Interview by Bob Bicknell-Knight
Originally published in the third issue of the isthisit? magazine in December 2017
Jakob Kudsk Steensen is a Danish artist and based in New York, specialized in VR and interactive media installations. Through his practice, Steensen is concerned with how imagination, technology and ecology intertwine by developing futuristic virtual simulations of existing real-world landscapes. His work is at the forefront of real-time rendered virtual environments, and he develops projects through collaborations with science, technology and natural science divisions. His art has recently been exhibited at Carnegie Museum of Art, The Moving Image Fair, NYC, MAXXI, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art, and as an art director, Steensen’s work has been shown at Sundance and TriBeCa film festival. His work has been featured on Artnet, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Spike Art Quaterly, ARTREPORT, Politiken, Information, Worm, NEO2 and TSOEG. He has received awards from the Danish Arts Foundation, The Augustinus Foundation, and Lumen Arts Price. He has been artist in residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, AADK, Centra Negra, MASS MoCA, BRIC and Mana Contemporary.
In this exclusive interview artist Steensen talks to artist and curator Bob Bicknell-Knight about why he uses Virtual Reality in his work, the importance of stimulating an emotional response and the future of the medium.
Bob Bicknell-Knight: The research surrounding a lot of your work seems to primarily stem from real life scenarios, or realistic future scenarios, accompanied by an interest in immersive technologies such as virtual reality. Where does this interest stem from and why do you think it's important to immerse oneself into these environments?
Jakob Kudsk Steensen: My exploration of immersive technologies, VR especially, stems from my up-bringing, and I think it is something relatively generational. I never really questioned "why" VR for-example, or the use of game engines for art making, because it has been a natural part of my personality since childhood, and hence, virtual experiences are imprinted into my memory, my personality, and my friends and network. With VR I seek to make sense of how technologies, our bodies, and natural environments intertwine. Growing up, I spend a lot of time playing computer games and tinkering with game editor, but I also spend a lot of my time outside, and I grew up in several different countries. The first version of "unreal", essentially the same program I use today, was released when I was a teenager in the late 1990's. The amounts of effort, technical frontier, art direction, research and societal commentaries of a specific genre of games have formed how I think artistically.
The first game I played was called "Red Alert" from 1996. So I was 9 years old when the game came out, and it blew my mind. I was obsessed with it. I even learned some English from it, as it was hard to progress without knowing the mission statements. Red Alert is an isometric game, which means that you see it from a static top-down perspective. The premise of the game is an alternative post-second world war history, where Einstein’s theory of relativity was used to develop a time machine that was used to go back in time and capture Adolf Hitler right after his graduation. However, as a result, the Russians merged as a super nation that went into war with the Allies, and, eventually, in Red Alert 2, conquered USA. Red Alert 2 was also one of the early online games I played, besides Unreal, and I ended up being among rank 50 worldwide in it. No one really knew about my early online gaming, since it was more of a stigma being that much into computer games back then, compared to today.
The game that seriously got me into thinking there was more to computers than entertainment, was Fallout from 1997. I got my hands on it through a magazine some years after it was released. Also an isometric game, it took place in an (again) alternative history, where a nuclear war had happened after WW2. I think games in the 1990's had some-kind of obsession with twisting, satirically, post-cold war Western imaginations of the status quo of the world. That was really thrilling to me, but none of my friends were into it. My sister was a bit into it, so we both played it. But I became obsessed with the game, much more than Red Alert. Fallout has been a big inspiration to my work for many years, and I think my work Dome of Gated Ecologies, a VR piece part of DIS Magazine Styles and Customs of the 2020s, draws a lot from Fallout. Fallout from 1997 is a role playing game with a variety of references to Mad Max movies, Monty Python, Scientology, neo-tribalism, orientalism, and conflicts between humans and new mutant species. It is also as much a novel as it is a game. Lots of reading, character development and a soundtrack that still owns today.
So to me, using game engines and VR now in my work, to develop virtual environments which speculate on alternative futures of real-world locations, feels very natural. I use VR because I can really express myself, and invite people into virtual environments, where I am able to literally develop simulations of places I first research in person, and then speculate on, how those areas may be in the future. The combination of visiting new locations, observing landscapes and how people relate locally to different landscapes, and then use these elements to conjure and develop entire places people can visit is pretty thrilling to me. But it also feels like a very natural process, and I think many from my/our generation feel that way. More people are used to precarious transforming living circumstances, as well as interacting with computers.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, screenshot from AQUAPHOBIA, 2017.
Courtesy of the artist.
B: My favourite type of science-fiction takes the world as it’s known and distorts it slightly, changing one element that offsets the balance, causing a shift that creates a new world, with the same menial jobs or environmental worries, but with tiny changes, enabling the novel or film to become a critique of our current society shrouded in this sci-fi cloaking mechanism. Fallout and Red Alert are prime examples of this offsetting, something that you seem to be considering and attempting to duplicate in your own work, both in the aforementioned Dome of Gated Ecologies and in the recent work AQUAPHOBIA. This differentiation from the real seems to manifest as water levels rising and engulfing our current landscape, full of environmental concerns you may have for the future, what do you hope to gain when immersing people so rigorously in these environments?
J: I like science fiction too, where a single event or other type of element is introduced which changes everything at personal and societal scales. I think that kind of stimulating imaginative thinking is powerful. When I say imaginative, I mean our ability to shape pictures, construct mentally new systems and predict of thinking about real world actions we can do, to shape the future. Those relationships between real observed events, imaginary thinking, and how they become manifested, and in what (often odd) forms, has been my approach to several art pieces since I filmed the landscapes of abandoned tourist resorts in the work A Cartography of Fantasia in 2015. In AQUAPHOBIA I wanted to personify a landscape and create relationships between inner psychological spaces and exterior architecture and worlds. When I build for VR, I think about the places I make as installations and landscapes, more than digital places. So I build architecture, rocks, mud, hills, caverns, tunnels, pathways etc. to evoke different kinds of environmental sentiments such as anxiety, pleasure, fear, wonder. This approach is taken directly from what is referred to as "level design" in the game industry. With AQUAPHOBIA, a work that is based on a real-world and 1-1 accurate scale of a park and pier in Brooklyn, I wanted to develop 5 steps of overcoming fear of water, inspired by psychological methods of overcoming aqua-phobia. I then wrote a kind of break-up story and "love poem" told from a transforming mutational water blob, which goes from microbial scale to overtaking the entire world. Physically then, inside the virtual environment, you are moving through five spaces, from a subterranean server and bunker live environment, which keep water microbes in captivity, towards a muddy tunnel with underground infrastructures, towards an archaeological digging side, up to the real park and, finally, over the bridge and water. So I think, with AQUAPHOBIA, I became more aware of methods of directly connecting psychological inner structures and transformations, with the climate changes we are seeing, and imagine the future of. VR is excellent for entering such psychological, and real, spaces.
B: I like the idea of taking a technique like level design, primarily used in the gaming industry to guide the player efficiently through the level to the next stage, to evoke an emotional reaction like anxiety or pleasure. Commercial video games can and do do this, but it’s rarely achieved or very successful. You’ve said previously that you work primarily in the medium of VR due to how natural a progression it feels, I’m wondering how much of an impact it makes on the work that it’s created using a game engine that was originally created specifically to develop first person shooters (FPS) video game experiences?
J: I actually do think a lot of games, in particular FPS, are incredible strong at developing moods in the user, and in that community of developers the word "pace", is often used; in AQUAPHOBIA you start in a small room to give a sense of claustrophobia, so I experimented a lot with the width and height of the space, in relation to my own body size at least. Clearly a virtual space gives physical reactions in relation to the users own physique and psychology, in terms of how that person is conditioned to navigate different types of space. So from that little room in AQUAPHOBIA a wall opens and the entire experience pick up in speed, opens up and starts to morph, so you feel a progression in time and space as all the sequences are dependent on "player" movement. It gives the piece a "pace" and feelings of closeness to openness, claustrophobia to calm wide open spaces. This method and knowledge comes from computer games, absolutely. There is lots of theory and discussions on it if you look within the fields of level design and developer forums online. I think we owe a lot to computer games for having paved the technical way and methods for all this, in VR too. Architects have similar languages and museums which seek to tell "stories" through shows. I don't like the word storytelling much though in VR and games. The reason is that a game engine is essentially a software that connects humans with hardware, capable of providing real-time feedback and changes. And computer game industries paved the way for the hardware necessary today at consumer levels. Now perhaps, it's AI leading the field of real-time computational developments.
Where I think games lack is within their culture of production and business. It has become such a megalomaniac production rhythm of 100+ USD for one game developed over several years which means emphasis is on wide as possible consumer levels i.e. guns & buns. It's quite sexist and violent male gaze dominated. But then again in the same games you find cutting edge level design, superior sensual evocation and extreme passion for artistic capabilities. With the indie game scene developing, and VR especially, I think (hope) the demand for shooters with Hooters will decrease.
So in short yes, I love game engines, and I deeply respect the knowledge and methods of the gaming industry. I'm interested in the form just a whole other type of content. I strive to develop work which functions in an art context, as well as being capable of surviving and being recognized within the gaming and more commercial vr fields as well. To me that is what true interdisciplinary work means. I don't think it's is as interesting, to me personally, to just show game engine art in an art context, that I know game developers roll their eyes at for its execution because it in practice doesn't really do what is promised at a conceptual level. I'm interested in both. Oh and I think a lot of games are WAY too long, from 15 to 40 hours and emphasize too heavily tasks, goals, feel good vibes, winning mentalities and male heroism. I am more into a design philosophy of short, well conducted and meaningful at deeper levels than reaching the next level.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, AQUAPHOBIA (Room-scale VR, 2017) environment demo.
Courtesy of the artist.
B: I do agree that the triple A section of the gaming industry has become this bloated corporate cash cow, mostly catering to young males, with the storylines being heavily focus tested and sapped of any real feeling. It’s definitely a problem, although, as you say, the indie game scene is growing and producing amazing gaming experiences, charging less money with reduced play-through times. The game industry is still incredibly young compared to the film industry, some say it’s currently in its ‘teenage years’, so I’m excited to see what’s going to happen to video games in the next few decades. Due to the proliferation and ease of access that the common consumer now has to VR technology, have you considered selling your artworks as video games on online distribution platforms like Steam?
J: This is in fact, structurally, what I think could have the biggest potential of VR. I have showed at film festivals like Sundance and TriBeCa for collaboration projects, as well as museums like Carnegie in Pittsburgh. What I have noticed is that VR bring together entirely new communities intersecting across multiple disciplines. I have worked with established art directors from AAA games now, sound artists, technology Ph.D. students from MIT and in general, in VR, people seem currently very open to collaborations across fields because emphasis is on the end product and how to make something interesting. In terms of publications, I am going to have my new work available for HTC Vive first on their platform, then likely Oculus and PS4. That is through a new distributor for VR art. I can't say more right now (legally), but it will go live soon. However, the real potential lies in, as you mention, self-publishing which is something I may consider and experiment with next year. A bigger ambition is to create something of a 1-4 hour fully fleshed experiences through collaborations with artists I have met, but in "fine arts" and from game/VR industries to offer new types of creative output. I am working on such a project right now, again, I cannot say more, but it launches next year! I am considering planning a single project with a 1 year development process, and involve a range of artists to work together and distribute it on Steam. But that process is also a big logistical, financial and promotional process which take times away from actual making. So I would need a creative reliable team, not to direct, but to truly collaborate with. So right now I’m setting up a network for something like that to begin next year. It would be absolutely amazing to develop an AAA experience with no guns, no sexist dimensions, and purely artistic creations. No "narrative" but a really immersive experimental world of virtual poetics by artists. I think this is my "grand vision" or dream right now.
B: It sounds like an incredibly interesting time to be working in the medium, at the forefront of a new and exciting technology. What do you think is going to happen in the future, when eventually VR has become so accessible and low cost that everyone has a device, much like a laptop or smart phone, and we can wirelessly (or otherwise) enter virtual worlds whenever we want?
J: I think at this point, we, to some extent, already have access to virtual worlds. I think the real shift is not so much if it is VR or AR per se. I think that we are undergoing a paradigm shift where we interact with the virtual, not through screens we look at, screens which are on the "outside" of us, which we decipher, read and interact with logically and through specific commands.Instead, I think we are starting to go through a paradigm shift from a 2D and one-directional way of interacting with the virtual, towards a 3D and physical one. So instead of seeing something, analyzing it, and then pushing existing buttons, you are more embodied, emotional, physical, sensory, and able to think and react in a three dimensional space with the virtual. I think the digital until now has relied too heavily on pictorial traditions, where images, sculptures, texts etc. are seen as something outside of us, which we engage with. Instead, the new digital paradigm will be one where things are around us, and we are part of it. We already spend so much time online, on a screen, why not just make it more human natural by making it full 3D and physical/sensory? So if it is specially a future with VR headsets I see, I don't know. Right now, there is a very exciting moment for making VR art and I mostly approach the technology based on what is available now, happening now, being meaningful now. On the long term, I think we will start to see new non-hierachial, 3D/physical and less directed approaches to not just 3D, but society in general. The idea of the internet itself has already been leading the way for this.
Though I will admit that I am totally in to the idea of VR hubs/access points to virtual worlds being available at somekind of VR-netcafe, things like phone booths, launges, cafe's with holes in the wall you can hook into etc. What I really like about VR is, ironically, how much emphasis there is on the physical body, being present by visiting installations, taking your time, no selfies for example, and being able to fully immerse yourself into an art work with minimal distraction. I have personally been craving that way of focusing on experiences and making art work.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, screenshot from AQUAPHOBIA, 2017.
Courtesy of the artist.
B: That idea of 'immersion' seems to keep coming up a lot, in what you want from your work and any current or future reality altering technologies that we're yet to encounter. What does that mean to you in this context? Why is that, as it seems to be, the ultimate goal?
J: Hmm. I probably use the word immersion because it's an industry catch concept. Fundamentally I think immersion refers to the idea of forgetting your "own" reality and become subsumed into the location and premise of VR, films, games, books etc. it seems to stem from a language of dichotomic thinking on reality versus fiction. So in one way, in terms of being strongly effected by a VR piece and sensing it corporally and mentally, immersion makes sense to me. But it only make sense to me if you return to the realm of "reality" and learn from the virtual experience something of meaning to the present. So in that way I don't like the idea too much of the virtual being a different reality and immersion making you forgot your own past, future and responsibilities. Immersion is also a non technology specific term. That is useful because it means categories of VR, AR etc. aren't visible. I think that's good and can allow for more freedom of production if the aim is immersion. But then again I don't think immersion in itself is ideal without it being connected to wider things outside the headset itself. Unless we fully leave our current ethics and individual bodies behind to become a meta physical swarm collective spread across the universe and in-between layers of existence from beneath the soil on microscopic scales to tree tops. I would like that…
Bob Bicknell-Knight is a London based artist and curator working in installation, sculpture, moving image, net art and other digital mediums. Online and offline surveillance accompanied by the consumer capitalist culture within today’s society are the main issues surrounding his work in association with current and future utopian environments, the continued automation of our daily lives in relation to the internet of things and the various cultures associated with online communities. Recent curated shows include The Museum Has Abandoned Us at State of the Art in Berlin, The Choice of a New Generation at The Muse Gallery in London.