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Times Square submerged 26 feet under water. A poignant image for a Hollywood apocalypse flick perhaps, but also the cleareyed prediction of climate scientists for the coming century. It’s a scene visual artist Mel Chin created for his mixed reality project Unmoored back in 2018 and one that has stayed with Brett Volker.

Volker, a self-described entrepreneur with a wealth of experience in the music, art, and tech sectors, is little more than six months into his latest venture, Undercurrent, a creative platform centered on drawing attention to social issues through art. First up on the docket? The climate crisis. 

To do so, Undercurrent took over Brooklyn’s The Jefferson venue and tasked 11 musicians to choose an aspect of the ongoing emergency with particular resonance and create digital installations alongside climate scientists and technologists. Bon Iver explored the troubled human relationship with the planet through a multi-channel installation of an improvised dance, The 1975 collaborated with climate activist Greta Thunberg on a minimalist spoken word piece, and electronic duo Mount Kimbie focused on the devastating impact of urbanization on bee populations.  

Undercurrent

Above: Exploring role of plankton in the oceans’ ecosystem, Nosaj Thing’s “Waves” digital experience is also available as a desktop experience; below: Bon Iver’s “NAEEM, Antiphonæ,” an immersive three channel video installation that addresses the complex relationship between people and our planet. Images: Charles Reagan for Undercurrent

The result, as Volker puts it, is “60,000 square feet of audio-visual installations exploring different modalities of physical experience.” Beyond the activism present in the works on display, Undercurrent is donating a portion of every ticket sale to its partners Ocean Conservancy, Global Forest Generation, and Kiss the Ground. 

Jing Culture & Commerce caught up with Undercurrent’s co-founder during the last days of its inaugural showing. 

 

Where did the concept for Undercurrent come from?
Undercurrent began as a passion project for a new type of music event, inspired by what we do at Ada [an experience design studio] working with musicians, artists, and other creative collaborators using new technologies to create immersive experiences. We wanted it to be more than simply art for art’s sake; we wanted to use it to help surface the most important and challenging conversations of our time. If we’re going to produce a new music event, we want it to do some good.  

Undercurrent’s slogan, if you will, is “music. art. action”, what does “action” look like?
Action for us ranges from new ways of thinking and talking about the climate crisis, through to the more tangible efforts people can take in conjunction with our non-profit partners. 

Undercurrent

“The Black (Kuroshio) Current” by Actress, which highlights how climate shifts are changing current systems. Image: Charles Reagan for Undercurrent

What’s the broader mission?
We talk a lot about challenging inaction through inspiration. That is what great art, in whatever form it takes, can do. With that as our foundation, there are so many areas we can creatively explore in future, but right now we’re simply focused on making this event the best it can be and learning and evolving from there. 

What was the creative process of working with musicians, artists, and scientists?
Our creative process started with the artists discussing what they were most passionate about within the many aspects of the climate crises. We then deeply researched those topics to help us develop the creative briefs for each experience. From there, it became a true collaboration between the artist and our team of creatives and technologists which varied based on what we were wanting to achieve. 

Miguel’s “Reef Revival,” a 360-degree experience accompanied by an original soundscape. Image: Charles Reagan for Undercurrent

How did you go about choosing your environmental partners?
We will be the first to say that we are not climate experts. Our strength is creating experiences that merge music, art, and technology. We consulted some really smart people and came up with a long list of potential partners. Then, in our creative process with the artists, we started with what they were most passionate about within the climate crises, which informed the creative brief for the experience and helped us identify the best non-profit partners to work with from our list. 

Once selected, what’s the role of these climate partners?
All our partners receive a portion of ticket sales and we have incorporated them into the experience itself by designing installations with them. It was important to us that they were fully integrated alongside the artists to help them educate and inspire people to take meaningful action. 

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To conclude, while climate skepticism exists, the local audience Undercurrent serves boasts a strong climate consciousness. What’s added by platforming artistic responses to the climate emergency?
Yes, this is not so much about acknowledgment or acceptance. The difficulty becomes knowing what the right actions are to take in our daily lives. Any topic seems fraught with an abundance of information and data, a lack of clarity on best practices. Can I recycle that pizza box? Is my electric car really the more sustainable choice? How does one find a path forward when every decision presents so many alternatives? This exhibition serves as an exploration to better understand how we can cut through the indecision by challenging inaction through inspiration.

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