Interview with Marko Peljhan, the Slovenian artist behind Makrolab—the medialab of the future, which since 1997 has traveled around the world, hosting artists, hackers, scientists. Part one in temperate climates.
On June 6, 2017, in Ljubljana, Kapelica Gallery hosted the international Earth Without Humans conference and presented Somnium—an installation based on data from the Kepler telescope spacecraft in search of exoplanets, signed Danny Bazo, Karl Yerkes and Marko Peljhan. It was also the chance for artist-researcher Benjamin Pothier, who told us about his “mission to Mars” this past spring, to do a flowing interview with Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan on the past two decades of Makrolab, a utopic techno-ecological architecture, a mobile and self-sufficient medialab.
Ever since its launch at documenta 10 in Kassel in 1997, Makrolab has been installed in various parts of the world, with the ambition to become a polar base for artists and scientists. In part one of this interview, Marko Peljhan talks about the origin of the project and its first decade installed on an island in Australia, the Slovenian Alps, the Scottish Highlands and on a small island in the laguna of Venice, Italy. In part two, he’ll elaborate on the project’s continuity in the Antarctic and Arctic.
What is the story of Makrolab?
Makrolab started in the early 1990s as an idea, during the civil war in former Yugoslavia. My background is in theatre and radio, and at the time I was working with a colleague of mine, a dear friend who passed away just this year, Ivana Popović from Zagreb, who was a multidisciplinary artist, costume designer and performer. We were thinking of designing an open-air, long-duration performance on the island of Krk, in the Adriatic Sea. When we were scouting for a location on the island we discovered a place called Mjesec (“The Moon”). When searching for this place we saw a sign near the cemetery above the town of Baška that read Put na Mjesec, which literally means “This way to the Moon”.
So that is how we found this beautiful desolated and rocky landscape, with little vegetation, a little bit like a moonscape, because of the strong winds coming from the Velebit, the typical northeasterly Bura-Burja-Bora winds falling from these mountain chains towards the Adriatic. When we were walking around Mjesec, we heard what sounded like thunder. But it was not thunder, it was the sound of artillery explosions. Very far away, there was a frontline in Gorski Kotar and northwestern Bosnia at the time, around Bihać. And we could hear these rumbles. It was a kind of life-changing event for me if I look back… These things always feel different when you assess them from a distance in time, with a perspective… And so the Makrolab project was born there. It didn’t have its name then, of course. But the idea of the need for some kind of integral autonomy within a society at war was there.
What was it like to be an artist during the Yugoslavian wars?
In those years, I was thinking a lot about what it means to engage in the arts in times of conflict and strife. What is the role of an artist during a war? And all of these things that are quite logical to ask to yourself when you are in the middle of a war zone. One need only look at what happened in Sarajevo, where our colleagues created some extremely strong works. There are obviously ways that we can reflect upon a conflict from the outside, but when you are on the inside, it’s a completely different story.
When thinking about this autonomous space and machine, I started talking to Jurij Krpan, today’s Kapelica Gallery art director, a very close friend of mine and a young architect. I asked him: What if we could build a kind of stage machine that would be completely immune to war, that could be powered by wind and solar energy, be completely autonomous, and could survive any kind of difficult societal conditions? Jurij took a few days and came back with some sketches, just to stimulate the thinking, first architectural sketches, and you can actually see them today at the Museum of Modern Art here in Ljubljana, where we loaned them. They are very abstract, but I started drawing a schematic of what should be in this architecture: a block of sound and communication, a block of heat transfer, a block of light, a block of eco-systems for survival, food production, energy production, recycling, etc., all standing on a metatextual basis. This was in 1993, 1994, I really wanted to build this thing, it was not a speculative idea at all. This is how it all started.
How did you know about all the technical aspects involved?
I have a background in amateur radio technology and communications and also in aviation and space. These were my interests since my formative years, together with the historical avant-gardes of the 20th century and Bauhaus… out of curiosity. I was following the industry very closely, reading magazines already then, like Aviation Week & Space Technology and so on. When I was younger I was spending summers in the United States, as my sister lives in Chicago, and I would go to the library, read all summer, order books, etc.
And that space connection really comes from my father, because he was collecting a space series published in Italy during the early space age, L’Uomo e lo Spazio, following the space development in the 1960s and ’70s, a collection I still have, with vinyl recordings from early satellites, space communication. Everything you can find online today, of course, but at that time, you couldn’t. So I grew up reading about those technologies, autonomy, recycling of water, recycling of human waste, hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, and I realized afterwards when searching for more that there was in fact very little literature available on this. Some scientific papers, of course, fringe manuals, but these were the earlier days of the Internet, and it was difficult to dig up information on these kinds of technologies. And to be frank, at that time I was not yet aware of the Whole Earth Catalog, which is a very “Californian” piece of knowledge…
Then how did you get access to more detailed documentation?
There was Gopher at that time, but no Google. So I was mostly looking for books and for keywords. But the magazines were there, and you could fill out a little questionnaire about the technologies you were interested in that were presented in those magazines, and then these companies would contact you. So in 1994, I founded a fictional company called Projekt Atol Communication Technologies (Pact Systems). The idea was that PACT Systems would serve as a front to gather all this technological data, which turned out to be mostly from the defense industry. So I started getting these letters, all these brochures, these were post-Soviet and post Cold War, pre-September 11 times, a time of expansion of the Western economical clout in Europe and the U.S., so companies were willing to send you a lot of information. And they had it in printed form, since the Internet was in its commercial infancy, so you could get pretty much access to everything, sometimes even interface control documents and very detailed technical data. I still have a big collection of these materials.
When studying these materials, I realized that there is a very clear connection between military technological systems and civilian systems, and this transition from military to civilian technology and vice-versa can also be understood very clearly when you look at the history of the Internet. The Internet was inspired from the Arpanet experience, as a way to connect research and academic endeavors, so nothing to do with military technology anymore, nothing to do with nuclear war. People say the Internet comes from the military, but this is an urban myth. It does come from a “conversion” process, but not a top-down one. But when you really start to look at this history, you realize the inter-connectedness of technology, space, the military and industrial and scientific complexes. You realize the world is not black and white, but with a lot of shades of grey, and lots of projections and scopic views.
So I embraced this complexity and I started thinking how to create and build this lab. The idea was very utopian, a lab where people could live, 6 to 8 people, for around 3 to 4 months. The name comes from a project I did before, Mikrolab, which had a very different focus, but also pushed the technology of its time to the limits, being a real-time time computer film, part of a series of works which was called Ladomir-Faktura, Ladomir being a poem by Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov and Faktura, a term from the Russian avant-gardes describing among other things, tactile quality of language. Books are written about this, so a few sentences is not enough. We are talking about materials, physical qualities in which the immaterial manifests itself. Faktura in painting is a kind of tactile quality of painting, the visual demonstration of properties inherent to materials. So it’s beyond the three dimensions.
How did Makrolab become a reality?
I was working on the initial idea with another architect who was recommended by Jurij Krpan: Bostjan Hvala, a young fellow from Nova Gorica, my hometown. Together we started to design the lab, and then, literally by total coincidence, Catherine David, who was curator of documenta 10 at the time, passed through Ljubljana. I was presented to her as some kind of young interesting artist doing something nobody understands. But she understood and, to paraphrase, said “I really think this is interesting, I really want to build this work.” I said “Ok, you want to build this work, great.” And that was about it! Not a lot of questions, she kind of understood the utopia behind the project, and utopia was very much connected to her curatorial concept for documenta 10. To tell the truth, before I met her, I knew very little about documenta. I knew about Joseph Beuys’s projects there, I knew the Harald Szemmann one, I knew it was an important art exhibition, but that was about it. And so, suddenly, Makrolab was no longer a dream and a vision, we had to materialize it.
Of course, nobody wanted to sponsor us to realize this utopical structure. We had some minimal support from our Ministry of Culture, but at the time, I was more persona non grata with the bureaucrats there, who could not fit a project like Makrolab in their boxes and tick it… In terms of budget, we were looking for something like 50,000 deutschemarks, about €25,000 or more in today’s money. Which then was a lot of money… So, I ended up taking a bank loan from the Slovenian branch of what is now Société Générale, the only bank that was even interested to listen to a local artist, and after a lot of incredible logistical issues, which should be described in some “memoir” as a warning to all Utopists, Makrolab started its life at documenta 10. We found a location, which is 20 kilometers away from Kassel, on top of a hill, Lutterberg. I was always looking at places that have some kind of historical unresolved issues for Makrolab, and Kassel was no exception, being the first one. That particular hill near Kassel, as all of Kassel, was in the vicinity of the border with Eastern Germany, before the reunification. And there were a lot of signs that local intelligence was going on around Kassel, and this hill was ideal for it.
Makrolab was generally in a manifestative way concentrated on three fields of interest and inquiry: telecommunications, migrations and weather & climate. I chose these three fields because they are dynamic, global, it’s extremely difficult to build computational models about them, and that’s why art can have answers to some of the more difficult questions surrounding them.
Of course, nowadays with the extreme advances of computer modeling and machine learning, we have great climate models and great predictive technologies for telecommunications and all sorts of migratory fluxes, from capital to people and trade, but still, if you want to understand what is the status of telecommunication networks in the world today, nobody can give you a very precise answer. Let alone the economy and a comprehensive climate model, although with climate we are maybe the closest at the moment. It’s kind of beautiful, you know we build and put into motion these entities and they completely shape us, but we still don’t understand them to their core. So that was kind of my thesis also in the lecture today at Kapelica Gallery: How can art and philosophy start answering the impossible questions of science?
So Makrolab started to have its own life?
Yes, a life on and of its own… We installed it in different places, we got an invitation to Australia, on Rottnest island, near Perth, in 2000. Then we set it up in Slovenia for a very short time, kind of an experimental phase, twice. Then we were in Scotland with Arts Catalyst in 2002, and then at the Venice Biennale in 2003. And always it was a struggle to fund this beast…
The project from the beginning was supposed to last for 10 years and then end up in Antarctica as a permanent art/science station to let artists and scientists work together. It’s still not in Antarctica… When we started working on the project, Antarctica wasn’t a hot topic at all, artists were not going there. There were painters and writers, but no media art, nothing like that.
Read the part two of this interview, on the second decade of Makrolab