In 2010, while contemplating a number of problems concerning the complex nature of knowledge, I turned to the natural sciences for reference and perspectives.
Considering similarities and differences between video art and the natural sciences, my attention kept gravitating towards Mexico City where a group of researchers have as their job to continually observe the volcano Popocatepetl. Situated 70 kilometres from Mexico City, Popocatepetl is one of the worlds most active volcanoes and of a highly explosive nature. A volcano is a real world manifestation of a dynamic system, with a strong metaphorical potential. For an earlier video I had used web camera pictures of Popocatepetl from Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres as source material, and I had imagined these people who were there, monitoring and analysing the small changes in anticipation of more dramatic change. Science has a magnificent tradition for producing knowledge, and provides them with relevant tools, methods and procedures for observation. Nevertheless, there are performative and metaphorical aspects of both of their practice and of the volcano that constitute an understanding that is not formalized in contemporary science. It was such aspects that kept my imagination preoccupied.
Climate change is a crisis also in terms of imagination. There are complex problems in the relationship between scientific knowledge of the natural environment and responses to that knowledge; in how both individuals and governance relate to such knowledge and even towards nature itself.
I planned to go to Mexico in the autumn of 2010 to interview the scientists monitoring the volcano, at CENAPRED, Centre National de Prevacion de Desastres. The focus of my interest fluctuated between the personal relation the scientists would have to their object of study and their embodied engagement with the devices they would use, the nature of their procedures, data and devices. Active volcanos represent systems that might erupt and be destructive for local civilisation, and I envisionned that these particular scientists would be interesting to portray in video.
They could talk us through the potential crisis and reveal how they imagined such an event. On a more personal level, they might experience both excitement and fear if processes get intense or an eruption is close. I imagined the emotional relationships they might have developed to the volcano during years of monitoring and surveillance. On a personal level, unofficially; were they hoping that it would erupt? Waiting for the ultimate performance? How would they envision the day it really happened? What were their thoughts about consequences, direct practical consequences for Mexico City if Popocatepetl was to erupt?
Just before midnight on the 20th of march 2010, while I was still in the process of developing my methods, a first eruption of a volcano under the icelandic glacier Ejfjallajøkull occurred. The volcano had been sleeping since 1823, but seismic activity in recent years had indicated that an eruption might happen. It caused large amounts of smoke and steam, the evacuation of about 800 people in two nearby villages as well as the cancellation of a number of international flights to Keflavik International Airport. I paid careful attention to the appearance of the scientists in the news. Then, three and a half week later, on the 14th of april, a new, larger eruption sent a massive cloud of volcanic ash several kilometers into the atmosphere. The huge cloud of particularily dangerous ash filled the air and large part of the air traffic in Europe and even elsewhere had to be cancelled for eight days and more, effecting more than 10 million travellers.
The effect was radical. Absolutely everybody I knew was somehow personally affected by this sudden restriction of mobility, and none of them had seen it coming. People were stuck in the strangest places. Meetings, festivals, exhibitions were cancelled, desperate parents were having difficuties in returning to their families. People were driving across Europe in taxis since they could not await how long it might take before airspace was re-opened. It was a gigantic single event in terms of how it constricted people, but few had imagined that it could happen. Volcano scientists were playing the leading roles in the news. Puzzled by the sudden attention, they were doing their best while being interviewed over and over again and asked to come with predictions, connections, comparisons, conclusions. While most claimed it would soon be over, others argued that it could last for months. Anxious, most people were paying very close attention.
Suddenly everybody had a personal relationship to the potential practical implications of a volcano eruption, mediated by images of scientists spending their time monitoring and analyzing incoming data. I decided that the potential of going to Mexico was emptied out; I had never intended the spectacle of the volcano to foreground my work, quite on the contrary I had wanted to focus on the quiet, personal poetic of the people working there. At this point the volcano was already magnificently performing its leading role in the drama that involved not only natural spectacle, but an endless flow of personal, dramatic narratives linked to pragmatic, practical, everyday change and a well of incredibly beautiful footage.
Volcano Piece (Elektra) in the exhibition The ritual of walking in a circle in Bergen in 2012