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Hi, I’m Rudolf Freiling, Curator of Media Arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Jennifer Steinkamp’s EON operates with a peculiar form of speculation: she not only envisions her world but uses software to observe how objects perform and scenes emerge. For the artist, “to speculate,” which originally meant to think and observe, means to look closely, patiently, with care and concern, as she generates a virtual dimension in her computer studio.
EON is arguably the culmination of an artistic career in digital imaging thirty years in the making. The artist’s immersive worlds have gradually moved away from abstraction toward a vocabulary and practice of figuration.
Steinkamp refined her craft of world-making using a palette of densely layered, constantly on the move digital objects, patterns, and textures with malleable, soft qualities.
EON, which occupies approximately a 37’ x 9’ horizontal screen expands dramatically, suggesting a frieze or gigantic scroll that is impossible to grasp in one look. It engages and sustains our gaze for a much longer time.
Steinkamp has created an autonomous model world and her practice could be called “speculative modeling”—it relates to its site in Welch Hall, but does not illustrate what is being thought or researched in this scientific setting. It remains its own form of speculation.
In what looks like an underwater world, there are bubbles and loose aggregates of matter that resemble a swarm or a mix of living organisms and plants. However, everything that falls and floats, rises and passes, is ultimately impossible to identify.
Steinkamp’s aesthetic creation of virtual environments relies on vectors and algorithms, building a world from scratch. What we see is not a pre-recorded loop, the events and turbulences of the world of EON are programmed qualities that unfold over time. Patterns may repeat themselves but small variations will emerge, structured to allow for change and surprise.
The artist uses computer programming to make complex layers that animate her frame similar to a traditional cinema. Each layer is populated by one species of object.
And as our eyes scan the scene, however, they are invariably attracted, or possibly distracted, by lightning events and flares that briefly illuminate the blue field, reminiscent of aurora borealis, better known as the Northern Lights. Immersed in this underwater world of EON, light is not pulling us up reaching for oxygen but rather straight ahead into the simulated depth of the image. It is an aquatic space that oscillates between both an oceanic infinite expanse and a carefully controlled microcosm of an aquarium.
Do we care what jellyfish sense when the public is looking through the aquarium’s window into their world? Do jellyfish look back at us?
Steinkamp considers EON a vision of a primordial ecology, one that could also be set in an imagined future, a sequel to the dramatic and irreversible effects of climate crisis, including the decline of species. Without directly addressing the imbalance of present ecologies, her algorithms allow patterns of movement and groupings of objects to emerge and disappear, and change becomes a constant factor. It is a world in the process of becoming, but it might not be a world in harmonic balance. The artist’s use of background lighting evokes both the distant memory of turbulent events as well as a faint foreboding of a fraught future. Her speculation connects artificial world-making with a fundamentally humanist question: How do humans fit into this picture of sustainable living and growth? It is an ethical point of view that positions the artist as an ally of a long line of activists, feminists, scientists, and thinkers who make the urgent claim that there is no aesthetics without ethics.
Who: Jennifer Steinkamp
Where: Welch Hall
Why: Among the pioneers of digital imaging, Jennifer Steinkamp is one of the medium’s most celebrated artists. Her scenes transform architectural spaces into hyperreal environments that blur the line between the animate and virtual.
How does Steinkamp use light, movement, and color to command observation from those that view the art installation? If the video was a photo still instead, how would that change your perception of the piece?
Steinkamp leans heavily on the history of abstraction and perception, suggesting a connection to the California light movement.
The panoramic world of EON reveals biomorphic shapes that undulate across the screen, punctuating an aqueous background with bursts of pink, yellow, and multicolored fragments.
What do these shapes and colors remind you of? How does Steinkamp inspire the connection between science and art?
Commissioned for the College of Natural Sciences, EON signals the research activity that takes place in Welch Hall. A vision as powerful as it is beautiful, it serves as a reminder that life on earth began through cooperation, and that our future depends upon it.