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HOLOSCENES: Flooding Art with Empathy

Generally speaking, I’m a firm believer in the old adage that knowledge is power. But I’ve often found that where climate change is concerned, the more knowledge we have—the more we embrace it as a reality + the deeper we appreciate its complexity—the more we despair, or even deny. For me, that feeling leads to a strange disconnect between accepting climate change and actually changing our behavior to reduce or contain its consequences. Although we can’t undo the large-scale damage that’s been done, we can certainly do our part to ease the blow by consciously changing our behaviors.

But as creatures of habit, what can compel us to change? Between flashy news headlines and research reports, we’re undoubtedly inundated with incentives to do so, but that’s often not enough. It’s this question, or quandary, that drew me to art + activism project HOLOSCENES: an epic public art and performance installation conceived in response to the rising rate of devastating floods due to globally warmed air + water. The brainchild of artist + Early Morning Opera director Lars Jan, the project centers on a guiding philosophy that:

Art can make people feel climate change in their gut, rather than just understand it.

Artists are masters of affecting emotion, which makes art a perfect catalyst for provoking thought, sparking conversation, and effecting change in a way that the science can’t do on its own. We can intellectualize climate change all we want—look at graphs and figures that project a sorry state of future affairs. But to really internalize that information, we have to find our relationship to it. It must in some way captivate us, hypnotize us, shock us, nauseate us—hit us personally + viscerally—so that we begin to ask: What does climate change mean for me?

HOLOSCENES rendering by Peter Zuspan // Bureau V.

HOLOSCENES cuts right to the heart of that very question with a visually compelling + beautifully designed piece: a hydraulically-animated aquarium that floods + drains as a performer carries out a single crowd-sourced everyday behavior. From getting dressed to cooking a meal to reading a book, these are familiar experiences stitched into the fabric of our day-to-day. Playing on our empathetic capacity, the performance allows us to witness our personal patterns come up against a sped-up simulation of our changing environment. In so doing, the performance artfully reconciles the timescale of daily life with that of the long-term—a far away time that seems irrelevant to our here-and-now ways of thinking.

By fusing performance, design, climate research, engineering, and decision science, Lars Jan + his team of collaborators have embarked on a truly cross-disciplinary effort to create that gut feeling to give us pause. That moment of consideration can help to open a constructive conversation about our role in climate change and cause us to at least consider how we may change to lessen our ecological impact. In its final form, HOLOSCENES will feature three aquariums installed in a public space for 24 hours, 7 days. The first of the three is currently being fabricated and will make its premiere at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche Festival in October 2014. Following its debut, the tank will make its way over to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, poignantly positioned on a plaza slated to be under water in the next 20 years.

Every iteration of its installation will necessarily hold different meaning for the community experiencing it, because while climate change is a global issues, its local effects are specific and highly personal. With that in mind, the HOLOSCENES team is working to make the project available + accessible to the broadest audience possible. Ultimately, the piece can ultimately be experienced across multiple platforms—namely, through performance, video, photography, and educational materials—to maximize its reach + potential to change.

After discovering HOLOSCENES on Kickstarter, I immediately reached out to Lars Jan to learn more about his epic endeavor. Above, you can find the video to the Kickstarter campaign to learn more + support this public art piece. And below, enjoy ArtLab’s Q+A with Lars as he shares the inspiration for the project and his evolving insights into empathy, beauty, and climate change.

What was the initial inspiration for this project?

I was definitely tracking a trend of floods in my head for a long time. And I’m like a lot of people in this way: I’m passively aware of something that is going on, and then it takes somebody saying it out loud a couple different times in a couple different ways for me to actually see or recognize it and hold onto it. That process for me probably started with Katrina and culminated in 2010 during the flooding in northwestern Pakistan where I had spent some time hiking. I’m half Pashtun and had spent a bunch of time in Central Asia.

I saw one picture in particular by Daniel Berehulak, who’s a great photojournalist, and it was this incredibly gorgeous photograph that looked like a Raphael painting—Transfiguration, specifically. It was this picture of incredible devastation, but it was also simultaneously just such a beautiful picture. I found that tension was really complicated. I just thought, what’s going on here? This is horrific. But also, this is so unbelievably beautiful. How are those two things existing at the same time? Does this beauty relate to the power of the image—the power it’s having over me empathetically?

Flood victims scramble for food rations during relief operations on September 13, 2010 in Sindh province, Pakistan. Photo: Daniel Berehulak // Getty Images

A vision for the performance came really fast. After I saw that photograph, I was daydreaming and just saw a giant aquarium with a person in it with water going up and down. They were reading a book and the pages were dissolving as they were trying to read. So part of how the project started was, like, what the hell is that image I daydreamed? It’s really only much later that I deciphered that image, and the project became about long-term thinking and empathy.

And now you’re really working at the intersection between climate science, public performance, and behavioral science. Those three complement each other so perfectly to me in terms of having the potential to create a really impactful artistic piece. How does it all fit together for you?

I don’t really see where the project stops necessarily; the more I work on it, the more it seems to expand into new territory. So there’s clearly the science and data side—streams of information that help better understand the phenomenon of climate change. And there are a bunch of different directions you can approach that from because it’s so complicated and you have to understand a whole lot of ecological and atmospheric systems. And the other side of the project has been about us as empathetic creatures and how we evolved to think about the long term. That’s where things like behavioral and decision science comes in. There are all these capacities we have as humans when it comes to empathy and decision-making, and I’m interested in how static or kinetic those capacities are.

Then of course there’s the reason I got started on this project in the first place. It seems like there’s this endless stream of devastating floods, and I don’t remember it ever having been this way before, so what’s going on? I’m seeing all these images of human bodies intersected by bodies of water that are moving incredibly fast or not moving at all—and I’m strongly affected by these images on an artistic level and just as a person. I’m seeing people’s whole worlds bisected by water at 8 feet or 2 feet or up to the roof. I started tuning into how just an image of people walking through ankle-deep water versus waist-deep water versus neck-deep water made me feel empathetically.

The idea of performing everyday rituals in the aquariums is so unbelievably powerful on this empathetic level—seeing the every day we take for granted coming up against the longer-term realities of climate change. Where did that idea come from?

The initial impetus really was about dealing with ritual—or what I’m now calling everyday behaviors. This is some task that you do every day, like making coffee, which is not work per se. It’s something that you can zone out while you do it because you automatically know how to do this thing choreographically. There’s something about these small cycles that we perform throughout our entire lives, which are basically transformed into the fabric of our life. When you accumulate them, these little patterns really are most of our lives. And yes, you may make coffee differently over the course of your life, and you may stop making coffee and start making tea. But there’s always some vestige of this repetition because you do it every day.

By performing these everyday behaviors in HOLOSCENES, we’re drawing attention to the attention that we place on the every day, and the lack of attention that we place on this longer term, epic timescale. This is about our consciousness. Ultimately, I don’t really think HOLOSCENES is about taking shorter showers; it’s about where we as a species—as a culture and as individuals—place our attention, and whether we are capable of shifting our attention in our own best interests. And that relates to more than just climate change. Yes, climate change is a big part of this project, and the story of water is a big part of this project. But where we’re headed in terms of long-term thinking and empathy, is actually much broader terrain.

Phone Sextet, 2013 // Photo: Lars Jan

That’s been a sort of Zen kōan that has come up for me throughout this process. We’ve interceded in a biospheric evolution—the natural cycles between ice age and warming age. Global warming was going to happen eventually, but it was hopefully going to take 20,000 years, as opposed to 200. We’ve caused this big complex ecosystem to evolve and change much faster than it was ever supposed to.

So I’ve wondered if the converse of that is true: Can our changing environment in turn make our social systems change faster than they’ve ever changed in the course of human history? Can we change where we place our attention, in order to see the larger ramifications of our everyday behaviors? They seem like completely mirrored systems to me. But the question then becomes how big is the delay? It’s true that people change really slowly, but maybe climate change will unlock some hyper-accelerated evolutionary potential in us as individuals and as a collective culture.

The title for the piece—HOLOSCENES—comes from the Holocene epoch. Why hone in on a geological time period in particular for the title of the piece?

Around the same time I began thinking about this project, I was also learning more about the idea of the Anthropocene. I had seen the word a couple of times before and finally wanted to understand it. That’s when I realized for the first time that we are living in the Holocene epoch, and we’ve been in the Holocene since the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. I’d heard of the Jurassic and the Pleistocene—those cool dinosaur-related epochs—but nobody ever told me we were in the Holocene now. How did I not know that? I thought at first that maybe I’d missed it, and that everyone else knew but me. But that wasn’t the case. Very few people I talked to had heard of the Holocene before, or if they had heard it, few knew what it was. So I began wondering why so many intelligent people had never heard this word before.

We’re now dramatically affecting a geological epoch—that’s ultimately what climate change comes down to. We went from working on a human timescale, which is the timescale we’ve evolved to operate on, to having an impact on a large-scale geological time-line that is so many orders of magnitude more complex than the human scale. But we’re not thinking or making decisions on that scale. So that’s why the project is called HOLOSCENES. It’s a play on that word, and the anonymity of the epoch we are all living in right now.

HOLOSCENES poster // designed by Thirst

Carbon Song Cycle

Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. The fourth most abundant element in the Universe, carbon is the core component of the molecules that make us and a vital source of energy + fuel. But as rising atmospheric carbon levels have become inextricably linked to global climate change—undoubtedly one of the most serious problems facing our planet today—the ecologically conscientious among us have been forced to critically re-evaluate our relationship with carbon. 

In an effort to explore this increasingly complicated relationship, visual + media artist Christina McPhee and composer + media artist Pamela Z have teamed up to create Carbon Song Cycle: a multimedia chamber piece + multi-channel video installation interweaving scientific visualizations of climate data with documentary footage.

Carbon Song Cycle // first performed at at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, April 2013 [Image: Christina McPhee]

Through a series of carbon-exchanging reactions, carbon flows between carbon-storing reservoirs—rocks, the ocean, the atmosphere, plants, soil, and fossil fuels—and carbon-consuming plants + animals in what is known as the carbon cycle. Since the early 2000s, McPhee has become increasingly fascinated with this cycle as the inspiration for much of her work. On the inception of Carbon Song Cycle, Z mentions:

Christina kept talking about how she was interested in the carbon cycle. And I said, “Well, what if we make a song cycle about the carbon cycle and call it Carbon Song Cycle.” And we both laughed at that, and then realized: “Wait a second, that’s really good!”

Our climate relies on this delicately balanced dynamic exchange of carbon to ensure that carbon levels are kept in check. Changes in this carbon cycle impact carbon levels within each reservoir. Atmospheric carbon gases are instrumental in regulating Earth’s life-sustaining temperature, while ocean carbon stores regulate pH levels vital for ocean life. But over the last century, humans have thrown this delicate balance out of whack, releasing mass amounts of ancient, stored carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and rapidly destroying much of the plant life that absorbs + transforms carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

The global carbon cycle // yellow numbers indicate natural fluxes + red indicate human contributions in gigatons carbon per year, white numbers indicate stored carbon [Image: US Department of Energy]

Carbon Song Cycle uses the musical form of the song cycle not only to parallel the journey of carbon cycling through a landscape, but also to evoke a sort of tension between manmade + naturally-occurring ecological forces, mirrored through the visual composition. On the footage utilized within the piece, McPhee notes:

When I moved to California, I began shooting seismically active sites and then began looking at geothermal sites and petroleum fields. I had footage from these places that are hard to shoot—oil fields where they chase you off if they see you. These are dynamic landscapes where the biosphere and high-tech energy production are in an explosive mix—like petroleum fields literally right in the middle of the Salinas River bottom.

Intertwined with these documentary images are animated scientific visualizations + live hand-drawn renderings of climate change data courtesy of the interdisciplinary scientific journal Nature Climate Change, the NOAA, and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. On integrating this data into her video composition, McPhee adds: “We as artists can take this material and move it to a bit of a different context so it becomes legible in a slightly different way that’s more open and allusive—alluding to data and alluding to research.”

Architectural multiscreen video from Carbon Song Cycle // first performed at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, April 2013 [Image: Peter Cavagnaro]

The song cycle itself consists of 10 movements scored for voice with live processing, bassoon, viola, cello, and percussion. Within the accompanying sound design, Pamela Z additionally features audio from interview recordings with McPhee, probing her preoccupation with the carbon cycle, and Stanford scientist Dr. Richard Zare, delving deeper into the chemistry of the cycle. According to Z: 

My way of starting any project is to record interviews and take fragments of those recordings to build text collages for the musical part of the composition. I also am very interested in scientific data and lists—aesthetically I like their sound, their language. You’re using some fragments of language, but the listener gets all kinds of other insights that you’re not necessarily putting in there.

Through this cyclical layering and re-layering of multiple forms of content, Carbon Song Cycle offers audience members an immersive + dynamic performative experience. The listener // viewer becomes free to take some form of authorship in their own experience of the work to perhaps draw their own conclusions on what is being presented + why. McPhee shares:

The most amazing thing we have found is that audience members are finding their own trajectories of query within the work. When we showed it at Berkley Art Museum, people came up to us saying, “We learned so much from your presentation.” And we laughed because we weren’t trying to teach anything explicitly. But the audience is teaching themselves through this experience. It’s a non-didactic teaching, and a really great outcome of our effort.

New Yorkers can catch Carbon Song Cycle for themselves Wednesday, November 20th, 8pm @ Roulette, a center dedicated to presenting experimental music, dance, and intermedia // buy your tickets here!