapid cultural engineering we need to do to face the burning issues of our times.” (Roger Malina: “What is a Climate Artist?” in Deep North, Stephen Kovatz, Thomas Munz (eds.), Berlin, 2009, p. 99.)


   Although climate discussions are an obvious scene for digital art, what role art plays when it is onstage is essential. Good climate art is art that takes on the challenge as an artistic challenge – not ‘merely’ enters the service of the climate discussion and communicates the results of science but at the same time discusses how the climate crisis challenges our culture, art and experience. It can do this in many ways by addressing and letting us experience the epistemological challenges, such as Petko Dourmana’s installation, by opening up to the process and the blind spots in science’s labs like Marko Peljhan, by criticising and exposing empty rhetoric and green washing like The Yes Men or by delivering interfaces for change as in Planetary Pledge Pyramid and in HeHe. Good digital climate art is not just green flourishes on the actions of serious politicians and companies, not only illustrations and diversions for the climate conference, but serious and challenging explorations of what it means to live after the climate crisis.


This article is also published in the RETHINK exhibition catalogue which can be purchased at one of the four museums or at the Alexandra Institute. For mail order, please contact Lene Mortensen, bGVuZS5oLm1vcnRlbnNlbkBhbGV4YW5kcmEuZGs=.