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ADS8: Data Matter – The Gaming Edition

Andra Pop-Jurj

Andra Pop-Jurj is a MA Architecture graduate, whose interest lies at the intersection of architecture and environmental politics. Born in Romania, she studied at the Technical University of Munich and the National University of Singapore prior to her experience at the RCA. Having gained work experience at several architecture studios in Germany and at Sergison Bates architects in London, Andra currently works as an architectural designer for the Belgian studio Veldhuis architectuur, while expanding her practice as a researcher.

Her international and multidisciplinary background, coupled with her first-year experience as part of ADS4: Plots, Props & Paranoia – How Architecture Stages Conspiracy, have stimulated her interest in the expanding definitions of architecture, speculative design. Her dissertation addresses the role of architecture and international exhibitions in identity and nation-building. Andra has pursued these with a focus on the role of digital technologies and environments as part of ADS8: Data Matter - The Gaming Edition.

In her first year, Andra was a recipient of the Karakusevic Carson Scholarship. Together with Lena Geerts Danau, Andra is part of the scientific and artistic collaboration Driving the Human - a catalyst for experimentation which combines transdisciplinary expertise in shaping sustainable and collective futures. Building on their MA theses, their collaborative proposal is concerned with environmental politics at a geopolitical level and envisions alternative modes of engagement across species. 

Points of departure for this project are some of the spatial manifestations of the social, economic, and geopolitical conflicts in the Russian Arctic caused by environmental degradation and the warming of the Far North at a higher rate than the rest of the world. In response to the studio brief, the project employs world-building techniques and uses the game engine as a testing ground for alternative perceptions and forms of representation. Elements from my research culminate into a fictionalized story, told in the format of an immersive video game experience. 

This medium facilitates the recreation and understanding of existing and emerging forms of cohabitation between humans and more than humans in the highly dynamic landscapes of this region. The narrative is grounded in a number of encounters - relationships disrupted or forged in the last few decades in the permafrost landscapes of Siberia, home to the world’s largest natural gas deposits. In aiming to move away from anthropocentric ways of representation, I consider so-called contact zones - spaces where cultures and species meet, clash, and grapple with each other.

The project is presented in the form of an extended trailer of this cinematic game experience. Time is the main character and narrator of events and the player is never really in charge inside the game space. By experiencing the narrative across scales and through the perspective of time, the project proposes a way to de-center the human and his perceived universality through often disorienting scenes. The soundscapes are a collaboration with Chingis Enkhbaatar, thanks to whom the immersive experience gains another essential dimension. 

The notion of monsters and ghosts has served as a framework to think with, rather than a binary definition. Going against formal classification systems, I ask how we might learn to live collectively within dynamic landscapes. The monsters refer to symbiotic relationships between and within species. The ghosts are landscapes haunted by the violence of modernity. They show us how living landscapes are archives of human tracks and traces. Ghosts become tangible through the melting of the sea ice, of the permafrost, and the destabilization of the ground that is already calling for deindustrialization in some parts of the Arctic. Together, they reveal a symbiosis between the local and the global. 

The aesthetic of the landscape draws on the way scientists conceive of some of these environmental phenomena - often in a language of admiration and fascination. This is also in line with the purpose of an epic environment, being one that absorbs and envelops the player in a sense of awe and wonder. These principles lie at the basis of an immersive and engaging experience.

Multiscalar drawing — The Yamal Megaproject is currently exploring the world's largest natural gas resources, with shipments populating the Northern Sea Route and newly constructed pipelines making their way to Europe, often disrupting wildlife migration routes and indigenous practices.
Time stamps of the five time segments in the game — Durations and speeds of each scene inspired by current scientific estimations. From top to bottom: Permafrost thaw and microbial degradation, Near permafrost thaw induced ground destabilization due to thermokarst activity, Gas -blowout crater, Gasfield lifetime, Reindeer yearly migration cycle
Timeline of environmental, infrastructural, non-human and more than human agents — The timeline reveals that scales are in a constant state of flux and they do not obey fixed ontologies. This experience exposes new types of geological formations that emerge throughout the whole game and timeline - from transformations of the core to the surface and into the atmosphere. Disclosing historical processes and political decisions allows for speculating and projecting into the future.

Five different, yet often overlapping, time segments make up the narrative, which is experienced in non-linear way. The transcalar and transtemporal worldmaking hopes to challenge and refine existing modes of engagement with the Anthropocene. It further reveals that the scales that allow for a better understanding of this are emergent, rather than eternal and they do not obey fixed ontologies. The game engine is both a testing and training ground, in which scales are effective way above and below our usual levels of perception and sometimes even on the border of life itself.

gameplay still — the morphing landscapes that surround the player allow for a disorienting experience and alternative perception of temporality
gameplay still — the sound of an explosion triggers the player, followed by an arrow that guides one to the crater

Permafrost thaw will also affect biological dynamics in a wide range of processes; some of which are still poorly understood. As soils become available for microbial degradation, methane and pollutants such as mercury are being transported across boundaries. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions due to an accelerated microbial turnover, permafrost thaw will also facilitate the release of pathogenic DNA viruses stored frozen in ice. In the tundra of the Yamal peninsula, close to the world's largest reserve of natural gas, enormous wounds have emerged in the vast permafrost landscape over the last decade. Unexpected geochemical processes culminate in extremely high underground gas pressure over the course of a few years. After which, one day, suddenly and violently, craters explode into being. Deep deposits of methane and carbon dioxide find their way up into the atmosphere, often together with flames and smoke. Over a year or two, they fill with water.

gameplay still — player falling through thawing permafrost layers
gameplay still — pressure meter indicates the growing pressure over the duration of the permafrost time segment due to methanogenic activity and depth increase
gameplay still — underground pressure rising as organic matter decomposes following the melting of permafrost
gameplay still — an arrow guides the player to the source of rising pressure and temperature
cinematic still — anthrax frozen in cryosleep
cinematic still — methanogenic bacteria division occurs after 24 hours

This underground world is home to frozen microbes, both fungi and bacteria and viruses. A process, a condition, and space tied to planetary exchanges of energy and matter, as conceived of by Russian systems thinkers, but not quite permanent frost or permafrost - for freezing is not permanent under the present conditions on the earth, known to us. The permafrost has been cored - its interiors have been sampled, ancient histories revealed but much of its contents remain a mystery. What lies buried deep within it is not only a past - flash-frozen in fragments of bone and lichen, mammoth ivory and cryogenically preserved bodies - but also a future. It is a silo of sorts, a granary of diamonds and ore and oil and bone, a bank of wonder and life.

gameplay still — icing due to rain and rapid freezing leads to reindeer being deprived of food as lichen ges trapped under the ice
gameplay still — reindeer inhabiting the gas field, permafrost extent decreasing
gameplay still — reindeer grazing among natural gas pipelines

Operating across microscopic, domestic, national and transnational scales - the project situates itself in a near-future speculation. Mindful of ecological contingencies, elements of reality are intertwined with both extrapolation and uncertainty in a worldbuilding exercise. Seeking to uncover relations, dynamics, and forms of negotiation between systems and different agents, the narrative is grounded in a number of encounters - relationships disrupted or forged in the last few decades. In the gamespace, these contact zones can be exaggerated to reveal often unexpected relations between agents across species, scales, and timeframes. Rather than taking a position that attempts a complete (and completely utopian) abandonment of anthropomorphic thinking, the project looks to adopt more encompassing and critical forms of thinking beyond the human.

section through the gas field
cinematic still — aerial view of the gasfield
gameplay still — the sound of a gas leak triggers the player’s attention, with an arrow appearing to guide the player to the target
gameplay still — the closer the player gets to objects of interest inside the gamespace, the more distorted they appear
gameplay still — player explores the source of gas leak
cinematic still — industrial closeup
cinematic still — natural gas storage facilities
cinematic still — natural gas storage facilities
cinematic still — inside natural gas storage tanks

At the scale of these infrastructures humans do not register; appearing just a discoloration, a dead pixel thoroughly embedded in the grain of technology and indistinguishable from the systems that surround us. The Carbon Liberation Front seeks out all of past life that took the form of fossilized carbon, unearths it, and burns it to release its energy. Fossil fuels that have taken millions of years to make are being consumed in the course of only a few hundred. After all, the Anthropocene runs on carbon. 

As permafrost across more than half of Russia thaws, entire cities are on the brink of deindustrialization and relocation. Critical oil and gas infrastructure is in danger of spills and malfunctioning as the ground destabilizes, while new resources are becoming accessible. Elsewhere, the migration routes of wild reindeer have shifted, while unfamiliar insects and plants inhabit the woods.