How can cutting-edge technologies bring us closer to the natural world? UBS and Serpentine presented two unique digital events with Jakob Kudsk Steensen, whose simulated realities explore the fragility of our environment and ecosystems at risk. Each formed part of ‘Artist Worlds’, an ongoing series of commissions and events that support artistic practices engaged with simulated realities, immersive story-telling and virtual world-building.
For the first event Kudsk Steensen joined Ben Vickers, Senior Strategist at Large, Serpentine, for a discussion exploring his innovative practice. Dubbed the ‘digital gardener’, Kudsk Steensen creates immersive installations that bring together physical, virtual, real and imagined landscapes. These mixed reality artworks, Vickers explains “reimagine stories of overlooked ecosystems and forgotten natural history,” and are informed by months of extensive field work with biologists. Deeply sensorial, each is inspired by the artist’s interest in ‘slow media’ – a use of technology to foster attention, rather than distract.
Kudsk Steensen’s artworks, he says, start “from an emotion or relationship to the world,” which he connects to an issue impacting society and the living environment. He is “very interested in ecosystems that lie outside dominant narratives. When we think about climate change, for example, we might think about a melting glacier. I’m more interested in a little forgotten bird, or the soil beneath our feet”. As he works, he uses recording equipment to “create a library of leaves, plants, color” that become the building blocks of his vivid digital landscapes.
The conversation with Kudsk Steensen explored past works including ‘Catharsis’ (2020), a simulation of a re-imagined forest, developed undisturbed over hundreds of years. A single, continuous shot, transports audiences from watery, underground roots to the forest canopy, accompanied by sounds gathered from North American Forests. In this virtual world, time moves slowly – a call to reconnect with the pulses and energies of the earth. The experience, the artist explains, intends to “draw you in”, using nature to inspire an emotional response. “It’s supposed to make you feel like you have gone through a cathartic ritual”.
‘Catharsis’ follows Kudsk Steensen’s previous work for the Serpentine ‘The Deep Listener’ (2019), an augmented reality app that provided an audio-visual ecological trail through London’s Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Audiences were invited to see and hear five park species that might otherwise be overlooked – plane trees, bats, parakeets, azure blue damselflies and reedbeds – and examine the legacy of human impact over time. Kudsk Steensen’s aim was to “energize people and how they look at the landscape”, using technology to instil connection and “a sense of wonderment”.
Developed in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and Sir David Adjaye OBE, ‘The Deep Listener’ drew upon the principles of ‘deep listening’, a slow and embodied engagement with a soundscape in order to reflect and learn. For Vickers, presenting the piece was “transformative”. “There has been nothing quite like ‘The Deep Listener’”, he says, recalling how it prompted audiences to move through green space in a new, more attentive manner.
A call to consider our engagement with the natural world is also at the center of ‘RE-ANIMATED’ (2018-19), which uses video and VR to create an entrancing virtual island. Kudsk Steensen was inspired by the unanswered call of the last Kaua’i ʻōʻō bird, which died in 1987, marking the extinction of its species. Created with The American Museum of Natural History, RE-ANIMATED brings the bird’s song back to life, providing a poignant meditation on nature irrevocably altered by human activity.
Following the first event with Vickers, Kudsk Steensen presented ‘Artist Worlds: Primal Tourism’ – a live, multiplayer virtual experience that continued his exploration of the relationship between ecology, sustainability, and advancing technology. Developed from his 2016 VR work of the same name, this progressive event took place in a unique, newly built VR gaming environment—and explored creative world-building practices and the reimagination of nature through technology. Kudsk Steensen was joined by artist and writer Rindon Johnson, writer Mikkel Rosengaard and academic and author Alenda Y Chang, for discussion and live readings focused on ecology today, discussing creative world-building practices and the reimagination of nature through technology.
Technology, Kudsk Steensen explains, allows him to show things that would otherwise be impossible to see: “how past landscapes change overtime, how you can look from the scale of a beetle” . The result is imagined worlds that engage the senses - powerfully conveying natural histories and the intricate connection between humans and the living world.
Watch the full replay of Artist Worlds: Jakob Kudsk Steensen below.