Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

olafur eliasson and thomas demand


two major contemporary artists discuss re-engineering the state of the planet and designing new civic systems and aesthetics for the immediate future 


THOMAS DEMAND — Why do you think so many artists are obsessed with the universe and the stars: cosmic origins, space, and time? Is it because it’s the final frontier?
OLAFUR ELIASSON — We should start with the same question, but slightly wider: why do the editors of Purple want to make an issue about the cosmos?

THOMAS DEMAND — Because the most relevant topic right now is that the Earth is basically on the brink of collapsing.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — I see. So, the cosmos question comes out of…

THOMAS DEMAND — Concerns about climate change. The greater idea of, “Are we aware of what scale our life right now has?” I don’t think it’s about the final frontier. As an artist, you try to get a distance between yourself and your own surroundings.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — I agree. But I also ask because there’s a bit of “cosmos” out there that’s used more in an escapist way, and to drift into the cosmos could also be, like, “Oh [sighs], finally an area that’s not so difficult.”

THOMAS DEMAND — Twenty years ago, you would say, “There’s no other life out there imaginable, or likely.” Now, everybody knows that it’s very likely there’s life out there. And at the same time, you realize that this globe is probably not going to survive as a friendly environment. Either human beings are able to escape and find another planet, or they’ll have to face the problems on Earth. Remember Earthrise, the first photograph taken of the Earth from Apollo 8? That changed the whole idea of the world.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — I agree. And I was inspired by that for a while, but that’s not actually how we see the world.

THOMAS DEMAND — That’s why it was such a watershed — that it was a photograph, and not a painting, a drawing…
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Yeah, but we then realized we’re not on the moon. And the whole idea of the 300 to 600 people who’re likely to move to Mars: I’m interested in the fact that 600 people will remain relatively human. And all the rest of us are going to develop webbed fingers and essentially be dolphinized or fishified. So, there’ll be a period where we’ll be swimming in the waters again, and I like this idea that the human species is probably going to divide itself into a few tracts. That’s interesting because what it shows is fundamentally that the climate battle is a class battle. Because we’re in the process of not just becoming interspecies, but also preparing ourselves to be in the water again… or in whatever species condition we might have.

THOMAS DEMAND — But that’s really escapism.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — The species thing?

THOMAS DEMAND — Yeah, that you imagine yourself as a dolphin. Because that’s not helping the situation. Everybody knows what has to be done. It’s just such a big task that nobody wants to take it on. And these 600 people could totally do it. If Amazon wouldn’t use fossil fuel to get its packages out there, that’d make a huge difference. If Elon Musk refused to take a plane to go to his business meetings, that’d make a huge difference. Not only the symbolic, but also the real actions of these 600 people would make a huge difference.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Yeah, but I was addressing this macro scale, if we talk about a million years. And you’re probably right — the hostility of any life will be of such a nature that we don’t have time to become a dolphin, anyway. But what does one then do, and how does one do it? The behavior you were talking about is about changing, reconsidering, re-engineering, rethinking, and dis-inventing. And if we look at the Anthropocene epoch, we could just say there are five groups. The first group is the deniers, like Trump: “No,” they say, “it doesn’t exist.” The second is the opportunists, who think, “We’ll just invent our way out of this crisis.” When humans needed to move faster, they invented the airplane. So, there’s a lot of neoliberal capitalism and also a lot of super-optimistic scientists who say, “Humankind eventually will sort this, and then it’s all done.” Then there’s the third group, which is proposing to move back into caves: stop flying, no meat, go back to our roots. There’s a fourth group, which is dystopian — the dystopian camp is just giving up. They’re currently designing the most comfortable human exit on this planet, and how do we do it without ruining the plants and animals. Then the fifth group, which is what I wanted to talk about, has this notion of re-engineering the state of the planet, changing behavior, creating new civic systems. And these, I find, are very interesting. And they are trying to find out: what does that leave us? What is it that we need to re-engineer? What kind of aesthetics? What type of politics? How are we going to live together? What is “we-ness”? Does “we-ness” include reconsidering the principle of what defines humans? After World War II, the United Nations defined the fundamental human rights. That was a very Anthropocene perspective — no rights were given to animals, to the climate, to the plants, or to biology as such. No GMO [genetically modified organism] rules were given. And nobody’s really thought about revisiting these fundamental rights.

THOMAS DEMAND — Yeah, but at the moment, you’re just setting up another rule book — it’s a pipe dream. But if you think of medicine, human beings live to be around 80 years old now. In the 1940s, people lived to about 60. In the 1910s, it was, like, 50. There’s progress — the plague is no longer around, malaria is kind of extinct — supported by scientific advances and research. And if you had Nike and Adidas and a couple of other big companies deciding to take only renewable, recyclable textiles, instead of new plastics all the time, that could make a huge difference. And then the smaller ones would come along. At the moment, it’s the small ones who’re trying to look at the materials used, and there’s no scaling. But the little things, they’re trying to change, and it’s a very tough struggle. So, it’s very clear how it could be done. It just needs to be done and has to be adopted by the corporations — on a bigger scale. It’s also about taxation — there’s a huge discussion right now. I’m pretty optimistic that, besides some jerks and ignorant people, the human race can actually do it.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — I’m also hopeful.

THOMAS DEMAND — And if you think of the water quality in the past 100 years, it’s gotten so much better. And that’s because we realized, “Oh, there’s a problem.”
OLAFUR ELIASSON — You can say, like Clinton always did, “The headlines sound catastrophic, but the trends are actually not so bad.” Less poverty, more education, health is improving. And equality and gender equality, and so on — lots of great news. But it’s still clear that there’s a lot of risk and a lack of evident progress on challenging things, such as the climate. Especially with the deadline for when we have to achieve a certain thing — it’s gone from 100 to 50 to 30 years, and now it’s down to about 12 years to achieve a certain goal, which seems so soon, considering that we’ll reach the “point of no return,” the tipping point. That means that a whole new approach is obviously going to happen. So, this question of the fundamental rights — one approach would be to re-evaluate what right we humans have. And is there a legislative potential for actually turning such principles into action and saying, “Well, animals have economic rights, too,” as many people are exploring? That’s a big topic that’s also funny and interesting, and also inspiring. But once it becomes legislation, it gets implemented. And this is why the rivers are so clean. It’s not just clean from a bottom-up, grassroots-driven motivation. It was governments and multilateral agreements that were put into force, and then the companies and the governments that were polluting the rivers were simply made to change.

THOMAS DEMAND — But the ideal infrastructure was different 100 years ago, and it would be paid by the government. Everything we have now is infrastructure … that gets more and more privatized or commercialized.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — The interesting thing is, on a horizontal line, you have the different sectors: the public sector, the government; the private sector, the big companies like the ones you mentioned; then we have the greater civil society, and within that we have the cultural sector, where you and I are. There’s an overlap between the cultural sector and this magazine, for instance. This magazine is also rooted — to a larger extent, actually — in the private sector. But there’s a civic interest in all of that. But on a vertical line, you could say there are the macro things: the big companies and the leaders. What they do is going to be much more impactful than what we — you and me, in our houses — can do at the micro level. So, there’s this traditional polarization between macro and micro. And we’ve seen in the past 10 years that there’s a much stronger synergy, and sadly the heads of state, or the politicians for that matter, aren’t going to go first. They’re going to become green once the micro creates a green movement. We always hope the politicians will actually take leadership, but the leadership is on the periphery, in the micro and in the civil societies. Where the culture sector is also — not to be too self-crediting. But I do think we’re a lot more progressive than the politicians. So, it’s interesting to explore: how do we take the micro responsibility to heart in such a way that we also see ourselves as a part of a civic movement, and thus also part of a macro system? One could also say that we are, in our microscopic sense, macro as well. And the macro of the public sector will follow us. It’ll also hopefully invest in educating us, to make us stronger. So, there’re a lot of dynamic elements to it. And in some of the big companies, we see more progress in the private sector than in the public sector. The legislative work is often behind the leadership of the private sector. You have private companies doing things now — not all of them and not enough, of course, but you do see companies doing things that are not even law yet. They’re seeing the urgency. So, in terms of what we do individually, it also comes down to what it means to make art, and how we go about making it. It doesn’t work if the way we make the art and the topic itself are a huge contradiction. But also, where do we show the art? And being micro-responsible people, we also need to talk to the institutions about whether there’s synchronization, or symmetry at least, between what we believe in and how the topics are dealt with in the work. It doesn’t work if institutions are contradicting the methodology and the content that we believe in. And this is interesting because that’s how art has always been — throughout modern history. And that’s why I was asking, “What does this magazine do?” And they seem to throw a topic on the table that’s relevant, and these are the kinds of questions I think we should be asking everywhere: how can we, and in what way, be responsible for our content, form, and action?

THOMAS DEMAND — Mm. If somebody tells you, “We’re doing a group show about the cosmos,” are there any works of yours that you’d propose?
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Several, yes. I was trying to work on sandpaper — I was a little bit inspired by you, so I thought I should mention that.

OLAFUR ELIASSON — And in a dark room, I’d turn this sandpaper into wallpaper. With a little bit of light, it looks like you’re looking at the stars or background radiation. And as you move, they twinkle a little bit — very nicely. And so I thought, “That’s kind of sweet.” And then, of course, when you come up close, maybe you even scratch your elbow on it, and you’ll start bleeding. And it’s the cosmology of sanding you down into granular skin particles on the floor. That was a very didactic version, but obviously I’m most inspired by the ability you have to render any topic by virtue of a surface behind which there’s no material. If we could do something about cosmology, it would be about the fact that maybe the way we talk about and question and make models of cosmology is what makes it interesting to me — because essentially it’s the principle of not just how we understand the universe and the world around us, but also how we understand ourselves in the context of it.

THOMAS DEMAND — Yeah, that’s exactly why I think that looking at the stars as an artist brings out an artistic impulse. Because you just have to define your place in comparison to the big out there.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Like with Earthrise.

THOMAS DEMAND — No, like the navigation of a ship — you just sit there and look up, and somehow that puts everything in a different perspective. That, and looking at your father, mother, or another face. Those are probably the two core ingredients for an artistic reaction, no? But on the other hand, did you see the photograph of the black hole?

THOMAS DEMAND — Did that trigger anything?
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Well, I was curious that it actually did look a lot like the black hole in Interstellar. And the black hole was even better in Claire Denis’s film High Life.

THOMAS DEMAND — Didn’t you design the black hole for that?
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Well, I designed a scene that’s supposedly taking place very close to, or on the edge of, a sweet spot where you can get caught — where the centrifugal force and the gravitational pull into the black hole are in equilibrium, and you can stay on the edge, spinning around. 

THOMAS DEMAND — But did it make a difference whether you see this as a photograph, or do you have it in your imagination — how it looks, that it exists?
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Because I wasn’t hesitant about it existing, I was impressed that finally somebody got the camera set up to actually bloody photograph it — it’s about time. I was interested that it was a massive media event, and everybody put the photo on their Instagram account and so on.

THOMAS DEMAND — But there’s no color there. They gave it a color to make it look like something. They made it orange.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Yeah. Like it’s eating suns.

THOMAS DEMAND — No, because I guess they associate it with fire or heat. I don’t know what it is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have a color.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — No, I think it’s very cold, actually. But are you saying it was fake?

THOMAS DEMAND — No, no, no. But it’s like hyper-microscopic photographs: you have to give them a color. A bacterium doesn’t have a color — you always do that to visualize it. So, it’s a visualization of something that they have reason to believe is actually a photograph of it, in terms of light being on an emulsion. But I think the emulsion is the more interesting thing. For me, the emulsion is like the carrier, which actually reacts to the light particles going onto it. And the emulsion, in this case, is human curiosity being sent out there because we want to see this as a picture; otherwise, we don’t believe it. In terms of cosmology, we need to have it as a picture; otherwise, we can’t break it down. It’s too big. It’s theoretical. We know about this, but once we see a picture — once we see a picture of the Earth — we get a feeling for cosmology: it’s fragile, blue, beautiful, whatever… But we can attach a label to it that makes it understandable. But without a picture, we can’t. And that brings the art back into the thing.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — It’s interesting, yeah. I think the Earthrise you mentioned — the photo from the moon of the Earth, where it rose above the moon’s horizon — was the last Galilean photo ever made, and the Galilean era was over. Natural science was no longer disconnected from social science. This was the beginning of what we’re in now. And I wonder whether, as a verification of a concept, it doesn’t have the same authority anymore. Just because you see it in a picture doesn’t mean anything. And in a way, your work is also about that: the picture doesn’t do justice or give authority to the event itself — there’s a disconnect.

THOMAS DEMAND — Yeah, “I saw it with my own eyes…”
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Exactly, yeah — dismissable.

THOMAS DEMAND — So, science, the unknown, the cosmos — if you still stick to the human idea of making a picture, that’d mean that you make a picture of the unknown. Is that playing a role in your work? You’re doing a lot of things that make visible things that you can’t otherwise see, no?
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Yeah, but maybe — and this is just a thought experiment — a work of art is an unthought thought, something we’ve not thought yet but will in the future. It’s sent back to us from the future, and we articulate it now. And if we give it reason, we bring various kinds of sciences into it and make it, then that work of art lives for a long time — maybe a week, but maybe 20 years — and at some point, it catches up with the moment in which this is even thinkable. And in that sense, it’s also an opportunity for us to place ourselves in the future. Imagine that you’re sitting 10 years from now, looking back at what you were talking about, what you were doing, how you were living, how you were conducting your daily life, and then ask yourself, “What advice would you, 10 years from now, give yourself?” And art for me is something like that advice. It gives us a navigational opportunity, like looking at the stars. Asking yourself: “Where am I going tomorrow? What’s the gravity of right now? To what extent am I present in a responsible way in my little ecosystem of choices?” In a very pragmatic way, this is how I see it. Art hosts the opportunity for you to reconsider how you do things. And there’s more potential as a critical force right now to use art as a re-engineering of systems than in many other fields. I’m not saying art is the only one. But the cultural sector offers a lot of potential in terms of critical re-evaluation. So, when I talk about art and making the invisible visible, of seeing things that are otherwise hard to grasp, touching things that are untouchable, it’s for me not necessarily about the future, but to reconsider or re-evaluate — to reinvent or dis-invent — what we’re working on.

THOMAS DEMAND — But also “invented.” You can leave out the “re-” because it’s actually looking forward and not backward.
OLAFUR ELIASSON — Yeah. I’m working on this exhibition at the Tate Modern, and we discussed: “Are we going back in time to visit the works, which were made 20 years ago? Or are we staying where we are, and these works have been traveling 20 years to meet up with us where we are now?” Which is the truth. Even though art history seems to still be so regressive that it suggests a certain quality of traveling back in time, the past, just like the future, is relative to where we stand now. We’re able to explore the present. And, depending on what we find out, the past is relative, too. It’s not as relative as the future because there are certain things we can’t change, but we can change how we perceive, how we write the history books, and with what authority we conduct our memory. And, in that sense, a work of art always stays now. If anything, it’s not from the past — it’s more likely to suggest that it’s from the future, and it carries with it an opportunity that one shouldn’t miss out on.




[Table of contents]

The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

Table of contents

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