in discussion with CYRILL GUTSCH
all artwork by DOUG AITKEN
each island is a unique form of ecosystem, a laboratory for observing the confrontation of humans with nature. it’s also an opportunity to reinvent everything from scratch. california artist doug aitken and parley for the oceans founder cyrill gutsch discuss islands as a model for environmental and artistic possibilities.
DOUG AITKEN — Let’s talk about the concept of the island.
CYRILL GUTSCH — An island, for me, is the smallest form of a human ecosystem, the confrontation of humans with nature. You have to coexist, you’re surrounded, and you’re obviously a visitor. That’s an experience you don’t normally have, living on big stretches of land. We don’t often see that the oceans are bigger than us. It’s hard to conceive that there is life surrounding us in the oceans when you don’t see it in front of you. I feel an island can be a provocation for us to redefine the way we’re living. You have to organize yourself quite well. If you’re going to an uninhabited island, you’re starting from scratch. You have to think about the most basic things. Where’s the electricity coming from? Where does the water come from? Where’s the sewage going to? An island allows you to invent everything from scratch and reinvent the idea of living on this planet and with nature.
DOUG AITKEN — Do you view the concept of an island as a case study — an isolated space with a natural ecosystem, initially free of humans?
CYRILL GUTSCH — Yes. It’s like traveling into outer space. I don’t see a big difference between the idea of going to another planet and arriving on an uninhabited island because you pretty much have to bring everything with you. You don’t want to destroy it. It makes you want to be careful and to be open to what you find. You don’t want to go and just dominate a place like an island, especially one that’s uninhabited. You want to explore it first, get to know it, discover it. On an island, you’re aware of the limitations: there is not endless land or an endless number of animals. There’s not an abundance that you otherwise feel in other parts of the planet. There is a limitation to everything. You have to be aware and smart with your resources, and also take care of what you leave behind and how you deal with your traces. I find that it’s like looking in a mirror. You’re totally confronted with what you’re doing.
DOUG AITKEN — I think the idea of an island is provocative. We often see the island as a metaphor for a blank screen, an empty canvas, a foreign and exotic space, which is radically different from the lives we occupy. There’s this mythology around the concept of the island that has been present throughout the history of humankind. It’s often seen as mysterious and unattainable — a destination you have not visited or a place undiscovered. There’s a power and magnetism in the idea of the uninhabited island that exists in our subconscious. I wonder how much of that idea is related to the idea that we actually see ourselves as islands. Do we see ourselves as each and every single person moving through space, separate from our surroundings? Which is very similar to how we describe an island.
CYRILL GUTSCH — Yes. There’s also a society concept. Islanders are, in some ways, very different from people who live on the mainland. On an island, you can’t really hide anything: people see everything, speak about everything. And I feel that it’s a very different social concept. There’s an interesting clash between the perspectives of people who come from an island and people who visit an island. Many of the people living on small islands in developing states don’t even know anything about the oceans. Due to customs and superstitions, the ocean can be off-limits or even feared. It’s a problem for them because it can create barriers between foreign places and their own land. Similarly, it isn’t easy to go to another island and visit friends and family. They need a boat, it has to be the right weather — all of these things can become obstacles. On the other hand, when tourists visit, the island is viewed as this paradise with unlimited opportunities. You go diving and stay in expensive hotels. When Parley for the Oceans arrived in countries like the Maldives, the mission was to bring all the local families to the water and teach them to swim, snorkel, and dive — to discover that their own island-nation is not just the land above the water, but also includes all the mountains and beautiful areas beneath the ocean. What’s below the ocean surface often says more about an island-nation than the sand and the palm trees. Once the people who live on islands are able to discover this magic, they also change their relationship toward the ocean. They’re suddenly getting curious, and in some cases, we even see deep relationships between sea life and inhabitants. For example, a manta ray would always come back when this one child would go and jump into the ocean. After years and years of taking photos, the family suddenly realized that it was always the same manta ray that came to see their child. I think there’s a lot of opportunity because it’s a border between the underwater world and our world of dust-walkers. And it’s a very fine border we can easily cross — and discover a new relationship between mankind and sea life.
CYRILL GUTSCH — The first time you went to an island with Parley for the Oceans, it was to Catalina [off the coast of Los Angeles], for the creation of Underwater Pavilions. Can you explain this installation a bit?
DOUG AITKEN — The Underwater Pavilions is an installation of underwater artworks: three sculptural forms that float below the surface of the ocean. These are living artworks that the ocean moves and circulates through, and the viewer is invited to go under the ocean surface to explore them. Once you’re swimming, you discover these reflective mirrored sculptures. They’re very surreal and hallucinatory. And you also find yourself in this landscape where there’s a complete democracy between sea life and yourself as a viewer. I think that’s one of the things that’s very powerful about that experience.
CYRILL GUTSCH — So, the first pieces of the installation were made close to your studio in Los Angeles?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. It was an incredible challenge because when you think of this idea of what is art, in general art is something that is made to never change. When it leaves the artist’s studio, it’s meant to never be adjusted or altered. In this situation, we’re trying to create an artwork that can be under the ocean, where there’s pressure and movement, there are swells, and at times it’s violent. And you ask yourself: how can you create an artwork that will not be annihilated? How can it withstand the elements? And suddenly, there’s a completely different set of criteria for how the artwork needs to live. I think that question is fascinating. We found ourselves in collaboration with deep-ocean submarine fabricators, with so many different specialists. But I think that, for them, it was really a celebration. It was an incredible experience because they could step outside of the norm and find themselves engaged in something that was more experiential.
CYRILL GUTSCH — When you put these artworks out there, and you know that they’re there, and you’ve lost control over them, is it exciting or frightening? How did you feel about that?
DOUG AITKEN — I think it’s both. You have a fear of letting go, but with that, you also have this sense of liberation. And I was so fascinated by this project and the idea that we could create this installation that could actually start living and creating its own experiences. Creating this project and collaborating with Parley for the Oceans, an ecological, environmental group, allowed the artwork to cross over in very unique ways, where it was simultaneously an artwork that a viewer could experience, but also a more community-based project that could create dialogues, shared moments, and workshops, and connect different people, voices, and interests. Seeing that come together on an international scale was really quite moving.
CYRILL GUTSCH — I find that the Underwater Pavilions is like this magnifying glass that allows us to zoom in and not be caught by how we think the oceans are, how we think nature is, but really discovering, opening our eyes, and developing an individual relationship to it.
DOUG AITKEN — What you said just completely sums it up. When we look at something immense like a huge sprawling forest, a jungle, the Amazon, or an ocean, we see something that to us, on a sensory level, is almost anonymous. It’s almost an endless pattern, and the pattern appears to repeat and repeat. But the beauty is actually in the variety and difference. The beauty is in the details and how every tree is unique. And that’s where we find meaning. I think that one of the issues with the ocean right now is the ocean is obviously under siege in terms of its treatment, and we, as a society, need to have a greater connection and understanding of it. Can you tell us about some of your future projects on islands?
CYRILL GUTSCH — Islands always play a big role at Parley. Our first island project was working with the Maldives. And when we first went there, we met Shaahina Ali and her family, who started Parley in the Maldives. Together, we worked with the government and island communities to form a nationwide network, which developed at rapid speed. We have founded over 100 collaborations in the Maldives alone. The most recent was when the president of the Maldives signed a contract and became a member-state of Parley — and committed to becoming the first future island-nation of Parley. That focuses on improving their relationship with materials like plastic, or energy concepts like fossil fuel, and even protecting the waters against illegal fishing and poaching.
DOUG AITKEN — Let’s talk about your ideas for the Maldives, Parley Station One.
CYRILL GUTSCH — The idea of Parley Station One is to create an exploration and collaboration space, to have artists, scientists, and residents connect — groups of people coming to an “ocean school” to explore nature, going to dive and surf, but also being exposed to important knowledge by speakers who share their knowledge and perspectives, people like yourself. You were part of that multiple times.
DOUG AITKEN — One of the things that’s interesting about your vision for Parley is to create a station on an uninhabited island in the southern Maldives. You’re looking to bring together oceanographers, ecologists, and people who are working in culture and the arts, and use this space for a circulation of ideas. I think that’s incredibly unique. The area in the southern Maldives is very remote, and the island you’re looking at is small and lush and surrounded by an ultramarine ocean. And you’re looking at creating something that is utopian, in a certain way, but also research-based and made to share with the local community. Can you talk a little bit more about it?
CYRILL GUTSCH — Yes, I see a full-blown ecosystem, where the atoll becomes a big collaboration space and works pretty much off the grid, where we are also coming up with new energy systems and saying: “Why would we burn fossil fuel there? Why wouldn’t we use wave power or biogas or solar energy? Why wouldn’t we turn this island and other islands surrounding it with a green experiment of living in the future, living with the sea in a nonharmful way?” I think that’s the big vision. And inviting people in to participate, to contribute, to bring their technologies, art, and ideas, to bring their friends — and use that as a blueprint because the beauty of these islands is that not many people live there. There’s not much infrastructure. You can actually build it all from scratch, and you just have to cut out this dependency of importing everything. Creating independent systems that work there and using the inflow of tourists who are often very influential because they can afford to stay in hotels and resorts and go diving — to use them as messengers. In a way, islands and island-nations, for me, are pilot projects of how life on this planet can be in the future.
DOUG AITKEN — I think that’s very interesting. One of your interests has always been the idea of using design as a tool for ecology. Like bio-fabrication and disrupting traditional forms of architectural and design production, and looking at green systems and systems that have very little carbon footprint or that are using recycled and reclaimed materials.
CYRILL GUTSCH — The big environmental issues that we’re facing today are all based on the way we’re making things, the way we’re consuming, the way we’re dealing with resources. And it’s a very old concept. It’s too destructive. It worked with a million people, a billion people, but it doesn’t work with, like, seven or eight billion people. There are just not enough resources. I think we’re stuck in an old idea of material science, where it was all based on taking something from nature that we feel there is a total abundance of, and chopping it down to create building blocks that we can use for our lives. And instead of doing that, I think we should just learn from nature, unlock nature, and make these things with the smallest of creatures — be it algae or yeast, be it a mammalian or a fungus. And I feel that a place like the Maldives, for example, an island-nation in general, is a perfect showcase to build a place at the end of the world that is nonintrusive, that caters for itself, that can create its own energy and turn everything that it produces back into nutrition value. We urgently need these very comprehensive experiments that can become blueprints for a larger-scale change.
DOUG AITKEN — We’ve had a conversation about creating an installation on a disappearing island in the Maldives.
CYRILL GUTSCH — Yes. Now, I want to ask you: how did you feel when we went to see that submerged island in the Maldives and jumped out of the boat? What was your first impression?
DOUG AITKEN — This was an atoll in the southern Maldives, and when we approached it, you could barely see it on the horizon. The tide was rising, and the island was starting to be submerged under water. And you had to squint your eyes to see it as our boat got closer, and you could only just make out the contours of this reef, of this small island. I thought it was fascinating that you had this kind of mirage, this Fata Morgana — that every day, with the tide rising and lowering, the island would reveal itself and vanish again. We spoke about this idea of creating an artwork and installation there, creating a place where viewers could go. They could be in the shade on a structure. This structure would be half above water, half below, and there would be a staircase. And the staircase would take you through the architecture and gently lead you under the ocean surface, and you would step off and swim off these underwater cliffs and through our floating underwater installations. As we started to really talk about this idea, and it became real, and it was no longer a discussion, my studio did a tremendous amount of research, and we found the idea of building to be so abusive in these remote locations, in terms of the carbon footprint. So, we started to investigate different strategies. For example, could we 3-D print the building blocks for this artwork on a neighboring island? Could we work with the local islanders? Can we create an educational workshop to use new materials in different ways? So that this project is not culturally imported and inserted into a landscape, but instead is a huge collaboration, an ecosystem of people, values, education, and awareness, all brought together to create this project. And the project is designed so that the part of it under the ocean can begin to grow over time. Sea life can claim it. It can start growing until it’s transformed, almost like a living planet. The project that we’re developing in the Maldives is a powerful project. And I say that in a very selfless way. I feel like the project itself has taken on its own life. And the issues that we’re confronted with are fascinating. How can we make something that is built within a six-mile radius of where it exists, so we’re not flying materials across the world and not polluting waste and by-products? So, I think that what you’re talking about — this idea that we’re all responsible for what we create and how we create it, and that the materials we choose can have power and strengths equal to the idea itself — is very profound.
CYRILL GUTSCH — It’s a huge opportunity for island-states. The truth is that they often heavily depend on fishing and tourism, but are not often provoked to play a role when it comes to science and engineering. I think what we can do with that project is to help open their minds, in the same way we changed their perspectives of the ocean by getting them all to see their water from beneath.
DOUG AITKEN — The idea is to create a system that can flourish autonomously, without that reliance on export and import. There’s a beauty to that. Cyrill, you come at things almost through the idea of subversive design — you are always looking for other solutions for how things are built and constructed. Parley Station One in the Maldives is such a visionary project — having this case-study place to workshop these ideas of ecological production, using it as a research station for coral, which has been bleached by ocean warming, or as a way to bridge culture to science and ecology. The things that we’re talking about all seem to connect back to this idea of creating a larger flow, moving away from a society of siloing, separation, and segregation. And looking at the idea that if we can have more crossovers between all of these mediums, all of these fields, then we can have a richer environment, but also richer lives as individuals.
[Table of contents]
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