Essay by Rudolf Frieling

Rudolf Frieling
Do Jellyfish Look Back at Us?
A Speculation on EON

An entire world, eons away, can only exist in one’s imagination. We cannot rely on eyewitness accounts, and, it is impossible to know when a world began or when it will end. However, we can theorize, speculate, and, literally, look.

Jennifer Steinkamp’s EON operates with a peculiar form of speculation: she not only creates her world but also programs it to let a scene emerge. What pushes her forward is this act of looking. In the process of letting this world emerge, she is the first observer of animated things, plants, or critters, which populate an empty stage and find ways to move about, entering and exiting from left and right, top and bottom. Thus, “to speculate” implies that she looked closely, patiently, maybe even with care and concern, as she generated a virtual dimension in the studio. And even when the algorithm was finished and the world was made, it is never a given and we, the unwitting observers, are in the privileged role of witnessing a world in the making. As observers, we need to look until we “see” something.

Steinkamp has been characterized as a pioneer of digital imaging and an exceptional media and installation artist. EON follows a long list of immersive works and is arguably the culmination of an artistic career thirty years in the making. The artist leans heavily on the history of abstraction and perception, prompting critics and writers to seek a lineage with the California light movement or with gestural abstractions such as the action paintings of Jackson Pollock. Her work has been reviewed as an outstanding example of environments that—beginning with Eye Catching, her seminal contribution to the Istanbul biennial in 2003—have moved away from abstraction to a vocabulary and practice of figuration. In the last two decades, Steinkamp gradually refined her craft of world-making using a palette of digital objects that tend to display a malleable quality while being carefully placed architecturally. It is tempting to associate her aesthetic with historic models of realism in drawing or photography or with software-based digital objects that share a certain look and texture with other artificial aesthetics in gaming or virtual reality. Steinkamp’s work invites both of those lines of inquiry in pursuit of a unique set of aesthetic parameters, a signature style of patterns and textures in which things are densely layered and constantly on the move.

In the late sixteenth century, the Latin word specula referred to something that is observed from a vantage point or watchtower. This corresponds to Steinkamp’s speculative point of view, sitting at her desk coding this world into being and watching an algorithmic, generative process unfold on the screen. We might be tempted to compare a computer screen to a window into a virtual world. However, the “window” of EON, which comprises a large horizontal screen with a total width of 37.7 feet and a height of 8.93 feet, has expanded 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.

Shown outside the art historical contexts that we typically find in museums, EON circumvents two potential challenges: being seen as mere architectural décor that provides an aesthetic enhancement of a work environment and serving as an illustration of the particular field or practice into which it is placed—the visualization of research in biology, geology, or, in this case, chemistry. It is an embodiment of “speculative modeling”—the expansive and elusive response to a commissioning institution and place that manages to relate but not to illustrate.

Upon first sight, the viewer may struggle to understand what they are seeing, even though the scene looks vaguely familiar. In a dense habitat with an inventory of animated objects, one might recognize fish in what surely looks like an underwater world. There are also bubbles and loose aggregates of matter that resemble a swarm or a mix of living organisms and plants. Everything that falls and floats, rises and passes, is ultimately impossible to identify. It is a busy section of a place with sheer abundance at work—a cornucopia of things. The richness of this “world” is not achieved through a 360-degree immersive environment, as in a nineteenth-century panorama, but through a largescale horizontal screen, more a cinemascope, to propel us into the twenty-first century. The panoramic world of EON resonates deeply with us in light of a world globalized and synchronized through a pandemic, where one is immersed in a constant flow of intensities without a centralized perspective.  

Scanning wide panoramic images, the coordinates of a theatrical stage take shape, a painterly flatness that provides only hints at the most basic spatial orientation of foreground and background. In landscape painting or photography, a horizon is both an envisioned or recorded limit, as well as the promise of a place beyond that typically eludes us at first sight. It functions as an imaginary line to set the scene and indicate the perception of a finite and yet infinite space. This, however, is at odds with the virtual world in EON, where no landmarks and not even a clearly defined horizon offer a perceptual or cognitive orientation. This world is in fact not on earth but in water, an aquatic space that oscillates in our mind between two rather different perceptions: it shares properties of both an oceanic expanse and the microcosm of an aquarium.                           

The biosphere of EON is blue, a color that immediately conjures the sublime experience of distance. Its world operates like a two-dimensional picture whose flatness is grounded in the texture of a surface material, such as a canvas. Here, this “fabric” is made of a high-resolution grid of pixels. We are looking at an artificial aquatic world where the laws of physics apply. A continuous stream of air bubbles rises to the top while other objects follow gravity’s pull to the bottom, both beyond the frame of the panorama. We cannot see where things are going, just the direction. This underwater section is busy with small objects, with larger ones occasionally dominating the scene in a lazy drift as if moved by invisible currents. These larger objects and loose plant-like structures oddly resemble tumbleweed blowing across the plain of a desert.

A scene of naturalism, as an index of the real world we can perceive, is essential to Steinkamp’s aesthetic creation in which the virtual environment relies on vectors and algorithms, building a world from scratch. Neither painted nor recorded, its events and turbulences are based on programmed qualities that unfold over time. Motion here is neither drawn nor photographed but generated with software that simulates natural movements. Code is constantly performing this world in all its details. The critters and creatures—the sculptural matter—have an artistically defined form and quality but otherwise are set free to do their thing.

Steinkamp obsesses endlessly over the minutest details of these objects and their qualities. The dialogue with an algorithm controlling forms and movements is an essential motivation in her creative process, a balancing act between the sculptural animation process and the generative coding. She stresses the importance of “layers” in the gradual construction of her rendered world. This complex layering allows the artist to animate her frame similar to a traditional animation in celluloid. Each layer is populated by one species of object. The most basic layer displays the background and scenery, which in film animation changes only minimally. Like a blank canvas that is first treated with a primer, the blue pixelated screen sets the tone, creating an atmosphere of a summer day. If this was a movie script, it would read: Broad daylight, exterior, underwater with a view of the surface. With that in mind, the scene could be an eternal establishing shot that tells spectators to take their time, settle in, and enjoy the movie.

Our searching eyes scan the multitude of objects in motion—up and down, sideways to the left and to the right—where nothing stands out and everything beckons us to come closer in order to discern distinct forms and details. As our eyes scan the scene, however, they are invariably attracted, or possibly distracted, by lightning events—more flares than bolts—that briefly illuminate the blue field. These effects on blue establish a sort of virtual “horizon” and a faint perception of depth or spatial layering. The blurry swaths of lighting effects across a blue texture are lo-res and unspecific but disorient the viewer in a virtual world that can only simulate perspective and dimensionality. It is a world in suspension—a window in midair or a diver’s capsule somewhere close to the surface that is just beyond reach. The view from the depth of the ocean towards the surface with its reflections of the sun is symbolically charged as we instinctively long for the life-saving realm of oxygen. In EON, however, light is not pulling us up but straight ahead into the simulated depth of the image. A similar effect can be experienced in a marine aquarium. Following the old tradition of a stage set with the illusion of a fourth wall, we see the fish through a gigantic window, essentially a framing device. What the spectator cannot see are the artificial lighting systems outside the frame, the curved walls painted blue to support the illusion of infinity, and of course the careful curation of animals in this habitat. Do we care what the jellyfish sense when we are looking through the aquarium’s window into their world? Do jellyfish look back at us?

While Steinkamp considers EON a vision of a primordial ecology, theoretically the scene could also be presenting an imagined future, a possible sequel to the dramatic and irreversible effects of the current climate crisis, including the decline of some species. Without directly addressing the imbalance of present ecologies, Steinkamp’s world generates an alternative vision where a multitude of species—an indication of either the richness of a primordial scene or the regenerative effect of a world without humans—does not operate within the parameters of an evolutionary concept confined to biological competition and survival of the fittest. This world is bursting with energy and yet fundamentally undramatic. While all critters drift and move as if nothing could ever disturb them, the tiniest factor of chance—on a microbiological level, for example, bacteria or viruses—affects change in any given ecology. Steinkamp’s algorithm allows patterns of movement and groupings of objects to emerge and disappear, with change a constant potentiality. It is a world in the process of becoming, but it might not be a world in harmonic balance. Steinkamp’s use of an “aurora borealis” in the background lighting evokes both the distant memory of turbulent events as well as a faint foreboding of a fraught future. If the viewers extract a narrative out of this process, it is their own imagined dialogue between a different geology and our time and place, between different agents and us the viewers.

To fathom this complex temporal image, Steinkamp asks us to spend time with it and to embrace the pleasure of looking until we “see” something. This something is to be found in the minute details of the unseen as much as it is in those (past or future) agents not included, most important, the impact of the human species. What we can perceive are manifold variations of objects moving and morphing in a degree of complexity that is indebted to some of the most current thinking in the sciences, in particular the notion of symbiosis with its relationality of living organisms that are co-dependent and co-creating. According to Tobias Rees, author of From the Anthropocene to the Microbiocene (2020), “[We] humans still have not learned to think about ourselves in terms of the microbial—the viral—world of which we are a part. If politics is the study of the forms living together—and in particular the effort of finding a form for living together well—then we have a lot of work to do. We have to compare different forms of living together: prokaryotes and eukaryotes, organisms and viruses, mycelia and trees, in ponds and guts, in caves and forests, in lungs and rivers."

This contemporary study of microcosms is embedded in the ecology of EON. Steinkamp’s utopian vision of co-existence acknowledges a horizon beyond the phenomenology of her speculation. It is a practice that 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.