Marko Peljhan: “Poles are sensors of our planet” (2/2)
Published 1 August 2017 by Benjamin Pothier
Second part in polar areas of our wide-ranging interview with Marko Peljhan, the Slovenian artist behind the Makrolab, on the occasion of the twenty-year anniversary of this utopian techno-ecological architecture.
Having mentioned the first nomadic decade of the Makrolab, this utopian, mobile and self-sufficient medialab that he has been leading for twenty years, the Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan continues in this interview with the researcher-artist Benjamin Pothier the polar ambition of this project. Since its creation in 1997 for the Kassel documenta 10, the Makrolab touched down all over the world welcoming on board scientists, artists, hackers or philosophers. Marko Peljhan, who presented on June 6 at the Ljubljana Kapelica gallery Somnium, an installation co-signed with Danny Bazo and Karl Yerkes from data of the Kepler spatial telescope, relates the Antarctic and Arctic adventures of the Makrolab.
Why, after a decade of experiences in temperate climates, did Makrolab move towards polar activities?
In 2006, with the South-African artist Thomas Mulcaire, we worked really hard to design the future Makrolab Antarctic station, the Ladomir Antarctic Base, together with two colleague architects from Slovenia, Jan and Nejc Trošt. It was then presented in 2007 at Ars Electronica, when I was a featured artist in an exhibition in the Lentos Museum. Basically we designed a station built around the International Standard Payload Rack, which is the standard equipment rack on the ISS. One can see it as a kind of mission similar to ISS on Earth but in Antarctica. It’s kind of amusing for me to see now that the European Space Agency (ESA) is funding these type of projects, mostly Mars simulations etc., because when we were talking to ESA back then, they were looking at us with wide eyes, wondering “who are these people?” They would not understand that there was such a fantastic opportunity, for very little money, to build such a module.
Today they would have an ISPR equipped Antarctic station, operational since 2007… But we were not able to do that at the time. In the meantime, I worked hard with a lot of people in Slovenia so that we would enter ESA, which we finally did in 2017.
Our first proposal as artists was presented to the Slovenian scientific community by Primož Pislak, Dragan Živadinov and myself in 2001. They were laughing at us and some even heckled… But now, 16 years and a lot of paperwork later, we are finally ESA members.
We were however able to bring to Antarctica one ISPR that we built and set up in 2007. We sent a proposal for the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2009 which was accepted and formed a new entity called I-TASC for the occasion, the Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation. The IPY 417 project was the only project of its kind. As it was presented at the Antarctic science conference in Hobart Australia, the director of the Alfred Wegener Institute (a German center for polar and marine research, editors’ note) showed a lot of interest, but ultimately, they could not buy into a project that is a cooperation of Slovenian, South African, New Zealand, American, Swaziland and Brazilian artists… That was unfortunate, somehow we were a bit ahead of our time… But now you can see the Alfred Wegener Institute supports the consortium building the Eden-ISS Greenhouse, of which my dear colleague Barbara Imhof from Liquifer Systems Group in Austria is also part of. Its design is very similar to what we designed in 2006 when we talked to them about it, but at the time they didn’t know what to do with it. That’s how things go…
So my thesis is: projects that are happening in an art context, in a kind of zone of extreme freedom of thinking, need to be thought out in the long term. But you get used to it. I’m not disappointed, I’m actually proud. And I’m actually happy to see that something going in that direction is finally happening, it is rewarding.
So, you didn’t succeed to do more work in Antarctica?
Yes, we did! Our last Antarctica project was in 2010. And at the same time, we also took part in an expedition to the Novolazarevskaya Station in Queen Maud Land, privately funded by the artist Nasser Azam, completed by an exhibition of work built in Antarctica and presented over there (7 years before this year’s Antarctic Biennale).
During the same period, we started to work in the Arctic. Because our Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation doesn’t only concern Antarctica!
My first trip to the Arctic was to Igloolik in Nunavut, with Stephen Kovats, a Canadian curator who was the co-founder of the media festival Ostranenie with Inke Arns at Bauhaus Dessau in 1995. I met him in Ljubljana in the early 90’s and we stayed in touch, he also visited Makrolab at documenta in 1997 and in Scotland in 2002 and wanted us to bring it to the Canadian North, to Nunavut. He had connections there with Igloolik Isuma Productions, the producers of Atanarjuat, directed by Zacharias Kunuk (Caméra d’or in Cannes in 2001, editor’s note). We went up there, presented the project ideas to Zach, Paul Quassa and Pauloosie Qulitatik and met with the local hunters, elders, youth…
This trip was a life changing moment. When you are told you are going to the Arctic, you have a typical southern projection, of artists, scientists, whoever really, that is very different from what it really is. And then we got to know the People and the Land, and learned about living “on” the Land.
So that’s when I started to work closely with Matthew Biederman, a Montreal based artist that was a Makrolab crew member in 2002 in Scotland, which is how we met. We created the Arctic Perspective Initiative (API). We already knew it was not going to be a one off project, we understood very quickly that this would last for many years. It’s an Initiative, not a project! You can’t just call it a project. It’s a long term engagement.
Video archives collected by the Arctic Perspective Initiative (2013-2017), editing Matthew Bierderman, sound Pierce Warnecke (2017):
So what are you doing today in the Arctic?
This year we are working with a local Inuit group that has started working in Nunavut with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). We already carried out work in 2009 and brought our unmanned systems to the Arctic, essentially robotic airplanes equipped with remote sensing sensors. But this was before the so-called “drone” revolution, people did not understand the transformative potential of this technology back then, it was hard to promote it.
8 years later it is a different story, it’s happening. And the nicest part is that an Inuit group, that has started to use UAVs contacted C-Astral, the company I co-founded with Nejc Trošt and Samo Stopar, and wanted to work with us. So throughout 2017 and 2018 we are starting a flight campaign, doing both surveying and ecological monitoring work. It’s very exciting. But these things take time.
What is your opinion on Arctic geopolitics?
Through the API, Matthew and I are conducting work that consists of reacting to very complex geopolitical issues. For instance, as a reaction to an article about the Russian Arctic in the Financial Times, we wrote a letter to the editor and it was prominently published. We were expressing our disagreement with the way they were talking about the Arctic in Russia in particular. You know, half of the Arctic is in Russia, and Russia has a very specific Arctic policy which is not very friendly to its indigenous populations. Not that any other countries are… but some are more than others, there is an evolution. You have the Nunavut autonomous region as part of Canada. In Europe you have the Sami Parliaments (in Finland, Sweden and Norway, editor’s note). In the United states like elsewhere, you have a history of brutal colonization of the Arctic, but there is also a slow democratic devolution process going on. But of course industries are very present, oil, mining… The Arctic is complex…
I always saw the Arctic and Antarctica as sensors of our planet. It’s where the changes on a planetary scale are most visible and faster than everywhere else.… I somehow became very intimate with the sky views of the Arctic also because of my life situation… I contribute to global warming with my too frequent trips between Europe and the US West Coast, where I teach… So, you have to be aware of all these complexities. And that’s what our work is really about. To raise the consciousness level, not only sensitivity to ecological changes, but really a kind of cardinal consciousness of humanity, and I think the artist has a role and responsibility to play there for sure.
What is the future of the Makrolab?
We are still working on it, on the type of commitment with Antarctica and also on placing the old structure of the Makrolab as a permanent tactical media and art-science facility somewhere in Slovenia. We’ve been asked last year to do something with the Princess Elisabeth Station but there was no funding at the time. And you know it’s still very dangerous to work with artists. Ha ha!… We’ll see, it is a long term project… You, yourself, from your own work, know that when we talk about these extreme environments on Earth, there is of course immediately a connection with Space. The Makrolab has always integrated this relation. In the Makrolab, for instance, we had to carry out compulsory daily tasks, rather like the Daily Tasking Orders (DTOs) of the ISS, to organize working time. Then there is also the idea of capsule architecture within Makrolab, which, looking back, evoked the Archigram movement. We only learned about the similarities later and this was kind of beautiful.
So in a way those are projects that are still alive, and they will hopefully be realized one day. Maybe with my energy, maybe with the energy of some younger artist, who knows. The big task for us is really to archive everything, publishing of the documentation is something which was never done in a systematic way, partly because of the limited capacity of the organization that I founded, Projekt Atol, which is only comprised of a few people and also because the reflection on this work is not that easy, as it was difficult for people to understand in real time a composite vision of all of the levels that this work created. I don’t lament on it, it’s just a fact (laugh). We are moving forward!
See the first part of this interview
More information on Marko Peljhan, Projekt Atol, C-Astral and the Arctic Perspective Initiative