Text by Mirjam Kooiman, Foam curator
How high will the sycamore grow
If you cut it down
Then you’ll never know
Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios, 1995

In the video work Forest on Location, we see the avatar of the Iranian opera singer Shahram Yazdani walking through a forest. One moment, the forest wraps around him protectively, the next moment the trees crumble away into loose pieces of bark, or melt into a static green mass. At the same time, the forest as a whole floats around in darkness, uprooted. It is a forest without a location, except on our screen. The young man’s avatar appears to be wandering around there aimlessly. It is a wonderland that he exits from towards the end of the video, when his body slips straight through the green wall. This finally breaks the spell of the illusory forest, and everything is revealed to be no more than staged decor.

But the forest does exist as a real forest, somewhere. This virtual green world is a digital back-up of Białowieża Forest: the last remaining stretch of primeval low land forest that once covered much of Central Europe. Inspired by what the historian Simon Schama wrote about Białowieża in Landscape and Memory (1995), Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács journeyed to Poland to capture the forest suffused by old-Germanic nostalgia and mythical atmosphere. The forest has been a wellspring of the European imagination for centuries. The pristine heart of Białowieża Forest, with huge trees half a century old and moss-covered fallen tree trunks, inhabited by lynx, bison and wolf packs, is reminiscent of the sinister fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. It owes its near-magical status partly to the Polish nobility of old, for whom the mythology of the untamed wilderness formed part of their heathen hunting rituals. That is why the forest of Białowieża, unlike the regulated forests of Western Europe, was allowed to remain wild. And while the impenetrable wilderness frightened off many people, for others it represented a safe refuge. Interestingly, Hitler wanted to burn down parts of the forest to flush out Jewish partisans, while Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring wanted to protect the forest on account of its sacred and mythical status — as a “heiliger Hain”.

All through its long and eventful history, the forest was assigned various roles by people. Man’s own interests always seemed to come first: nature is used as a sublime background decor to our stories and fantasies, as a place to clear in order to create living space, or it served as a political plaything. Nature is reduced to a cultural-historical construct, and to a source of materials for our consumption. Our notion of nature is a cultural product that we generally experience only within a socially constructed, historically contingent framework. We seem to have lost the ability to recognise the difference between nature as a physical reality and our own cultural interpretation thereof — the rift between object and representation.

Since the early 20th century, a part of Białowieża Forest measuring some 15.5 hectares (approximately 0.3% of the total area) has been placed under strict protection against any kind of human activity or influence. This area is therefore a unique piece of pristine nature in Europe, which humans are only permitted to observe. The rest of the forest has the status of a National Park and has been a listed UNESCO world heritage site since 1979. Nevertheless, in March 2016 the Polish government gave free license for logging in the forest. This would yield some 180,000 cubic metres of wood over a ten-year period. International experts and environmental groups suggested that the plan was motivated by financial considerations, but this was denied by the Polish government, who claimed that the goal was to counter an outbreak of bark beetle in 2013. This outbreak was said to have weakened the trees, so that the logging was actually an attempt to save the forest. But in doing so, it is ignoring an ecosystem that has survived for 11,800 years.1

As an oriental response to the western, imperialist treatment of nature, the avatar of the Iranian opera singer Shahram Yazdani sings about the forest’s oldest tree, which one day spoke to him. There are theories that trees build and maintain social relations with each other and have various ways of communicating, enabling older trees to transfer their knowledge on how to survive to younger trees. Broersen and Lukács have given the ancient forest a voice in their own fairy tale named Point Cloud, Old Growth, by letting a tree trunk from Białowieża Forest sing a song that originated in the forest. Many will recognise the melody as Nat King Cole’s 1948 hit song, Nature Boy. This song was written by Eden Ahbez, a “Naturmensch” who was inspired by the Wandervogel movement and who spent his time camping beneath the L of the world famous Hollywood sign on the mountainside of Los Angeles. The melody of the song was later claimed by Herman Yablokoff, a Yiddish composer from the area of Białowieża Forest. Many artists have since given their interpretation of the song, including the likes of David Bowie and Lady Gaga. But the singing tree trunk takes the song back to its origin in the forest, with Yablokoff’s original song Shvayg Mayn Harts (‘Be Still My Heart’), which is a lamentation of silent suffering. Broersen and Lukács take nature as a phenomenon from which mankind is perhaps more alienated than anything else today, and investigate the visual framework that we repeatedly project onto it as a means to capture it, to give it meaning, or as a vain attempt to understand it.

...In that Empire, the Art of Cartography
attained such Perfection that the map of a
single Province occupied the entirety of a City,
and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a
Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no
longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds
struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that
of the Empire, and which coincided point for
point with it. The following Generations, who
were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as
their Forebears had been, saw that that vast
Map was Useless, and not without some
Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to
the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the
Deserts of the West, still today, there are
Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by
Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no
other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658 Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science (1944) from Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

Beyond the myths and sagas, the world today has developed a new kind of fiction that presents itself as truth-like. The term ‘fake news’ appears to have been introduced for the purpose of undermining actual truths. Trolls are no longer fairy tale characters, but are fake personages on the internet on a mission to influence public opinion. Online we can assume any guise we like – from a better version of ourselves to a completely different identity – and have others believe that this is who we are. We can chat online with an Artificial Intelligence-robot and fully believe that we are communicating with a real human being. At the same time, our alleged online anonymity is undermined by cookies, click-tracking and algorithms that nudge and steer us in all sorts of ways, from our consumer behaviour to political preferences. Much of our daily life plays out on and is surrounded by screens, where we constantly switch between physical and virtual reality, while the distinction between the two is fading fast. From scrolling through apps on our smartphone to zapping on television or playing games on our computer: the only concrete thing about these virtual worlds is the screen on which they are displayed. It is a looking-glass; a frame through which we perceive a whole other world. Broersen and Lukács documented parts of Białowieża Forest and created a virtual model of this wilderness under threat. Using a technique called photogrammetry, the duo was able to copy three-dimensional environments and elements in the forest by photographing them from every possible angle. The computer then interprets the photos and converts the two-dimensional documentation into a three-dimensional construction. Quite astonishingly, the computer manages to stitch together the massive amount of images into a visual reconstruction, in which even the rough patches on tree bark, tiny fungi and creeping moss are rendered perfectly. By interpreting the shadows on photos as varying depths, the computer is able to reconstruct the surface textures. In the process it creates a ‘point cloud’ of data, as a digital version of the volume of a physical object. This makes it possible to print in 3D an object that has been photographed in 2D. However, although the object can be examined in 3D on the computer screen, it remains a 2D perception on the flat screen of the monitor, until it is actually 3D printed. In a certain sense, therefore, the duo creates a virtual world that is suspended between 2D and 3D.

Oddly enough, however, when the 3D model is printed, only the relief is printed. In the process, the object loses its photo-realistic skin. The 3D-printed tree trunk at the centre of the exhibition is therefore a materialised point cloud. Broersen and Lukács then drape a photo-realistic layer over the physical form by means of video projections, creating an object that seems ‘true to life’. This object then melts back into digital pixels. On the one hand, this demonstrates the construction of images in between the physical and virtual worlds; on the other, the installation offers a conceptual rendering of the lifecycle of Białowieża Forest, which would normally recover from its disease according to a natural process, which is now being rudely disrupted by logging. This ‘liquid’ projection fits with the idea that, although a virtual copy of Białowieża Forest reduces it to one fixed form, this ancient piece of nature (‘old growth’) is actually transforming non-stop, as a living organism. By simulating the forest in a virtual dimension, the rugged wilderness of Białowieża Forest is literally fixated. This doesn’t give it a second life, but in a sense it has already died and what we are seeing is its corpse, lying in state.

The photographic skin, presented in the lightboxes, is a true-to-life rendering of the various tree barks found by the artist duo in Białowieża Forest. We are not seeing a photograph of tree bark, but a photo of a three-dimensional photographic reconstruction. It is rendered with almost uncanny precision, but is entirely fabricated nevertheless. Still, we may wonder what has ‘more truth’, since this reconstruction, consisting of countless photographs, in fact contains more information (data) than a single photo of physical tree bark could ever contain. It is like Borges’ map that covers the real land: a representation that is too exact becomes the thing that is represented. Since every detail is presented to us more sharply than our eye would normally register, these images seem more real than reality.

Where a photo forms a flat image, techniques such as photogrammetry and 3D-scanning produce a copy with volume. In this process, representation is replaced by replication. However, to cite the artist Hito Steyerl, these new media do not produce objects or bodies but folded sheets.2 In Borgesian fashion, photographic surfaces are created and shaped to form volumes, but are still two-dimensional sheets used to create three-dimensional surfaces. The hollowness of a 3D object, both in virtual space and in printed form, is pure fiction: it is an empty shell, an elaborate pretence. Like a tree trunk without growth rings.

He had brought a large map
Representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased
When they found it to be
A map they could all understand
“What’s the good of Mercator’s
North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones and Meridian lines?”
So the Bellman would cry;
And the crew would reply,
“They are merely conventional signs!”
“Other maps are such shapes,
With their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave captain
to thank” (So the crew would protest)
“That he’s brought us the best –
A perfect and absolute blank!”
The Bellman’s Map from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll.

In contrast to the rest of the exhibition, the last work of Point Cloud, Old Growth is exhibited in daylight. On the white museum wall, we see a true-to-life spectacle that appears to have no boundaries. A white surface starts to flutter like a cloth, then transforms into a landscape, acquires form, and then flattens out again. It is a blank slate, a tabula rasa that can be shaped and filled in, seemingly at will. images and textures continually morph into new shapes. The work is a comment on how we consume images in today’s visual culture: without completion or satisfaction, but driven by a ceaseless desire for more. It is like the ‘infinite scroll’: one of the addictive elements in apps like Facebook and Instagram, which let you swipe and swipe and swipe, without ever reaching an end. New content continues to present itself, and the brain gives up on processing the new input. We see without registering, but continue to look. Very Far, Very Far addresses the human urge to label and to categorise whatever we see, and to discover some sort of rational order in this semiotic morphing of three-dimensional objects in a virtual dimension. But these images have no physical origin and operate entirely autonomously. Very Far, Very Far is a parallel reality in which photography plays no part at all, but which is entirely generated by a computer. In this world without gravity, shapes as well as forces of nature such as wind, water and fire are effortlessly simulated. This is not like the Borgesian map or a photographic skin of reality, but what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard refers to as ‘hyper-reality’: a phantasmagorical reality of a wholly other order, with its own authenticity.3 Precisely because it does not attempt to be a copy of something else, it has its own life – a reality that we might take as being ‘more real’ than the physical world that surround us. Just like Carroll’s The Bellman’s Map, this work unsettles our familiar frame of reference. We recognise certain codes and signs, but they have become entirely fluid and operate in an illusory reality that easily misleads us. This virtual world demands a new type of map by which to navigate. Since the invention of photography, the medium has constantly been subject to technological advances. While people once considered a photograph to be a fixation of reality, the medium has now become an excellent means of manipulating our view of the world. What photography means in the nineteenth century is no longer comparable to what it means today, or will mean in the future. While all other works in the exhibition owe their existence to photography, Very Far, Very Far demonstrates that images can be based on the codes of photography and film, without needing a camera to produce them. Our perception of the world has shifted from what the lens can capture to what the screen can show. By feeding our fantasy with their work and simultaneously shattering the illusion by revealing the construction of the image, the artist duo holds up a mirror to us: the screen that displays a dark reflection of ourselves once the show is4 over. Broersen and Lukács show us the rear side of photography, causing us to tumble into the cognitive abyss of our screen; much like Alice stepping through the looking glass.5

The artists Persijn Broersen (Delft, 1974) and Margit Lukács (Amsterdam, 1973) have formed a duo since 2002. They both attended Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie, the Sandberg Instituut and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten. Their works, consisting of layered projections, digital animations and spatial installations, have been exhibited by renowned institutions and organisations both domestically and internationally, for instance at the Biennale of Sydney (Australia), Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, MUHKA (BE), Centre Pompidou (FR), Shanghai World Expo (CH) and Casa Enscendida (SP). Their films have been shown at various festivals including LAForum (US), Kassel Dokumentar und Filmfestival (GE), Paris Rencontres (FR), the New York Film Festival (US), and the domestic festivals IDFA and IFFR. Their film Establishing Eden was included in the 2016 Tiger Awards Competition for Short Films in Rotterdam. This work is also featured as portfolio in Foam Magazine #51: ‘Seer/Believer’ (2018). Broersen & Lukács are represented by Galerie AKINCI, Amsterdam.\

1 Fritts, Rachel. ‘Mothers vs. loggers: the destruction of Białowieża Forest splits Poland’ van, 19 July 2017.

2 Steyerl, Hito. ‘Ripping Reality: Blind spots and wrecked data in 3D’ on website of the EIPCP (European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics), 2012.

3 Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. English translation, The University of Michigan, 1994.

4 This is what the title of the Netflix series Black Mirror signifies. This sci-fi anthology series explores a dystopic high-tech near future, in which the greatest innovations and man’s darkest instincts collide.

5 On account of his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) (1871), Lewis Carroll is sometimes viewed as the father (but not the inventor) of ‘virtual reality’. In Through the Looking Glass, the young girl Alice steps through a mirror to find an imaginary dimension where everything is reversed.

Since 2015, Foam presents the exhibition series Next Level, with the support of Ammodo. The series is aimed at introducing the wider public to innovative art by relatively young artists who are making radically new use of the medium of photography. Next Level: Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukács – Point Cloud, Old Growth is supported by Ammodo and the Mondriaan Fund.