This interview was conducted over email from July through October, 2008.
DJ Spooky, trailer for Terra
Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica
You recently completed two multimedia projects: the film Terra
Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, and "Manifesto for a People's Republic of
Antarctica," a gallery installation (at Robert Miller Gallery and Irvine
Fine Arts). Both projects incorporate field recordings and audio samples
from your visit to Antarctica, mixed with electronic beats and other
visual materials. How did your conception of Antarctica as a place
interact with your embodied presence? What was the most surprising
aspect of being in Antarctica?
We chartered a boat, a Russian ice breaker called "The Academic
Ioffe," and traveled there by way of South America. We went to several
islands and ice fields that were near the Antarctic peninsula but a
little further down on the continent. I'll be going back in a while to
check out more of the interior. The next time I go, I'm going to try and
get to the Lake Vostok base.
The most surprising thing about Antarctica was the stench of penguin
shit. You can smell it a mile or so out in the water! I'm always
"embodied" (I always tend to mix that up with "embedded" these days
anyway), so there wasn't the conflicted sense of spatial issues that
seems to haunt a lot of the discourse about what physical performance is
all about in a digital context. I live and remember it all.
How do you see your mixed modes of approach—embodiment and
digitized representation—in the context of the history of representing
the (arguably) most mediated place on earth?
Everything I do is about paradox, paradox makes life fun. I think
that people need to "hear" Antarctica because it is at the edge of the
world. The phrase "mixed modes of approach" is a good one . . . of
course, the dominant theme in DJ culture is "the mix," so there are some
salient linkages there. The technical terms "heterodoxy" or
"heterogeneity" both find a solid home in me and my work; I celebrate
that kind of thing. One day, a software we use and the life we live will
blur. It's kind of already happened. But that's why I go to places like
Take New York City for example. If I have a conversation at a café,
someone will put it on a blog. If I walk down the street, someone puts
photos of it on flickr. It's irritating, but hey . . . it's the way we
live now. You could argue that New York City is probably one of the most
mediated places on earth. Antarctica represents a place mediated by
science—it's literally almost another world. Some of my favorite science
fiction books, like Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica and
Crawford Kilian's IceQuake, deal with some of the same themes:
science, art and the weird un-worldliness of the ice terrain. My
Terra Nova and "Manifesto for a People's Republic of Antarctica"
projects are in the same tradition. Music from the edge of the physical
environment and music from the core of the urban landscape: Watch them
collide in paradox.
How did Antarctica emerge into your world? Was it through
images? Fiction? Or the study of historic exploration figures?
I used to watch old films whenever I could, and some of my most
formative film experiences were George Méliès' 1902 The Conquest of
the North and Frederick A. Cook's 1912 The Truth About the
Pole. These two films are about the opposite side of the planet from
Antarctica, but there's a kind of strange dualism to them that was
really influential. Like the Lumiere brothers, Cook's film tried to
portray itself as realistic, almost like a documentary. Méliès, on the
other hand, started out as a magician who wanted to apply magic
technique to film. The two films are so different, but they're both
amazingly, eerily prescient about how discovery and the "voyager's path"
would then take on almost surreal proportions.
There's a similar motif that runs through my Terra Nova and
"Manifesto for a People's Republic of Antarctica" projects. They both
use found footage, print-design, and propaganda to show how exploration
at the edge of the world is a prism to view how nations look at one
another, and how art itself is a highly politicized medium. I guess you
could say I'm inspired as much by the scene in Jules Verne's 20,000
Leagues Under the Sea, where Captain Nemo sails his submarine to the
Antarctic sea shelf, as I am by the film 90 Degrees South by
cinematographer Herbert G. Ponting, who was one of the first people to
get footage from Antarctica.
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