Feedback Loops - PhMuseum

Feedback Loops

Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping

2015 - Ongoing


Feedback Loops presents works from Dobrowolska’s and Ormond-Skeaping’s ongoing body of work on The Tibetan Plateau that began in 2012, which highlights the region's geo-political and climatic importance.

Known as the Third Pole the Tibetan Plateau plays a crucial role in global climate and the Asian water cycle. Rising temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau has resulted in rapid glacial retreat and desertification as the permafrost melts and the fragile grass lands deteriorate. As the water tower of Asia dries up hydropolitical tension is increasing in Asia and the plateaus influence on the formation of high pressure systems in Eurasia is felt as far away as Europe where summer heat waves have broken all records.

Working with medium format film cameras Dobrowolska and Ormond-Skeaping depict the high altitude plains, geological formations, glaciers, inhabitants and manmade topographies of the Tibetan Plateau surveying development, pollution, desertification and glacial retreat. Exploring the region’s cultural history they intertwine the ecological and cultural significance of the Plateau, a place revered as the symbolic threshold of human exploration, spirituality and as a crucial climatic component in global warming with the intention of considering how to represent human natural hybrid systems.

Dobrowolska’s and Ormond-Skeaping’s diptychs and triptychs not only suggest phenomenological state change but also comment on the near invisible condition of changes that are inherent to climate change, socio-political change or psychological change.

The construction of sequences is also intended to highlight Dobrowolska’s and Ormond-Skeaping’s ongoing negotiation with the documentary mode of representation by presenting the viewer with multiple representations of the same subject.

Struck by the intangibility of geological, social-political, economic, climate and ecological systems that are visible yet unimaginable Dobrowolska and Ormond-Skeaping document site specific traces that reveal the impact these global systems have upon the landscape of the Tibetan Plateau and the phenomena that feedback into the same systems.

Dobrowolska and Ormond-Skeaping intend the idea of feedback to imply that every action humanity takes has consequences that feedback through these global systems and return to shape the future in a way we cannot foresee.

The projects name “Feedback Loops” derives from Jay Forester’s cybernetic systems theory. The mechanism of feedback allows scientist to see the way in which the earth’s dynamic systems influence one another in order to predict unforeseen changes and interrelations. This mechanism has been applied to many branches of science, especially climatology, where it is a fundamental part of the mechanics of global warming.

Teo Ormond-Skeaping (born 1987, UK ) & Lena Dobrowolska (born 1985, Poland) are a Polish British artist collaboration working with conceptual documentary photography and artist film currently living and working in both England and Poland.

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    The motorcycle and the mobile phone have increased mobility and communication within the most remote communities of the Tibetan Plateau in the last 20 years. Replacing the Tibetan horse as both status symbol and primary mode of transport and haulage, motorcycles are often adorned with traditional decoration or modern decorations and customised with sound systems. Unlike the cultural symbol of the motorcycle in the western world which is intrinsically linked to notions of: freedom, rebellion and individualistic exploration the motorcycle in the developing world is a utilitarian work horse that is affordable, low maintenance and usually less regulated, that facilitates a further reduction in the developmental divide by mobilising people.


    The proper disposal of domestic waste within the logistically challenging environment of the Tibetan Plateau is hampered by the implication of poor waste management strategies in remote communities. The lack of waste management education given to individuals has resulted in the practice of disposing waste in the landscape and burning rubbish within communities.
    The burning of rubbish in open fires is endemic in the developing world; it is currently thought that 40% of the world’s rubbish is disposed in this way, emitting gases and particles that can substantially affect human health and climate change. Pollutants such as particulates, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and mercury are released as rubbish is burnt.


    Tibetan youth identity, music, fashion and culture manifests as a hybrid of the traditional and contemporary, as folk heritage, mass media and consumerism are combined. Depending upon the remoteness of the community, a factor which dictates the availability of fashionable clothing, music, electronics and internet access, youth identity leans towards one or the other. The relatively recent and abrupt introduction to the western ideas of modernity, has led to friction between the idealised image of the contemporary man and the orientalised, timeless imagining of the “traditional” .
    The almost overwhelming challenge of being young and middle class is compelling young Tibetans to pursue consumer desires that are unattainable within the economic constrains of herding or
    subsistence farming lifestyles. As a result young Tibetans increasingly infatuated with idealised modern identity, choose to leave their communities in search of better economic prospects or instead turn to destructive behaviour to help deaden the fear of being excluded from modernity witch consequently increasingly excludes them from the tradition lifestyle of their people.


    Also dubbed the “Water Tower of Asia” The Tibetan Plateau is home to the sources of the majority of the major rivers that flow throughout Asia providing water for one third of the world’s population. The Gangues, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze rivers all begin on the high altitude plateau fed by glacial melt water and the water retained by the Plateau’s wet lands. The water tower is drying up as the water retaining capacity of the plateau decreases due to the degradation of grasslands and wetland environments, the melting of permafrost and the recession of the Plateau’s glaciers. Apart from the environmental damage to the plateau itself and the related climatic implications, the sociopolitical and economic consequences of a reduction in the amount of water entering the Asian water cycle are likely to be severe. This is because some of the world’s poorest people depend on Asia’s rivers to survive, the world’s two fastest growing economy’s depend on river water for industrial activity, and there is a real danger that the additional strain upon the regions already tense hydropolitical relations could result in the escalation of disputes over the control of water sources into the world’s first water war.


    In Tibetan tradition the Tibetan Plateau is said to contain the body of Sri Sinmo the earth spirit and mother of all Tibetans. As a destructive demoness Sri Sinmo was responsible for the earthquakes that destroyed the earliest Buddhist temples built upon the plateau which inhibited the grounding of the Dharma upon the Tibetan Plateau. As a result the demoness was subdued and pinned down by the greatest Tibetan temples but still continues to have an ongoing geomantic influence upon the plateau releasing earthquakes, landslides and other disasters when annoyed .
    In progressive Tibetan culture the supine goddess buried beneath the Tibetan Plateau has come to symbolise the interconnected environmental and climatic systems that take place upon the geological body of the Tibetan Plateau. As a metaphorical geo-body the plateau is affected by global warming, development, over population and industrialisation and responds by releasing landslides and floods, by drying up and decertifying, and through the presentation of erratic weather.


    In Tibetan culture incense offering is an integral part of the appeasement of gods and protective deities which are invited to remove defilements from the lives of those that live within the human world. A mixture of barley flower or barley grains (Tsampa) and juniper are burnt together upon alters at sacred sites. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are continuing to be rebuilt to replace those lost in the Cultural Revolution and to cater for new Buddhist followers from the Chinese middle class and the domestic tourist boom. The domestic tourist trade has also encouraged the building of new Buddhist cultural monuments at popular tourist sites. At newly built sites or those without established alters, temporary ones are constructed from left over building materials or castoffs such as tar barrels and concrete blocks from nearby developments and infrastructure project.


    Often referred to as the “Third Pole” the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountains retain the largest amount of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. A comprehensive environmental
    assessment of the plateau has found that the region is getting hotter, wetter and more polluted, resulting in rapid glacial recession. Glaciers are not only melting because of a rise in temperature but also because dust, black carbon, heavy metals and other toxic compounds are being blown in from China, India, Africa, Europe and southern Asia. The dust and carbon residues are darkening glaciers, making them more susceptible to melting as the reflectivity of the ice is reduced and they absorb more heat. As the ice melts the heavy metals and other toxic compounds enter the water cycle where they pollute drinking water substantially affecting human health, and adversely affect crops, livestock and wildlife. This reduction in the reflectivity of the snow and ice on the Tibetan Plateau significantly contributes to global warming, as less heat is being reflected and lost from the Earth’s atmosphere and more heat is absorbed by the plateau. This results in a local temperature rise which in turn melts more snow and ice resulting in further local and global temperature rise which in turn melts more snow and ice globally which raises sea levels, disrupts ocean thermohaline currents and warms the oceans which in turn raises air temperature and therefore perpetuates the cycle.


    China’s Western Development strategy has included the development of infrastructure that aims to improve transport links, energy production, and telecommunications upon the Tibetan Plateau.
    The strategy is intended to balance the economic divide between the East and West of China by enticing foreign investment and encouraging industrial and tertiary activity like tourism to take place. Electricity, mobile phone and internet connectivity has significantly enhanced communication in remote locations upon the Tibetan Plateau.
    Now portable solar panels store energy during the day under the intense solar radiation of the plateau out side of tents which at night emanate the blue green light of LED lighting, portable television or entertainment systems instead of the orange glow of the cooking fire. Numerous internet salons are now found within semi-urban areas upon the plateau, where among other users, teenage monks may be found playing first person shooter and other online games.
    Rather than shunning the advance of technology most Tibetans have embraced the opportunity to spread culture domestically and internationally, contemporary culture such as music videos are shared with others through social networking sites such as QQ and WeChat and traditional culture such as Tibetan Buddhist teachings are disseminated through online lessons in Tibetan and Chines.


    There are currently three contrasting Tibetan cultural identities being presen- ted simultaneously on the international stage. One by those Tibetans actually in the Tibetan Areas in China, one by the Chinese Government and one by the Tibetan Government in Exile who is based in India.
    Those in the Tibetan Areas in China present an image that suggests some desire to modernise and create a progressive contemporary culture, combining the traditional with modern aspects of living, while others express a strong opposition to the oppression of cultural and religious freedoms through varying degrees of protest. The Chinese Government present an image of successful modernisation and integration that champions the positive aspects of development on the Tibetan Plateau. The Tibetan Government in Exile presents a traditional image of Tibetan culture and its people that centres upon the spiritual and cultural significance of the Tibetan Plateau and a continuing struggle for “middle way” autonomy. This crisis of identity is one of the factors that have led to the radicalisation of cultural identity and to extremism amongst


    In 2003 an ecological migration scheme launched to relocate 2.25 million nomads from the Tibetan Plateau into relocation centres. According to Chinese state media, this program aims to restore the grasslands, prevent overgrazing and improve living standards based upon a comprehensive environmental assessment of the plateau. The Tibetan government-in-exile says the scheme does little for the environment and is aimed at clearing the land for mineral extraction and moving potential dissident citizens into urban areas where they can be more easily controlled.
    Many of the nomadic Tibetans affected by the scheme have expressed a desire to modernize and settle but find that once settled; promised subsidies are less that agreed upon and there is little in the way of work in the resentments. As a result there has been an increase in social problems in the resettlement centers such as alcoholism and unemployment that are likely to fuel greater social unrest. Many Tibetans have turned to collecting caterpillar fungus to supplement the subsidies given by the state. Climate discourse has often served as a framing devise for other issues and can be deployed to naturalise problems: turning “matters of social concern into matters of natural fact”. This strategy is often used to justify ill-founded legislation and frequently imposes conditions that amount to human rights violations throughout the world.


    The Tibetan Plateau is one of the most unique geological formations on Earth. With an average elevation in excess of 5,000m (16,400 ft) over an area the size of 2.5 Million Square kilometres, it dwar- fs all other plateaus on earth. The plateau is the consequence of the collision of India with the ancient southern margin of Asia some 40-70 million years ago. The continuing penetration of India into the rest of Asia has caused the formation of mountains thousands of kilometres to the north and the east of the Himalaya, and is to some extend responsible for the high level of seismicity throughout the region. More recently in terms of geological history the Tibetan Plateau has been shaped by the last two ice ages, the first of which the plateau played a significant role in inducing. The sudden rising of the plateau created a large new cooling surface which significantly cooled the earth’s climate initiating the Pleistocene ice age. What would be Earth’s strongest heating surface and most likely desert if it had not risen owing to its location in a sub-tropical zone had turned into the largest cooling surface outside of the poles as the plateau’s snow and ice caps reflected heat out of the earths atmosphere.
    Geological evidence of the last two ice ages appears in various forms upon the Tibetan Plateau, including rock scouring and scratching, glacial moraines, post glacial U shape valleys, and the depo- sition of till or tillites and glacial erratics. The Earth is currently in an interglacial period, and the last glacial period or ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. The next ice age should begin within 1,500 years but human emissions of greenhouse gasses will most likely defer the next ice age as global warming prevents the reduction in global temperatures required for a glacial period to begin. This important hypothesis aligns with the ongoing definition of the current geological epoch or Anthropocene thesis, which implicates humanity as geological force.


    The release of Black carbon, a product of the incomplete combustion of fossil and bio fuels, other aerosols and dust is significantly contributing to the reduction of snow and ice cover, the infrequency of precipitation and extreme weather upon the Tibetan Plateau and within the Himalaya.
    The release of Black carbon and other particulates leads to a darkening of snow and ice caps which in turn reduces solar reflectivity and increases melting as snow and ice absorb more heat.
    Melting also releases pollutants into water sources, such as heavy metals, Sulphur dioxide and mercury contained within soot and dust which then enter the food chain through livestock, cultivated crops and vegetation. Whilst air born Black carbon heats the air around it changing the heating profile and affecting convection which leads to erratic precipitation and more extreme and irregular weather patterns. The local, national and international release of Black carbon, aerosols and particulates are contributing to the phenomena as diesel vehicles, domestic sources, industry and the burning of waste and biomass release Black carbon, while desertification, mining, construction and road building relating to China’s Western Development Strategy on the Tibetan Plateau create dust. The total overall reduction of reflectively of the Tibetan Plateau contributes to cli- matic changes that affect the formation of high pressure systems as far away as Eurasia and Europe, while a change in the heating profile and increasing convection leads to droughts in Northern China and floods in Southern China and contributes to more erratic Asian and Indian monsoons.


    The Desertification of the Tibetan Plateau’s grasslands is accelerating climate change.
    Without grass and other vege- tation the plateau is less able to absorb moisture and more likely to radiate heat. Partly because of this the Tibetan plateau has warmed two to three times faster than the global average, as a result large areas of permafrost within the plateau are melting releasing carbon dioxide and methane further contributing to global warming. The desertification of the Tibetan Plateau has been caused by a number of factors, the most significant of which are:
    a reduction in the consistency of the monsoon and the warming of the plateau. Other factors include intensive grazing, mining and industrial activity and the building of infrastructure and the development of urban areas. The fragile degraded grassland quickly turns into dust when disturbed which blows to other areas, smothering grass and darkening glaciers and snow caps, which in turn reduces the number of wetlands and other forms of vegetation. A growing population of pika, gerbils, mice and other rodents is also partly to blame for the degradation of the land because they burrow into the soil to eat grass roots; killing grasses and destabilising the structure of the fragile top soil. Rodent numbers have increased dramatically in the last ten years because their natural predators: hawks, eagles and leopards have been hunted close to extinction. Those zoologists observing the Tibetan Plateau have indicated that this illustrates how ecosystems can quickly move out of balance.


    The information retained within by the layers of glacial silt deposited yearly on the bed of lake Xinluhai or Yilhun Lhatso has become an important source of evidence that the South Asian monsoon has become more erratic and less consistent in the past 160 years due to rising temperatures. The more erratic monsoon produces severe weather conditions which are often not in keeping with seasonal norms, this results in flooding, subsidence and damage to crops and the sensitive slow growing vegetation of the Tibetan Plateau. Chinese scientists take core samples from the lake bed to examine the varves or rhythmic units of light coloured silt layers capped by a dark clay layer under a microscope. A general decrease in varve thickness indicates that the level of precipitation falling in one year is less as sediment accumulation is strongly affected by monsoon rainfall in the area. Local Tibetan legend has it that Zhumu, the beloved concubine of the famous hero Gesar in the Tibetan epic „King Gesar”, was so affected by the beauty of the landscape in and around the lake that she could not tear herself away from it. So she decided to stay with the lake forever and sunk beneath into the lake. In honor of Zhumu, the local Tibetan people named the lake Yilhun Lhatso, Yilhun meaning “the heart falls for”, and Lhatso; „holy lake” and continue to honour her by using power tools to carve the rocks that surround the lake with the mantra “Om mani padme hum”.


    The glacial ecosystem dose not only include the glacier it’s self but a complex system of adjacent elements that are also sensitive to anthropogenic activity and other phenomenon that place glaciers at risk. The glacial ecosystem includes such elements as: geological formations (rocks), flora, fauna and other biological organisms in its immediate surroundings, water, snow and ice that accumulate above or upon or near it and the air and atmosphere within which it sits. Any single element of the ecosystem may be affected by human actively either directly or indirectly at a great distance which would in turn affect the whole system.
    As a geological force the glacier is responsible for the creation of a number of prominent features within the alpine landscape. Features such as post glacial lakes, glacial rock formations, waterfalls, moraines, and rivers all result from the force exerted by the glacier, its ablation and the deposition of material as it advances and retreats. The features created by the glacier during its active period hugely influence the whole alpine ecosystem by providing diverse habitat, water and fertile ground within which a large biodiversity may develop.

  • 2.35:1, HD large scale installation ( 3 screen, 39min) or cinema screening, 56 Min, 2014.