"Antarctica is controlled by no government, and belongs to no country."
That factoid is one of many DJ Spooky, aka Paul Miller, includes in his newest multimedia work, Terra Nova: Symphonia Antarctica. It's a sly reference to the mutli-disciplinary artist himself, but it mainly underscores our estrangement from a mysterious and rapidly-shifting continent. With sound and video Miller collected in Antarctica, Terra Nova is a sensory-intense portrait of a mysterious place increasingly wracked by rising temperatures.
When we recently spoke to the sound artist and cultural theorist before the piece's Brooklyn premiere, he riffed on the meaning of "ice," the skepticism over climate change science, and the challenges and importance of making art about the environment.
Your piece combines a metaphorical approach (spooky music, melting ice) with the literal (many graphs of climate change data, depicted in 3d fly-overs). How do you consider the tension between the telling and the showing in environmental art? And how do you hope Terra Nova will impact our appreciation of Antarctica and climate change?
I think that artists have a role to play in the whole climate change dialog. We just need to be catalysts on one end of the spectrum, and on the other, we need to be condensers of information. I don't think that there's a division between art and information. Everything in the 21st century relates back to how we think about the role of information in our lives. To me, music isn't music, it's information.
The first symphony about Antarctica was done in 1948, and I guess you could say considering it's 2009 it's time to update the formula. I took a studio to Antarctica to get impressions and to think about metaphors -- ice core drilling, where they take thin slivers of ice to determine what was in the atmosphere millions of years ago, are also an inspiration. The basic idea is to create a tension between "metaphors" and actual documents - my project even ends with rare footage of a failed Soviet exploration team in the middle of Antarctica. I like stuff like that...
I'm guessing you don't want to just preach to the choir. There's much continuing skepticism over climate change, especially with this recent leak of climate scientists' emails...
If you tell an addict that doing the drug that makes them an addict is bad for them, they look at almost any possible answer to avoid the changes of behavior it would take to get rid of the addiction. Our civilization is doing the same thing. It's kind of like trying to change the course of the Titanic with about 3 feet of wiggle room. You might deflect the course of the ship just enough to avoid sinking, but you're still going to take a massive hit. The propaganda war about climate change appalls me because the right wing types that are in denial, are exactly like the addicts or zombies in a bad B-movie. It depresses me that so many people still believe them.
How did being there impact your own relationship to the environment?
Everything you do, in every way, it connected to so many of the issues that drive our modern economy. The computer I'm typing on was made in over 25 countries, the clothes I'm wearing were fabriacted and made in a process that parallels the same scenario. That's all "sampling" in a different context.
I guess you could say my Antarctic symphony is about climate change literacy. I know that's a boring term, and if I want to reach the masses, I should probably have some girls in bikinis dancing on icebergs, but hey... I wanted to try something different. Ice is a transformative substance - it's different in different contexts. I wanted to make music that would reflect that kind of "phase transition" between solid and liquid, fog and rain, ice and snow.
Ice has been a big symbol in hip hop, originally referring to coolness and now to diamonds. What links have you found between hip hop, remixing and environmental concerns? Remixing the land, remixing the source of all the sounds around us: the earth. I guess it's just part of thinking about the world as a document. Why not? I spent 4 weeks there trying to figure this out, and it's really a first step. I plan on going back over the next several years to different regions. Werner Herzog was shooting his film "Encounters at The End of The World" when I was there, so there's an uncanny dynamic at work.
Flip a remix of Grandmaster Flash's classic Adventures on the Wheels of Steel and you get the same thing: a journey into sound. I love seeing how two radically different people like me and Herzog could land on the same topic, but even more how to create a dialog to get kids to think about the environment of the "the city" as being tied into the planet as a whole. Ice is my palette for this project - think about how many black people call themselves "Ice Cube, Ice-T, Soul on Ice, Iceberg Slim etc" or bling bling is about "ice".
The social metaphors are bizarre, and that's what happens when you have an undefined space - it's a metaphor. My symphony is about making that metaphor become a passion. I guess if you look at history, the term "collage" is based on the idea of gluing things together -- it could be welding, it could be taking a web page and doing the same thing. The painters George Braque and Picasso are supposedly the people who coined the term, but you never know. Antarctica is a blank space, so we all project our ideas about it in one way or another. So many countries have tried to claim the idea, that the idea of Antarctica is a collage of imperialism, colonialism, Utopianism, et cetera. I like to think of it as a kaleidoscopic situation. And that's what my piece is about.
Terra Nova: Symphonia Antarctica recently premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On December 10, DJ Spooky will discuss that work and his new album The Secret Song at the Soho Apple Store in New York. Terra Nova next appears on February 25th in St. Polten, Austria.
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