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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

GhostFood: a Taste of Your Foodie Future

Artists Miriam Simun + Miriam Songster have teamed up to bring a taste of the future to the streets with GhostFood: a food truck dishing out a menu centered on three familiar foods facing extinction—cod, chocolate, and peanut. This participatory performance piece, commissioned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for Marfa Dialogues/NY, is designed to promote a dialogue around climate change by imagining how we may come to eat in the not-so-distant future when our favorite foods are in scarcity.


When we eat, what we are actually “tasting” is the synthesis of taste, smell, and texture—a fusion that collectively creates the food’s flavor. Drawing from this basic physiology, Simun + Songster have designed a 3D-printed headset that dispenses specially manufactured fragrances that—when combined with an edible textural analog—conjure up a taste + flavor reminiscent of these endangered dishes. So as you munch on flaky cod-substitute, your nose is fed the fragrance of the fish. On fashioning this future dining experience, Simun says:

We are creating this experience where you’re eating these foods, but you have to wear this special device and you’re not eating very much. It’s this interesting thing—an instant nostalgia for what you have right now. Because we welcome people into this near-future experience where this is the way you eat peanut butter or this is the way you eat cod and this is the only way it’s available.

With prices on the rise, foods that were once cheap mealtime staples are experiencing the economic effects of scarcity. But behind the ever-increasing price tags lie real-life species that are under ecological threat as their habitats have turned hostile. The GhostFood menu draws from at-risk species across three ecosystems: ocean, grasslands + rainforest.


Overfishing aside, our climate-changed oceans have created uncomfortably warm waters for cod—nearing the top of cod’s livable temperature range—while changing currents have led to depletion of their nutrient-rich food sources. Up on land, seasonal changes in rain + temperature patterns have created prime conditions for toxic molds to flourish on our favorite crops, including corn, wheat, and peanuts. And with rainforests bearing the burden of deforestation, drought, and rising temperatures, the world’s cocoa supply is also at risk as cocoa trees are unable to beat the heat, not to mention the rise in disease and pests due to devastating disturbances in ecological order.

By creating this fundamentally different // highly ritualized dining experience, GhostFood innovatively takes these species off the supermarket shelves, challenging tasters to place each food in its ecological context. As Songster explains:

Certainly there’s an intention for this experience to have some emotional resonance—and hopefully through that resonance people are able to think about the species from an emotional perspective. We’re giving people this very hands-on, me-centered experience of eating and smelling—because it doesn’t get more personal and self-involved than actually eating. And yet we’re also hoping that the emotional impact of the experience will allow people to step back and actually think about the species as not just food.

The quasi-apocalyptic aside, these foods were carefully curated based also on their place in the North American diet—each dish made all the more poignant + pungent by its familiarity. Interestingly, the fragrances of these dishes are fed directly to your nose, appealing to your olfactory sensibilities, which are intimately tied to memory. The region of the brain responsible for sensing scent—the olfactory bulb—is actually a member of the brain’s limbic system, which plays an important role in long-term memory + emotional life. Songster adds:

There’s a historical memory in the experiences of eating these foods, which makes them more meaningful for people. But it also creates a little bit of friction between what you’re eating now and what you remember eating. We’re mimicking these foods, but we’re not necessarily trying to create an exact replica. We know that there is going to be a gap there and that gap is part of what this opening is about—to ask, “What is it like to eat this way?” And to think to yourself that it’s sort of the same, but it isn’t really the same—there’s something both exciting about it being different, and also maybe sad about it being different.

But beyond the emotional, this familiarity supplies a necessary frame of reference for this out-of-the-ordinary culinary experience—a gastronomical anchor to our present-day // everyday reality. By simultaneously imparting excitement for possible foodie futures to come, while providing a taste [or lack thereof] of what diners stand to lose, the GhostFood experience distills the conflict that comes with progress. “Augmenting reality and simulating things is a popular way to go in terms of technology today,” Simun notes. “So all of that came together into this device that would use our olfactory sense to compensate for the species that we are losing due to other decisions that we make.”

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: "There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect's way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?"

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: “There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect’s way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?”


Given the basic physiology of flavor perception, creating effective food + flavor combinations posed an interesting challenge. Early in the project, Simun + Songster consulted with scent experts at the Monell Chemical Sciences Center, later teaming up with flavor + fragrance company Takasago to engineer the GhostFood aromas evoking the flavors of these phantom dishes. Songster laughs, “When we went to meet them they had some of their bigger perfume brands on display—for example, Victoria’s Secret. Meanwhile, we’re asking them to do the smell of fish!” Creating the GhostFood flavors posed an interesting challenge for the group based on the physiology of flavor perception.

An inevitable consequence of any simulation is its imperfection—its ability to only approximate and not replicate the real thing. And, to me, that is the real beauty of GhostFood’s design. Food fragrance is typically perceived both through the back of the mouth—retronasally—and directly through the nostrils—orthonasally. In fact, certain odor molecules—including chocolate—activate different parts of the brain depending on whether they are delivered through the mouth or through the nose. However, the GhostFood device only feeds scent through the orthonasal route, creating an interesting neurological // physiological experiment, while viscerally highlighting that GhostFood is indeed a simulation of a well-known + well-loved epicurean experience and not the real deal as we know it now.

Perhaps most exciting of all is GhostFood’s unique take on the edible future that goes beyond our favorite sci-fi forecasts for the future—those bare-bones // on-the-run pastes + pellets. Instead, Simun + Songster creatively re-imagine the future of not only our food, but also our culture, highlighting how the innovations of a very tangible future stand to re-invent the rituals of hearth + home. Simun shares:

In a way it is sci-fi because we’re using 3D-printed technology and we’re using signs and the language of the future. But in other ways we’re doing the polar opposite: we’re making eating even more complicated and even more sensorial and even more multi-faceted than all these other dominant visions of what food is in the future—where it’s just a pellet or a paste or an injection and you’ll never need to eat again—which only look at the role of food in human life in a very singular, small way.

For a firsthand taste of the future, find GhostFood in a street-parked food truck near you! On what to expect, Simun slyly mentions: “We have GhostFood staff that we’ve hired to run the truck… our food is unique so our staff is trained in a special way too. Just as we imagine eating to be different in this GhostFood future, we imagine service to be different also.”


GhostFood makes its premiere at Pop Up Place for DesignPhiladelphia 2013’s benefit launch party // October 9th 6-9 pm. And be sure to catch the truck as it hits the streets for Marfa Dialogues/NY: October 11th 6-10 pm, October 12th 12-6 pm, and October 13th 11-4 pm @ Gallery Aferro, Newark, NJ // October 15th 6-8 pm @ Robert Rauschenberg Project Space, New York, NY.