Mark IJzerman & Sébastien Robert: ‘Cultural appropriation is something we both take very seriously.’
AS ABOVE, SO BELOW A/V live performance by Mark IJzerman (visuals) & Sébastien Robert (sound). ‘As Above, So Below’ explores the changing landscape of the Araucanía region in south-central Chile through live visuals and sound. This audiovisual performance probes the dualism of man’s relationship with nature via sonic research made by Sébastien Robert, a French interdisciplinary artist, and investigative visuals created from satellite imagery as well as microscopic and drone footage by Dutch media artist Mark IJzerman. During a residency in Chile, they researched the logging industry, which has been eroding the biodiversity of the region, causing disruption to the ecosystem.
Can you talk about how you encountered each other’s practice, and why you decided to work together?
Mark: We met when Sébastien moved to the Netherlands and was working for various media art festivals. Our collaboration started, however, when I was selected through V2_’s Summer Session program, and went to do a residency with the Art Center Nabi in Seoul, South-Korea. I applied to investigate the idea of an audio-photobook: still pictures and sounds in one medium. I was going to work with a Flemish photographer, but she dropped out at the last minute, so I was going to South Korea not knowing what material I would work with. I contacted Sébastien, who had been living in Seoul six months earlier for an exchange semester. I remember you were mostly hiking and taking pictures, right?
Sébastien: That’s right. During the week, I spent most of my time exploring the numerous national parks that the country has to offer with my camera and I was playing in clubs at the weekends. I brought back about 10 film rolls with the geographical coordinates of each picture I took. This weird habit of writing them down has been consistent since the birth of my artistic practice, but it is only with this project that I realised its utility. You went to the same location I did, but six months later, with a digital audio recorder. My photos were taken during the autumn of 2016, and your recordings in the summer of 2017.
Mark: This led to the creation of Time Shift, our first collaboration that is an ‘audio-photobook’ exploring the medium of photography in relation to sound as well as looking at the acoustic ecology of South Korea. While you flip through the pages of the book, sounds recorded at the locations of the pictures you’re seeing are playing. This challenges not only the medium of photography – framing a picture, keeping certain elements out of the frame which you are able to hear but not see – but also your perception, as we are not used to looking at a still image while we listen to recorded audio. It was a great collaboration, and one where we got to know each other creatively even though we were not in a room together.
Sébastien: What particularly struck me was how steadily we could work together, something that I had rarely encountered before, especially given the short deadline we had to tackle and the time difference between Seoul and Amsterdam. I think what worked out well was that we are both sound and visual artists, so we speak the same language, we understand each other, and we trust each other. We have similar, yet slightly different, artistic references and visions, which often merge and always spark deep conversations about our own positioning as artists in today’s intertwined worlds. It is no surprise to me that in Chile we exchanged roles: you were working with visuals, and I was working with sound.
Your mutual project is called ‘As Above, So Below’ and it explores the changing landscape of the Araucanía region in south-central Chile through live visuals and sound. How did this project come about and what are some of the central ideas and themes that you explore through it?
Mark: We both saw the open call for a residency in Chile and you pushed me to apply. I went with the idea of creating a new audiovisual performance exploring deforestation in relation to Mapuche cosmologies. I had been exploring sound-reactive generative video, often working with archives for audiovisual material. At some point I became very interested in using satellite imagery as a part of my work because it had a visual similarity to my earlier work and it could also provide a context. When we got invited to the Valley of the Possible residency in Chile, the field work could start. First, the idea was that I would do the project alone, but, having similar views and after doing a lot of hikes together, the idea of working together emerged. It wasn’t until we were back that I invited you into the studio and we decided to work together.
Sébastien: Actually, I went to south-central Chile as part of my ‘You’re no Bird of Paradise’ research in which I study disappearing sonic rituals. While studying local instruments, I discovered that there are no words to refer to music in Mapudungun, the Araucanian language spoken by the Mapuche community living there. Instead, many words are used to reference the sources of sound and describe the environment in which they live in harmony. As such, I worked both with natural and instrumental sound as source material to research the sonic properties of the landscape.
Mark: For ‘As Above, So Below’, I gathered satellite imagery before going to Chile, drone and microscopic imagery while there. On the microscopic level you can make comparisons, for example, between life forms on old-growth trees versus the abundance of organisms on eucalyptus trees. Back in the Netherlands, I worked with a student from the geomatics department at TU Delft (through the Crossing Parallels platform). She helped me analyse these deforested plots. We did some experiments using satellite imagery to figure out if certain trees were eucalyptus trees or old growth trees. Maybe it’s important to note that in the show we use these different kinds of footage and we obscure them – kind of like the way Sébastien transforms his sonic material. The idea was to make the landscape an analogue or a stand-in for any landscape that might be scorched by human activity.
Sébastien: We weren’t so sure how the performance would materialise, to be honest – whether the sounds I was recording and processing could be used for Mark’s project or would end up as a solo project. The intention was there, but we kept the conversation open for a long time while continuing to explore the area together. I think that the key moment in that collaboration was the day I visited your studio in Amsterdam, perhaps two months after we were back? You showed me the visuals you were working on and I was instantly blown away. We tried to put my sounds on top and realised how organic it felt, which makes sense as all the materials are coming from the same place. We immediately saw the potential for a collaborative A/V performance and started to work in that direction.
This performance, similarly to many of your other ones, is based on research. How do you approach research as such in your work, and how do you translate research into artistic projects?
Sébastien: I often joke about how I love going to ethnographic archives in places such as Le Musée du quai Branly in Paris or the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague as much as undertaking field research in remote locations. In a way, I approach both places in very similar ways. You always think you can gather a lot of data from a distance, but it is not until you are physically there that the magic happens. An archivist with 20 years of experience will guide you through the metadata of an archive, while a local biologist will guide you through the local surroundings.
Mark: Yes, this is also what I found when making ‘As Above, So Below’. When looking at the satellite imagery you think you’ve got a feel for the area and how it’s changing over time, but it isn’t until you are actually in the field that you get a grasp of the physical reality of a place. For me, making such a piece was really coming to terms with this – finding out you really have to be in the field if you want to make a well-founded work. After Chile, I found myself creating conditions so I don’t just churn out work but make sure to create space and time to actually do the research.
Sébastien: Regarding the translation of research into artistic projects, I think the lines are often blurry. We always search for ways to ground our work in the local context, yet without it becoming a ‘simple’ documentation of the issues at hand. Another fault to avoid is to look at the context purely from an aesthetic perspective, which often leads to its exoticisation. I think working together on this project has helped us to carefully monitor those extremes throughout the process to find a balance we both feel comfortable with.
Your projects have led you across the world, to far-away countries and lands. How do you approach a new culture, a new location, as a de facto source material for your work?
Sébastien: I think we both share a pretty similar vision on that matter. We approach a new territory very locally. What happens in a specific location can be totally different 10 kms away and if you start to look too broadly, you can easily get overwhelmed.
Mark: Yes, this is why we tend to stick to one spot when researching. In Chile we were in this valley, and of course we could have toured the country, looking for the most massive spots of deforestation. We didn’t because we believe we are able to do our best research when we can build a relationship with an area by going there often.
Sébastien: Absolutely, only then do you notice the changes through time and the multiple visual and sonic layers that constitute the landscape that surrounds you. I also believe working in collaboration with people coming from different backgrounds is essential. In the case of that residency, we were surrounded by an amazing group of artists, anthropologists and writers and we had multiple meetings with local biologists and activists. This transdisciplinary dialogue can provide unique perspectives, which in return offer reading keys to unlock the complexity of these non-Western worldviews.
Mark: While I often wonder if these trips are necessary – I think they are. By stepping out of your own local setting and going into a foreign one, you become more aware of the environment where you normally live. A simple example – seeing farmers burning plastic waste in Chile upset me at first, until I quickly realised that it is just taken out of sight for us in Europe. It provides new views, gets you to reassess old habits, which is important when making work.
You also discuss cultural appropriation – what are the strategies to avoid this when undertaking geographically diverse projects? How can we avoid objectifying and exoticising different cultures and people?
Sébastien: Cultural appropriation is something we both take very seriously. Actually, I wrote my master’s thesis on the topic by presenting a landscape of positions in which I also positioned my work and questions. The main conclusion was that there is not a unique way to navigate the thin line that separates curiosity from exoticism. Every context, place, project is unique and should be addressed accordingly. This is in line with our site-specific approach we were discussing earlier: there is no way one can grasp what is going on and what will happen before going into the field. To this I would like to add that to the greatest extent possible – although in reality it is very difficult – I try to go there without any preconceived ideas about the outcome of my project. I believe that this absence of agenda, and to a certain extent, this lack of expectations, introduces a form of honest and humble dialogue, which is fundamental while working within an unknown territory.
Mark: I agree on coming without a preconceived idea of a final outcome – though this can be hard, especially when you have been commissioned to deliver a certain work by a certain date under certain conditions… but I do try. Also, building relationships over time. I try to keep in touch with the people I have worked with – whether it’s connections I’ve made in South Korea, Zambia, Chile or within organisations here in the Netherlands. Then when I organise something, a symposium or a workshop, I try to invite those people back.
Another topic that’s increasingly important is environmental impact and climatic changes. How do you come to terms with this topic also vis-a-vis your work?
Sébastien: I think what we are trying to do is to bring different perspectives, whether physical or ontological, on the global crisis we are facing. Physically, as it is in the case of ‘As Above, So Below’, by looking at the area from macro- to micro-scales and ontologically, by putting western science in dialogue with Indigenous cosmologies like I do in my research, or bridging the gap between human and non-human entities as Mark is currently doing with his new projects. That will not solve the local issues that are at hand, but it opens people’s minds on how interconnected the world we inhabit is.
Mark: As for our way of working, for me it is about setting clear boundaries for myself. If I am going to take a plane to play a show – there has to be more than just the show itself. I like to combine it with a residency of sorts, some knowledge transfer with the local community, for example. In this way I find peace of mind in ‘offsetting’ the environmental impact with content and knowledge transfer, for example by giving a week-long workshop. This, as well as a simple rule to try to only fly for stays longer than two weeks, help. I do think, however, that the fact we are talking and thinking about this, compared to artists’ mentalities say, ten years ago, is also very fruitful for tackling this. I have also been changing my mind about this, as in a way, a no-flight policy is also elitist. But that is a discussion for another day.
Can you discuss the tools that you utilise in your work?
Sébastien: When working with sound, I usually start from field recordings from the local surroundings and combine them with local instruments that I experiment with. It is fundamental that all sounds are sourced or produced by me (or friends properly credited). That is for me a way to carefully understand the acoustics of the place I am immersed in. It would also be inappropriate to work from already existing materials. All samples are recorded at a high sampling rate, which gives a lot of room for modulation. Then begins a dialogue between various sound effects in Ableton and my Make Noise system, which I also approach as an effect rack more than a sound source. Processing, recording, processing, recording again… Until I reach a point where the original material is diluted to such an extent that it’s not recognisable anymore, yet you get the feeling it sounds organic. I always aim for that subtle balance.
Mark: I come from a background in sound, but my practice has shifted more towards using visuals and other materials. For my previous A/V shows I was always coding ‘video synthesisers’ in Max/MSP which would react to live sound coming in, that I would play with 4-track cassette recorders. I was, and still am, always coding systems that are in a way autonomous – that I see as ‘collaborators’, that can surprise me in some way. Often there are feedback systems that create or alter existing imagery. In the last three years, I found that TouchDesigner is actually a better tool for when you want to create visuals and I have heavily invested in learning that, but the core of what I do is still very much the same. I start with recording and exploring areas on different levels, just like we used everything from microscopic, to drone and satellite imagery on ‘As Above, So Below’. This is then fed into these feedback-systems that I code in TouchDesigner, which react to sound and I can kind of ‘steer’ the parameters live.
Do you see the pandemic changing your modus operandi? What some thought might be a temporary impasse, has turned into two years and nobody knows how things will develop or if they ever will return to “normal”.
Sébastien: I think we are both lucky to have external activities on the side as we are interdisciplinary artists. Although last winter was difficult, I have had a few exhibitions and workshops in the past few months. I also recently went to Norway to record the sound of the Northern Lights and research their place in local cosmologies. It is my most challenging project to date, so all my focus is currently on that.
Mark: Like Sébastien says, we are very lucky to have had a lot of things come our way. I must say, (and this has almost become a cliche) it did lead me to explore the Netherlands more, which is a very good thing. I have never seen the beauty of my own country like I have in the past two years. I have gone on a lot of tours with local city ecologists, and this has sparked new interests and actually fuelled the research I am doing at this moment.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Photo Pieter Kers