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From Conversion to Polar Landscapes – A Landscape for the 3rd Culture

Talk by Marko Peljhan



The critical issue facing art and science is the lack of communication and real exchange between these two fields. The building up of a common knowledge base and the systems of interaction (interdisciplinarity) would finally establish each of these discrete knowledge fields as permanent and stable partners to the other. 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 (where it would be useful for scientific and artistic strategies to be considered within policy making). Engineering and science on the one hand, and creative arts and humanities on the other are, at their best, instrumental at setting the path of evolution of knowledge. They all feed human curiosity and vision, but together, as a synergy, they would make a remarkable planetary evolutionary force. However, this synergy will never happen if we do not slowly reconstruct a common history, reflecting on these fields from a new perspective and thereby creating a basis for a common future path.

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 aquiescence to established norms that have less to do with the visionary energy of science and art and more to do with the preservation of the status quo of capital and inherited or assumed power. Of course, it goes without saying, that the current dispensation still does not support the possibility of this synergy, both in political and economic terms, and consequently a shift in priorities and attitudes will have to be effected if we want to maximise the creative potential of both fields. There are many ways in which synergy can be achieved, one of these is to build communication systems which foster exchange, both in terms of hardware and content.

Last but not least, I strongly believe in the individual dimension of these group interactions. It is neccesary to build a culture of activism amongst arts and science practitioners if synergies are to be established and fostered, when and wherever possible. The debate revolves around a change of culture and a creation of a new, third, synergetic creative culture, built on the experience and knowledge of the visionaries of past centuries and fuelled by our own twin forces of curiosity and responsibility.


This is the transcript of the talk by Marko Peljhan at the Luminous Green Symposium in 2007

It's a challenge for me to not show you some of the very visual processes and machines that were built in the last 15 years, connected to the work I'm going to talk about. But, I will make an effort and not use the projector today!

I will start by presenting certain initiatives that I have been involved in over the last 15 years. The most important of these is called the Makrolab. This started in 1994 and it resides in the domain of art for very precise reasons. It was born 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 problem I posed myself when the project started 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, that is precise and beautiful. And whenever you start looking into detail at sustainable systems, there are always hidden catches and traps connected to it. I find that a lot of people who actually deal with these processes become properly aware of then only when they actually try to engage these problems in practice. A well-known example is the amount of energy needed to build, assemble and grow a solar cell, that is greater than the amount of energy the cell will generate in its entire lifespan. There are also many examples like the hybrid car, with all its batteries that are not very sustainable and whose disposal is still a big unknown.

When we started to build the Makrolab I became very interested in all of these systems. How to construct and put them together, how to build this system to sustain a group of people on a long term. The first target was 6 people for 108 days, which is an evasive target… We have never achieved total independence for such a long period of time. We usually have to re-supply our structure with different kinds of materials. We also had a very precise temporal goal, in that the project would last for ten years, starting from 1997 at Documenta in Kassel, until 2007 when we had the aim of bringing the structure to the Antarctic. I'll explain more about the choice for the Antarctic later. 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 all over the earth. One of the main theses of the project is that a small group of people are living in isolation. Isolation conditions, as I call them, generate more evolutionary code than larger systems. In the past ten years a lot has happened. The project has spawned a lot of initiatives, which have no connection to the lab anymore. But 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. During the project, this hostile future seems to have started forming. The project is now part of the Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation (I-TASC), which was set up, so that I can remove myself somewhat from it. The ten year limit was also partially put in place for this reason. The I-TASC organisation will continue the work that has been started during these ten years and will place the lab on Antarctica, with or without me.

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.

That's how I got interested in the Antarctic, but probably the role that this continent plays on a cultural level also shaped my thinking even from childhood. It's the only place that does not belong to any nation state, which is put down in the Antarctic treaty. So there is this very potent place, because of its size and because it is dedicated, as written in the treaty, to science and peace. So anything that the nation state has brought us cannot exist there, which means that exploitation of these kinds can also not happen there. 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 the 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. Art takes its license from our art-history, which is the license of responsibility. Responsibility for structures larger than ourselves. Which brings me to the topic of grey, black and green funding, that I'm looking forward to discussing further with you, because it is related to that license.

In the Antarctic we are engaging the world of science - it is a continent devoted to science. 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 the international waters. All of the ideas somehow spinning out of the I-TASC initiative, beside constructing this efficient sustainable and intelligent mobile polar research stations, can spread technology between the poles. We want to engage localised knowledge whenever possible - like we are currently doing through a grant of the South African energy commission - which we use to develop the technologies for power generation. We use these technologies in our base module to power community radio stations in poor areas of African suburbs. Which seems like a small goal, but then 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. There is a strong wish to do so from their side. So I-TASC is a producer, mediator, an organisation and a proposition to different kinds of entities. That is what we are doing, which is a very small part in this discussion, but connected very much to the issues which are put forward here today. Thanks!


How to size your solar system, a document generated for the Luminous Green Hands-on Workshop


Born in 1969, Sempeter pri Gorici, lives in Los Angeles, Riga and Ljubljana. Marko is the coordinator of ‘Project Atol’, ‘Makrolab’, as well as ‘Insular Technologies’, a high-frequency global radio network initiative. From 2005 he is 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.


symposium2007/marko_peljhan.txt · Last modified: 2011/04/02 03:47 by maja