Jakob Kudsk Steensen | Song, Land and Virtual Installations



What mysteries do wetlands hold? Jakob Kudsk Steensen, implores his audience to step into his immersive instillations with an open mind. Lose yourself in the digital landscape, and rediscover nature, sound and song.

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Ever since childhood, Jakob Kudsk Steensen has been fascinated with the video gaming medium. It's ability to transform the world around you, has inspired many of his immersive virtual art pieces. Jakob's passion for virtual reality soon combined with his wonder surrounding the natural environment, specifically wetlands. Bringing his two passions together, Jakob explores past and present stories interacting with our landscape, reframing our perception of the world around us.



who is Jakob Kudsk Steensen and what is your vision?

Yeah, my name is Jakob Kudsk Steensen, I’m an artist. I'm from Denmark, but for the past ten years I worked in New York, and I recently moved to Berlin. In my practice, I work a lot with video game technologies, I think a lot about how to use them beyond the usual vernacular or video games. Which is very aim and level based and kind of follows like a more rational experience and design, where you have to touch or interact with things very one to one. So I specialize in a very intuitive, collaborative and environmental way of using video game technologies in particular, to convey overlooked or forgotten perspectives on natural histories, different species, and things you might not think about so much in nature. Recently I also started working a lot with songs and kinds of folklore and looking into lost sensibilities and words used to describe and talk about our relationship to different environments. So, I also now start to work off a song and create this kind of rhythmic, almost hypnotic instruments that people that is like a short description of what I do.

 Yeah, sounds really good. So obviously your art is kind of free and is quite immersive. Can you explain, like, as an artist, what made you kind of gravitate towards that medium? Were you always interested in it? Has it been a bit of a journey for you?

Yeah, I was actually just thinking about that. I was just out swimming and as I came up, I was thinking about this memory. As a  child, my friend Simon was round my house, we often would play video games together. So this is like a long term passion for me since I was eight or something. So I really grew up loving video games, right at the time where more complicated 3D worlds became available, particularly this kind of first person perspective. It's very common today, but it means that you can really navigate through space. So my friend Simon, he would always have anxiety when in a video games, especially when we'd have to be underwater. Because underwater you could move in all these different directions that you normally physically can't. And sitting in front of a computer, it became kind of like this weird sensation in your brain as you are shifting. Like what you're looking at your hand on a mouse, your fingers on the keyboard. It's kind of tactile, but suddenly your perspective is shifting and moving in all these impossible ways. So for me, it's just been something I've felt very drawn to, really. I can remember my kind of childhood years and as a teenager, we're really informed by the explosion of this new medium, more like complex 3D worlds.

So for me, it just seems like a normal, intuitive thing to gravitate towards. And within the past five years, with this new second wave of virtual reality and augmented reality and more recently being able to create really large scale immersive installations, it feels like we are now able to move beyond the two dimensional screen and we can really embrace the kind of conceptual dimensions of 3D space in new ways that we haven't done before. Like getting away from two dimensional art towards something else, something more corporal, something more physical and something where the human body is really at the center of the experience. That's why I feel really kind of attracted by these so called immersive media.

That sounds really complex. It's like a really lovely kind of memory and it really encapsulates kind of what your work means, I think what you're of interested it sounds so interesting. So you had a of recent show in Berlin inspired by the wetland of Brandenburg.

Yeah. Brandenburg region.

Could you kind of explain a bit about why you chose them as your main muse in some of your work?

 Because I think some people would think, like, oh, obviously forests and flowers are a big source of inspiration, but wetlands doesn't come into your head automatically is something kind of beautiful in nature.

So, in the past, I've worked with more iconic narratives that we are used to thinking about when we consider the natural world or climate change. I did a project in 2016 called Primal Tourism, which took place on a tropical sinking island, the island of Bora Bora, and reanimated another virtual reality artwork. I work with the songs of extinct birds, and I also work with glaciers and different forests. So, I've gone from working with types of landscape that we immediately think about when we think about our relationship to ecology and the climate but for the past two years, I've tried to go even further and looking for stories about environment that we more rarely think about. What I found was that wetlands is an absolutely essential and very overlooked type of ecosystem because any large city and civilization in the world is built by a wetland. And it's theorized, you know, that all modern humans come from wetlands in Africa. So it's like we've forgotten the importance of wetlands. And this is why we have issues with freshwater. It's why we have toxic kind of rivers and lakes around Europe and the. States, because the definition of a wetland. Is an ecosystem that's able to sustain its own freshwater.

And freshwater, of course, is essential for. Mammals and human survival. So we've kind of forgotten this muddy very essential and important landscape right beneath our feet. In Berlin I created this artwork called Berl Berl, the first four letters of the word Berlin. It's actually an old Slavic word that people used in the region in the Middle Ages, and it means swamp. The very name of Berlin mean swamp.

So I was invited to this art show in Berlin, and I created this immersive installation in the Hallmarks which was normally a nightclub. And then I turned it into this living swampy virtual instrument that people enter and kind of get hypnotized or sink into. People were spending between one and 3 hours inside of the artwork and then kind of lay on pillows, walk around, sit down, and really be kind of hypnotized and into this primordial swamp soup. So that's the reason I made that artwork Berl Berl in Berlin specifically.


Liminal Lands by Jakob Kudsk Steensen


 I obviously know you have done stuff recently. You mentioned new elements to your work, kind of first starting to work with of music and song. You mentioned kind of working with a singer, Arca and Matt McCall. Could you kind of mention about what this journey towards kind of including music in your work was like, how you went about it, what first inspired you to include kind of focus on the things like that in your work?

 Yeah, definitely. It started with a book I read by an author in the UK called Melanie Challenger, called On Extinction. It's really the book that led me down a path of focusing a lot on folklore, folk words, song and this more overlooked landscape beneath our feet everywhere. Because initially Michelle writes that the words we use to describe the world are the words we can use to protect it. And so I became fascinated, especially in Berlin and looking into its natural history. That there used to be a multiplicity of different cultures and languages before the Middle Ages in the entire region. And these would speak many different dialects of Slavic and other like Eastern European dialects. And then moved to German. And these dialects are often referred to as singing cultures. So also in Ireland, it's the same. Actually, in some places of Denmark, a lot of wetlands are surrounding by these singing, diverse dialects.

And cultures have songs as a way of navigating the world. So they would use instead of having a written culture where we are documenting and writing down our stories about the world, a song has different verses and it can mute say, then change through time to adapt to how specific value system or landscape is transforming. So song is really something very like malleable, very mutational, but also very descriptive and something that can create a strong sense of belonging. In the ad work Bell Bell, I invited this singer Arca to respond with a series of short verses and words based on images and folklore that I would send her from the actual place. So I sent an old Slavic song about a word made of fire, I sent a tale, a little story of these nymphs and how they would sing and lure men into the rivers. I'd send like stories about this frog king that used to govern the wetlands. And I'd sent different images of moths, of insects, leaves, mud, like fungal systems, all sorts of material that I have from the wings around Berlin. And then she would send little verses in conversation sounds to the material.

And above that, she would also sing to the artwork like it was a cathedral, because that kind of place and it feels kind of like a church and it's referred to a church of Berlin. It's like the most famous nightclub in the city where the exhibition took place. So she would also sing to it kind of like a cathedral, kind of more like a Christian way of relating to space, but also very shamanic and very intuitive and personal. So you get this total mixture of something that felt religious, something that felt personal, something that felt very constructed or conversational. And then Matt McCall, who was this guy I worked with many times before, he makes sound at the Natural History Museum in New York, expertise in working with natural recordings. So we went out together and record sounds from the excellence and we work with the Natural History Archive in Berlin to get sounds recorded. We really mix together the songs of archive recordings of wetlands and swamps around villains from the past without recordings from the present. And this is mixed together in real time by Bell Bell, which essentially is a virtual world and a living instrument.

So it never sounds or looks the same. It just mixes together all these different elements in real time and it becomes this strange thing that moves and shifts and sometimes feels like an uproar and then at times it feels like nature documentary and it's really turning you through different emotional spectrums and different perspectives and wetlands continuously. But that's why I'm interested in folklore, songs and verses now, because it's a way of viewing an ecosystem with something very but it's less static, it's something that can change. Different words can be combined in different sequences, they can change tonality and kind of change expression, and therefore the feeling of the landscape. And in Berl Berl, everything you see in the artwork in this virtual swamp controls what happens to the sounds. So if it's very rainy and muddy, certain bursts the sound is more archaic. If it's  sunny and you're in the middle of some trees, it sounds more realistic and like birds. So as you're journeying through the environment, the songs follow and vice versa. So it's like this dual system where all these different elements are connected and no one really knows exactly what's going to happen each time is exhibited.


Berl Berl by Jakob Kudsk Steensen



Yeah, it's honestly so lovely to hear you talk about it. You can really kind of almost, like, sense your passion and your kind of drive towards your art through your work, and it's wonderful.  Your recent group exhibition for the Sonar Festival in Spain was also inspired by a different set of wetlands. So a lot of people imagine wetlands as a kind of obscure space between water and life and kind of  liminal space where we're kind of in a sense of in between. Do you kind of feel that sense? And what kind of is it about wetlands themselves that truly has kind of captured your attention?

Yeah, it's actually funny as I start explicitly working with wetlands mainly with Berl Berl and this artwork Liminal Lands that you're mentioning, I learned that my favorite artworks from the past actually took place or depicted urbanised wetlands. It wasn't really a rational intention. It's just like this artwork, animated, takes place in a mountainous wetlands. One of my other works, Aqua Phobia takes place in a wetland, in Brooklyn Galleries in London. So I found that I'm attracted to these limbo, morphing, undefinable landscapes. It's like they give you space to imagine the world in new ways. They give you the space to move beyond realistic representation. They give you kind of a dimension, a less rational dimension with us, less pressure for you to define everything you're saying and doing, and you can kind of things into and play out.

Essentially these less definable realms there are less boundaries surrounding whats living in the soil, what's living in the trees, what's living in the water, all creatures have very close relationships. It's like an inter species ecosystem. And there's also a place where life at different scales, let's say a deer and bacteria in the soil, a bird in a tree, they all influence each other very closely. So you get this place where you can really think about interconnectivity of life at different scales, and you can really imbue it with a lot of mythology and imagination. And being someone that's worked with video game technologies and very like industrial 3D tools. For most of my life, I've been curious about that, this kind of freedom of imagination. Yet having to adhere to stories from a specific place is something that's just very attractive to me. It's almost like, what would you say, like a synonym for the world today, where we have all this control through technology. We think we have organic patterns in the world and our subconscious, our dreams and everything, we can't really control those elements fully. So it's just a way of working with wetlands in specific that you can kind of imbue with all this imagination.

And so this artwork, Limited Lands, was made in 2021 with an art foundation called Luma. So I spent a whole year documenting changes to a landscape based on salt, fresh water, bacteria and algae and how they are changing what things look like. For example, a branch on a tree can be brown and look like what you think of as a tree one day. Then the week later, it can turn into a white coated crystal. A week later it can become pink and green because the algae and salinity levels change. So you have this very trans-mutational zone that exists. The specific wetland called the Kamak exists between freshwater, salt water and the Mediterranean and more agricultural soil. So it's this kind of membrane that really exists between worlds at all times. Some things die and live very quickly. Like I came across this bird that had fallen in the water, and then the water had become more salt, so it probably drank it and died. And then it turned into a giant crystal because a week later there had been a lot of sun. And when there's a lot of sun, the water evaporates and everything turns into salt.

And then that salt, these different pink and green algae grow. You get this pink crystallized seagull in the landscape and all sorts of formations that are real, that are documented through this kind of 3D spatial photography. But when you look at them in isolation and you can change perspective on it, it almost looks like science fiction. So it was this idea of finding, again, these imaginative science fiction worlds right beneath our feet as a way of saying also that you don't really need to look to life on the moon to get strong science fiction. We have it all around us. We're just kind of forgetting about it, that the world can be that you can kind of look and be much stranger than you think, just tend to forget it the more we kind of get sucked into, let's say, virtual medium. So this Liminal Land is a virtual reality artwork to bring  people together. Normally, where they are, the movement changes sound in the landscape. So again, it's kind of like this idea working with the instrument and sound. So as people physically move in the artwork, they change sounds and textures in this virtual landscape. And the virtual landscape are entirely made of sounds and digitized elements from the land.

 That's a really beautiful way to kind of think of wetlands. And I think it's so, like, poetic that your favourite art has kind of you hadn't even realized it's been wetlands. And I just think it's such a slightly creepy but also kind of like destiny. So I suppose the last question I have for you is kind of what are your future plans? Do you have any upcoming projects? What have you got going on at the moment?

Yeah, I have, like, a smaller artwork coming out this summer. It's a public artwork in Switzerland that's based on because for the past few years, I've only been working on these large collaborations. So this past February, I just spent two weeks going to a glacier cave in Switzerland, and I scanned it, and I went with a friend of mine, Joe Kunan, an author. He's writing a little short story for this artwork. And we just went to this glacial cave for two weeks, scanned it, and he's working on a little story for it. So we did something very impulsive and intuitive in the Swiss Mountains. And that's going to become like a video installation, but that's kind of an intermediary project where what I really want to work on next is kind of an operatic immersive type of video game and series of exhibitions. I'm also giving a lecture at the Opera House in Finland next month as I'm really curious to start exploring these new ways of collaborating even more between the contemporary art world and these  Immersive installations between music and nature. Music is a way of telling stories and having characters and costumes and everything and then having fully distributed online worlds that people can enter to experience the artworks.,So that's kind of where my head is at looking into the future.


Re-animated by Jakob Kudsk Steensen


 +  Words:
Emily Fromant
Luxiders Magazine