From Conversion to Polar Landscapes: A landscape for the 3rd Culture

Marko Peljhan

Marko is the coordinator of “Project Atol,” “Makrolab,” as well as “Insular Technologies,” a high-frequency global radio network initiative. He was born in 1969, Sempeter pri Gorici, and lives in Los Angeles, Riga and Ljubljana. From 2005 he has been coordinating the design for the Arctic and Antarctic Makrolab projects in the framework of the Interpolar Transnational Art and Science Consortium I-TASC. In 2000 he received the special Medienkunst prize at the ZKM, in 2001 the Golden Nica Prix Ars Electronica together with Carsten Nicolai and in 2004 the second prize of the Unesco Digital Media Art Award.

The critical issue facing art and science is the lack of communication and real exchange between these two fields. In general the push towards interdisciplinarity between these creative fields is still resisted in the academy at large and at the level of political decision making. Engineering and science on the one hand, and creative arts and humanities on the other all feed human curiosity and vision, but together, as a synergy, they would make a remarkable planetary evolutionary force. There are many ways in which synergy can be achieved, but one of these is to build communication systems which foster exchange, both in terms of hardware and content. In my work, I try to bridge this divide which is real and a lot of the time hidden behind a well-rehearsed rhetoric of acquiescence to established norms that have more to do with the preservation of the status quo of capital and power.

In 1994 I started a project through a series of maybe coincidences or curiosity that have something to do with the experience of the war in former Yugoslavia. That, together with a sensitivity towards environmental issues brought forth the idea of Makrolab. The challenge I confronted myself with was – how to build and operate a completely autonomous place for presenting and performing theatre in a war zone? It should be able to survive without any connections or dependence on the outside world, or to non-existent infrastructures.

As soon as I started researching what it really entails to be in such a place, lots of complicated issues and consequences became apparent. One problem is to get a system that is sustainable. Now I have never come across a good definition of sustainability, one that is precise and beautiful. And whenever you start looking into detail at sustainable systems, there are always hidden catches and traps. I discovered that a lot of people who actually deal with these processes only become properly aware of them when actually trying to find solutions for these problems in practice. A well-known example is the amount of energy needed to build, assemble and grow a solar cell, which is greater than the amount of energy the cell will generate in its entire lifespan.

The first target was to build a system that could sustain a group of 6 people for 108 days, which was an evasive target… Total independence for such a long period of time had never achieved before. Usually new structures and materials have to be resupplied. We also had a very precise temporal goal, in that the project would last for ten years, starting from 1997 at Documenta in Kassel and going until 2007, when we had the aim of moving the structure to the Antarctic. These ten years were set to gain enough knowledge and experience to be able to go there and build this unit, which would be able to endure a possibly hostile future climate.

In these ten years we have learned a lot and the lab has traveled over the entire planet. One of the main theses of the project is that a small group of people is living in isolation conditions, which generate more evolutionary code than larger systems. There was the ultimate goal of proving a system that can work in a hostile environment, both for humans and for technology, and to make this as a possible way to survive in future environments. The project is now part of the Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation (I-TASC). The I-TASC organisation will continue the work from the past ten years and will place the lab on Antarctica.

The Antarctic was chosen for a few reasons, one of them being that the poles of the planet are perfect sensors of the state of the planet. My thinking at the time was linked to one of the few successful enterprises that have been undertaken on a global scale, which is the reduction of the release of CFC-gasses into the atmosphere. We can maybe learn something about how that was handled - even during the Cold War. It was a successful operation on many levels, without actually that many campaigns. It was simply legislated and enforced. Because everybody understood the simple message that if we deplete the ozone layer, we get fried. And people don't like to get fried, so they understood the message. Whereas global warming is a much more complex and slower process and so much more connected to our daily activities. The Antarctic is the only place that does not belong to any nation state, which is put down in the Antarctic treaty. It is a very potent place, because of its dedication to science and peace. Politically it is a completely transnational environment. Actually when you get more involved with the place you will find that things like nationalism and national pride do exist even there, but it is also the place where transnational cooperation is symbolically and de facto a must. I see it as a projection of the future of the planet. It is a very utopian place… And that is where art comes in.

On the practical side I-TASC aims towards the realisation that the poles are critical parts of the planetary system. That is something we have to take into account when we are thinking of sustainability issues. We set out to do research into three fields - all of them are global, dynamic and extremely mathematically complex, therefore undefinable, and completely in flux - telecommunications, migrations (including economy) and the climate system. Our mathematical models of complex systems are still quite unable to compute them accurately. In the project we set the standards so high that they are unachievable. In my opinion only an art project can function like this legitimately, right? I-TASC tries to engage on planetary common territories: the Arctic, the Antarctic and international waters. The ideas and challenges that result from the project - besides constructing sustainable and intelligent mobile polar research stations - can spread technology between the poles.

We want to engage localised knowledge whenever possible. Currently we are developing power generation technologies for community radio stations in poor areas of African suburbs with a grant from the South African energy commission. Which might seem just but a humble goal, but there is no sustainable energy use in South Africa and community radio does not exist. We are also working on an independent satellite communications system, for the stations.

Where are we now? We are engaging all the Antarctic operators on one level, and on the other, we are working with the local Inuit community in Nunavut, Canada. For the next ten years we will be working on different projects on both poles. Currently we are running a self-sufficient solar and wind powered weather station in the Antarctic. And this summer in Nunavut we will bring our first communication modules so that the local tactical media workers and hunters will be able to live out on the land, as they used to in the past and still be very much connected.

“Lumionus Green Solar System Sizing Calculation in 20 Steps”:

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