Navigating the Uncharted Waters. Curator Kati Ilves in conversation with artist Kristina Õllek

October 9, 2019
Author Kati Ilves
Published in Interview from Estonia

The Earth Overshoot Day – the date by which humans have used a year’s worth of the planet’s resources – gets closer with each year. It was the 29th of July this year, meaning that in only seven months the renewable biological funds were emptied. What might be called as living beyond one’s means on a global scale is only speeding up and the deficit of natural resources is excessively growing.

Although very alarming, this is not exactly newsworthy. The run for resources started long ago and has stretched towards various directions. Besides terrestrial possibilities, the field of operations has expanded and both science and global enterprises have expanded into new territories. Vast developments in technology have brought realms previously unattainable within reach – the robotic agents operating on behalf of humans have accelerated the pace of technological change and are slowly becoming indispensable in the extraction of our planet’s dwindling supply of natural deposits and other raw materials as we try to keep up with the exponentially increasing need for them.

A year ago, I worked closely with visual artist Kristina Õllek on a project that touched upon finding valuable resources from the depths of the ocean – beneath the so called last frontier. I was curating a show, Ascending from the Liquid Horizon that took place at the le lieu unique arts centre in Nantes, the hometown of Jules Verne, and looked at those once speculative narratives that by then had been brought to life and somehow made real or tangible by the marriage of science and global corporations. My aim was to invite artists to map the planetary tendencies and have them progress, through their works, from the current rather depressing outlook into (if nothing more, then) hybrid and interesting future(s). Kristina’s research-based practice that spans installation, photography and video, and often works from the intersection of ecology and technology, fitted well with both the local and global context. The work produced for the show, Nautilus New Era, is a mid-scale spatial installation consisting of various media and materials. Drawing its core thematic directly from Verne, the work addresses the subject of deep-sea mining that 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea proposed already in 1870. The central focus of the work is the underwater expedition orchestrated by Nautilus Minerals Inc., a corporation that planned on starting excavating minerals such as gold, silver, nickel, cobalt, and others from the seabed near Papua New Guinea. In Verne’s story, an underwater vessel of those explorations is also called Nautilus, and similarly enough, for the moment being, the whereabouts and future of both Nautilus’ are yet to be seen.

Now, nearly a year after the project with climate conditions adversely developing, I believe it to be a good moment to reflect back on it and discuss the possibilities and processes in the light of the looming energy crises. As shown in Kristina’s work, the urgency for solutions is high. From the research period for the Nautilus New Era to today, some of the key elements addressed in her work have changed, inviting us to look at the project again.

Kati Ilves: In 2018, when I was working on the Ascending from the Liquid Horizonshow, my idea was to look at speculative narratives and revisit the sci-fi classics in order to, first, understand how those narratives have been reshaped into daily practices, and then, work from the premise that this progression into the unknown is inevitable. To envision this perspective, I invited you, among a few other artists, to produce a new, site- and context- specific work for the exhibition. In your previous works, you had experienced with materials such as synthetic polymers and looked at both natural and urban environments through a digital lens. The non-binary representation of worldly subjects, where biological and synthetic are not addressed from the opposing perspective, allows fruitful interpretations and interventions: this defined your previous practice and fitted with the context of the show. How would you place Nautilus New Era yourself within your larger practice and among your general body of work?

Kristina Õllek: Throughout my practice, I’ve been attentive to the intersection of natural and artificial states of being. I’m interested in how we perceive that relation, how we can expand the idea of a representation. In my practice I’m frequently using situations when fact and fiction, synthetic and natural, copy and original intertwine with each other and become a hybrid object or matter to obtain new and reconsidered meanings. With my recent work, I’ve become more conscious about the ecological and geopolitical problematics that are connected to these ideas. The age of digital hi-tech devices has rapidly changed the understanding of presence and as well the physical demands for various geological resources.

In 2017 when I was doing a residency in Athens, I discovered that there was an augmented reality device that one could rent while going to the top of the Acropolis. The device allowed you to see how the historical site ‘had looked like’ and to my surprise, many of these people who used it, mainly walked around there with the screen in front of them, not really looking at the ruins that were physically there. This shift in taking something to be more real through the screen than in front of your eyes, got me thinking more about the power of these technological devices and how they have been developed from an excavated resource into a hi-tech application, a digital window. I also became more curious about the notion of archeology and started to question its speculative being and what would be the future archeology, especially in current times when being surrounded by hardly-decomposable plastic material and the implications of an ongoing Anthropocentric worldview. These questions led me to develop many works, among them the photographic sculptures Displacers (2017, together with Kert Viiart). Displacers proposes a speculative museological and dystopic view on a future geological layer, a new rock formula called plastiglomerate (first discovered in 2006 in Hawaii, Kamilo beach), containing natural debris and manufactured materials such as molten plastic. Nautilus New Era was somewhat a continuation from my previous thoughts and projects, which then made me more critically reflect on the current stage of the ocean’s geophysics, underwater colonisation, and brought my focus in the yet little discovered depths of the deep sea.

Kristina Õllek, detail view to installation “Nautilus New Era” (2018). Video with sound 11’ 38’’, headphones wondergel cushions, memory foam, fibo blocks.

KI: I recall my first idea to be pairing you up with Vello Vinn, an Estonian graphic artist, well known for his prints from the 1970s. Although the outcome was only loosely connected to the chosen Vinn’s work, The Rockets from 1971, it played a crucial role in leading you towards (re)reading Jules Verne and your latter research. And your processes on working with both Vinn and Verne inspired me to certain curatorial choices, especially the framing done through my curatorial essay, but also in terms of staging the show. My curatorial project was drawing from sci-fi, or revisiting the once bold ideas, but your work focused even more precisely on a specific novel. How does this combination of a crucial text from the 19th century France, an archival intervention to the art of 1970s in Soviet Estonia resonate with the contemporary world? I think it would be incredibly insightful if you described the research and making of process from the beginning.

KÕ: To be honest, I didn’t know Vello Vinn’s works so well before. The first time when you invited me to discuss the exhibition plans and also introduced me to Vinn’s practice, I became curious to discover more about him. Thanks to this, I also came across his work The Rockets, an etching which was so rich in details and multilayered. Created in 1971, in the time of the Space Race and Cold War between Soviet Union and the United States, during the awakening of environmentalism, and in the year when Greenpeace was established, the work made me think about whether and how it resonates with the current times we live in. Additionally, I became fond of the marine shells and nautilus elements in The Rockets, introducing the unknown seafloor as a metaphor for the outer space. Today the deepest depths of the ocean are still quite undiscovered, and the surface of the moon and Mars have been mapped in much greater detail, than the vast majority of the deep-sea environment and its distinctive biodiversity.

As the exhibition was about to take place in Nantes and writer Jules Verne was the first thing that came to my mind when associating myself to that location, it reminded me of his fiction 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and I decided to reread it again.  The book was published 148 years ago, and by reading this in the year 2018, I found it uncanny how much it could also be read as commenting on our current moment. In Verne’s story, Nemo, the captain of the Nautilus futuristic submarine, confirmed to Professor Aronnax that there was zinc, iron, silver, and gold at the bottom of the sea and that mining them was certainly feasible. This led me to do further research about the deep sea mining  and I found, ironically enough, that 2018 was one of the markers for the deep sea mining development as the first commercial use of deep sea mining support vessel named Nautilus New Era was launched by the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals Inc. Taking these details and findings into account, I started to learn more about today’s scientific research of deep sea, the problematics of its potential mining, and the global demand for copper, cobalt, nickel, silver, manganese, and other rare earth elements, driven by the growth of renewable energy technologies and the so-called green economy.

KI: You place great emphasis on applying a certain aesthetics to your artworks, also, very rightly so, to this piece. Compared to how Verne envisioned the seafloor flora and fauna and its overall being, how does the footage of the deep sea recordings correlate to this? For me, the material taken by our robotic companions who have dived into the depths of the ocean, looks awfully alien and even artificial, which itself seems to be the sort of imagery that supports your research and practice.

KÕ: While developing my work, I started to look at E/V Nautilus Channel on YouTube, a research vessel operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust. It broadcasts live videos during the explorations to unknown regions of the ocean, seeking out new discoveries in biology, geology, and archaeology. Me sitting in my studio, thousands of kilometers away, seeing and hearing what they’re finding from the deep sea, felt quite unreal. I became curious to see how the discoveries were made, how the seafloor environment, its flora and fauna, changed at different depths, what kind of technological equipment was used etc. I also became interested in how the deep-sea mining companies were introducing their technologies for the mining purposes. Most of the PR videos that were available, were using CC renderings to showcase the process, because nothing like this has ever been tested in the deep sea. Those CC renderings were created in such a simple and naive manner, as the seafloor surface would be just an empty floor with metallic nodules and as everything would be as clean and easy as shown. For my work, the aesthetical and material choices were influenced by seeing those various visual materials and learning more about the technology used, for example the soft robotic arm, which was recently developed by scientists to be more delicate with the researched marine life. In connection, I wanted to create an installation, an artificial seabed, that would resonate with the findings, my thoughts and concerns, starting a dialogue between all parts of the installation. The work consists of four integrated elements: the video (11′ 38′) with its special squishy seating, two cobalt-pigmented sand piles with photographic sculptures laying on them, and the large photo Diasec. The Diasec photo is standing on silicone pads and attached from behind with the air compressor hose. The photographic image is taken of the hydraulic robotic arm[1]* with a piece of feather star, a deep-sea organism, also known as the living fossil, that has been around for about 450 million years. Though, if one looks closer, it can be seen that the feather star on the photo is artificial, a plastic resemblance, that could be found among aquarium decorations. Next to the prints, there are two blue cobalt-pigmented sand piles. One of them has a photographic sculpture, a ‘screen’ with a tablet holder, that somewhat speculatively resemble a form of a remotely operated vehicles (ROV). The ‘screen’ showcases the metals that can be found from deep sea, shown as a web-shop template where it could be acquired, and the hand approaching to the ‘cobalt’. The other sand pile has two artificial sponge-alike photographic sculptures on them, scraping the cobalt-blue seabed surface. The video is one of the key elements, that brings these parts all together, opening the topic and problematics of deep-sea mining. The seats for the video were created by using similar materials as those used for the soft robotic arms – memory foam and silicone rubber – to give the viewer a physical squishy experience while sitting. These different parts are also all commenting on the idea of touch, some more within terms of distant robotic arm and digital network, some more physically, but all within an alienated artificial situation.

Kristina Õllek, detail view to installation “Nautilus New Era” (2018). Cobalt-pigmented sand, UV print, plexiglass 18 x 24 cm, tablet holder.

Kristina Õllek, detail view to installation “Nautilus New Era” (2018). Cobalt-pigmented sand, UV print, plexiglass 18 x 24 cm, tablet holder.

KI: ‘From the depths of the never-ending ocean, from that fathomless world of infinite mystery and unearthly beauty which man has yet to discover.’ You quote Verne in the video part of the Nautilus New Era directly. What is the broader context of the discovery here? On which scale does it incorporate exploitation?

KÕ: Actually, this quote is not borrowed from Jules Verne, but from the Walt Disney Productions’ film adaption of 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, created in 1954. Originally this sentence belongs to the rolling title for the film’s trailer and was presented like this: ‘From the Depths of Never-Ending Ocean, From that Fathomless World of Infinite, Beauty Which Man has yet to discover, Comes the MIGHTIEST Motion Picture Of Them All! Walt Disney Presents: Jules Verne’s 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, In CinemaScope Color by Technicolor. Besides being just merely a poetic introduction, it was also a marketing strategy for the new technology, CinemaScope. The film was one of the hallmarks of 20th-Century Fox’s challenge to cinematography, the beginning of the anamorphic format as well a breakthrough in underwater photography. I decided to use the poetic part of this sentence in my video, as I find it still relevant. Deep sea is still undiscovered, it’s very difficult to explore as it is under high pressure, eternally dark, and extremely cold. Until the 19th century, as also mentioned in Verne’s story, it was believed that the deep sea was a lifeless wasteland. Shortly after Verne’s fiction was published (1870), the first deep sea exploration, the team of HMS Challenger (1872-1876) discovered many new species uniquely adapted to life near the seafloor. In the late 1970s the hydrothermal vents were detected, which revealed that groups of living organisms obtain nutrients and energy directly from thermal sources and chemical reactions associated with changes to mineral deposits. Since then, almost every deep-sea expedition finds a new species of living organisms. These explorations rely heavily on robotic systems and advanced technological equipment. There has been until now three persons who have been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, deepest parts of the sea, but these trips are extremely expensive and limited. Due to this, the study is mainly done with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that are controlled by researchers on a ship. The exploration depends mainly on the ultra-high sensitive cameras, the sonar mapping equipment as well the robotic arms that collect samples for research. The advancement of technology promises non-invasive in situ deep-sea observations and a delicate collecting technique, which before has been rather harsh. But, of course, each scientific exploration contains a certain amount of exploitation risk. Though, a totally extreme situation would begin with deep-sea mining. The habitat destruction, sediment plumes, the potential release of toxic chemicals, increased temperature and noise: all that threatens deep-sea conditions and would exploit exponentially the whole ecosystem. Due to very slow natural rates of recovery, it would have a huge impact, that would last forever on human timescales.

KI: Learning about the Walt Disney connection here is very interesting since it’s an early example of art (film, in this instance) operating in symbiosis with both technology and marketing, all three delivering more than the sum of their parts. As for the Nautilus Minerals Inc. project, exploitation came very close to the seafloor areas near Papua New Guinea, but the project has been put on hold for the moment. Could you shed light on those developments and speculate on other similar undertakings? It seems quite rare – but I cannot say that I have researched the subject from that angle much – that a project gets cancelled for the greater good? What about those parties who expected to benefit from the project financially? Investors?

KÕ: Just a few days ago I received a newsletter from an anti-mining activist group called Deep Sea Mining Campaign, where it was announced that the Papua New Guinea prime minister is welcoming the moratorium of the deep-sea mining for 10 years and the case will be put on hold. The local communities and environmental activists are happy with that current result, although they say that it should be a complete ban. Of course, the situation with Papua New Guinea is far more complex, as a lot of money and economic interests is included. Now Nautilus Minerals Inc., due to many economical backdrops, is announcing its bankruptcy and liquidizing the company, which means the investment by Papua New Guinea has a loss equivalent to one third of its last national health budget and the early investors on the contrary have earned big profits. Some sources say that the ten-year ban is not only for ecological reasons, but more for economical ones, so these ‘greater good’ developments are many-sided. However, there are still 29 licenses, issued by a United Nations body, the International Seabed Authority, to do deep-sea mining related explorations in the areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, totaling 1.3 million square kilometers. In August it was announced that India will be testing deep-sea mining machines in the Indian Ocean at the end of this year. If the trials are successful, India will be the third country after China and the Republic of Korea to develop technology for mining polymetallic nodules. The Nautilus project in Papua New Guinea is the just a tip of an iceberg and there should be strong regulations and bans by the International Seabed Authority. As long as the deep-sea mining projects are pushed further in the future, the better it is, as by then there will have been more scientific research done, which would lead to more general knowledge and hopefully to a global moratorium on all deep-sea mining.

Kristina Õllek, “Nautilus New Era” (2018). Installation, diasec print 150 x 200 cm, gel pads, air compressor spiral hose, cobalt-pigmented sand, UV print, plexiglass 18 x 24 cm, tablet holder, UV print on acrylic 37 x 47 cm (thermo-formed, handmade), UV print on acrylic 24 x 30 cm (thermo-formed, handmade), video with sound 11’ 38’’, headphones wondergel cushions, memory foam, fibo blocks. View to the installation in a group show “Ascending from the Liquid Horizon”, curated by Kati Ilves at Le Lieu Unique, Nantes, France.

KI: The intertwinement of market and sciences is rather symptomatic today, but at any moment now, mining the seabed – or any other novel territory – might be the last hope for gathering the resources we need to maintain our currently existing way of life. The so-called Earth Overshoot Day is making it precise and clear that we are in an urgent need for solutions. Where should we look? Where would you look as an artist?

KÕ: I think it is such a complex situation without one correct answer. At first we must accept the reality of climate change. It needs collective effort and readiness to change the way we live. It can’t only start from an individual approach, but as a transnational commitment from all governments, power structures, and industries. Our resources are finite and we should think more about truly sustainable changes that we can make today, and not the ones which would destroy another living ecosystem. I think a large-scale improvement should be done in recycling, and it should be seen as a new resource. Although it’s been acknowledged for some time and been somewhat organized, it’s still not enough and efficient, especially when it is just sent to another country and seen then as another country’s problem. We need to have new approaches for recycling, efficient ways implementing circular economy, and functioning regulations. As an artist, I also find it crucial to think and reflect on these ideas.

KI: It is almost prophetic how arts, especially literature, have foretold the future. Many of those bold narratives that only decades ago operated in the sphere of science fiction, have, by now, become true. Vast developments in science have been fuelled by corporate interests – and we witness projects such as mining the seafloor almost as precisely as Verne had crafted the book only to fulfil its sole purpose to serve as a manual. For a visual artist such as yourself, who works at the intersection of scientific research and market-driven purposes, the times are in fact fruitful. Which developments have you found most influential or interesting recently?

KÕ: I totally agree. Recently I read about a research on naturally occurring bacteria, that would handle the enormous amount of plastic waste by ‘eating’ plastics and breaking it into harmless by-products. It’s still very early days for this, but if discovered to be working with unintended consequences, it would be quite revolutionary and could be one solution to our urgent problem of plastic pollution.

KI: In which way has working on Nautilus New Era expanded your own territories? Has it pushed you towards new directions/possibilities or had an effect on your practice in any other way? What are you working on currently?

KÕ: Last year in August I moved together with my partner Kert Viiart to The Hague, to the coast of the North Sea. I was still finalizing my video for Nautilus New Era back then, and I often went to the seaside to clear my mind. Although I’ve always been drawn to the sea, I hadn’t done a work directly connected to the sea before. As being based in this new location and working closely with the marine ecosystem through that work, I quickly became interested in the North Sea, its coastal area and its habitat. I started to learn more about filter feeders such as blue mussels, oysters, and the expanding population of jellyfish. Together with my partner, we began to make trips to other coastal areas here, and on one day, as I was looking the map, I found one of the strangest looking geographical site – Zeeland area. In 1953 the most devastating flood in Dutch history took place there, and the Deltaworks Neeljte Jans dike was built after this, which changed some of its landscape into quite a dystopic and alienated surface. The land is largely below the sea level and recognised as one of the most human-engineered regions in the Netherlands. There are also many oyster and blue mussel farms (aquaculture) which are established for economical purpose and because of the suitable living conditions. With the on-going work I’m interested in this area, as well in the speculative assumptions and future scenarios of changes in the marine ecology, especially in terms of filter feeders as ecosystem engineers and water clarifying organisms. I’ve titled the on-going project as Filter feeders, double binds and other silicones and it will take its form as a solo show next year in autumn. Currently the last preparations are being done to ship the Nautilus New Era installation to Stavanger (NO), where the Screen City Biennial ‘Ecologies – lost, found and continued’ (17.–30.10.2019) will take place. The biennale is curated by Vanina Saracino and Daniela Arriado. I’m very excited to show the work in this new context and location, it will be exhibited at the Cruise Terminal, in a space with a view to the North Sea.

[1]* I’m thankful to Tallinn University of Technology Department of Mechatronics, whose staff was very helpful and allowed me to use and modify their hydraulic robotic arm for making this photo.

Kristina Õllek, “Nautilus New Era” (2018). Installation, diasec print 150 x 200 cm, gel pads, air compressor spiral hose, cobalt-pigmented sand, UV print, plexiglass 18 x 24 cm, tablet holder, UV print on acrylic 37 x 47 cm (thermo-formed, handmade), UV print on acrylic 24 x 30 cm (thermo-formed, handmade), video with sound 11’ 38’’, headphones wondergel cushions, memory foam, fibo blocks. View to the installation in a group show “Ascending from the Liquid Horizon”, curated by Kati Ilves at Le Lieu Unique, Nantes, France.

Kristina Õllek, detail view to installation “Nautilus New Era” (2018). Cobalt-pigmented sand, UV print on acrylic 37 x 47 cm (thermo-formed, handmade), UV print on acrylic 24 x 30 cm (thermo-formed, handmade)

Kristina Õllek, detail view to installation “Nautilus New Era” (2018). Cobalt-pigmented sand, UV print on acrylic 37 x 47 cm (thermo-formed, handmade).