Serena Dzenis uses her local landscape of Iceland to imagine a future where humans have colonised other planets and encountered alien lifeforms. Her project 2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting uses a mixture of images and text to explore themes of futurism, space travel, the climate crisis, consumerism, and the limits of human civilisation. Her partly fictional and sometimes comedic text, combined with her candy-coloured images bring a light and playful perspective to an oftentimes gloomy topic.
You have a very imaginative way of viewing your local landscape in Iceland. Have you always lived in this place, and have you always viewed the landscape in this way? When did you start imagining your surroundings as alien landscapes and visions of a future world?
I’ve been living in Iceland since 2018, though I had been visiting regularly since 2016. While I’ve always felt that the landscape here offers an intriguing glimpse backwards in time to the beginnings of life on Earth, it wasn’t until the onset of the pandemic that I began to imagine my surroundings as scenes that could possibly be drawn from other worlds at some point in the not too distant future.
Scientists have long used the harsh landscapes here to conduct fieldwork and to test equipment for space expeditions, as the conditions in Iceland are described as similar to those on Mars. The dry basalt sand, channels left by glacial meltwater and mountainous terrain really do sometimes give you the feeling of being on another planet. It wasn’t until I started exploring industrial architecture closer to home that I began thinking more in depth about the effect that humans are having on the planet and how fragile we are as a species. We take so much from the environment in order to survive. We destroy nature so that we may sustain our lives and our ways of living. However, despite all of our technological advancements, we are still at the mercy of everything around us, from viruses to weather and celestial events.
What inspires your approach to image making? How do you put yourself into a frame of mind to create these otherworldly images?
I am most inspired by an innate desire to make a change. My photographic work is influenced largely by an interest that I’ve had in science-fiction since I was young. I enjoy writing as well as creating images, so I use both forms of art together as a means of storytelling. Storytelling gives me the opportunity to engage an audience and to deliver a message in such a way that it invokes conversation, new ideas, motivation, action and of course, change.
When I was young, I was gripped by so much eco-anxiety. I remember learning about global warming and thinking that within a few years or so, we would all be facing excruciating deaths by acid rain. That was over 20 years ago now and since then, we haven’t seen much of an improvement. The climate crisis is continuing to affect everyone. Global warming solutions aimed at reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other gases trapping heat on the planet have been enacted all around the world, yet we are still seeing a rise in global temperatures, resistance to phasing out fossil fuels and devastating natural disasters as a result of the impact that we’ve had on our planet. I feel very strongly that all of us deserve a safe and healthy environment, as well as a sustainable future; this is what gives rise to my creative vision and allows me to bring forth my ideas into reality through these images.
I love your use of vivid, pastel colours. It has a candy, pop-art feel and feels quite far removed from the classic dystopian aesthetic. Why did you choose to make your images in this way, and can you share how you made them?
During the conception of this series, I decided to use a pastel palette to communicate a sense of utopia, rather than dystopia. I feel that utopian ideas are easier to digest than dystopian ideas, as they are less prone to inducing a sense of eco-anxiety. Having played a lot of video games and watched a lot of science fiction films from the 1980s, I also have a great interest in synthwave music, which is often associated with a certain colour palette involving shades of purple, pink and blue. As such, I wanted to weave these colours into the images to create a futuristic atmosphere, to remove the viewer’s association of the landscape with Iceland or Earth and rather, transport their imagination to another world.
To create this aesthetic, I shot the images predominantly during the latter part of the golden hour with the transition into sunset for side-lighting, softer shadows and to capture a larger range of interesting colours within the architecture and environment. More often than not, the images were shot handheld using a Canon 5DS R and 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM lens from quite a distance away, so as to compress the foreground and background. I used focus-stacking to ensure that the images were sharp in areas that needed to be. The images were then colour-graded in Adobe Camera RAW and imported into Adobe Photoshop for fine adjustments and editing.
Concrete is a recurring motif throughout the work. What do you find so interesting about concrete and why do you think it’s so important to human civilisation?
There is a quote that I really like by an Icelandic author, Guðmundur Hannesson which states ‘Sagan um steinsteypuna er æfintýri líkust’, which translates to mean, ‘The history of concrete is like a fairytale’.
Concrete is one of the most important materials that exists in the world today. It is absolutely vital to modern civilisation. We use it for the construction of buildings and other structures that give us shelter from the elements, as well as to build roads that connect us. Concrete provides the necessary foundation for our built environment and it’s been used for thousands of years, with early forms dating all the way back to ancient times. It is one of the most extensively used, manufactured materials on the planet and it has a huge impact on the environment. The production of cement, which is the primary ingredient in concrete, generates around eight percent of the global total of carbon dioxide emissions per year and consumes around ten percent of the world’s industrial water supplies. These figures are before we even factor in the numerous back and forth trips that are made transporting raw materials in cement production.
Despite sustaining human life, the long-term use of concrete looks to be unsustainable for our planet. The reality though is that we need it, so how can we improve our relationship with this material? How can we reduce its use or make it more sustainable?
My work reflects upon how much our survival relies on concrete, to the point where we might transfer this technology with us to another planet. If we are already causing such a huge impact to the environment on Earth with this material, then how will we prevent this cycle from recurring if we become a multi-planetary species?
In your accompanying text, you mention humans as always consuming but never being satisfied. Do you think technological advancement and living in harmony with our environment are inherently at odds with each other or can technological progress be practised in a way that’s truly sustainable?
Sustainability is dependent on technological innovations. Throughout history, we have worked through a lot of trials and errors to get to where we are today. During the Industrial Age, hand tools were replaced by power-driven machines. During the Machine Age, steam engines were replaced by gas turbines and internal combustion engines. Petroleum rose during this time as a strategic resource, while other natural resources such as coal were exploited with little concern for the ecological consequences. While humans and our technology have made such a large and negative impact upon the environment, we wouldn’t be discussing or exploring sustainable options if we hadn’t stumbled into or created these problems in the first place. In trying to solve these problems, we have made even more technological progress that is driving us towards a more sustainable future. There will always be a mess in the kitchen and dishes to wash up as you’re putting together a meal. I think that it is possible to make technological advancements in a way that is more sustainable but we will never live in complete harmony with our environment.
As well as asking quite lofty questions about our place in the cosmos and the possibility of interstellar travel, you also ask some personal questions about identity and how our imaginations are eroded as we grow into adulthood. Why did you choose to include these more personal themes in your text and how do they relate to the larger questions?
As children, we have the whole world at our feet, life has only just begun. There is so much to discover, so much to learn and when we are presented with problems, we are able to brainstorm new and exciting ways to work through them.
As we age, we tend to lose the expansiveness and activeness of our imaginations. We get stuck in our routines, we fail to see beyond the mundane and our minds become less open. Most of us aren’t even aware of this happening. It might seem like we’re just becoming more responsible, that we have more important things to think about now that we are adults and other things to prioritise.
However, imagination is so important when it comes to making scientific discoveries and technological advancements. Albert Einstein once said that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ He also said that ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’
In order to address the larger questions, we need to look inside ourselves, open up our minds and remember what it was like to imagine when we were children.
What made you introduce the space captain character into the project? What extra layers does this element of fiction help you explore?
I think that laughter is a great way to communicate in relation to all topics under the sun. There is research to show that humour can help people to lower their defences and feel more hopeful. It is a tool that can effectively connect people, ideas, information and give us new perspectives whilst triggering debate on our actions as a species. Introducing the fictional element of myself under the guise of a space captain is a means of engaging the public about climate change, space colonisation and what our future might look like, at a time when the messages are typically all doom and gloom.
Will we ever make it to the point where we are able to terraform another planet to colonise, or will we merely be drifting between galaxies and space ports, learning how to put up with each other’s body odours in close quarters once Earth is long gone? Given that streaming services are so popular in the current day, will they still exist when we are living in space? How will the future manifest? I feel that fiction gives us an avenue to explore these questions imaginatively, rather than looking at it from a logical and arguably boring adult viewpoint.
A common saying of environmentalists is ‘There is no Planet B.’ but you seem to be refuting this. Do you think the possibility of colonising other planets would make us lazier when it comes to preserving our own planet, and others? Or would the harsh reality of adapting to a new environment which we didn’t evolve in give us a new found respect for our own planet?
At the current rate that we are making scientific and technological advances, in tandem with destroying our planet, I believe that there is no planet b. If we were more advanced as a species, then perhaps we would be able to colonise other planets. The possibility of being able to transfer ourselves to another place would raise many ethical questions in relation to the importance of preserving our own planet. Would we merely be preserving Earth because of emotional attachment? Is there any reason to preserve a planet that is on the path to dying, especially when we have already moved elsewhere?
One of the main problems that we face when talking about issues of climate change, global warming and protecting the environment is that these things occur on timescales that we just aren’t able to comprehend. Most people can only make sense of their own generation and perhaps the one or two immediately succeeding it, if they choose to have children or grandchildren. Meanwhile, everything else around us is occurring on a monumental timescale. The Universe itself is around 13.8 billion years old. In comparison, humans and our ancestors have only been on Earth for around 6 million years. Modern humans didn’t even evolve until around 300,000 years ago. We are literally a flash in the pan and yet just as Carl Sagan once said ‘we are all made of star stuff.’
Perhaps the harsh reality of adapting to a new environment which we didn’t evolve in would give us a new found respect for our own planet but by then, would our planet even exist anymore or be worth saving? Once it has been mined for all of its natural resources, what value would Earth have to us, aside from the sentimental?
In your text you bring up the topic of cyborg technology. You argue that technology such as GPS systems and calculators allow us to offload certain cognitive processes to computers and is a step towards a cyborg future. Do you think this is a good thing? Is it freeing space for deeper, more philosophical thinking, or should we be wary of our creeping dependence on technology and the amount of information we share with our computers?
I think that this is a very interesting area for further philosophical and scientific exploration. On the one hand, being able to offload certain cognitive processes to computers means that we can free up our brain power. Whether we might use that brain power for deeper thinking is another thing altogether. There is evidence to suggest that sense of direction is innate, so while GPS systems have made it much easier for us to navigate to our destinations, I wonder to what extent our spatial abilities will be affected. Another example is the ability to record phone numbers and other contact details easily in our smartphones. What if you were to lose your phone whilst lost in another country? How would you get in touch with the important people in your life? If we were to successfully colonise another planet, we would need to be able to transfer certain skills and abilities to our newfound home. Depending on the distance, it might take us many light years and several generations to get there. Assuming that we might be leaving Earth in a hurry with only a number of hard drives and a select handful of people from the population, will we have or be able to learn the basic skills for survival by the time that we arrive at the new planet? Or will all of that have been lost long ago?
I don’t believe in artificial intelligence being nefarious in itself, though it may be used for those kinds of purposes by humans. In that sense, I believe that we should limit the amount of information that we share online and with others. However, as we become more dependent on computer technology, it is likely that we will be forced to share more and more information in order to be fully functioning members of society.
The Fermi paradox is a thought experiment that argues our universe should be teeming with extra terrestrial life, despite there being no clear evidence for their existence. Do you have any ideas as to why we haven’t been contacted by an alien species yet, or at least caught a hint of one?
It’s an understatement to say that our universe is a very big place. When we look out into space with our telescopes, we are seeing everything in the past. If an exoplanet is 10,000 light years away from Earth, then that means we are seeing it 10,000 years in the past. The Milky Way itself is about 100,000 light years in diameter and 100,000 years ago, humans were migrating away from the African continent and always on the move, searching for food. The Local Group is 10 million light years in diameter. Ten million years ago, humans and chimpanzees had not yet genetically split. The Virgo supercluster is 110 million light years in diameter; 110 million years ago, dinosaurs reached their peak size but tyrannosaurs hadn’t evolved yet. The Laniakea supercluster is about a billion years in diameter and a billion years ago, animals had not even developed from eukaryotes.
To put it simply, life has existed for a long time on Earth. In that time, an alien species may have tried to make contact in their own way, which may not even be comprehensible to any form of life on Earth as a type of communication. Given the slow process of life and evolution, technological advances that we’ve made only in the last 100 years, the limitations of our senses, as well as the massive distances to be covered in space, it’s no wonder that we haven’t yet been able to detect anything at a level that we might understand.
How do you plan to carry on developing this work? Do you have any ideas of what shape it might take and how you plan to present it in the future?
This project has really taken on a life of its own in the past year. I hope to expand upon this work to include more questions about humanity and how we might expand into space. I’ve also been exploring a more dystopian view, taking it in the direction of a post apocalyptic world, though I am hesitant at the moment as it may affect the how the project is received. Doom and gloom is always harder to digest. For the moment, I will continue with pastel synthwave colour palettes, with a view to incorporating some digital moving elements in the future and maybe even some elements of sound. There are a lot of ways that this project can go, so I’m excited to see where it will take me.
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Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.
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