This Artist Duo’s Poker Deck Lets You Deal with Climate Change

It’s a subject that feels too big to grasp. With The Poker Deck of the Drowning World, Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick are making it something you can hold in your hands.

The Poker Deck of the Drowning World is live on Kickstarter now

In 1923, an iceberg drifted into the Baltic Sea and collided with the German port town of Lübeck. The town’s residents colonized the glacier, establishing new laws, citizenship requirements, and an inflated (literally — the bills were massive) currency. They named their new home Eisbergfreistadt, or “Iceberg Free State.”

This is not a true story, though it seems like it could be. Eisbergfreistadt is a fiction dreamed up by artists Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick some 13 years ago, elaborately staged in a series of exhibitions featuring photographs and sculptural relics from the Iceberg Free State.

Photo from “Eisbergfreistadt”

As part of Eisbergfreistadt, Kahn and Selesnick produced a limited-edition card deck featuring characters and imagery from the series; they liked the idea of offering playing cards to people who wanted to bring a little piece of the exhibition home. The initial run of 2,000 decks sold out quickly, and they’ve been fielding inquiries about whether they planned to reprint the deck ever since.

Now they’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to do just that. Icebergs still feature prominently in the updated imagery: along with weeds, chimneys, and birds, they stand in for the traditional four suits. When laid end to end, the images tell a not exactly linear, not totally comprehensible story about a world (perhaps our own, perhaps not) transformed by climate change.

These imagined worlds are closer to our own than they might appear

Imagined realities like Eisbergfreistadt are Kahn and Selesnick’s speciality. They’ve been documenting nonexistent worlds since 1988 in painstakingly constructed and costumed photography series and other media that have appeared at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, among many others, as well as in three published books. Their work has chronicled colonies on Mars, a lost city in Siberia, and, most recently, the travels of the Truppe Fledermaus, an eccentric troupe of performers who make pilgrimage to abandoned places to put on shows for nobody. “It also involves us dressing up in ridiculous outfits,” Selesnick says.

But despite the dreamlike compositions and otherworldly settings, Kahn and Selesnick’s work often touches on ecological themes that are very much of this world. (The real-life Lübeck, like so many port cities, is increasingly at risk of flooding as sea levels rise.)

“I think, like anyone thoughtful, we’re a little panicked and worried [about climate change]. We often deal in our art with things that produce a lot of anxiety in us,” Selesnick says. “Rather than standing helpless in the face of it, you [can] at least try and think about it and do something positive with that anxiety.”

Surrealism serves as the vehicle for the pair’s climate anxiety

The pair use their surreal imagery to “sneak our politics and our worries to people,” Kahn says. “We’re not directly preaching to them, ‘This is what will happen.’ But there’s a magic and a beauty and a lure to the images, and sometimes people get them and don’t realize that it’s about climate change.”

A poker deck felt like the ideal medium to express those anxieties. “Basically, everyone involved in this issue is gambling to some degree,” Kahn says. “They’re all trying to figure out the odds and the future and going for quick money now versus long-term, save the planet later. The card deck felt like the ideal media to talk about how we’re gambling away our planet for the sake of a quick hand.” (Their first Kickstarter project, the Carnival at the End of the World Tarot Deck, touched on similar themes: The divinatory nature of tarot felt like an apt metaphor for the “constant gauging of what the future’s going to hold and how to prepare for that,” Selesnick says.)

But the cards can just as easily resist interpretation, they say, and that’s all right. You can play a hand without pausing to consider the iceberg slowly melting into the sea or the factories belching fumes — and what the heck is the King of Birds supposed to be, anyway? But maybe, the cards’ subliminal sense of urgency will creep into your subconscious.

“If you try to use rationality in this chaotic age, you’re not actually going to get that far,” Kahn says. “Sometimes this irrational surrealist approach that we have might get you there quicker.”

— Rebecca Hiscott