Interview: Richard Mosse

The Irish artist on his vital work Broken Spectre, which documents the environmental destruction at the frontline of the climate crisis.

Filmed in remote parts of the Brazilian Amazon, Richard Mosse’s Broken Spectre is the result of five years of careful documentation of environmental crimes using a range of scientific imaging technologies. Seeking to overcome the inherent challenges of representing climate change to make visible the world’s most crucial yet ignored ecological warzone, Broken Spectre, made in collaboration with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost, is award-winning artist Mosse’s most ambitious project to date.

With COP28 taking place in the UAE this week amid calls to phase out the use of fossil fuels completely, Mosse’s work is more important than ever. In this exclusive feature, originally published in the F/W 2022 issue of Fact as the work was on display at 180 Studios, Mosse talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, about the origins of, and inspirations for, this major work.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: When did you start this project, what was the trigger?

RICHARD MOSSE: In summer of 2019, the Brazilian Amazon was being burned on an exponential level. That year, there was a very long dry season, what they call ‘burn season’. I had already started a project the year before in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru, making photographs of rainforest biome captured on a macro scale at night, illuminated by ultraviolet lights, which make interdependent life forms fluoresce in ways that I found fascinating.

That project was a restorative step for me. My work is incessant, demanding; lots of travel into sometimes difficult situations. I wanted to take some time for myself and make these intimate portraits of the natural world. Then the forest started being burned at a huge scale across Brazil. I said to myself, ‘Well, this is it. It’s time to gear up and try to really unpack this aspect of global heating, of climate change.’ But it’s such a complex subject. There are so many elements to it. Any storyteller, any artist, will struggle to find a way to represent something that’s beyond human perception.

It’s not just in terms of the vast scale of climate, which is almost an abstraction – it’s so much bigger than us – but also how normalised these environmental crimes have become, how widespread. This was really the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced: to try to turn this into adequate art, into something that tells a story powerfully, hopefully in new and disarming ways.

HUO: The work has a particular urgency also given the extinction in the Amazon has been further exacerbated by Bolsonaro…

RM: Bolsonaro is facing reelection on October 2nd, and we are opening at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne on September 30th and at 180 Studios in London on October 10th. These are very deliberately selected dates intended to tie in with the date of the election. People are saying he might win, which would be a catastrophe for the Amazon.

But even if he doesn’t, he’s been pre-emptively singing from Donald Trump’s songbook in terms of faulty vote counting machines and, who knows, he may even contest the election results. We might even see an attempted coup. He has deregulated gun laws in Brazil, effectively arming his supporters. This could be a long, drawn-out process and a real emergency for Brazil and, of course, for the Amazon.

We’re in the middle of this terrible heat wave. I’m in Marseille, designing and editing the book. I can’t sleep properly; it’s just too hot for me. We really must find a way to turn this around. Now the Amazon itself is coming up to a tipping point, according to Philip Fearnside, an environmental scientist based in Manaus.

In a recent report released in March this year, they analysed 30 years of data that’s been gathered by multispectral cameras in satellites, imaging the health of the rainforest. Over 30 years, this imagery has shown that about 75% of the rainforest is so damaged that it may not be able to repair itself from further damage. We have much longer dry seasons now. Those dry seasons are used by people to willfully burn and cull pasture from primary rainforest. We only have a little bit of time left.

Time is an important part of the film that I’ve been making. My approach to representing these complex environmental issues is through temporality itself – if you think of light as a kind of temporality. After all, light is a wavelength and that’s measured in time. My approach is an attempt to bring these scales of seeing, to shift scales, shift wavelengths between media to express that. This is exactly what multispectral cameras do. They overlay different discrete wavelengths from across the light spectrum to reveal specific environmental effects.

HUO: The exhibition at 180 will also feature your photography of the Amazon which is inspired by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and his book Tris es Tropiques, a memoir which he published in 1955 that documents his travels and involves sociology, geology, music, history, literature. I was curious: Why this topic and why Lévi-Strauss?

RM: It is a travelogue, as you say. He travels in various directions, along specific axes through the Amazon in his research. I was surprised to read that Lévi-Strauss had been to many of the same places in Brazil that I had, many of the places where the film was made. I wasn’t retracing his steps, as I read the book later. It was just a sort of happy accident. Or perhaps an unhappy one.

Because, you see, his beautiful title Tris es Tropiques, which means ‘sad tropics’, expresses the sadness he saw unfolding around him: the hardship, decline and dissolution of certain tribes and their environment. That was back in the mid-1930s. I tried to imagine what he would think if he visited those places today. Many Indigenous territories which he visited then, such as large parts of Nambikwara territory, have been turned into vast soybean fields – monoculture as far as the eye can see.

The God’s-eye view of cadastral mapmaking, which began in the sixteenth century, was essential to enforcing property ownership, colonialism and establishing the identity of modern nations. In making my own photomosaic maps, I wanted to bring this tension within the medium to bear on revealing overlooked or hidden sites of remote environmental crimes – a kind of critical cartography or counter-mapping.

Multispectral, 2020

HUO: It’s also a portrait of these gigantic fires, and of course that’s something which has dramatically increased. It is something which happens more and more, globally.

RM: Exactly. We’ve seen one image of a fire, we’ve seen them all. How can we resuscitate this imagery? To show the scale of it, you need to get up above it. The fires in Brazil are very different to the fires we see in California, for example, which are wildfires set by accident, or perhaps deliberately by an individual.

With fires in the Amazon, the rainforest is damp. Even in the dry season, it’s still got a lot of humidity and it’s hard to burn. You need teams of people–mafia rings working in collaboration with very impoverished workers who sell their services for so much per hectare to large scale ranchers, 800 Brazilian reals per hectare, which is currently about $155. It’s organised and planned.

Often these people will come out with their children. There’s an intergenerational quality to it, which is something that’s important about this specific environmental crisis. In the early 1970s, the Brazilian military dictatorship began to build the Trans-Amazonian Highway. It opened this whole area of untouched forest to further deforestation, a process that is being documented by infrared multispectral cameras in space.

HUO: You’ve used infrared cameras in this new work. Didn’t you use them in your work about the Congo?

RM: The multispectral camera I used in Broken Spectre is a multisensor array that emulates remote sensing cameras carried by satellites, which monitor the Earth’s environment. They’re very different media. I’m sorry, but the technical jargon gets really hard and fast when you start talking about these technologies.

The drone camera that I used to make my photo-mosaic maps has ten digital sensors, each of which captures discrete narrow bands of spectral reflectance in a very specific range, only around ten or 20 nanometres, as opposed to the much older Kodak Aerochrome infrared film that I used in Congo, which images three much broader overlapping bands. Aerochrome’s spectral sensitivity in the infrared band is 400 or more nanometres, depending on how you filter the light, and that averages things out, so you lose a lot of environmental information or data.

Aerochrome was designed during World War II for camouflage detection, whereas remote sensing multispectral cameras are a much more recent technology that can be dialled in to reveal very specific things about the environment, such as ecological degradation, which you can see in many of the maps expressed as colour.

Platon, 2012

HUO: The Congo project also led to a book, The Enclave, which got a lot of attention in 2013, which was the first book of yours that I saw. Can you tell us about the book you’re doing for this project?

RM: I’m working with Loose Joints, a young, fresh, avant-garde photo book publisher based in Marseille. I see the book as the contextual manual for the work and the informational anchor for my immersive videos; large, sometimes overwhelming and often disorienting video installations with a highly spatialised sound field. All that works to create a sort of chimerical space, so the viewer is left disarmed and defamiliarised. They’re often not entirely sure what they’re looking at. But they feel what they’re looking at: they participate in a way to create the meaning; they decide where to look; they can move around the space; they figure things out for themselves. If they want to learn more, they can refer to the book.

HUO: Yes, the book is our manual, but the installations can lead to empathy. Can you talk a little bit about the way Broken Spectre is going to be installed and your multidimensional approach to sound? The soundtrack plays a very important role in the film. This was a feature of your last piece, Incoming, where you worked with the composer Ben Frost – the sound was almost half of the work.

RM: Very much with Incoming, but probably more so with this film which makes an incongruous reference to the Western genre of film in the history of cinema. Cowboy – vaqueiro – culture is the milieu in which much of the Amazon’s destruction occurs. Travelling along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, one often sees cattle being herded by cowboys through tracts of burnt rainforest.

This incongruous image is really at the heart of the piece. Ben chose to reference the music of the Spaghetti Western, and Ennio Morricone, because of its European origins, giving Western viewers ease of access, while, at the same time, implicating them.

The visuals of Broken Spectre were brilliantly shot by the cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, also in reference to Western films, which were often shot in widescreen. Much of the film was shot with black-and-white infrared film. Apart from Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba from 1964, I don’t think anyone else has ever shot a film in black-and-white infrared. Certainly no one shot it in this very specific aspect ratio of 32:9, which is two times anamorphic of S35mm film.

The image is extremely widescreen already, and we’ve doubled down on that to make it 64:9. We get this extremely panoramic projection wall, one immense widescreen. It’s overwhelming, and very large in scale, but we break it down into quadrants and thirds and halves and sometimes just a single massive widescreen format. Alongside the different scales of seeing within the work, and the different media used, this challenges the viewer, forcing scalar shifts between the macro, the micro and the human scale.

Ben tried to translate what I was doing on an audio level. He looked at the ultraviolet footage. With reflec- tive ultraviolet photography, you’re taking light we can’t see and depicting that in the visible spectrum. You’re shifting the wavelength. Ben thought of using ultrasonic recorders. They’re quite rare and used for listening to bats and mosquitoes, things that we can’t hear…

HUO: As Paul Klee said, art makes the invisible visible, but also makes the inaudible audible.

RM: Exactly.

Multispectral, 2020

HUO: I’m always very interested in artist’s unrealised projects. I think it’s interesting to think about projects which have not yet happened within the parameters of the existing worlds of art, literature, music or film.

RM: Right before the pandemic happened, I had the idea to open a community darkroom and photo lab with café and bookstore in Ridgewood, Queens, where my studio is, because I have a studio that’s quite big. It has a very important function in my practice when I’m ready to edit and show the work. But most of the rest of the year it’s not doing a whole lot.

Sadly, more and more analogue photo labs have gone bankrupt in recent years. I go around like a scrapyard merchant with my begging bowl, asking for these extraordinary bits of equipment, which would otherwise be thrown away, which I’ve populated in the basement of my warehouse in New York, with the dream – the ambition – with this crazy glint in my eye, that maybe we could open some kind of community darkroom to give back to the young artists in the community who still love analogue photography, because analogue is slowly dying out.

HUO: So, we have not only the extinction of species and the potential predicament of our own extinction of the human species, but also have this extinction of cultural phenomena…

RM: Exactly. I’ve been saving these pieces of photographic equipment. I built out the storefront as a bookstore café, a place for photographers and artists to meet. Right before the pandemic, the British musician and artist Gaika stayed in the studio for two months and did a residency, leading to an exhibition. He invited his friends. They performed an incredible and very intimate concert to open the space. But the lockdowns began a week later, and the project has since gone to ground. So that’s my unrealised project. I think, at this stage, it needs an angel investor or philanthropist to give it the kiss of life. Maybe someday…

INTRODUCTION: Sean Bidder
PICTURES: Richard Mosse
INTERVIEW: Hans Ulrich Obrist

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.

Read next: Interview: Carsten Nicolai


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