Off grid technologies and art: The case of Jessica Segall

Jessica Segall

Jessica Segall departs often. She departs for far away countries, for uncontaminated places and for those that are not often considered by our modern society. Places that are still inhabited by nomadic communities for which she preserves a special fascination particularly with their total independence from our industrial system in terms of electricity, energy, food and communication. Abandoned places like the Mongolian or Gobi desert.

Her works are often invaded by a strange silence, a silence made of breathe, reflection, mysticism, nearly religious although most of the works are made with electronic and mechanical elements that do not represent a meditative state at all.

In fact, the energy is a fundamental aspect in Segall’s works. They recall constructions of the past including at the same time advanced technologies and video. Segall is interested in creating autonomous energy circuits that permit the artwork to exist and to function in its totality independently from the environment. In this way they can expand in a society such as ours that is advanced in information technology. She reflects on the vulnerability of our ecosystem, about topics like risk and survival. We can often find Jessica Segall on floating constructions, kind of living rooms that represent contemporary islands as a metaphor for the durability of daily life.

In 2011 Segall went to Svalbard to visit the Global Seed Vault, a subterranean reserve for seeds that has the function of offering an assurance against the accidental botanical loss of our traditional genetic assets. It’s located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 kilometers (810 mi) from the North Pole. A place of climatological and geographical extremes, a place where daily life, as we understand it, is highly limited by circumstances of weather. During this expedition S gall took this opportunity as a means to investigate the place not only under an iconographic aspect, but also as a performative venue. The result is a performance video in which coexist all her major interests: the protection of the environment, human survival, mysticism and the major eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.

Jessica Segall
Jessica Segall

Segall, sitting on a small iceberg, floating in the middle of the Arctic sea, wearing only an18th century dress, contemplates her own advance towards the unknown. Motionless and in silence, she’s alone, without food, without means to communicate with anyone, defenseless in the hands of mother earth. The slowness of the movements and the light that the icebergs emanate make us literally shiver. The images evoke on the one hand the concern for life and survival, on the other hand they give a sense of well-being and safety. The unwavering glance of the artist isn’t scared at all, indeed it’s full of trust. She’s caressing the iceberg, she embraces it and she inhabits it with elegance. At a certain point she starts even to pour milk on it (the only food she has with her) referring to a Hindu legend (the river of milk).

The performance was possible thanks to a particular study of fabrics that resist temperatures as low as -50°C and a camera utilizing the latest generation of off-grid technology. The creation of The Thirsty Person, Who Having Found a Spring, Rushes to Drink, Does Not Contemplate Its Beauty (2011) was almost self-sufficient and at the limit of survival.

The year before she created A Selfless, Reteaching Jet (2010), an artwork/machine that creates electricity through the use of fire in order to screen a video. A huge carriage connected to an incinerator and massive tubes, that ends with a flat screen that shows the film is the most evident example of how Segall creates artworks that exist and function independently of any energy circuit.

Although it is multimedia based, this artwork runs in any place and any moment. The result is not only a sculpture/installation of large dimension but also a self-referential machine. In fact, the video shows the artist cutting down a tree to obtain the wood for the incinerator and thus for the screening.

Jessica Segall
Jessica Segall

Her latest series of works stemming from by her travels in Mongolia, include a number of abstract drawings inspired by solar panels used by the Mongolian nomads. In this artwork Segall picks up two different simultaneous moments: one concerning the design of a product that may vanish with the development of nanotechnologies and the other about a nomadic culture that is more and more negatively influenced by the mining industry and climate change.

In addition there is the video Twin Horse Power in which two horse skulls are rhythmically illuminated by a neon tube powered by an old car. Life and death combine and generate a new existence without ever disbanding.

Jessica Segall "Twin Horsepower"
Jessica Segall “Twin Horsepower”

Ancient objects and new media occupy the same level – the one serves the other and vice verse. Technology that has been developed by exploiting natural resources now comes to its service. The future orientation of her thought is dual: evident in her concern for making art works independent from any market, and on the other hand investigating and replacing the function of technology and new media within art, daily life and the same ecosystem that makes everything exist, including silence…

Interview with Jessica Segall

SC: Your artistic research includes a lot about the protection of our environment and the search for alternative solutions to create energy. And you’re going further.  You aim to produce artworks that are technology based but self-sufficient in terms of energy. This is beyond creating artworks. How did this interest come about? 

JS: Yes – I see art as a lifestyle, not an occupation…  It is my interest to use artwork as a cultural loophole to introduce ideas critical of contemporary culture, complacency or aggressive national policy over diminishing global resources, into dialogue.  My interests are fueled in some sense by living and working in a number of homesteads and farms, accessing the environmental and economic concerns of those working closely with the land.


SC: What about Asian religion, like Buddhism and Hinduism? In “The Thirsty Person....” you poured milk over the white iceberg, which was very surprising in the context of floating alone in the Arctic Sea. Why?

JS: Ha! It is hard not to think about the origin of the world in such an environment, where the earth resembles the ice age from millions of years ago. It was not a planned move in the artwork, one of those moments of connectivity that come from being in a moment. I grew up with both Eastern and Western spiritual influences in my family, from Judaism to Buddhism.


SC: Marina Abramovic wrote: 

“An artist’s relation to silence:

– An artist has to understand silence
– An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his work
– Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean
– Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean

– Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean” 

What do you think about this quote? Can you relate it to your practice? 

JS: I don’t have a direct way to relate this to my practice. I am assuming this text is referring to The Artist Is Present (?) which I did see at the MOMA, which was generative of spiritual practice of endurance, seen in yogic and renunciant devotional practices, (much like Amma (the hugging saint)) or Darshan.  I think Marina must be quoting these practices, which I have some experience in, so I can reflect on that, and some other associations:

The visual arts provide a place for expressing the nonverbal in our culture.  A way of thinking outside of language, alternate approaches to reason and outside of the logos; the sensorial, emotional, spiritual, illogical, resonant.

However, real silence comes from not only non-speaking, but non-doing.  To introduce a physical thing in the world that begins with thought is a power of art; it can also be a violence.  I had a yogic teacher who taught that attempting positive action in the world is worse than doing nothing! – for every action introduces a corrective reaction on its inception.

In 2006, my father and I spent one week in meditative silence at a Buddhist meditation retreat, in the months after my mother’s death.  The thought of silence did not frighten me, but I was confronted with the challenge of non doing. Without the violence of words and actions, my senses shifted.  Each apple became the first apple I ever tasted, and the sweetest.


SC: You are particularly interested in nomadic culture. This is in part the history of American culture, which is in part a way of living reserved today for only a few populations. You traveled to visit them in Mongolia, in Norway, and in Peru with the idea of studying their architecture, their living structures and their strategies to be autonomous within place and time. What was the most fascinating aspect you discovered?

JS: I am always interested in the ease or difficulty of acclimating to conditions as well as the power of consumerist culture to produce feelings of deficiency and desire.

Each time I return home from such a trip, life seems alien – the millions of required actions and infrastructures to participate in the complexity of contemporary urban, Western, capitalist, non-social democratic culture!  But within a week, the routine becomes familiar once again.

There are all kinds of studies on human happiness that try to measure what social and economic conditions contribute to a “National Happiness Index”. Over a certain standard of living, once basic needs are met, an increased income will not improve ones sense of overall satisfaction with life. I think ideas of what it means to live in “developed countries” still come with colonial baggage – and do not take into consideration values such as family / community structure, or the psychological / communal strength coming from an understanding of human nature as part of larger ecosystem. There is much to be learned from cultures living in traditional lifestyles that have not shifted in centuries.

Also, I have been to very very few places that do not have television, no matter how remote.


SC: Do you have an artwork in mind that you couldn’t realize yet (maybe because of lack of funding, size, time, technology, etc.) that would express more fully your interests in the combination of art and technology?  What are you dreaming of?

JS: Yes! I have several long term projects, such the Pyramid Land Art series, and an artist residency.

The first project simultaneously creates an oasis in the Gobi desert and protects acres of rainforest that culminate to create similar areal landscapes over a period of 50 years.  I began this project in 2012, with a groundbreaking for the Gobi oasis as part of a collaboration with Mongolian artist Tuguldur Yondonjamts. The scope of this project requires funding to support the local communities as caretakers, but should also benefit localities by preventing logging and creating wells for irrigation that are shared with nomadic families.  I am curious how documentation of this project will evolve over time and areal satellite technology, as Google Earth imaging and private space travel become more commonplace, accessible.  These technological shifts are factored into a project that will outlive, hopefully, the architects themselves.

I also have been planning an artist residency where the residents use the land as a kind of environmental laboratory for experimental architecture and alternative energy sources.  A home for cross disciplinary collaboration between architects, artists, and researchers to test the feasibility.