TEDxUCLA 2011: Minding, Mining, Mending, Mapping

Circumpolar: following the Arctic tern


About Rebeca

Born in Mexico and now living in Los Angeles, Rebeca Méndez thrives on the threshold of disciplines and cultures, working in the boundary spaces between art and design, and between Mexico and the United States.

In her teachings as a tenured professor in the Design|Media Arts program at the University of California, Los Angeles, Méndez embodies what she herself has learned. She refuses to be “the expert” and constantly strives to destabilize predictable hierarchies and traditional pedagogical practices.


Circumpolar is my current project, and it follows the Arctic tern, a very small seabird that goes from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back every year.

It’s a solo flight and it is from the North Pole to the South Pole. It’s from boreal summer to austral summer, 520 kilometers a day, 70,900 kilometers total. It goes south around August, and then for eight months it traverses.

It goes to the nest, or it stays in the water, on the water, and feeds for about a month. And then it goes to the coast of Africa, traverses all the way to the east coast of Brazil, and then it goes south, finally arriving at the great sea ocean, the ocean, the south ocean.

This is the little creature.

In Antarctica it stays for 150 days and it just simply navigates Antarctica. And then it goes up again for about 40 days, crosses the equator, and then it goes, chases the tradewinds, and then gets in June to breed again in the Arctic. It stays there maybe for about, I think, 80 days? And then it goes back again to the south, and does that every year and every year.

What’s interesting, that is the trajectory of this beautiful tiny little bird, this bird that it is only four ounces and about this size. And that’s exactly what I will do. Not only that trajectory is of the bird, but it is my planned itinerary for the next three years. Together with my, with writer Adam Eeuwens, who is my husband, we will just go and go all over the world, track, you know, chasing this beautiful bird, that it is the bird that sees the most sunlight of every creature in the world. Just for that reason, it is worth chasing that beautiful bird.

So inevitably, as we’re going there, we’re going to have to make relationships with scientists. We already are forming some. We’re going to be in the Alesund in Svalbard, we’re going to be in Greenland, in Barbados with the Planck Institute, and of course Antarctica. So this is going to take a while.

We’ve already gone to some of these places: Iceland, Svalbard, in the archipelago of, in the north, very close to the North Pole, and in the next month will be going to Finland for two months.

My going through this world of these fields, it is that I take a journey as a medium in itself. Every time that I find myself in the spaces, I am able to understand much more what is my relationship to nature. I look for, we carry 16 millimeter film, we carry all kinds of cameras. So it’s one of those things that we pretty much go solo. And Circumpolar is going to be this encounter with the forces that govern the world, our planet, and at the same time, they are the ones that guide this beautiful creature in its circumpolar voyage.

So whenever, a lot of my work is very much about putting myself in unfamiliar places, putting myself in places where are extreme, or simply I don’t know how I’m going to experience a place. For example, here I am in the tundra. This is the beautiful Arctic tundra where all I see around me is horizon. Nothing else, 360 horizon. And it puts me in a place where I am pretty much in this formless infinity.

This photographic series is called Weatherscapes, and Weatherscapes focuses very much on especially this image, on void and light. How is it that in space we can create this kind of almost like this formless infinity that we can experience?

These were all shot in Iceland. They are pretty much shot in the summer, maybe around four in the morning, which is usually when fog comes out. So what’s interesting about a place where even time is very different, you just have no sense of when you need to be up, when you need to be sleeping. You basically end up just chasing which, that which is going to make your work, access your work.

Weatherscapes is also called that because snow, ice, rain, all of that, that basically is in between the distance horizon and my body, also creates a very intimate ensemble and makes me feel that even within this vastness. So suddenly I feel a certain sense of intimacy.

This is in Jokulsarlon in Iceland, and it is the time where I basically fell in love with ice. I have never — I mean, I’m from Mexico City, we really have no ice there. So every time in Mexico I am in the jungle, I’m traversing all these things, so this is very unusual. So I’m fascinated with ice.

I participated in the Arctic Circle Residency this last October, and it basically is a residency that goes in a sailboat, an ice-class sailboat, that goes all in the coast of the archipelago Svalbard in the north, west and north. And we basically stop, you know, 20 artists that we collaborate in creating just interesting work inspired by this, by ice.

Listen to this. This is a million-year glacier ice crackling and melting. And obviously it’s something that, when I was there, I realized that most likely this phenomenon will not be for long. It’s constantly changing, of course but maybe, you know, we all know that the ice cap is 50 percent of what it used to be. So it’s something that I felt that I needed to be able to document.

2007: mini-submarine goes in underneath the ice cap, and it’s carrying a Russian Parliament member. They take out a mechanical arm right underneath the North Pole, in the air, and in the ground, and plant a Russian flag. That is my response to that action. Of course, the entire world was like laughing at them. It’s just like you’re not anymore in the colonial times but still, you know, they are very much happy and around. But this was something that I felt that there was something important about the idea of the futility of conquering in our time. So here I go. Definitely futile.

Also, the work talks about inevitably issues of identity, issues of gender in relation to territory, land, and nature.

Other work: this is At Any Given Moment, which is a series of many works in which I focus primarily in issues of perception and technologically mediated nature. So I go into these vast spaces, I film with 16 millimeter, and then I create these immersive spaces.

The screen that you’re looking at is basically 22 feet by 19 feet. It has a sound component that is composed by Drischner and three tons of lava rock. So I create this synthetic space, this place in which I’m bringing the power and the force of nature that I’m experiencing and putting it in front of you. The greatest, the largest waterfall of all Europe is Dettifoss in Iceland. That’s what I shot.

Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen said that we are all transistors, in the literal sense. That everybody thinks they are in the world, but they never realize they are the world. In a way it’s like what Sanford Kwinter, a cultural theorist, says that what Stockhausen meant is that there’s nothing in the world that does not manifest itself as vibratory or rhythmic phenomena. And therefore these vibrations attack us, they modulate us, and in the end become us.

So the work is very elemental. I look at very simple elements, and whether it has, sometimes it’s projected, only a video projection, sometimes it has its massive material in front, but they could exhibit it in architectural scale, edge to edge, wall to wall. So in a sense it’s as if I’m creating a space, a mediated technological natural space.

This is Grass #1, also filmed in Iceland. I focus on trying to acclimate your eye, to look at — with a tight crop, to look at the patterns and rhythms, that very simple, just one blade of grass or one drop of water. What they do is that through variation on light and in speed, they create a kind of complexity in the world.

I’m also interested, speaking about innovation, very much this work is about this instant. At Any Given Moment is what the work is called. And innovation, if anything, is the only constant that we have in our world. Change is the only constant.

But this is another one of the installations that was just exhibited in January at the Alyce Williamson Gallery. This is Grass #2. And in this case, what I had to do is basically go to the mountains of Los Angeles Crest Forest and drag — hopefully I really wanted to have the mountain in there — for three truckloads of burnt wood. And what it does is that not only you enter a space where you have the image around you, but you also have a sense of the smell and of the matter.

So I am interested in the nature of matter. In those cross-rhythmic tensions that make natural phenomena emerge. So it’s not only its form, but it is how is it that things happen? How do things get formed? How is it that nature is formed? So even when I am filming, taking those photographs of Weatherscapes, I’m also filming 12-hour long of the fog moving because that is where you see the formation of the clouds as it gets sped up.

I think that my interest in systems and cycles and complexity comes from possibly having grown up in Mexico City and the Mexican jungle, where all what you have is complexity, multiplicity. It’s pretty messy. I remember getting my first machete to cut my way through the jungle when I was about four. My father loved archaeology, and he would take us to these incredible sites that he would read in books from the 1800s.

So here it is, that tundra, the Arctic tundra. In that space, nothing there wants me to live. It is one of those realizations that as I am confronted by this nothingness, it is clear nothing out there wants me to live.

So in a lot of my work, I focus on the concept of the feeling of the sublime, the sublime, and especially in this piece, it’s called Nothing Further Happens. And there has been so many people, so many thinkers, theorists, philosophers talking and working around and writing around the sublime, and artists working on that. Kant said that the sublime, it is not so much a quality of something, a natural phenomena, but it is much more a conception. Something that happens in the mind. It is specifically about the idea of boundaries and limits, the experience of limits.

In clarifying the idea of the sublime, Schopenhauer decided to create a classification between the beautiful and the sublime, where the fullest feeling of the sublime is the experience of this immense universe, the sense of its duration and its extent.

Lyotard said that the sublime is much more also the idea of the limit of our way in which we can conceive and that the multiplicity and the instability of the postmodern world, it is manifested in our times as the sublime. And technology is coming with new ways of us thinking about the sublime.

And all of these are shot in Iceland, Svalbard, Chile, Desierto de Atacama. All with 16 millimeter.

My work is focused in the technologically mediated nature. I hope that I am able to imbue the work, to present the work with the force of sensation itself. How is it that I can paint, film, photograph, speak, live the force of sensation itself?