After Archiving Thousands of Digital Artworks, Rhizome’s Mark Tribe Turns to the Environment
The founder of the nonprofit saving internet art is making a new type of backup drive. His latest work, a 24-hour film of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, stirs ‘anticipatory nostalgia’ for our imperiled environment.
What would it mean to make an environmental backup drive? Some efforts, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, are practical. Mark Tribe’s approach is more beatific.
The 52-year-old artist has shown work at Palais de Tokyo, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and many other esteemed museums around the world. And as the founder of Rhizome, a nonprofit organization that supports new work in art and technology, he’s become a prolific conservationist himself — Rhizome’s ArtBase initiative has archived more than 2,000 pieces of born-digital art.
So when he started incorporating environmental activism into his artwork, he naturally reached for digital files and formats. His latest piece, Deep Green: Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, is a 24-hour, single-shot digital film taken from a scenic ridge of protected forest and grassland in Oregon. He sees it as a way of memorializing this landscape as it is now, acknowledging that it faces irreversible degradation, and inspiring onlookers to take the climate crisis into their own hands.
A long career in art starts taking in the landscape
“I’ve always been a nature lover — maybe not a tree-hugger, but more of a backpacker,” says Tribe. “I’ve spent a lot of time way out in the wilderness throughout my life, ever since I was a kid.”
But environmentalism — even landscapes — didn’t meaningfully enter his work until a few years ago, when he partnered with Chelsea Knight on a piece called Posse Comitatus. It documented right-wing militia training exercises, which mostly took place in wooded natural areas, then reimagined them as a choreographed dance.
“I found myself out in the woods with a bunch of mostly young men in camouflage with AR-15s and AK-47s firing thousands of live rounds into the trees,” Tribe says. “I became really curious about the role that landscape played in those rehearsals for Armageddon. They choose to do it in these incredibly beautiful spots, partly for practical reasons, but partly, I think, because landscape, in our imagination, is a kind of tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which we project all kinds of fantasies.”
Soon, the landscape where those exercises took place became his main focus. “I went back to the training grounds a few weeks later when nobody was around, placed a high-end film camera on a tripod, and pressed record. That turned into a series of landscape films that were about the training grounds rather than the body language of training per se. Then I made a bunch of screenshot photographs in first-person shooter film games that had military themes and showed them together with the landscape films.”
This led him down a rabbit hole of landscape research, and eventually to another digital landscape project — aerial photographs of virtual worlds — for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. “Then my mind kind of naturally turned to, ‘Well, what’s my own landscape ideology? How do I feel about nature and land?’”
“My experience when I’m out in wilderness has changed in recent years,” he says. “Now, I have this feeling of dread — or, not dread, but almost like I feel nostalgic for this thing that I feel is going to be lost. I feel like I want to soak this in and experience it while it’s still here, because it won’t be here much longer.”
The problem can feel too big to address. “No matter how carefully we protect our national parks and monuments and other wilderness areas — Donald Trump is actually trying to shrink the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument — but assuming he fails, even if these places don’t get developed, because of changes in temperature and rainfall, invasive speciation, et cetera, the Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs and other great trees in the old growth portions of that forest will burn almost inevitably sometime over the next several decades. When they regrow, they won’t regrow the same. They’re barely holding on now, because it’s so much hotter and drier than it used to be.”
By capturing this fragile, fleeting moment in natural history, Tribe hopes to start conversations and spark considerations of what climate change really means.
An endurance test — for crew and audience
“People often ask, ‘So you just press record, and then come back 24 hours later?’ But it’s remarkably technical,” Tribe says. After he scouted which spot he wanted to record, he brought in four crew members, a high-end digital cinema camera and multiple microphones to create an immersive soundscape. Then they stayed up all night, through the next day, and into the next night to adjust exposure, monitor audio channels, track battery levels, and switch out hard drives.
The final product is deceptively simple and serene, but extremely long. When the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Oregon, shows it this spring, Tribe imagines most viewers will experience it for just a few minutes at a time, aligned with the time of day — at 10:00 am, when the museum opens, for example, you’ll see what the spot Tribe recorded looked like at 10:00 am.
“I don’t imagine that anybody will see the whole thing,” Tribe says. “That, to me, is a really integral part of the work. The sense that this piece is much longer than anybody will see is kind of an allegory, a metaphor for the duration of climate change. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard for us to put it first, one of the reasons why we still hop in an Uber to drive across town instead of riding a bike. The future 20 years from now isn’t real to us in this moment. The impossible duration of this piece is sort of a metaphor for the way climate change unfolds over multiple lifetimes.”
A backup copy of an endangered Earth
Tribe also sees Deep Green: Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument more literally as a document of nature at this moment in time. He wants it to help contemporary viewers appreciate what’s at stake in new ways, but also give audiences far in the future — like his children’s grandchildren — a glimpse of Northern American wilderness in 2019. “I think of what I’m doing as a kind of a backup,” he says.
He has a long history with conservation more broadly. In 1996 he founded Rhizome, an online community space for people who are interested in digital art, and soon realized one of the most critical gaps the institution could fill was archiving and backing up digital works.
“Some of the work we were talking about was actually vanishing,” Tribe says. “There was a piece by a Dutch artist named Akke Wagenaar, about Hiroshima. It was hosted on the server of one of the German media art universities. When she left the faculty, the systems administrator, not realizing what they were doing, deleted the work from the servers. There went art history with the click of a mouse. I thought, ‘Well, somebody’s got to start archiving this stuff.’ So we put out a call to the artists in our community and said, ‘Send us your work. We’ll keep a backup.’
“We thought we could start keeping information about [digital artworks]. We’d have the name of the artist, the date that they made it, the technologies they used, and a backup copy. So in case it disappears, somebody will have it for posterity. I’ve been thinking about cultural heritage and preserving it for a long time. That was really the big light bulb for me when I thought about my own relationship to landscape — this sense of anticipatory nostalgia that I have.”
The role of art in times of crisis
Even if he sees plenty of reason to make backup images of our fast-degrading planet, Tribe hopes his bucolic snapshot won’t just be a document for people hundreds of years from now to look at longingly. “There is a certain pessimism to it, I suppose, but overall, I see my work as a wake-up call.”
It’s also an opportunity to bring some humanity, some emotion, to a very challenging moment in our collective history. “I sometimes think about the story of Vedran Smailović, a cellist from Bosnia who lived in Sarajevo during the war,” he says. “During the seige, he braved snipers to play in ruined buildings and at funerals. There were artillery in the hills, shelling the city, and this musician decided to take out his cello and play so that the people who were hiding in their apartments could open their windows and hear music. I thought, ‘That is what art can do. It can help us connect with our humanity and hold on to optimism in the face of the most dire situations.’
“People say making art in times of crisis is like fiddling while Rome burns, or like the musicians on the Titanic who kept playing as the ship went down,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Play on.’”