Brain Pickings

Book of Ice: DJ Spooky’s Cross-Disciplinary Antarctica Project

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What emancipated penguins have to do with digital archives, propaganda art and the future of remix culture.

Antarctica is a strange kind of no man’s land — a territory owned by no single country, with no government, formally uninhabited and hardy inhabitable, and yet of endless allure to researchers, explorers, artists and curious minds from all over the world. It’s also the closest thing we have to a geological clock, its ice sheath reflecting the transformation of our atmosphere and climate with striking precision. In 2007, fascinated by the enigmatic continent’s peculiarities, artist, thinker and musician Paul D. Miller — whose investigation of remix culture and collaborative creation you might recall — traveled to Antarctica to shoot a film about the sound of ice. That was the start of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica — a larger multimedia project aiming to capture a dynamic portrait of this rapidly changing microcosm. The project’s latest incarnation, The Book of Ice, arrives this month — a poignant reflection on humanity’s relationship with the frozen neverland and climate change at large, by way of poetic visual and textual meditations ranging from archival images of historic exploration on the continent (including these rare photos of the first Australian expedition in 1911) to maps to timelines to hypothetical propaganda art for an imaginary Antarctica liberation movement.

Perhaps most compellingly, the project is a living testament to cross-disciplinary creativity, touching on disciplines as diverse as history, information visualization, music composition, propaganda art, media theory and more, with influences as varied as Emory Douglas, Rodchenko, Mirko Illic and Alex Steinweiss.

Today, I sit down with DJ Spooky to chat about the creative impetus behind the project, its most compelling insights, and the longer-term vision for Antarctica’s future.

q1

How did the idea for The Book of Ice, and the larger project to which it belongs, first emerge?

The Book of Ice started as graphic design music scores taken from my Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica project. I wanted to fine-tune the book as an extension of some of my obsessions with climate change. The first soundtrack and symphony written about Antarctica was by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1948, but other composers — Handel’s 1717 AD composition entitled simply “Water Music” or John Luther Adams Arctic compositions, or even more close to home John Cage’s 1936 first composition for turntables “Imaginary Landscape,” Charles Ives “Central Park in The Dark,” or Cornelius Cardew’s graphic design scores — are all influences.

I guess you could say The Book of Ice is an inter-connected, hyper-expandable/scalable museum/gallery show, book, and symphony. Simple!

q2

Antarctica – a place that no one owns, with no government or law, yet belonging to everyone – seems to be a beautiful metaphor for remix culture. Given your background, was this in any way part of the allure? How did you incorporate your work on and beliefs about remix culture into the Antarctica project?

I wanted to show the Utopian/Dystopian aspects of how graphic design interacts with geopolitics and propaganda. Me, Shep Fairey (an old friend) and Steve Heller spoke at Phaidon books a little while ago about this, from the beginnings of “The War on Terror” you can go back to stuff like DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and other texts that give people a feigned sense of oppression. My Antarctica remix project would have to include how people despoil the planet, our “commons” and what if people started to say everyone has a right to clean air and water, to having food untainted by mercury or nuclear isotopes?

q3

What has been the most startling, unexpected insight that emerged for the creative process on the project?

I guess I always naively think that if you put information in front of people, they’ll get it. They don’t. This project is Utopian in that it seems like the bleedingly obvious fact that our species might not get out of this century in too good condition is being ignored. Ice sheets are melting. Water is scarce. Global weather patterns are the most complex phenomena we’ve encountered.

Adam Smith wrote, ‘all money is a matter of belief.’ The realm of the possible is always greater than the realm of the real. I try to navigate between the two: that’s art.

q4

Can, and should, Antarctica liberate itself from the rest of the world? If so, how?

The title for the Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica comes from a science fiction book of the same title by John Calvin Batchelor. OK: nation state rises from the ruins of world geopolitics. Check. Environmental collapse, even though we know we can do better and avoid it. Check. Dumb politicians run all major nation states into the ground. Check. It’s great material for propaganda prints, but it could just as easily be a video game like Vice City or Halo. People like to have ‘narrative,’ so I thought, let’s give them something different. It would be cool to have Antarctica as strictly a “commons.”

q5

What’s next for the project, and for you as an artist and explorer?

Part 2 to the The Book of Ice / Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica goes in two different directions. I’m setting up a contemporary art center in the South Pacific in the island nation of Vanuatu.

And I’m writing a group of compositions about the North Pole. Both are in development now. One of the first media spoofs of the 20th century was when Frederick A. Cook, a Brooklyn milkman who, made a film that claimed he was the first person to discover the North Pole and a fake story got put on the front of every major newspaper. There’s something very Orson Welles to that idea. I found the film, remixed it as a component of the Antarctica project DVD. You can see all of this and the material used to generate the compositions as extensions of my obsession with sampling. It’s just taken me a little further into the realm of info-aesthetics.

After all, I can basically just say music for me isn’t just music. It’s information.

The Book of Ice comes from Mark Batty Publisher and is the kind of cross-disciplinary gem we love to love.

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