Text: Augustina Lavickaite | ACED
The urge to understand, organize, and structurize the world around us has been part of human existence for as long as we are aware. Complex algorithms, such as programs for self-driving cars, or groups of elementary ones, such as primitive rituals of sacrifice, are examples of actions intended to understand and control the future. As our experience and knowledge of the surroundings grow, these actions become more complex. We have handed over most of the repetitive and time-consuming calculations as well as a rising amount of cognitive tasks to technology, increasing the flow of new knowledge, but creating a fracture of expertise and a decrease in understanding.
The most prominent and successful approach to dealing with the oversaturation of information has been the collaboration between design, art, journalism, and technology. Such an interdisciplinary field stimulates public debate on social issues with innovative projects by visually interpreting complexity and making it accessible and interactive to a wider audience. This crossover domain is the focus of Designalism, a platform for creatives and thinkers, who work on the spectrum of design, art, and journalism. We talk to some of the artists from the Designalism database and podcast on the roles creatives and thinkers play in a reality oversaturated by information.
This is the last of our three-part series of interviews. Jasmjin Visser is an artist and author, explores geopolitical conflicts and climate. Instead of simplifying the narrative, Visser uses the complexity of the data to showcase its importance and urgency.
How would you describe complexity?
J: I’m doing a Ph.D. on complexity and climate change and I’m part of this group called CLICON. I’m the embedded artist there and it’s different disciplines looking at the complexity and climate change. Basically, we are giving each other a course in how every discipline deals with the complexity of climate change. I think climate change is close to an embodiment of complexity in that sense. And this is what interested me. I used to do work about geopolitical issues, like stories of trauma, stories of war. And there, I was always very interested in how the layers and scales conflict. The exact structure we use to tell the story of these scales and layers in a way already gives meaning to the complexity, whereas the complexity is indifferent to what we want it to mean. And then during all these on-site residencies to post-conflict, I always observed that climate was a protagonist within a war. And I thought, oh, that’s interesting because that’s a narrative that’s never been told in a way. This started to ignite my interest in how we talk about climate change. And so that automatically brought complexity along and now they are two communicating vessels for me. I always had an interest in why the world unfolds in multitudes, but then we choose a singular way to navigate it. If you ever find my earlier art school work, you also see that everything is in multitudes. The topic of complexity follows naturally.
How do you bring issues of the oversaturation of information to the public?
J: The problem is always the methods – what methods am I going to use? What I try to do is to look at a body of research, or a certain chain of events, and then I try to see what is the character of the archive itself. So I’m not trying to use structures that give meaning, but first, let the thing itself give its own meaning. And coming from there, I bring a team together, an interdisciplinary team, and from this collaborative effort slowly the method starts growing. So it’s a beginner’s mindset, a bit of a Zen approach, but that’s also a nightmare… every work you have to start with a completely fresh head and also allow for contributions to shape your projects, so you have to be a bit more open, leaving the control, but still steering. The work with the group already is a project on its own.<…>
I always try to build layers, first the visually attractive layer from which you can get deeper and deeper and deeper, but that also when you enter a space or enter the work, that you immediately have an experience. That’s also where I tried to combine design with fine arts because, for me, fine arts like to tackle spaces of friction and ambiguities and invisibilities, but the design often tries to show complexity in an accessible or elegant manner. The conversations between these disciplines can be very exciting.
Why is it important to address complexity from an interdisciplinary perspective?
J: In this group I work in, it’s super interesting to see how no discipline speaks the same language. I, myself, am a fan of the ideas of post-Normal Science, how to bring peer disciplines together. For instance, an early idea that came from Post-normal Science was that diseases such as Lyme disease cannot be seen as a single disciplinary issue. Same with Corona and climate change and all these monumental issues. But at the same time, every discipline was always working on an island on the same topic. And so people like Ravetz and Funtowicz made this real plea for these issues to be viewed from an interdisciplinary body or a group of peers. But in practice, you can see that this is incredibly hard because protocols and schedules and formulations and terms; nothing matches together. And I think this is the challenge that climate change, but also Corona, gives us to do. These monumental issues are also a mirror to look at our own methods from the past and how we have made single trajectories of everything which isn’t compatible with real life because it’s simply more complicated than that.
It’s very interesting how in the interdisciplinary groups still the training is there from the singular trajectory and I feel it almost needs one more generation of scientists to forego that in a natural way because it means you also sometimes need to venture into a world where there’s ambiguity or friction… and that’s where artists can come in to show that there are methodologies to work in ambiguous spaces.
How can we deal with our own information overload?
J: It’s sometimes as simple as just to keep on looking at the information with a large group and talking again, letting it lie, talking again. So then the information falls into place in the way itself wants to fall into place. That takes time and also a bit of a Zen mind. Because art is a place where everything goes fast, you have to get output out and you want to be visible, et cetera, but the processing of information takes time.
I noticed, when I was doing the Falklands book, the Conflict Atlas,that my whole brain was the Conflicts Atlas. I knew every fact around the Falkland Islands from the top of my head, every layer, every connection, every related war, it is like you see it, you see it stretched out before you. And once I finished the book, it was just gone. With the new project, a new playing field arises and all these facts get in your head. And then your mind is full. When I’m working on a project and I have that whole mind map or playing field in my head, I forget everything else. It’s like, there’s only this many brain cells and I use them on that… So to be honest for me, it’s a battle for brain space.