Engraved Landscapes: In Conversation With Vanessa Opoku

COTVN Interview #3

07 | 01 | 20

Interview conducted by: Michelle Geraerts | Edited by: Rhian Morris 

From 9 to 13 September 2019, the Cartographies of the Vanishing Now Lab took place in Amsterdam. This five-day art-science laboratory investigated how sensory art, cartographic design and speculative storytelling can contribute to a better understanding of a new unstable world under the influence of climate change. More than 40 makers and thinkers – artists, designers, scientists, creative coders, performers, scholars and speculative writers – came together to work on new knowledge development and artistic prototypes. The Lab set out to capture the impact of the growing ecological instability on the way we organise and model our modern world, trace the forces behind environmental change and shift perspectives to relate differently to our past, present and possible futures. This is the fourth interview in a series of COTVN interviews and essays. 


Coming from a gaming background, Vanessa Opoku spent most of her teen years driving cars through virtual landscapes and being fascinated by the perception of reality that open-world games provided. Today, the possibilities of documenting and conserving objects, scenes and people with photography, film and 3D scanning is always connected to the question of remembrance, the future and how society deals with questions of agency. Within her artistic work, Vanessa Opoku explores the ways we can make radical changes in the perception of our world, reality and all living beings in it, finding alliances between art, research and technology. Vanessa Opoku lives and works in Berlin, Germany, and is currently a student at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig. 

In an interview, we spoke with her about art and technology in the context of ecological destruction, her interest in landscape architecture, and the role of the nonhuman. 


COTVN invites many different practitioners and thinkers to join in, mapping earthly realities. Every participant and guest speaker has a different connection to the project’s scope. How do you relate to COTVN? 

VO: It’s the hardest question to answer right now, because there is so much going on in the lab and also my idea of how I relate to this lab is always changing. With every conversation I have, every talk that I listen to, everything that I try out, my ideas change. Though I always work with landscape and everything that surrounds us. Especially the subject of landscaping. Landscape architecture is always there, in the parks, the streets, city planning. It really affects us and the world and the climate. Shaping the landscape is the most interesting topic to me. 


What is the role of art in times of ecological crisis? 

VO: Two days ago we talked about strategic ignorance and why it is so hard to react to crisis. I think that art to me is really one of the answers. In our minds the problem [climate change] is in the future, it’s distant and really hard to relate to. The other thing is that it can be an invisible problem. In many places its visible but for example here in Amsterdam, most of the time, its invisible; you don’t go out in the street and see the C02. I feel that art can embody something and can create a physical experience. I don’t mean that [art] should illustrate, that’s not my way to work. I’m more interested in translating things, so we can make it more understandable for people or just for myself. In my artistic research I learn, I am testing things out to make it more understandable. If it’s doing something with me maybe it does something with other people so I want to share it. 


There is a sense of urgency driving the lab; we live amidst ecological devastation, which is affected by and affects many of our social, political, economic affairs. Facing the Anthropocene can be quite shocking, what comes after the shock? 

VO: What I think has to happen after the shock is that we as human beings have to radically rethink the world and our understanding of it. We have to understand what nature is…I don’t like to use the term nature so much because it’s everything and nothing, and ultimately nature doesn’t really care about us. I think we have to understand that everything that surrounds us is landscape and that we, to a big extent, have created this landscape. I recently read “Walkscapes” by Francesco Careri where “the first human“ who walked a path in their surrounding was called to have made the first creation of landscape architecture. With the first menhir (megalith) that was erected, the first vertical axis was created. The first human-made reference point in the landscape. We created something that is in relation to us. 


How do you think we can balance ecological and technological modes of thought? 

VO: I recently had a conversation about capitalism and efficiency. I think that is quite the opposite, because if [capitalism] would be efficient we would understand that the basic need of humanity is to preserve a basis for existence. If we accept that we need to create a world in which existence is pleasant for all living beings, we would totally rethink the system because right now its not working like that. Right now its total destruction for everything. When we would understand that the basic need of humanity is to preserve a basis for existence, it automatically comes to the point where we understand that everything is interdependent with everything. This means not just our human existence is important but every other living being and its surroundings. I think it would be more efficient to create a landscape that suits our needs and other being’s needs. Ultimately our needs are [dependant on] other being’s needs. 


Would you say that we are still deemed to stay within a capitalist way of thinking? So should we stay thinking in terms of efficiency but include non humans, or on different terms in a new system? 

VO: I really believe that when we reconsider our basic human needs then we automatically consider all other living being’s needs because of this interdependence. I feel this is a really efficient way to solve a problem and I don’t see it in capitalism at all. It is just not efficient to make something for a small part of humanity and not for all. We could have solved so many problems, cured so many diseases, if we could have combined all our resources – not only earthly resources but also brains, creativity, money (if we even need a monetary system at all) – if we could have combined them we could have lived and worked much better. If you see efficiency as something positive that would be something totally positive. 


This lab is a micro-verse where interdisciplinary work can facilitate this matching of different modes of thought…what are your experiences of interdisciplinary work outside or within this lab? 

VO: Storytelling is something really specific which can translate into a bigger scale. This connects all of us. What became obvious over the last days is that we all try to tell a story. We all have our specific stories and the question is how to mix them together. There are different opportunities for combinations. You can come together with other people, working within different genres; arts and science, arts and technology; that’s something we can really test out here. For me personally, I like to combine art with technology. The reason why I like to work with 3D models or making installations or movies, is firstly this need of having a bodily experience. Something immersive to understand better.

For example I can go out into the field and take pictures of which I can then create a 3D model. So I end up having something virtual, but more physical than a picture to work with. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if someone from the future was to look at my database of these 3D models. How would they interpret it? Secondly, I can take these 3D models and animate them… most 3D models that I take of objects in the field later look like landscapes – you zoom into the object and discover what you think are valleys and mountains.

When we talk about storytelling and we talk about how we can tell one specific story that relates to a more global story, I think that’s really useful because every 3D model has this landscape engraved into it. Landscapes shape identities and can be related to. I can take an object that is really small and make it really big, therefore allowing new perspectives and viewpoints to be explored. 

After branching out into everything, as they were so many possibilities presented in the lab…I got back to two 3D models I took of seagrass from the field trip. I want to tell a story with them, also working with AI to get into conversation about the object in the field. I want to create an animation and possibly an installation. 


It’s like you are collaborating with 2 different nonhumans; on one hand the AI and the other hand the sea grass. 

Concerning human agency and nonhuman agency its true that I collaborate with an object in the form of sea grass and AI. But on the other hand having so many humans around you, it would make sense to get into collaboration with humans. But for now I like to get into conversation with nonhumans. 



Chapter I – Landscape (Trailer)

In the year 4006, the 25th clone of a human finds a 3D Scan in a data set. After a big crisis on earth, almost all archives have been destroyed and only oral history persists. Where did this fragment come from? Sometimes it looks like a landscape, present in the current world but somehow different, sometimes like a plant. And then there are the memories. The procedure of cloning failed to transfer them coherently. There are flashbacks of a flood and a big crisis that nobody really knows of how it unfolded, but changed the world forever. Nature, in the end, does not care about crisis. It is the landscape that we shaped and see as our existential basis.

Video made in collaboration with Lion Sauterleute, with voice over by Cinnamon Ducasse. 

Instagram: @vaopoku @hirundoaves