In conversation with Mike Faulkner, Founder and Director of D-Fuse, a collective of audiovisual innovators active since the mid-1990s. Recognised as pioneers of VJing, D-Fuse has embraced a range of media and art forms to engage audiences with social, ecological, and environmental issues.
Mike discusses the role of the arts, science, and advanced technologies in storytelling, tackling climate change, and reducing our ecological impacts. He shares insights into his latest project Nine Earths – a British Council’s creative commission for COP26, the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow – that premiered at the British Film Institute in London and was exhibited at COP26 and the Bandung Design Biennale in Indonesia. Mike also talks about collaborations with leading scientists and D-Fuse’s other projects, including immersive installations, experimental film, animation, live AV performances, and Virtual and Extended Realities.
Alicja Stapor: What is D-Fuse? How do you collaborate with artists and what kind of artists do you work with?
Mike Faulkner: D-Fuse is an interdisciplinary group bringing together audiovisual artists, designers, music composers, creative developers, programmers, architects, animators, and researchers. I founded the collective in the mid-1990s in order to explore a range of media and art forms, from live AV performances and experimental documentaries to multi-screen projections and immersive, interactive installations. Influenced by László Moholy-Nagy and the underground electronic music scene, we focused on experimenting with the structural qualities of moving light and painting sounds, which quickly gave us recognition as the pioneers of VJing.
D-Fuse’s journey started on both local and global levels. In fact, my extensive international travels in the 1980s and 1990s influenced my practice as much as explorations of the thriving underground electronic music scene. From a London-based collective of audiovisual enthusiasts, we grew to become a global network of creative practitioners and friends like the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, who VJed at D-Fuse’s underground events. We extended the scope of our activities by working with institutions and academics, including Immersive Media Lab at the University of Southern California and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, as well as groundbreaking musicians from the electronic scene, including the likes of Robin Rimbaud, also known as Scanner, and Swayzak, to contemporary classical musicians such as Steve Reich, Hauschka, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Ulster Orchestra. D-Fuse was also invited as an artist collaborator to work with experimental musician Beck on a world tour and an interactive DVD release.
AS: How diffused is D-Fuse as an international group, and how do you distribute collective productions?
MF: While the core team of the collective is based in London, we have been working internationally since the mid-1990s. More often than not, D-Fuse’s projects have been created with partners from all around the world. Consequently, we have exhibited our works in Canada, Switzerland, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, Taiwan, Ireland, Poland, UK, USA, Spain, France, Germany, and Iceland, to name some countries. Another example of D-Fuse’s collaborative, global approaches is VJ: Audio-Visual Art and VJ Culture (2006), a book that I wrote with other members of the collective which features the work of more than 120 international VJs.
Importantly, D-Fuse brings together creative practitioners of different experiences and expertise, enhancing the way we present our work. Exhibiting moving image and digital art poses many questions but also provides opportunities to experiment with new formats and modes of engagement. I present my works as immersive exhibitions, multi- and single-screen projections, streaming, live AV performances, and VR/XR. Some projects have taken on several formats and evolved over time, like Tekton – my ongoing collaboration with Paul Mumford of Labmeta that started in 2013. Tekton is a series of works exploring spatio-temporal qualities of light and motion. Imagined digital-mechanical instruments are used to engineer different formations of kinetic light. As these light machines are rendered invisible, audiences witness the traces of structure and spatial presence. Inspired by the constructivist designs of Vladimir Tatlin and Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator, Tekton focuses on traces of light that organise themselves in the tension between noise and pattern. Beginning as a series of audiovisual short films with artists including Hauschka, Lusine and Swayzak, the project has gradually evolved into an audiovisual performance and a kinetic light sculpture exhibited at D-Fuse’s retrospective at the Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh in 2015.
AS: How did you come to use new media and advanced technology to engage with issues of climate change?
MF: I was always enthusiastic about technological innovations, even though I did not receive traditional film and art history education. My cultural awareness came from the underground music scene, which was populated by the likes of William Boroughs, Scala Cinema, and Throbbing Gristle. It gave me a fresh and bold approach to new art formats and media. A great example of this was the VJing phenomena in the late 1990s and, to some extent, early web animations we were creating back then. London, like most cities at the time, was an empty, rundown place with lots of disused buildings and underground events. Together with abstract filmmaker Stuart Crundwell, we were invited to project 35mm slides and 16mm film loops alongside techno DJs at squat parties in disused cinemas. It was the time for discovery and experimentation and gave me opportunities to exhibit my artworks in public places. I remember watching Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi as a support act for a Cabaret Voltaire gig. It was back then that I fully understood you could present a film without a fixed narrative. That’s how my interest in new media got cemented.
In the mid-1980s, I was working in pretty mundane design jobs and decided to travel around the world. These travels opened me to global interconnectedness and made me realise that the world is a relatively small space. Since 1987, the population has grown by more than a third, from 5 billion to over 7.9 billion. Conveniently, we promote how easy it is to fly over 5,500 km one way from London to New York City for a long weekend or 10,000 km for a short week in Hong Kong. But when we face the complexities of climate change or deforestation, we somehow convince ourselves that the world is a big place. My first major work focused on ecological issues and consumption was Small Global, a multi-screen and surround sound immersive installation that explores visual data about global interdependence, consumption and its environmental costs into an immersive environment. Originally commissioned by Eyebeam in New York City in 2005, the project also marked my first major collaboration with scientists as it was developed in collaboration with Professor Danny Dorling of the University of Oxford and academics from the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Over the years, Small Global expanded into three modules and has been shown internationally in settings ranging from shopping malls in China to galleries in Argentina, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, and even the Greenpeace Field at Glastonbury Festival.
I am currently developing a couple of Environmental VR projects that include LiDAR scans and psychoacoustic sounds. It is the narrative and storytelling, however, that make works genuinely engaging. I am neurodiverse and I have to admit that my ADHD likes to have a lot going on. Looking retrospectively, I can see this apparent and part of my aesthetics. I like to break out of the conventional screens or canvases. I’m also interested in repetition and interplay between imagery that results in creating patterns and interactions between frames, like in A London Conversation, a commission D-Fuse received for the opening of the British Film Institute in London (Southbank) in 2007. This could also be layers of multiple transparent screens I tend to use for audiovisual performances or immersive installations like Small Global. While I like to think there is a sense of complexity and overload, I pay particular attention to conveying tranquillity and beauty through my work. As D-Fuse’s projects have significantly evolved to use an array of art forms and media, creating enticing and immersive environments, sound is always a key component to making my projects come alive.
AS: Your latest project Nine Earths blends participatory and observational types of documentary. Could you elaborate on that, how did you bridge different approaches?
MF: Nine Earths is an unorthodox environmental documentary that explores the relationship between everyday events and humanity’s excessive demand for the Earth’s resources. The title was inspired by the Earth Overshoot Day concept. Worryingly, each year our demand for ecological resources exceeds what our planet can regenerate in that time. For example, the USA consumes the equivalent of five Earths’ worth of the planet’s natural resources in one year, while in Qatar it’s a staggering 9.3 Earths. Globally, people consume an average of 1.7 planet’s worth of resources each year. We maintain this ecological deficit by overusing ecological resources and accumulating waste, primarily carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Instead of presenting overwhelming scientific data and stereotypical imagery of climate emergency, Nine Earths takes a closer look at the daily routines of people across the world and draws attention to the accelerating consumption—the driving cause of climate change. I decided to use visual ethnography, imagery, sound, and candid interviews to present people’s perceptions of consumption and reveal lifestyle choices that, often unwittingly, impact our planet. To create that mosaic of day-to-day life, I collaborated with nearly forty videographers from all around the world who shot footage for Nine Earths.
Some of the videographers decided to interact with the film’s subjects directly. At the same time, numerous videographers, including myself, acted as flies on the wall, observing the world around them without really interacting with it. That is why I describe Nine Earths as a blend of participatory and observational types of documentaries. Most importantly though, the artwork reveals global consumption patterns through the lens of climate justice. It shows how we are all inextricably connected and that we are more similar than different, no matter how far away from one another we are. I intended Nine Earths to share insights into global concerns and hopes to empower people to become an active part of the conversation on climate change.
AS: How did you leverage technology to construct the polyphonic imagery of Nine Earths?
MF: We used all kinds of technological developments to take audiences on an audiovisual journey through multiple locations and highlight individual voices and stories. Nine Earths features footage from numerous locations in the UK, Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Lebanon, Japan, USA, Kenya, Colombia, and Russia. The footage was shot on a range of devices and the final edit is presented in 4K resolution (with an option to make it 8K). Filming in so many locations simultaneously was incredibly challenging and was only possible thanks to the tremendous work and dedication of over a hundred individuals involved in the production of this artwork. On top of conflicting time zones, the global pandemic added another layer of complexity. We had to come up with creative approaches to a number of unexpected scenarios. For example, in Vietnam the national lockdown was so strict for a few weeks that our collaborators couldn’t leave their houses under any circumstances, even the groceries were being delivered to their doorsteps.
Technology plays a significant role in bringing such a complex project to fruition but the real power is the people steering it in the right direction. While an artwork engages you for half an hour, its authors spend months (and sometimes years) on creating that experience. When it comes to Nine Earths, I was fortunate to work with a team of exceptional professionals from all over the world, including Maya Chami in Lebanon, Andy Stiff in Vietnam, Jen Porter in Liverpool, Adi Panuntun in Indonesia, and Thiago Cury and Batman Zavareze in Brazil. I also worked with a number of brilliant collaborators in the UK, including creative producer Marek Wolynski, who oversaw the project from the initial conceptualisation through to production and presentation, Professor of Immersive Media Kevin Walker, who contributed to the conceptualisation of Nine Earths and conducted visual ethnography research, and music composer Scanner, who delivered an outstanding audio track that added another dimension to Nine Earths. Importantly, Nine Earths has been developed in collaboration with researchers and leading climate scientists, including Professor Mark Maslin, University College London, and Professor Julie Doyle, University of Brighton. I feel very fortunate to work with them. Penguin has recently published Mark’s phenomenal book “How to Save Our Planet: The Facts” which helped me identify and formulate key messages, making it an informative and stimulating experience at the same time.
Nine Earths is one of the British Council’s Creative Commissions to mark COP26, the UN climate change conference in Glasgow, and I have to highlight the exceptional support we have received from the British Council from the very beginning. Meetings with Rosanna Lewis, Creative Commissions and Culture and Development Lead, helped us shape the project and ensure its appeal to the international audiences. Thanks to the British Council team and all our partners and collaborators, Nine Earths has the potential to engage audiences all around the world now.
AS: Do you think that we can counter human inaction and our cognitive reduction bias towards long term threats such as the environmental crisis?
MF: Over the last twenty years, my work has evolved to focus increasingly on social and environmental themes. Everything is growing exponentially. We all need to be more conscious about the impact we have on our planet. At the same time, it is crucial to recognise the different powers involved in the climate change messaging. Bad people are trying to convince us someone else is at fault. Since the 1980s, fossil fuel companies have spent exorbitant sums of money, lobbied governments, and misinformed the public by spreading the word that climate change is unproven. Since then, the messaging has shifted from denial to greenwashing in order to keep consumption levels growing. Despite warnings of climate change in the late 1980s, our emissions have increased substantially, with half the CO2 emissions occurring in the last 30 years. The longer we wait, the harder this transition from our high consumption to a sustainable green world will take.
To grab audiences’ attention in an overstimulated world, where – as you aptly pointed out – cognitive biases prevail, I want to appeal to audiences through meaningful, relatable, and detailed narratives. Climate change is not only about science, facts, and numbers – it is about stories, and people are always at the centre of a story. Nine Earths takes audiences on a journey around the world, bringing together individual stories while simultaneously sharing information about consumption and climate crisis – our existential crisis that requires a re-definition of our relationship with the planet. I want to communicate the climate change urgency and I hope that my work can contribute to shaping current environmental attitudes and much-needed behaviour change.
I see my role as a facilitator and narrator of information. I’m currently working on an outdoor installation in London that will involve real trees and make invisible toxic air pollution visible. Nine Earths, in turn, is a global platform to raise awareness that we are all the same and have similar aspirations and problems, regardless of where we are located. If united, we can motivate collective action and have a real impact on these polluting corporations. It’s not about blaming China or another country. Personal lifestyles have an impact, particularly in the Western world. The richest 10% of people produce half of the planet’s individual consumption-based fossil fuel emissions, while the poorest 50%—about 3.5 billion people—contribute only 10% of global fossil fuels emissions.
The main issue is fossil fuel companies that deflect the blame for climate change onto us, individuals. We can’t stop global warming without changing our lifestyles, but changing our lifestyles and reducing our consumption can’t stop the climate crisis on its own. We must send powerful messages to companies and governments that we demand change now. It is challenging to change your mindset and daily routines but it is possible, and it is the only way to avert a disaster. Climate crisis requires governments to bring about real change – we need to work together to push for it and stop glorifying consumption and the idea of perpetual, infinite growth.
AS: Art has used mimesis to describe and invent realities in the illusion of representation. Do you consider XR as the ultimate blend of thought and matter?
MF: XR provides excellent tools to appeal to diverse audiences. The advent of advanced technologies and immersive storytelling has changed how we can engage the public and effectively communicate important issues such as the climate emergency. At the same time, I feel that technological advancements and new XR possibilities are often used as a gimmick to attract attention while not bringing anything new to the conversation. The arts have a leading role to play in tackling the climate emergency. Artists are uniquely positioned to challenge, inform, and engage audiences in conversations about the environment. Through innovative and experimental approaches, artists can help society face up to the challenge of climate change and effectively contribute to creating a more sustainable future for us all. After seeing some artworks that use climate change as a canvas without really addressing the core issues, my concern is that many artists have their own assumptions about the climate change issues and take a moral high ground about their own position and authority over informing their audience.
It is crucial to focus on developing works of art that people can truly relate to, projects that resonate with the public. That is why I find collaborative processes, working with climate scientists and activists, and building bridges between art and science so important. When I develop XR projects, I tend to ask myself what the most adequate way to tell a story is. Sometimes compelling messages can be effectively articulated in a relatively straightforward way. In 2009, D-Fuse was commissioned by SOS/Live Earth to create a series of works exploring aspects of global warming. Carbon Crisis Blipverts used the format usually employed for advertisements to raise awareness about some of the main drivers of climate change and what everyone can do about it. Supported by Greenpeace and Professor Daniel Dorling, I created a series of 40-second animations that were shown internationally and got endorsed by Al Gore, who still uses them in his presentations.
I have always been thinking immersive or in 360 degrees. When we had a residency in China we used photography to capture multiple images to create and build panoramic 360 spaces. That step comprised over 70 images and took a long time to stitch together. Next, I recreated them in After Effects and moved cameras around the space to create a pre-drone experience. Then, I experimented with those images in VR. What intrigues me is that some of the images are missing and create a broken space that has more mystery and stimulates me more than picture-perfect images.
I love VR. Whilst it is still in its infancy, there is a growing base and it is becoming affordable. At D-Fuse, we have nearly always delivered our work in an immersive space. We have done so by erecting temporary architecture and breaking away from traditional exhibition environments or canvas areas, be it performing in a disused warehouse in London or exhibiting in a shopping mall in China. VR is currently a predominantly solitary viewing experience (besides Social VR, which allows users to meet other people and talk to them in virtual reality) and that in itself is an interesting experience for me. It comes as no surprise that VR is often referred to as an empathy engine as it offers some exciting possibilities for storytelling and engagement.
Nine Earths is supported by the British Council’s Creative Commissions programme, a series of creative commissions exploring climate change through art, science and digital technology as part of The Climate Connection global initiative.