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Arctic as a Laboratory of Transformation and Interconnection of Artists and Scientists

Arctic as a Laboratory of Transformation and Interconnection of Artists and Scientists

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An introduction to the Arctic

Since its 2008 inception, Laboratoria Art & Science Space has combined the trajectories of science and art through the initiation of joint projects for artists and scientists. The expedition organized by Cape Farewell in 2010 sparked our long-running interest in the Arctic, which has become a significant aspect of Laboratoria’s research.

The harsh, stark and seemingly lifeless polar regions are similarly attractive to scientists and artists. Here their interests converge: both contain elements of infinity, risk and romance. In their striving for greatness they are similar. In the name of knowledge, commitment to the truth, both the artist and the scientist are ready to endure hardships; to be tested, and despite the fact that perhaps their goals are different, their mutual desire for communication and collaboration are notable. The extreme conditions of the Arctic seem to become a kind of ‘laboratory’ or ‘incubator’, where both the artist and the scientist are able to share, to give each other time and attention, to learn to understand each other, without which scientific and artistic collaboration is impossible.

In 2010, I was fortunate to take part in the arctic expedition, which was organised by Cape Farewell to enable artists to experience the Arctic and dedicate themselves to the global problem of climate change. The one month expedition significantly altered me as a person, as I daresay it did the other participants: the Arctic involves a different system of coordinates, the world is perceived through a special lens, and with altered perception of sound – it’s as if your consciousness is cleansed. I wanted to preserve these memories and pass them on to those who have not yet been to the Arctic. This experience was the basis for the creation of the exhibition Ice Laboratory, which was held at Laboratoria Art & Science Space from December 2013 to February 2014. This exhibition and its artworks we shall consider in detail, but first let us return to the object of our observation – the arctic landscape, and the polar ecosystem.

Encountering and exploring the ice

The Cape Farewell expedition was special one – it was consisting of artists, musicians, poets, playwrights playwrites, writers, and scientists. Our goal was to study climate change and the disappearance of glaciers, as well as to search for artistic forms of to expressing these processes. Having stipulated a condition for ourselves neither to disturb the ecological balance of the Arctic nor to engage in any destructive processes –the very processes that had prompted the expedition to Cape Farewell – we consciously avoided using a nuclear-powered ship and instead, set out on an old sailing schooner, Noorderlicht, which in 2010 was exactly 100 years old. So it happened that like the great explorers Nansen, Amundsen, Scott and Peary, we gave ourselves over to the power of ice. We went where there is only ice, where the ice is “more than us,” or more accurately, to a place where “we” almost don’t exist. On the ninth day of our journey, we had an adventure worthy of the diaries of our great predecessors; we got caught in an icedrift driftice and a strong wind blew took us toward the cliffs. Our Norwegian captain, usually so firm and steadfast, got nervous and finally sent out an SOS. No more than an hour later, coast guard helicopters flew to the rescue from the distant scientific outpost, and threw us rope ladders. But suddenly, like in a fairytale, the wind changed as if to play with us: we broke free of the pack-ice, hit the open water and sailed off toward the glaciers. Thus we evaded the sad prospect of evacuation and continued on our journey along the western coast, eventually laying anchor in Liedfde fiord. We landed on the shore. The glacial shards thrown up by the tide were glinting and glowing. It was like being on another planet. Silence. Silence and ice, now the main feature of the landscape.

Some of the ice I saw is bright blue because of its high oxygen content; there are crimson streams in the white snow (because of iron). I also saw icebergs forming: they break off from their glacier with a tremendous crash and then slowly drift off onto the ocean. The ice was purple, bright blue, snow white, smooth and porous, surpassing anything I had ever known about it. It turns out that ice can vary so greatly that it comes as absolutely no surprise that peoples who live surrounded by among the ice have forty different names for it. The Chukchi, for example, make their plans for their days and months based on the state of the ice, so that the ice does not just hold the past but also a prognosis for the future. Ice is information.

But what seems crucial is not just the beauty of ice, but its vitality and strength. For all of the expedition’s participants, the most important thing was the state of mind that we had the chance to experience in this unpopulated silence and calm. Like a huge scientific laboratory, the ice allowed us to be astounded by all the qualities of its material… and of our own. In its power, we began to live and feel as if we were in a completely different system of coordinates, having liberated ourselves from whatever came before.

The research and observation of ice

The Arctic is an immersive zone, in which one’s mere presence gives an opportunity for self-reflection. It offers a unique, rare experience that can transform human consciousness. The arctic landscape is seemingly simple and minimalistic, but it’s very unstable – it may change every day and every hour beyond recognition. For example, bright blue crystal clear icebergs behave like massive sculptures – overnight they can transform into grayish lumps of ice. The observation method in the Arctic is a major element for both artists and scientists. It is important to note that whilst there, they observe not only objects and the landscape, but also each other, and themselves, which brings the system of observation to new levels.

According to Niklas Luhmann, observation is fully carried out if the result is recorded. Scientists involved in the expedition are observers of the first order. For example, the oceanographers and biologists in our expedition took measurements of flow rate, the level of salt in the ocean, the ice quality and quantity, and the presence of microorganisms in the water, which is the main indicator of life. The main objective of the exercise is to estimate and describe processes in relation to climate change. The scientists recorded these processes, and the artists saw their work during joint landings on glaciers. The scientists, in turn, explained the consequences of these changes. Thus, the artists were not just contemplaters, but observers of the second order – for them the objects of observation were both the scientists and the natural indicators of the Arctic environment, which they explored. In turn, the second-order observation – impressions and materials, the artistic interpretations of the scientific research that the artists gathered became the basis for their works. Contained in these works are valuable experiences and lessons learned in the process of interaction with scientists. Luhmann states: “Observation suggests an observer. The second-order observer sees the first order observer. But he does not see himself […]. Thus, there is a paradox here: an observer who can overcome the other observer.” And in our case, there is a third-order observer who becomes a scientist, watching an artist, or more precisely, rather the results of the artist’s observations, which appear in works of visual art, plays, songs and so on. These works reflect the reality of the other layers of the Arctic, where scientists recognise themselves.

The observation of the artist imitates the observations of scientists; it is to the same extent asymmetrical (i.e. it is a one-way, directed to the object of their observations). If observers do not go beyond their observations, the key change does not happen- the artist remains an artist, a scientist still observes an object. The turning point is the appearance of mutual observation, when a scientist recognises and begins to study the artist-observer.

It is specifically the moment that interaction appears that forms the basis for the practice of science-art – scientists and artists begin to influence each other, there is communication, transformation – a scientist responds to an artwork which results a reaction to his work.

The idea above can be illustrated with an example: the mutual observation of scientists and the Russian artist Leonid Tishkov, with whom I was in the Cape Farewell expedition in 2010. Like many members of the expedition from the world of art, Tishkov participated in the process with great interest – he was open to everything new that he saw and learned. He had no special, prior scientific knowledge regarding climate change or the environmental problems in the Arctic. During the expedition, and through participation in field observations, together with scientists, the artist, as an observer of the second order (according to our terminology) became a staunch defender of the Arctic. This is evidenced by his series of graphic works with a protest message, in which he urged for less no commercial interference in the Arctic region, the protection of the fauna of the Arctic, a ban oil drilling, the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, prohibition of the use of icebreakers in the Arctic, and much more (Figure 9). Tishkov believes that a person who has seen the indescribable beauty and vulnerability of nature, who has learned about the possible dramatic consequences of our actions, is obliged to follow their civic duty and to draw public attention to these problems, and to help to protect the Arctic. The scientists involved in the process saw the work of the artist, which is the result of his observations of their activities. As observers of the third order, scientists learn from the works themselves, see in them their activity as part of something on a more global scale. In the acts of the artist they often find support and understanding.

In the exhibition Ice Laboratory, Tishkov presented his Arctic Diary – an installation in which besides graphics, he exhibited a shabby globe he had found in the rubbish, and declared that our planet will become as battered and discarded as the globe if we do not save the Arctic. Scientists see their work through the prism of the artists’ works. From personal accounts, a global picture of what could happen to the planet emerges. Scientists are ready to collaborate with artists, because see them as adherents and advocates who can change the attitude of society to the problems of the Arctic. Artists are able to humanise the object of their study, and it provides added value to the studies of a scientist.

The concept of the Ice Laboratory exhibition

The main object of arctic research is ice and the factors that affect it. In terms of this idea, we can see the past, present and future of our planet. Ice retains many layers of information, and it became a key aspect for the development of Ice Laboratory exhibition.

Our attitude to ice is currently undergoing a serious shift. The fact that the ice is receding and threatening to alter our planet’s climate has encouraged us to begin to look more closely at these natural phenomena. The Laboratory of Ice provides a place facility to undertake conduct such examinations, analyses and experiments with ice “as it is” – beyond the way we usually know and imagine it.

First and foremost, ice is a material capable of transformation. As children we were all fascinated by the simple magic of the transformation of pliant pourable water into something ice – hard as rock and precious as crystal. Plus the ice that covered the rivers and ponds in winter made it possible to feel the speed and availability of new spaces. But now, as often happens in the city, the sense of wonder recedes into the background, and eventually all that seems to remain is the ice that we take out of the fridge. Alternatively the idea of ice as something ghastly and deadly often appears in world culture.

In his novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut tells of a scientific invention called Ice 9, a compound that sets off a chain reaction upon contact, turning water into ice. The accidental release of this fatal substance leads to the end of the world: the entire planet freezes over. Such apocalyptic visions of ice are not only typical for Vonnegut, but for European civilization at large, from antiquity to Dante and Andersen. Ice is an archetypal symbol for death and evil. But something in our collective unconscious has changed insofar as ice is concerned. Anxiety associated with the melting of glaciers lends this matter urgency and has turned it into a symbol of eternity, from something possessing a harsh and ruthless character into something that is fragile and defenceless. And scientists and glaciologists present ice in a new light.

Ice becomes life, memory and information. A grain of ice is a paradise for microorganisms, providing the best possible conditions for their survival. Covered by a thick sheet of ice, the depths of arctic lakes like the huge Lake Vostok hide lifeforms among the oldest on the planet, defended by the ice’s plate of armor, which now appears as a medium for a “primordial database”. Another fascinating detail in the life of ice is that it is layered like wood. Each layer of ice accumulates separately, so that ice carries information on each year of the planet’s climate. One drill sample of ice will allow glaciologists to determine the quality of winters and summers in the most distant times, and to ascertain reading the quantity and quality of precipitation and frost. Ice records life; its structure is that of a living planetary memory; it could be described as a world calendar that itself is life – a reservoir of fresh water, frozen unpopulated, silent, and solid at the planet’s poles.

The methodology of the scientific and artistic works

In these projects, artists together with glaciologists, oceanographers, biologists have been seeking comprehension of what is happening to the planet, which means to all of us, and an understanding of which new paths might be opened up to us by the silent and fragile Arctic. The Arctic embodies matter in its absolute, almost geometric purity, which seems to know no earthly shape or contour.

One might select multiple artistic approaches to the study of the phenomenon of ice, and on the basis of the classified work, conventionally divided into three groups, depending on how close the artist approaches the territory of science and how they transform their visual language, how much each of the the parties is involved in the process and what the nature of the intersection of art and science is in each case.

1. The symbiosis of art and science

Artists in this group interact with scientists, adapt scientific methods, are engaged in artistic interpretation of scientific data, and conduct scientific and artistic experiments, often using technology and developing a new visual language.

– Agnes Meyer-Brandis (Germany) fakes a journey into an iceberg with her project SGM Iceberg-Probe. The artist constructed a research station in the courtyard of Laboratoria in which viewers could lower a sensor into a well, exploring the wonderful properties and structure of ice in a poetic interpretation. The artist’s video of hidden icy depths turned into animation and real-time broadcasts on the screen.

[Figure 1]

– :: vtol :: (Russia) generates ice music. Cryophone is an algorithmic organ, an interactive musical instrument equipped with temperature sensors, vibration and gas analysers, with which the processes taking place with dry ice in contact with a warm environment are converted into harmonic consonance.

[Figure 2]

– Marko Peljhan (Slovenia) and Matthew Biederman (Canada) have designed a portable science station CDPDU, where field data is collected from satellites and spacecraft in real time. Measurements of the thickness of floating sea ice are generated in order to study the annual changes. It is partially a social project, as all the data is publicly available and can be used in polar conditions, b y those such as the population of those regions.

[Figure 3]

– Sophia Gavrilova (Russia) restores the integrity of the ice as a complex scientific and artistic object in her graphic card series Comprehensive Atlas of Ice. The artist is also a professional cartographer. Her work Comprehensive Atlas of ice unites the scientific and objective properties of ice (thermal conductivity, density, opacity) with the properties of the subjective and random (attractiveness, the dynamics of the spread of bubbles, poetry, melancholy).

[Figure 4]

– Alexei Blinov (Russia – Great Britain) together with glaciologist Ivan Lavrentiev created the hologram Open Source Vostok – an exact copy of the optical ice core taken at a depth of 3429 metres from the ancient Lake Vostok in Antarctica. Moreover, as a result of the artist’s idea, holograms will be used for the first time in the scientific study of ice. On the one hand, the method of holography allows us to see the hidden properties of a material, which is difficult to assess by eye and even with the help of machinery, and on the other – it turns ice into an aesthetic object, a sample of the structural memory of the planet.

[Figure 5]

– Shiro Takatani (Japan) displays hollow ice in his media-installation Ice core, which was collected at a depth of 2503 metres during an expedition to the station Dome Fuji (Antarctica). He combines minimalist video-imagery of ice with metric data of its age and depth. It is striking that this fragile, transparent fabric retains the memory of the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.

[Figure 6]

– The group Where dogs run (Russia) uses a boundless snowfield as the the site for their work. In this landscape the artists created an autistic system that is constantly engaged in permanent calculations with itself: snow balls, which contain robots inside, communicate with the help of GPS-navigators. As a prototype for the motion of snow balls the authors used the unsolved formula for the trajectory of the three bodies: the Earth, moon and sun. The snowfield for artists represents a laboratory, a neutral, abstract space, transferred to earth space.

[Figure 7]


2. Artist – activist

The artists in this group study the Arctic as a factor of socio-political and economic changes in society. They criticise the modern social system, actively advocating to preserve the fragile arctic balance. Their method becomes manifesto, actionism. Artists do not have the ability to stop the course of progress and prevent all ‘utilisation’ of the Arctic, but they can draw people’s attention to the disappearance of animals, melting glaciers and the thinning snow cover.

– David Buckland (United Kingdom) is an artist and the founder of the independent organisation Cape Farewell, the purpose of which is to inform others about the processes of climate change and glacier melt. This is achieved by the means of expression via art. During regular expeditions to the Arctic, he projects statements onto icebergs to reflect what is, in his opinion, the pervasive greed inherent in society. Some statements include: DISCOUNTING THE FUTURE, GREAT WHITE SALE, BURNING ICE.

[Figure 8]

– Leonid Tishkov (Russia) created the autobiographical piece Arctic Diary during an expedition. It is a story about the incredibly beautiful, magical world of the Arctic, which is on the verge of death. It contains excerpts from scientific texts and works of William Blake. The poster works coexist with lyrical sketches. Arctic Diary is a vivid example of social graphics.

[Figure 9]

– Francesca Galeazzi (Italy) criticises the policy of “carbon offsets”. In her campaign Justifying bad behavior, she empties a tank of carbon dioxide onto the ice on a pristine location in Greenland. The legality of these actions is confirmed by a special certificate. Its action symbolises the dual position of modern man, who frequently violates ethical law using legal permits. (Ill.: Galeazzi)

[Figure 10]

– Olga Kiseleva (Russia – France) created a computer program called Arctic Conquistadors, in which we see that the Arctic – a new Eldorado – is now being remapped by stakeholders, whether private or public corporations, governmental or non-governmental bodies. When she speaks of global conquest, the artist has in mind the impact of the current situation, the intertwining interests of geopolitical forces. The artist compares the interests of the oil and energy companies with the interests of the European powers in the era of great conquests.

[Figure 11]


3. Artist – visionary

Artists who form the third group participated in expeditions, in the icy spaces they increasingly took their inspiration for the creation of new plastic images, metaphors and poetic utopias.

– Artist and submariner Alexander Ponomarev (Russia) witnessed a remarkable phenomenon during an expedition to Antarctica – vanishing mirages. This led him, together with the architect Alexey Kozyr, to develop the project Mirage Architecture. They created museum-ships capable of responding to changes in the environment, of moving from continent to continent, and, like a float, changing position from vertical to horizontal. Each of the two museums is an installation with a floating exhibition space located below or above the water level; its external side flows and can be made of ice. These installations interact with the climatic and atmospheric conditions, continuing the ideas of Gottfried Semper. Over time, the installation can be affected by the same temperamental atmosphere that is able to send whole ships and submarines to the cemetery at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

[Figure 12]

– In 2013, Laboratoria included Natalia Zintsova (Russia) in a glaciological expedition to Elbrus. The artist took part in a project together with climbers and scientists who helped rebuild the trails to the Everest ascents: Chogori, Lhotse, Annapurna and Broad Peak – a total of 14 vertices. Made of metal and assembled into a single composition, the trail ascents outline in relief symbolic and imaginary mountains. The thin lines create the appearance of cold stress, a visible embodiment of the efforts and aspirations of humans testing their limits as far as possible in hostile conditions: in the thin air at extremely low temperatures, at a dizzying height; and often only because they – these heights – ‘exist’.

[Figure 13]

– Mikhail Rozanov (Russia) took part in a scientific expedition to the Antarctic, which became for him a “galaxy” of visual and optical effects, opening new parameters of depth, glow, colour, distance, field, texture and scale. Gone are the familiar feelings of space and time. His photographs depict impressive grand white icebergs, black lava from volcanoes, contrasting images of the world, which, according to the artist, is a “monotony of the highest order”.

4. Artist – interpreter

The fourth group is comprised of artists who interpret phenomena and the physical processes of ice.

– The sculptural object Black Ice by Maria Koshenkova (Russia – Denmark) is an icebound, uneven mirror through which sharp icicles grow. The artwork is an allusion to the glaciological term “black ice”, the most dangerous and deceptive kind of ice. The distorted, fragmented image in the mirror transmits the fear of physical and inner pain, reflecting in it the human fragility of earthly existence.

[Figure 14]

– Arkady Nasonov (Russia) introduced new technology into the classical image of the iceberg in the sea by Ivan Aivazovsky. Part of the canvas is covered with real ice from water spray, and from the cloud mass steam flows. In this work Nasonov gives Aivazovsky’s Iceberg new life – he restores the balance of the three aggregate states of water, which wilfully rampage in this picture, accompanied by chemical and physical processes.

[Figure 15]


Some conclusions

In arctic investigations, science and art are not opposed, but rather complement each other as a means of self-affirmation – the acceptance of ideologies that give meaning to words, things, and social actions. Now, in today’s culture, we can discern a tendency towards interdisciplinary interaction and convergence; this is also reflected in our arctic histories. However for the perfect symbiosis of art and science, one must create a meta-language – a single system that would be understood by those skilled in different spheres, for example, both scientists and artists alike.

To create an equal dialogue and a symbiosis of art and science can not be only at the request of an artist, scientist or curator. The motivation of all parties concerned is required, as well as that of those professionals who work directly with the elaboration of a new language and understanding its necessity. Input from linguists, anthropologists, philosophers would be required in order to create a new system of meta-language adequate to describe the new processes. To quote one of the exhibition consultants, the anthropologist Konstantin Bogdanov: “Science, art, and literature are still ideological in that they produce ‘keywords’ and ‘key images’, defining the strategy and tactics in orientation to anticipate the future. Ice Laboratory as a scientific and artistic project is a good example of just such anticipation.”

The “Arctic Laboratory” is an ideal space for such a convergence. In the Arctic, scientists are becoming more open to artistic experiments, they are inspired by artistic vision. It might be said that the arctic zone is like space – researchers situated there feel somewhat like poets and heroes. Artists, in turn, have an interest in the scientific methods and research being carried out in order to gain insight into the true nature and essence of the processes taking place on our planet. The Arctic is becoming a litmus test, showing the state of society as a whole.

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Daria Parkhomenko, « Arctic as a Laboratory of Transformation and Interconnection of Artists and Scientists », [Plastik] : Arctique #05 [en ligne], mis en ligne le 19 juin 2017, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL :

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