Faux Naturel

In Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s digital swamp, we don’t need boots. Despite the use of impressive technology, the supposedly natural settings on the big screens feel as well-groomed as a suburban lawn.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl, 2021. Live simulation (stills). Commissioned by Light Art Space (LAS).Courtesy the artist.

Artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen has been digitally processing natural phenomena for a number of years. In 2019, he brought an extinct bird back to life at Tranen by means of virtual reality, and his so-called digital re-wilding has often taken its point of departure in exotic, distant situations. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated injunction to stay in one place made the artist interested in the local fauna around Berlin, where he lives. There he gently trawled some of the swampy areas left behind by industrialisation with a scanner and then went on to recreate them in digital versions (using the video game creation tool Unreal Engine).

The work was originally shown in the large industrial halls of the legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain when it was closed during the pandemic. Now, the entire digital swamp that constitutes the exhibition Berl-Berl is on display in the lowest level of ARoS Art Museum.

The exhibition takes place almost exclusively on screens. It begins by the entrance to the basement level, where we find two large, beautiful, vertical LED screens of the kind that can make even bad holiday snaps look like prime examples of relational aesthetics. Placed at either end of the museum’s rotunda, they pulsate with beautiful colours and familiar shapes from nature, like a soft teaser of the virtual experience of nature that awaits. However, one screen is marred by areas of slightly broken LED. Even though we find ourselves in the very latest digital world, it already feels a little more fragile than the oldest realm to which we have access: nature outside.

Inside the large, darkened main gallery     , visitors can lie down on comfortable cushions in front of several large screens to watch expressive animated imagery that slowly pans around the swamp. From screen to screen, the image moves along the colourful landscape, zooming in on the network of tree roots sucking up water, on rocks and forest floors with small luminescent mushrooms; we slide underneath the water where strange plants and organic life forms live and die in a synthetic cycle. As the camera moves around, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of what is above and below the water, what is surface and internal situation, anaerobic or land-based growths. It all flows glossily and deliciously together at a stress-reducing pace. A brown spongy jellyfish with a glowing pearl inside swims by like a deep-sea organism that has somehow gone astray only to end up in Berlin carrying a mysterious treasure patinated by pixels.

It’s all quite trippy: a psychedelic, yet also familiar trip around some of those unknown territories that by now seem so familiar. We understand that this is pure flow, a meditative canoe trip where no drama or plot twist will come to our rescue. We will even have to adapt to the digital natural scenery, finding meaning in it. The sleek sound design adds drama to this flow with cinematic layers of effects on top of an ambient score. I recognise the sounds of a frog and a crow croaking; someone or something is walking on a crunchy forest floor.

The entire situation is as stylistically perfect and smooth as the black, high-gloss floor, which reflects the digital scenes so perfectly that it makes me want to throw up a little on all the mirrored glossiness, injecting a little something au naturel into the situation to see if it is even real.

Kudsk Steensen uses video game graphics – which are significantly coarser and less real-looking than cinematic CGI – to emphasise that this is not a technological attempt to recreate something ‘real’, but rather an effort to establish a new reality, a new experience of digital ‘nature’. This new landscape must first be created, then conquered by the senses in order to exist in a digital realm that is supposedly for everyone – but only as long as the technology is relevant or people can afford to pay 160 kroner for admission.

As a passenger in this virtual re-wilding, I am rendered passive, stunned by the delicious lumen while the swamp is subjected to the changing weather of the seasons and the many differently scaled layers transform before my eyes. The intention is probably to make us think about the world. But unless those thoughts are challenged in the form of conflict, risk, or drama – some sort of artistic tension – it feels most of all like watching a friend playing video games: satisfying, but not particularly stimulating or challenging when you don’t get to play yourself.

Perhaps Kudsk Steensen is actually more interested in making something reminiscent of paintings that we can walk into, where whatever critical content to be found is based on, for example, poetic logics, (in)visible historical references, and issues of composition. However, given the massive research behind the work and the numerous scientific and artistic collaborators involved, it ought to be able to expand its world to become more than just a very vivid illustration.

True, I can hear a few heavy breaths from something that might be a dragon; perhaps it is the creature whose trippy scales scintillate across some of the swamp’s geological surfaces. But it brings to mind designer handbags and fashion rather than the mythologies around the swamp to which the title Berl-Berl refers – as if the renderings are already in the process of funding the next project undertaken by some fashion house foundation.

If we were to weigh the sweaty interior of Berghain, done in rough-cast concrete, against the clean-shaven ARoS, executed in early Frank Lloyd Wright lite, the question of authenticity is of course irrelevant; the two venues are not really that far apart after all. Still, I imagine that the work took on extra synthetic appeal in the corona-closed club in Berlin. At ARoS, the exhibition simply screams prodigious production value, embodying an experience economy without smears or greasy fingerprints.

Berl-Berl has been executed with extreme thoroughness, perfectly professional down to the smallest pixel. But when it meets all the requirements stipulated by institutions and foundations for a socially relevant and sustainable project – and stays within the perimeter of those requirements – what is really at stake here? What is left in terms of artistic risk-taking? If there is very little conflict to be found – whether in terms of aesthetic, formal properties, or subject matter – how are we meant to be anything but slightly numbed by sheer affirmation in the beautiful digital swamp?

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl, 2021. Live simulation (still). Commissioned by Light Art Space (LAS). Courtesy the artist.