Science, art, & the environment: an interview with Don Hải Phú Daedalus

To simply call Don Hải Phú Daedalus a multimedia artist would fail to grasp the scope of what Daedalus does. Daedalus does not simply use different types of media to produce art; rather, his art is a product of skepticism for the world around him.

His self-described suspicion of information has produced in him a “motivation and inspiration for creative production” (Daedalus’ Artist Statement via donalddaedalus.art). Daedalus’ projects interact with the impacts scientific discoveries have had on individuals, society, and the environment.

Along with many of his other projects—Illinois River Project—is an “on-going investigation/intervention about the intersection of biodiversity and industrial pollution” (donalddaedalus.art). Illinois River Project disrupts how we view the historical phenomenon of the industrial revolution and the contemporary technological boom, particularly focusing on 19th century heavy metal pollution and present clean-up efforts. This project explores whether a hundred-year-old environmental disaster can be placated by the latest and greatest technologies. Daedalus complicates the notion of a societal “net gain,” as he describes it, being achieved from so-called technological advancements.

Daedalus’ work exists in a realm between the sciences and the arts, creating a bridge over the disciplinary lacuna many people in either discipline refuse to believe can be bonded. Daedalus gives space for those interacting with his projects to come to their own conclusions about what the continued use of resources means for humanity moving forward; but he encourages us to challenge the “human-thing entanglement,” as Ian Hodder has called it. (Hodder, Ian. “Human-thing entanglement: towards an integrated archaeological perspective.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 154-177, March 2011.)

Hodder writes, “The defining aspect of human entanglement with made things is that humans get caught in a double-bind, depending on things that depend on humans.” (Ibid.) Daedalus’ art says: We are entangled with the objects we believe will fix the environmental disasters we have already created. His art says: We can use more objects to absolve ourselves of our bad habits. And perhaps most profoundly, his art invites us to examine the role we play in the collective belief that integrating more technology will exonerate humanity of behavioral stagnation.

Writer Vanessa Maki had a chance to talk with Donald Daedalus about his most recent project, his artistic motivations, his process, and more.

triple balance scale
"The Law of Conservation of Value, no. 1"

Q: With your project that involves the antique triple balance scale, The Law of Conservation of Value, no.1, what has been the most challenging part of working on this?

A: The triple balance scale came out of my project of urban environmental remediation, the Illinois River Project. Generally, this project centers around the concept of pollution, how the pollution got in the urban environment, and how to bring elements such as lead (Pb) out of the category of pollution. I found that pollution is a category that shifts; it is the unintended material, the byproduct, of production or consumption. And both activities aim toward the accumulation of wealth. In the case of lead, we’re talking production in the 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly phasing out as lead was removed from gasoline. What the scale asks is this: now that we’re spending resources, often public funds, to clean up pollution, is the amount spent, along with the health problems and deaths due to production and consumption, equivalent, less, or more than the funds that were accumulated from that production and consumption?

Q: Tell me about what you hope your project will contribute to reconciling pollution and creating a better environment.

A: Our “advanced” American society is so enthusiastic about science and technology in the sense that it’s believed that this form of knowledge can solve any problem. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t believe in science at all. This unfortunate dichotomy leaves little room for the rational dissenter. Personally, I really like science, as I think you can see in my work, much of which relies on scientific research. As a symbolic artwork, it conveys a suspicion in the idea that there is such a thing as a net gain, particularly in the technological realm.

As we move into the era of Green Technology, I think this suspicion is especially useful and important. If we look at the example of solar panels: their increased accessibility has been contingent on greater demand and greater production, which resulted in lowered costs to the consumer. What seems like a good thing—the displacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy—is a worrying indicator that the mode of mass production and the logic of mass consumption continue to be the primary interlocutors in what really should be a discussion about reduced consumption, which is a behavioral change. Let me be clear: governmental change, such as the subsidies of renewable tech and disinvesting from fossil fuels are, I believe, net positive decisions. And that’s necessary.

Q: Overall what are your own hopes for pollution reconciliation? Whether it be from your own work or others?

A: The low-hanging fruit would be the regulation and remediation of biologically harmful pollution. What’s immediately lethal should be addressed. The more ambitious would be addressing superfund sites, but I doubt that, or even mass pollution repositories like landfills, will be addressed by this civilization or this country. Conceptually, pollution isn’t going to go away; it can only be moderated, because whatever is produced has byproducts.

The time scale that I’m thinking about is both in the near decades and the long future: millenia. Certainly, we’ve made some advancements in cleaning up certain types of pollution. The Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 isn't likely going to happen to America’s rivers today, but that was pollution from another era. Today’s production of polymers, microplastics, pharmaceuticals and soon nano-materials will create new pollutants, new ailments, and renewed need for remediation.

Q: What was it like creating your Pokémon sculptures?

A: Another aspect of the Illinois River Project concerned invasive species and their impact on biodiversity. A spinoff project, Lionfishing, focused on reef biodiversity and a beautiful fish with a negative impact.

The project consisted of a scuba diving and spearfishing competition to remove invasive species from coral reefs in Florida. It was a lot of fun. I didn’t win the competition but I was able to bring back enough venomous spines from the lionfish to make these sculptures. The spines of the lionfish appear as fangs in the pokémon.

Q: Of all your projects over the past several years—which one do you see having been most impactful?

A: That's a great question. If you mean having an impact on many individuals, I’d say the film which I shot in Graz, Austria last year, (Fragment of the) Empire Kanal. The film revolves around a controversial urban project along the Mur River. Essentially, a private hydropower plant was built and public funds were used for the renovation of the sewer system. It wasn’t clear whether the renovation was necessary, due to the hydropower plant, or whether the hydropower plant prioritized a much needed sewer renovation. That is, some saw the use of public funds for private business as a misappropriation, while others saw the private business as finally motivating an environmentally questionable sewer system.

The community was really divided and the screening was attended by lots of protesters whom I think found the event somewhat cathartic. I also saw folks from the opposing sides having what looked to be an amicable discussion.

I finished a shorter version in December 2019 and screened it in Austria. I’m still editing the feature-length version.

Q: What other art forms do you have interest in creating or do create from time to time? Have you worked on anything recently?

A: I’m interested in ancient art techniques because of the robust archival practices that have been developed around them. This is because, again, I’m thinking about decades and millenia simultaneously. Videos and most electronic arts, probably won’t survive the next century. Even artworks that depend on institutional preservation are less likely to persist than artworks that endure the weather.

Q: What’s next for you for this upcoming year? Anything you can talk about?

A: I plan to spend a duration in South East Asia in 2020. This will be a mixture of learning ancient art techniques with new materials and topics, as well as a mixture of terrestrial and aquatic.

I also hope to finally finish this feature-length version of the film, Empire Kanal.