by Susanne Østby Sæther
The Oslo-based artists Lesia Vasylchenko and Istvan Virag work across a spectrum of photographic media to explore how contemporary image technologies are entwined with various practices of extraction, from data to fossil energy sources. In recent years, Virag has harnessed photography and video to examine economic, ecological, and sensory aspects of the increasing use of artificial light, while Vasylchenko in several video installations has pursued an interest in the temporal dimension of contemporary media and remote sensing technologies in particular. Vasylchenko and Virag were both commissioned to produce new works for the second edition of New Visions. The Henie Onstad Triennial for Photography and New Media, which was presented at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 2023.
New Visions is dedicated to presenting works that push the boundaries of photography and automated image-making, and this year’s edition was curated by Susanne Østby Sæther, Senior Curator of Photography and New Media at Henie Onstad together with external curators Inga Lāce and Reem Shadid. The exhibition brought together works by 22 artists that tackle urgent questions relating to energy production and distribution, the extraction of natural and human-made resources – from oil to data – and the ecological, social, and political consequences of these ventures. Spanning regions that the participating artists have ties to, including Norway, the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, these areas are connected by extractive economies. In this interview Sæther speaks with Vasylchenko and Virag about their works developed for New Visions 2023.
Sæther: First of all, can you start by describing your works for the readers?
Vasylchenko: Sensing the Near Real-Time (SNRT), my work for New Visions, explored the entanglements between human, technological, and geological timescales and the role of remote sensing in planetary observation. SNRT consisted of four screens and two objects connected to a deformed structure reminiscent of the Earth grid system. One screen portrayed melting glaciers captured by in-SAR satellite imagery and was installed beside a screen with an in-SAR image capturing the ground displacements caused by the earthquake in Turkey-Syria in 2023. A third screen showed three different narratives related to modern nuclear politics. It portrayed the ground around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and how it shifted during one year of Russian occupation; a desert in China, where the government was building secret nuclear missile silos; and the territory of the Hanford nuclear site, a decommissioned nuclear production complex in the US that has become an environmental hazard. The terrain of this location was extracted from satellite imagery and also produced as a 3D model in glass that simulated nuclear waste glass. The fourth screen showed drone footage portraying a Ukrainian grain field wounded by bombs. Adjacent to it, the installation included actual soil from a Ukrainian grain field. For this work I collaborated, to name a few, with researchers from the Department of Geosciences at the University of Oslo, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy, and Groundspace platform and Open Nuclear Network in Vienna, who are using open-source satellite data to work on global nuclear risk reduction.
Virag: My work Pixel Pitch vol. 4 is part of a series of video works that are displayed on low-resolution, large-format LED-screens. Such screens are often used as building blocks for large-scale outdoor advertising displays – a key element of the global infrastructure of 24/7 capitalism. The work interlaces imagery that shows the abstract mechanics of energy production with clips of organic motifs relating to the ecosystems and species affected by fossil-fuel extraction, including plankton and humans. Pixel Pitch vol. 4 explores relations between infrastructures of the oil industry, the dark-coloured, viscous oil fuelling capital flows, and the hundreds of millions of years of sun-powered, compressed life that forms it. The series in general is also inspired by the idea that the extent of artificial light at night, as well as the development of the intensity of the illumination of the man-made environment is an indicator, a sort of proxy for the measurement of economic growth (that is most commonly measured by GDP). The intertwined nature of this idea, that economic growth induces artificial light and artificial light indicates economic development, is somewhat reflected by the intertwined relation between the substance-like qualities of artificial light (including related topics such as light pollution) as well as the actual content of the video (that is, imagery related to the production of energy that is actually needed to produce the energy to generate this substance).
Sæther: The titles of your works – Sensing the Near Real Time (SNRT) and Pixel Pitch vol. 4 – go straight to the core of forms of technological image production and distribution that generally are found outside of art and indicate what we might perhaps call the threshold of visibility or image legibility. As I see it, your works thereby also signal a more general interest in how contemporary media condition our sense perceptions. With this interest, your works relate to Lászlo Moholy-Nagy’s call for a ‘new vision’, from which the triennial takes its title, and that greatly influenced experimental photography in the interwar period and throughout the twentieth century. For Moholy-Nagy photography enabled new perceptions of an increasingly mechanised and industrialised world. Can you expound on the specific processes of image production that your works explore, as well as the perceptual conditions that these processes install, and what you see as their attendant politics?
Vasylchenko: SNRT is based on non-optical satellite imagery called synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and interferometric SAR (inSAR), produced from satellite radars in low-Earth orbit by space agencies. Such satellite radars send a great number of signals per second down to the Earth’s surface and receive those signals back. This planetary sensing happens almost with the speed of light, and data are delivered back to Earth in what is referred to as Near Real Time. The faster it is produced, the more it costs. Therefore near-real-time is the commercial high-end when it comes to the space economy today. SAR and inSAR images ‘see’ the surface not through ‘an eye’ (optical lens), but instead it ‘senses’ the time it takes for the signal to reach the surface and return. These data can be translated into images that appear like photographs to us humans, to understand what is going on and what the situation down there looks like.
SAR images are highly efficient observational tools since they can observe the planet at night; the signals can also penetrate clouds, smoke, vegetation, snow, and sand. InSAR are sensing signals from two points in time as one image – images of the same location but taken at different times. They are not representing a moment in space, like a photograph would do, but how the space has changed during the programmed observation schedule. Radar imagery contains information that allows for the measurement of direction, speed, and distance. What is interesting about it is that it is not just an image, it can retrieve information about soil moisture, motion and temperature of objects, oceanic and atmospheric gravity waves, wind velocity; it can track rainforest deforestation and oil spills. There are numerous other examples of how this image technology is being used in research and for military purposes today.
Virag: The images I use to compose the video collages in Pixel Pitch vol. 4 are meant to emulate yet at the same time subvert the inherent visual language of imagery that is typically displayed on these types of LED screens – that are used globally for disseminating advertising, news, entertainment, as well as political propaganda. The visual language of the content that is optimised for such screens relies on simple and easy to comprehend images, as well as signs, symbols, infographics, animations, etc. I emulate some elements of this visual language, yet at the same time include topics and themes that are ambivalent, critical, and go against the paradigms of neoliberal capitalism. For Pixel Pitch vol. 4 I have captured some of the footage myself as part of field research, some footage is sourced from content that is produced by various stakeholders related to the oil and gas industry, and some footage is a result of collaboration with scientists, research institutions, as well as activists. In addition, I often work with 3D animation and data-visualisation.
The physical / bodily experience is one of the key aspects of the Pixel Pitch series. The intense (over)exposure to the light emitted by the LED screen invites the viewer to consider artificial light from a dual perspective: light as a substance/material versus light as container of information. The composition of images embodies fragments of information, information travels with light, yet certain information gets diluted by and dissolved in the substance of light. The extent of the erosion of information depends on the type, intensity, and density of information, but more importantly the spectator’s ‘position’ in relation to the screen. This position can be understood both in physical terms (including proximity, viewing angle, etc.) as well as contextually (the spectator’s attentiveness, cultural and social background, etc.). Ideally, I install the screen in the gallery space in a way that the audience first approaches it from the side. This particular positioning will encourage the audience to encounter the videos at a closer than optimal viewing distance, thus nudging them towards experiencing the phenomena of pixelation, as well as the above-mentioned aspects of the work. The term ‘pixel pitch’ describes the density of the pixels, more precisely the distance between each pixel measured in mm. For this fourth work in the series, I use LED screens with a pixel pitch of 12mm. The pixel pitch and the size of the screen together determine the resolution, and consequently the minimum viewing distance where the images seem coherent and legible / readable. Viewing the screen closer than the optimal viewing distance, the image quality decreases and the phenomena of pixelation occurs. This in practice means that the perceivable information content of the images is being lost, what remains is an immersive experience of being exposed to the flickering substance of artificial light. In this way, I play with the dual potential of artificial light: LED light as means of lighting, or LED light as means of information.
Sæther: Both of your works draw together and juxtapose micro- and macroscales, both temporal and spatial, for example, the ‘deep time’ of geology and changes in the earth’s surface aligned with the micro-temporal signals of SAR images, in your case Lesia, and the equally deep time of fossil energy sources and its extraction to fuel, what you refer to as 24/7 capitalism in your case, Istvan, which as Jonathan Crary has argued has radically changed the temporality of our everyday life. Spatially, the works are however manifested in a more human scale, relating to the human body, in line with the sculptural tradition in art history and conventions of the art gallery and museum space. I am interested to hear how you have worked with and through these multiple scales conceptually and thematically as well as in conceiving of the size and shape of your works? How and why do scales matter to you?
Vasylchenko: When it comes to the question of temporal scale, SNRT consists of two conceptual layers. It investigates the scales of photography as a medium and the scales of what this medium can observe and absorb as a representation of an immediate reality. I was trying to look into a few cases that portray different temporal scales of geological changes of our planet: melting glaciers; earthquakes; human interaction with the planetary surface through the expanding growth of nuclear production; and nuclear terrorism. SAR images do not portray a place, but a time. Instead of pixels, they consist of the juxtaposition of technological durations. InSAR images introduce different questions for understanding a photographic image as a medium. For example, it depends not on spatial resolution but on temporal resolution, referring to the distance between an observed terrain and the satellite apparatus. InSAR images represent a temporality that is longer than a photographic moment; one InSAR image can represent one month in time.
Some satellites are programmed to orbit the planet every twelve days, while satellites used for intelligence gathering could observe locations at any given time. Satellite images can sense down to 20cm from the ground. To print the original size of some of the satellite image formats would require a page around 25km to 100km long. The size of the territory with such a high resolution is unperceivable to the human eye, therefore the area of interest is being adjusted and compressed to a screen-friendly tiff image.
Virag: Scale is a key aspect of the Pixel Pitch series. The title itself is a reference to scale in terms of how pixel density and consequently image resolution play an important role in digital visual representation of realities that exist on different scales. More important to me is to understand the mechanisms of interpolation of data and information, from one scale / resolution to another scale / resolution. How does re-sizing and re-scaling affect the quality, the level of details of given information (an image, a dataset for strategic decision making, a political message, etc.)? What is lost, what is distorted during re-scaling, what sort of artefacts will appear as a result of compression, codecs, and other means of algorithmic processing?
When it comes to Pixel Pitch vol. 4 and the other works in the series, I like to think of them as if they were stolen and displaced pieces of a much larger screen, and that they display a fragment of the initial content – a small bit of ‘the big picture’. An example of such a large screen is interconnected architectural lighting systems, which consist of a networked mesh of hundreds of thousands of LEDs installed on facades of high-rise buildings. These enormous installations render complete buildings into gigantic, extremely low-resolution screens. In most of the cases, several neighbouring buildings are interconnected and synchronised and are set-up to function as one giant panoramic screen, transforming the skyline of a city to ‘virtual screens’ that can span several kilometres across the cityscape. One example is this project in Shenzhen:
Sæther: Your choices of mediums and materials are very precise, and indicate a working method aligned with media archaeology and the turn towards materialism in art and theory. Istvan, the hardware of your work, the LED screens, are essential to it. Lesia, in addition to the SAR images, which are not easily obtained, your work also includes simulation of glass made of refabricated nuclear waste and a heap of uncontained soil sourced from a grain field in the Kyiv region in Ukraine. Being Ukrainian and living in Oslo, I assume the soil has a personal dimension for you, also to the extent that it serves as what Susan Schuppli has called a ‘material witness’. How do you work with these different materialities, and how do you decide how to artistically engage with them, for example which concerns to address through depiction and what to engage with through including materials themselves?
Virag: In the case of Pixel Pitch vol. 4, reflections on the properties of the LED screen are integral to the work and include two key aspects. One aspect is the phenomena of pixelation, which as mentioned is influenced by screen resolution as well as the spectators’ position in relation to the screen. As part of this, I play with the dual potential of artificial light: LED light as means of lighting, or LED light as means of information. This brings us to the second key aspect of the work: exploring the materiality of artificial light and the impact of it on the environment and humans. Artificial light at night, which is often shortened to ALAN, has become one of the key human impacts on the environment. A recent research article points to how satellite data from 2012 to 2016 show that our planet brightened by 9.1%, an annual increase of roughly 2.2%. Artificially-lit outdoor areas also grew by 2.2% per year. Whereas the cheaper LED light was supposed to reduce energy consumption, it has resulted in more light. Humankind is engulfing the night sky of the Earth in a haze of artificial light that has become one of the fastest growing and most comprehensive human impacts on the environment. As part of my wider artistic research, I investigate the potential biological (and possibly evolutionary) effects as well as economic, social, and psychological aspects of the planet’s increasing exposure to artificial light.
Vasylchenko: When I work with images and physical materials, I always imagine that they are animated and have their own ‘voice’ with a past and future to tell. It is like a film montage: by juxtaposing two images that portray completely different stories the viewer is invited to construct a ‘third image’. In the case of SNRT, the temporalities of the different narratives presented on each of the four screens were my frames in a montage. Stainless steel was the first material I chose for this work. I wanted to connect all parts in a grid form that could represent planetary infrastructures. To create a more direct connection between the virtual and the physical I extended parts of the narratives into a material realm – soil obtained from Ukraine and a piece of simulated nuclear waste glass based on a showcased 3D model. It is interesting that you bring in the notion of material witness since both these materials have the potential to become part of future forensics.
Today, technologically-developed countries with nuclear facilities are trying to rebuild their nuclear waste storage systems and to change the form of the waste itself, to make it time-resistant. For instance, vitrified nuclear waste glass has a solid form, and can stay fixed for millions of years, despite geological changes and other unpredicted transformations of the surrounding environment. When it comes to the Ukrainian soil, the situation has a more personal dimension to it. Today Ukraine is the most mined country in the world; it will take decades to recover the land from the war, the ongoing ecocide and the environmental damages caused by it. This soil has witnessed unprecedented violence, and it will carry a physical trauma that generations after me will be witnessing.
Sæther: Another element shared by your works, and which is also a key topic in the second edition of the New Visions triennial more generally, is extraction of natural and human-made resources, from fossil energy to data – and more specifically, media’s role in these extractive economies. Istvan, your work engages with the extraction of fossil energy and its fueling of expanding urban media spheres. Lesia, your work points to how data is extracted from above and below. Implied in these relations is what photographer and scholar Stephen Cornford has called the ‘recursive loop’, which implies that medial processes of data extraction, through their extensive ecological footprint, in turn contribute to the very changes that it observes. Can you talk about how you have worked with and through this conundrum in your work, and how you, as artists, deal with it in your own practice and life more generally?
Virag: In my case the theme of resource extraction is mostly apparent when it comes to the content, since it heavily relies on mechanical, repetitive image sequences of extraction processes, in particular of oil. However, some of the imagery has been sourced or generated in ways that are somewhat extractive in nature, for example several parts are based on footage that has been produced by research institutions, such as the spectacular images that have been captured inside of nuclear fusion reactors. This material has been generously provided for this project by the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP), Germany / Centre for Energy Research, Hungary, as well as the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic.
Other examples are animations of geological formations that are based on open-source datasets that are available for download and ready to be processed by special software that is used by the oil and gas industry to analyse and visualise data. For this project, for example, I have learned certain functions of open-source reservoir imaging software – to be able to visualise geological datasets that are used for oil and gas exploration. I found both the results as well as the learning process very interesting in this case. It is very satisfying to see how hundreds of thousands of numeric values of datapoints, that are stored in Excel tables, are being translated to images and animation; it is also interesting to experiment with the subjective possibilities of data representation. Although data is supposed to be factual and objective, it can be visualised and presented in very many subjective ways (just think about creative accounting practices or creative use of data in election campaigns). In both the above-mentioned cases I would however use the term data-mining rather than extraction. In another part of the work, I use rapidly-edited image sequences that have been sourced from business-to-business advertising materials, also educational or training videos produced by corporate players in the oil and gas industry. This process can also be interpreted as data extraction, in terms of extracting and reappropriating media content, but with a clear artistic intention to hijack and subvert the initial goals of promoting the technology and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industries.
Vasylchenko: In my practice I am interested in investigating how time and temporalities are used in technologies today, how it is being commercialised, extracted, and weaponised. I am looking into temporalities that could be treated as data and as a resource subject to extraction by using observational technologies. Currently, I am developing a concept of the ‘Chronosphere’, where I will try to map out how modern temporalities are produced and how they coexist together. From zeptoseconds of satellite data production to deep time of ecological and nuclear trauma caused by war, Chronosphere will explore the interconnections between human politics and cultures; natural environments and artificial intelligence; synchronised micro and macro scales. The starting point for the Chronosphere project was my preparations for SNRT. For the past 15 years we have witnessed rapid developments in what is today called ‘New Space’ – the emergence of the private space industry, which brought AI-driven observation technologies to a planetary dimension. The physical scale of it is the territory around the Earth and worldwide interconnected ground stations. The territory around the planet has been colonised by satellite constellations – low-orbit based infrastructures are interconnected with often international centers on the ground. These space infrastructures are like a large mirror shield, a reflection you can access at any point in time and any location.
For example, one of the recent constellations I came across is called Aquila. It is a large-scale, virtual constellation of national and commercial surveillance satellites established by Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space’ (APSS). It is NATO’s new initiative to enhance space-based surveillance and intelligence for their alliance, which they claim will improve decision-making processes on the ground. Analysts and scholars have already been writing on this war as the first commercial space war, the first software-defined AI war, the first drone war, the first nuclear cyberwar. The war in Ukraine became a catalyst for emerging observation-oriented space technologies. Currently Ukraine is working, among others, with American and European AI-developers (like Scale Ai, Helsing) and non-governmental space agencies (like MAXAR and Capella) which are using satellite imagery, machine learning and accelerating processing times to deliver crucial intelligence to the frontline.
Sæther: As is evident also from your responses, your works are based on long-standing artistic research and emerge from exchanges and collaboration with scientific communities in natural sciences and geography. How, concretely, have these collaborations been carried out? And how do you see the relationship between artistic and scientific research; what is the role of artistic research when engaging with pressing and overarching issues such as climate change and planetary-scaled observation and surveillance infrastructures?
Virag: Central to my artistic research is an interest to challenge mainstream economic paradigms that the world is currently governed by. Through various media, I investigate alternative ideas of economy, such as ecological economy, post-growth, and degrowth; and create works that inspire new ways of thinking about our economies and societies of the world. I aim to envision and visualise possible scenarios of paradigm shifts and ideas about how we can create a sustainable economy and society. An important part of my research is communication and collaboration with researchers and institutions that actively contribute to challenge the paradigm ‘homo economicus’. For instance, I draw a lot of inspiration from initiatives such as Doughnut Economics Action Lab or Rethinking Economics (in Norway).
Vasylchenko: Engaging with scientists and researchers helps me to keep an overview of the (media) condition of the world, to question where and how new forms of power are formed, and what the current and near-future role of visual culture is in this situation. Until now, I have only positive experiences. Researchers and scholars are usually happy that someone from the ‘outside’ is interested in their work. Academic communities are maybe even tighter than art communities, so it is like breathing fresh air to work with people who dedicate their lives to a specific topic and share their knowledge with you. At the New Visions opening at Henie Onstad, my collaborator from the Groundstation.Space (based in the UK) flew to Norway to be present and to meet me in person. Also, my collaborators from the University of Oslo came. They were very supportive and fully trusted my process. Now, as I am working on the Chronosphere project, when my intuition is still in the process of taking the form of an actual artwork, the most exciting part is that I have no idea who I will meet on my way.
Outside of my artistic practice I am interested in following projects that are working with documentary videomaking, open-source intelligence, human rights, like for example Citizen Evidence Lab and the Center for Spatial Technologies. I find it hopeful to see how people my age from different disciplines self-organise and contribute to a future forensics. I believe that if more people had the urge to stand up for each other by doing whatever they can, something could change. Sometimes, even if everything around seems hopeless and you are suffering from uncertainty, it helps to know that you have a backup around you, a community.
Susanne Østby Sæther, PhD, is Senior Curator of Photography and New Media at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Norway. Sæther has been a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at IKKM, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and at Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo. She is currently a partner in the research projects PHOTOFAKE – Visual Disinformation, the Digital Economy and the Epistemology of the Camera Image and Visualising the Deep-Sea in the Age of Climate Change, both financed by the Norwegian Research Council, and a convener of the Media Seas of the High North Collaboratory, financed by the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities. Among her recent publications are Screen Space Reconfigured, edited with Synne T. Bull (Amsterdam University Press, 2020); Why Photography?, co-edited with Farazollahi, Tunge, and Bare (Skira Editore, 2020); and New Visions (Mousse Publishing, 2023). Her article ‘New Visions, New Ecologies: On Materialities and Atmospheres in Contemporary Photography’ is forthcoming in the journal Philosophy of Photography, Vol. 14, December 2023.
Crary, J. 24/7: Late capitalism and the ends of sleep. London: Verso, 2013.
Cornford, S. ‘Inverting resolution: accounting for the planetary cost of earth observation’, Journal of Visual Culture, Vol 21, No. 3, 2023: 1-18
Schuppli, S. Material witness: Media, forensics, evidence. Dijon: Université de Bourgogne, 2022.