MLF: In Conversation with Mother Nature
Marshmallow Laser Feast’s creative director Ersin Han Ersin on technology’s potential to reconnect us with earth.
Marshmallow Laser Feast is a London-based immersive art collective specializing in deeply researched virtual reality experiences, two of which are currently on display at OMM: In The Eyes of the Animal invites viewers to explore the forest as various creatures who live there, while Treehugger allows them to embody a Sequoia tree during its process of growth, culminating in a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the forest below. We sat down with Ersin Han Ersin, a third of the collective (and an Eskisehir native), to discuss their process and the ways VR can influence environmental awareness.
(Ed’s note: Ersin Han Ersin will be at OMM between November 26-28, 2019 for an artist talk and seminars. Please check back for more information.)
OMM: How did Marshmallow Laser Feast first come together? How did you meet and start collaborating?
Ersin Han Ersin: When I went to London in 2011,I was creating visuals for stage performances with Memo Akten. Memo and Robin McNicholas were already working together at the time but theydidn’t have a name yet. We would collaborate from time to time, and the name Marhsmallow Laser Feast popped up.
We were working on projects together but I wasn’t really a member of the collective at first. I mostly made work under my own name. In 2015 we made In the Eyes of the Animal. That project was a turning point. We discovered a space in which we could combine art, nature, and technology, a space that was very valuable for all of us. So we decided to come together. Since then I’ve only made work for the collective. We create everything together. Through collaboration on different kinds of projects we evolved into an organism that focuses mainly on virtual reality.
Rather than let technology dictate our creative potential, we concentrate on the best ways our creative concepts can be brought to life. We include whatever technologies are most suitable for our process at the time. Technology is always part of the equation but it’s never the main factor.
Technology is always part of the equation but it’s never the main factor.
OMM: How did you come to this intersection between art, nature, and technology? How did the philosophical aspect of your work develop?
EHE: The creative process behind In the Eyes of the Animal was pretty formative. Before that project we had already been inspired by certain natural elements. In 2014, we made Laser Forest,a giant interactive laser installation inspired by a forest.
For In the Eyes of the Animal we worked with the Natural History Museum in London and Salford University in Manchester. At first, we actually knew nothing about nature. We would go location scouting in a forest and try to determine where we could install the work, and we realized we had no idea about anything. Despite having contact with nature in the places we were raised, we were far from truly understanding it. Wherever you go in the world, people are excited about technology. So, we thought we could use that excitement to try and connect people to their natural environment. The feedback we received for In the Eyes of the Animal was incredible. People felt immense joy after the experience. We decided we had the right idea. We started thinking that by combining nature and technology, we could make technology itself more humane.
The problems with global warming are obvious, and we’re not very optimistic about the situation we’re going to face in the next 20 years. So it’s important to be able to see the world from the eyes of other living creatures.
OMM: Do you think these technologies can increase people’s empathy for nature?
EHE: Definitely. Virtual reality is probably a bit more powerful than augmented reality when it comes to increasing empathy because you can immerse yourself completely in another person’s experience. You can identify completely with a different perspective. So,could we see through the eyes of a different being? The problems with global warming are obvious, and we’re not very optimistic about the situation we’re going to face in the next 20 years. So it’s important to be able to see the world from the eyes of other living creatures. It’s actually quite miraculous to give a voice to a treeor look at the world from the perspective of a mosquito.
Unfortunately, we as city-dwellers within the anthropocene live a life completely centered on humans. Everything revolves around us. We believe this so deeply that we don’t even see ourselves as part of the natural pyramid anymore. We sit completely atop the pyramid, separate from nature. That’s why I find it very important to be able to give people the chance to put themselves in the place of other species. I hope that after experiencing the installation, every time someone sees a dragonfly they feel that it is at least as important as they are.
OMM: Where else do you get inspiration for your projects? What does your creative process look like?
EHE: When you think about it, we ask very simple questions. Our works aren’t extraordinary inventions. The essence of it is just to use the right content at the right proportions in order to create an environment that people can connect with emotionally. The process goes something like this: You look at a flower. You notice that, among fifty yellow flowers, there is one red flower. You ask yourself why that flower is red. You realize there was a flying creature that it communicated and evolved with. You find out that bees can see different colors. That becomes an idea. Then we try to gather as much information as we can on our subject from scientists, experts, universities, anyone we can find. We read continuously. One of our most important sources for In the Eyes of the Animal was the term “umwelt” as coined by Jakob Van Uexküll. It comes from a book he wrote in the early 1900s. The term references the way different organisms experience different realities, and the ways their sensory organs dictate that reality.
For example, our last project, We Live In An Ocean of Air, is one that demonstrates the incredible bond between humans and other species. We breathe out carbon dioxide, half of which travels to the ocean, and the other half to the trees. The trees then combine this with sunlight to transform it into carbon and return oxygen back to us.It’s not a crazy invention on our part. We’re talking about a very elemental story, but to this day no one has really seen it. No one has seen the carbon dioxide leave their lips, be absorbed by a tree and then released into the atmosphere. Once we identify a concept, we begin a process which takes about a year and a half. First, we have to get funding. We also use that time as a research period and familiarize ourselves with all the details. Our work isn’t an exact scientific visualization but we use science as much as we can to inform our artistic perspective. The scientific part of the process and the aesthetic research go hand in hand. Once we complete a project and emerge from the other side, we realize how much we’ve learned. The process also functions like a wondrous school, and that gives us a lot of joy as well.
We breathe out carbon dioxide, half of which travels to the ocean, and the other half to the trees. The trees then combine this with sunlight to transform it into carbon and return oxygen back to us. We’re talking about a very elemental story, but to this day, no one has really seen it.
OMM: What’s the origin story of the name Marshmallow Laser Feast?
EHE: Our wild partner Robin invented it all of a sudden. They were on a train ride to an interview, and they had to come up with a name by the end of it. Once they arrived, they were asked about the name of the collective and Robin blurted out "Marshmallow Laser Feast." And it stayed that way. It was just a spontaneous occurrence. I don’t know how important names really are. We’re responsible for the values we put into the name.
OMM: Your family is from Eskisehir, but you had never visited until this project came along. What are your thoughts on the city and the museum?
EHE: When I met Idil Tabanca in London and she mentioned the name of the museum, I couldn’t believe it. Until then, “Odunpazarı” was just a word on my ID card for me. I came here for the first time to visit the museum with the OMM Founder, Erol Tabanca. There’s so much excitement here. They’re constructing something really valuable. The city is known for its young population and, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Eskisehir’s mayor, its constantly evolving nature. When you arrive and look around, this impression is instantly confirmed. It’s a beautiful, sweet city. I hope that with the museum it will become an even more culturally significant place for Turkey, as well as internationally.
OMM: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
EHE: Right now, we are working on a multi-sensory project called Sweet Dreams. We’re working with a few chefs to also include taste in the experience. One of our test runs was at Sundance, the other in New York, and we received wonderful feedback from the viewers.
There’s also the subject of ‘mycellium’, a topic we have been thinking about for a long time and that has actually slowly been taking shape since 2016. Mycellium is the mushroom network that connects the entire forest.It exists everywhere in the world, extends up to 5 kilometers, and functions almost like the stock market – it retrieves certain minerals from the trees and transports it to other plants, then from the plants back to the trees, and is a network that enables communication between them all. It is commonly referred to as “The Wood-Wide Web”–almost the internet of the trees.We’re working on a project about that. Hopefully at the end of this year we can get started on that as well.
Mycellium is the mushroom network that connects the entire forest. It extends up to 5 kilometers, and functions almost like the stock market–it retrieves certain minerals from the trees and transports it to other plants, it's a network that enables communication between them all. It is almost the internet of the trees.
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