An Introduction to Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s New Realities
Text by Youssra Manlaykhaf
To encounter the immersive virtual landscapes and meditative soundscapes of Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen is to be transported into a new world. Here, we take a look at the artist’s key influences. Join Steensen and Serpentine’s Senior Strategist-at-Large Ben Vickers in conversation on 24 February 2021. Artist Worlds is co-presented by UBS and Serpentine. Register here.
An environmental storyteller, Steensen reimagines natural environments through 3D animation, spatial audio work and immersive installation inviting audiences into digital worlds that explore the intersection of art, technology and ecology.
Drawing inspiration from science fiction writers like Jeff VanderMeer, Steensen uses technology to create alternative realities grounded in real ecologies that are carefully blended with imaginary ecosystems. In steering the viewer’s focus to the minute mysteries within nature, Steensen sparks the feeling that there is boundless potential in these constructed surroundings that lie just beyond human perception.
“I have a passion for natural history, illustrations and science fiction, as well as just looking at various recordings from satellites, submarines, and microscopes. They are all technologies which in some way extend our human perception system.” – Jakob Kudsk Steensen
Ecology & Slow-Media
Steensen’s practice is informed by extended periods of fieldwork where he collaborates with specialists from across science and conservation, documenting the environments and gathering organic samples to form the basis of his digitised landscapes. In creating Catharsis, an immersive simulation of an old-growth forest that exhibited at Serpentine in early 2019, the artist used 3D textures and field recordings gathered from several North American forests with his primary collaborator, the sound artist Matt McCorkle.
Catharsis harnesses the effects of Steensen’s philosophy of “slow media” whereby digital technologies can foster attention to the natural world and create new narratives about our ecological futures.
“I was really fascinated with modifying these worlds and landscapes and mixing that together with your own experience. As an artist I grew up in a generation where people were remixing – taking imagery and then making new very chaotic and quick moving imagery. So I intentionally went the opposite way.” – Jakob Kudsk Steensen
Steensen’s experiments with technology started at an early age when he began to modify his favourite video games using specialised software. Though Steensen started out painting, games remained a lifelong passion of his and one he soon returned to when he started to build digital portals to the worlds he was painting.
Responding to Serpentine’s Augmented Architecture open call in 2018, a collaboration between Serpentine, Google Arts & Culture and Sir David Adjaye OBE, Steensen built The Deep Listener app. Through the use of Augmented Reality (AR), the process of superimposing digital content onto a physical environment, and sound by McCorkle, The Deep Listener takes the user on an audio-visual journey through the ecology of London’s Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park to see and hear five of London’s species: London plane trees, bats, parakeets, azure blue damselflies and reedbeds.
“The way I understand augmented reality is a way of using your phone as a tunnel that allows you to look at, let’s say, a scale of a tree’s bark that you normally can’t see, or listen to bats in ways that you normally can’t listen. Technology for me, in the sense of being a medium, is a connector…” – Jakob Kudsk Steensen
Through digitally rendered environments built in a game engine and experienced through AR and VR, Steensen investigates the immutable changes caused by human activity and provokes alternative perspectives to our ecological future. In Primal Tourism, the audience floats through the eerie emptiness of the abandoned resorts of a future Bora Bora witnessing the destruction of colonial exploration and the tourism industry. Switching from human to nonhuman perspectives reveals hidden mysteries and often fantastical architecture.
“Once you choose to open the door, then you’ve accepted a virtual space and an impossible new world. You’re giving in…maybe the walls dissolve, maybe there are two suns, maybe a flower becomes the size of a skyscraper and there are no limits to what you can expose the body to once people have opened that door.” – Jakob Kudsk Steensen