Steve Rowell Explores How Autonomous Technologies Influence Our View of the Natural World

As technology increasingly dictates how we interact with the world around us, what does that mean for our relationship with the environment? Working with remote sensing technologies, and alongside university researchers and federal institutions like the US Department of Defense, Steve Rowell has spent the past seven years using his Creative Capital Project, Uncanny Sensing, Remote Valleys, to document, examine, and represent how the nonhuman world exists in an environment altered by humans. Rowell makes complex multi-component art works as an interpreter, editor, and curator of the landscape, from migrating wolves captured by trail cameras, to national forests used as dumping grounds as represented in drone footage, to a sonic interpretation of data collected from atmospheric pollution sensors. In this exhibition, he distills this material into video projections, multi-channel audio, photography, maps, and found objects to form an immersive installation. Uncanny Sensing, Remote Valleys is on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon from January 23 to March 28, 2021.

We spoke to Steve about the project’s concepts, remote sensing technologies, and how decreased focus on governmental regulation has changed the landscape in the past few years.

Alex Teplitzky—There’s so much that I have seen come out of this project. Can you give a quick summary of what connects it all?

Steve Rowell—It’s difficult to summarize quickly because I have been working on it so much over the last seven years. Initially the project began as a way of responding to the natural world. There were these ongoing debates from 2012 to 2015 about the concept of Nature (with a capital N) and what that means in the 21st century, but also how artists respond to the ecological crisis that’s occurring around the world. I applied for the Creative Capital Award in 2012 with this in mind. At the time I was reading Timothy Morton’s books Dark Ecology and Hyperobjects, which influenced me considerably, as well as Adam Curtis’s three-part television series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. I’ve always had a deep concern for the environment, and have thought a lot about how to respond to that as an artist. These two inspirations and the urgency of ecological collapse compelled me to act, directly and with an overt activist agenda.

From 2001 to 2013, I collaborated on many projects at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). This experience shaped my practice as an artist and honed my skills in research-based investigations of the built landscape. But, the work of the CLUI is always couched in this trademark quasi-objective way, which is one of the fascinating things that attracted me to the organization in the first place. It wasn’t the place for me to directly voice my personal or political views on issues like the environment, and I became more and more interested in doing exactly that. At the time, I was finishing a project or two with the Center and was developing strategies on how to work in this same realm, but as an independent artist. I had done so for years on smaller things, but never on a project supported by multi-year, dedicated funding. So in a way, it was experimental on many levels—personally, politically, but also technologically because I wanted to work with devices I had never worked with before to examine the natural world without my direct involvement.

I began by using consumer-grade remote sensing devices like trail cameras, also called camera traps, which are triggered by movement as well as small audio recorders that use sensors which are triggered by sounds made by animals, but also by us and our machines. I also gained access to data and remote sensor-generated imagery and sounds from other sources, such as the US Army’s Wolf Migration Study Project, the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, The Environmental Monitoring and Surveillance division of the Houston Health Department, and various institutes at universities across the country. Beyond the aesthetic qualities of this material I began accumulating, I was interested, conceptually, in utilizing this data as a way of at least partly removing myself as an artist, and doing this work more as a curator of remote sensing technologies and the landscape. I was interested in this idea of the subconscious image made by the nonhuman—art produced not by human beings, but by devices and the natural processes and nonhuman beings they sense and what that tells us about the world around us, through interpretation. Since I’m not a scientist, I lack the ability to do this accurately with these devices in the ways they are designed to be used. Instead, I created something new from science which gives the viewer a perspective into the landscapes I focus on through these technological interfaces as well as a view into my own way of seeing through my philosophical interface, if you will. Maybe this is one way of defining art like this in the 21st century?

Alex—So, as I understand it this is an umbrella project that kind of has different offshoots.

Steve—Exactly, that’s what it has become. It has grown to be more than just a single thing or contained project in the conventional sense. It has also allowed me to conduct a series of parallel projects which all feed from this one, informing them with many of the concepts and threads of research, but also with some of the technologies I’ve used in Uncanny Sensing, and using some of the same contacts I’ve made over the past seven years.

Alex—Can you talk me through one or two of the individual pieces from the work. When you’re talking about new technologies, how has that affected your overall project?

Steve—Sure. In addition to a set of mounted photographs and two vitrine installations of remote sensors, there are four or five video components. One of them features footage and stills from numerous camera traps that I deployed to various places across Wisconsin as well as from a network of cameras used by the US Army inside of one of their deactivated bases. Rather than clean up any toxic spills, the US Military typically fences off their old bases and calls them conservation areas, for better or worse. At this base north of Madison, they had this wolf migration tracking program set up which basically consisted of 50 or so camera traps installed across thousands of square miles of mostly pristine forest, where predators and prey could live and die without any interaction with humans, particularly human hunters. It’s an ideal place to study the wolves that have migrated back into the US from Canada. I was living in Wisconsin in 2012 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service took wolves off the endangered species list, thereby allowing for them to be culled by hunters.

The first weekend of the legal hunt in 2012, before the project was even awarded by Creative Capital, I placed a camera in a parking lot of this one hunting spot that I had been told about. They’re very low-tech, these trail cameras. You strap it to a tree and leave it for a week or month and see what it captured later. This one in particular collected all kinds of human behavior: families gearing up in high-visibility orange clothing, customers meeting their guides, all presumably getting ready to venture into the woods to kill wolves. Some of the strangely compelling behavior from this covert footage and sound includes lots of cigarette smoking, sandwich eating, beer drinking, and public urination.

I was interested in this idea of the subconscious image made by the nonhuman—art produced not by human beings, but by devices and the natural processes and nonhuman beings they sense and what that tells us about the world around us, through interpretation.

I edited this into a sequence of stills and videos of wolves playing, hunting, and eating prey from the material I appropriated from the military base camera network and also incorporated sound from this device called a “howl box.” The Department of Natural Resources had these simple analog devices that played amplified sounds of wolf howls, and then recorded the responses that wolves in the areas made as a way of interacting autonomously with them. One of these howl boxes was incorporated as a ready-made object in my 2013 prototype exhibition in Wisconsin and another will be used in Oregon at the premiere.

Over the course of this project, I’ve shot with three different generations of drones, starting in 2014. More recently, I shot some footage in Louisiana and Minnesota of various tailing ponds and streams—visually striking waterscapes, effluent from industrial sources. My use of the aerial photo and video ties in with the idea of looking for and at archaeological markers of footprints, but shot in a way that defies the typical landscape 4K video so overused in commercial film. The way I shoot with drones is extremely abstract, usually straight down from above and with color and mirror distortions of the landscape applied in post-production.

I’ll also be including satellite-sourced visualization data that has been acquired in the last few years by NASA. NASA is recording, in real-time, the different anthropogenic chemical gases in the atmosphere. This one NASA lab, using data from the Goddard Earth Observing System network of satellites, has been releasing some incredible video timelapses. One which shows a projection of the Earth as a series of discrete scrolling time lapsed interactions of these chemicals will be incorporated into a moving image work.

Nonhuman photograph captured by motion sensor trail cam of a female wolf in the Fort McCoy Barrens State Natural Area, Wisconsin. Production still from Uncanny Sensing, Remote Valleys, Steve Rowell, 2020, © 2020 Steve Rowell.

Alex—You were saying that you were struggling with not being able to express an opinion in your work. Do you see this work as documentarian?

Steve—I consider myself more of an experimental documentarian because I’m documenting things that are happening in the natural world, but the way the work is done makes it clear to most viewers that I have a strong personal opinion about the environmental devastation underway and my paramount concern for the nonhuman world which pre-dates the human world. I’m not struggling with this now, that was in reference to how I worked in the past, under the reasonable and accepted constraints of collaborative work. I think those who’ve seen my work in the past 5-10 years can clearly see what my politics are. I’m very clear about this when I write or present my work in talks and in my teaching.

Alex—Can you talk about the exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum?

Steve—In 2016, I went to Eugene, where the museum is located, to interview a guy named John Zerzan who is from the same era of the California environmental movement as Stuart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. John is like an extreme left version of Stuart Brand. He thinks all politicians should be banished, he’s a life-long anarchist and believes that technology is the root of all of our problems. He’s still very much a part of the activist scene in Eugene. So, he’s quite a character and he writes pointedly about his views on technology which I’m attracted to as part of the discourse around Nature and our place in it. I may incorporate that interview into an online version of the project.

While in Eugene, I met a friend who was teaching at the University of Oregon at the time and a curator at the university museum got in touch with me shortly afterwards. That’s how it started. The curator, Danielle Knapp, was interested in including some of the material that she had read about from past prototype exhibitions such as the Gulf Coast drone footage and accompanying sound composition, which is autonomously generated by data from atmospheric pollution. In 2019, the exhibition was formalized and further enhanced by planning for a public discussion with the art historian Emily Scott, who now teaches there. This will now be done on Zoom, of course, and a 360 walkthrough interactive video will be posted by the Museum in January or February for those not able to visit the exhibition in person.

Alex—You said you got footage from the US Army and other non-artist focused institutions. What was that experience like? Were they curious at all to see the product?

Steve—Sometimes the people I met at these institutions are curious how this material comes together, but few have ever seen the final works. For Uncanny Sensing, the most interesting interactions were how they opened up during the interviews. They were frank and eager to offer their opinions, since facts are all they’re usually permitted to express in their line of work. A good example is when I went to the Jet Propulsion Lab, a division of NASA headquartered in Pasadena, California, I interviewed an oceanographer and climate scientist about some of the technology that JPL is using. They do a lot more than send rockets into space, they are quite involved in some of these environmental sensing projects. This one scientist was amazingly opinionated about the human population explosion and how that is impacting our oceans and atmosphere. He didn’t even care where the interview would end up, he was just happy to speak freely.

When I went to the University of Colorado, Boulder, I met with a scientist there that was in charge of the remote sensing program at NASA that studies Greenland’s ice sheet. Of course, this is a critical thing to look at in terms of sea level rise, and climate change. He said that he was happy to talk to someone who was going to use the material because he had never expressed his opinion when he worked at NASA, for fear of reprisal and program de-funding by the Republican-led Senate (his words). That raises the question, how do scientists who work for a federal agency voice their opinions? I spoke to him when Obama was president, and he said openly that during certain administrations scientists were terrified to speak about climate change. Obviously, this is happening right now under the current administration which is extremely hostile towards science, specifically climate science.

Drone’s eye view of the sinking landscape around the San Jacinto Monument marking where the decisive battle between Mexico and Texas occurred in 1836. Some seven decades later, oil exploded from this same soil and the global petroleum-based economy had begun. Water extraction for this industry and the ever-spreading cities on this coastal plain has resulted in extreme subsidence of the land, endangering natural ecosystems and anthropic places such as this alike. Production still from Uncanny Sensing, Remote Valleys, Steve Rowell, 2020, © 2020 Steve Rowell.

Alex—It’s always fascinating to me to hear how artists use their platform to navigate different administrations that aren’t set up to express those views or sometimes even do anything publicly with the work that they’re researching.

Steve—Exactly, and I am trying to highlight some of that. One aspect of this administration is that these agencies aren’t regulating a lot of industries because they’ve been intentionally defunded, and the staff has been ordered not to focus on climate change. They’ve been gutted by this administration. That has gotten a lot worse in the last few months. Last spring, in 2019, I found and filmed a place in the Missouri Ozarks that I know is openly dumping zinc and lead into the Mark Twain National Forest. The plant is owned by a company that should be severely fined next year when the EPA can, hopefully, recover under a new administration. The footage that I’m showing from that site shows what I believe to be evidence of illegal dumping. I can’t confirm this, visually, but this is the kind of thing that I like to imagine—where artists can operate in a speculative realm where forensic proof isn’t necessary to convey a very plausible reality.

Alex—How did you use Creative Capital support for this project?

Steve—Well, it wouldn’t be possible financially without the support I’ve received from Creative Capital to pull this project off in the scope that I did. I spent a lot of my funding on travel across the country, flying and driving to places. Travel like this is cost prohibitive to any artist who isn’t independently wealthy, or have collectors who fund the work. In my circle of non-commercial artists and educators, we rely on grant funding to take on projects of this size. The equipment I used on this project—the drones, computer gear, remote sensors, a much needed upgraded camera kit—were all purchased using Creative Capital support. Beyond the obvious financial support, the retreats that I attended early on in 2012 and 2013 were incredibly useful. They allowed me to make meaningful connections with curators and other artists that I would have not been able to meet otherwise. Having these in-person introductions is really crucial. And, through support like this, to be able to do this interview and to promote the work I’ve dedicated so much time on over the years, is priceless.

Read more about Rowell’s exhibition at Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.