Climate Art from the High Arctic: The Eight Cape Farewell Expeditions


Since 2003, the Cape Farewell project has led eight expeditions to the High Arctic aboard the schooner Noorderlicht. Over 60 artists and 18 scientists have witnessed and explored the reality of climate change and how it is affecting this wild and fragile ecosystem. The “creatives” have produced numerous artworks, novels, music and films with public facing works that have engaged the public worldwide, creating a new climate based language that brings the often-abstract notions of climate change into focus on a human scale. Drawing on the action-research programme of expeditions and commissions developed by this interdisciplinary arts organization Cape Farewell, this paper clarifies through artworks, the essential role of the cultural voice and it’s importance in motivating public action to mediate the dangers of climate change. We argue that a real cultural shift of values, beliefs, economies and ambition is required if we are all to avoid the dangerous consequences of global warming. The Cape Farewell project demands that we use our creative efforts towards achieving transformative action and accept the responsibility of the human role in this anthropocene age, a symbiotic partnership with natural forces.


action based research, culture, creative, cultural shift, anthropogenic, complexity, symbiosis, embodied knowledge.

Climate Art from the High Arctic: The Eight Cape Farewell expeditions.

“Cape Farewell artworks strive to make sense of the impossible magnitude of the Arctic and the even vaster conceptual language of climate change.”{{Beth Kapusta, Canadian Art, Fall 2011}}
Noorderlicht. 78.55N 12.00E, 2004
“Is it possible for art to become central to the inspiration and purpose of Art? The earliest bit of human material culture is deeply imbedded with the sense of continuance, of art being a tool for survival. And that model is one we have to return to, and I think it does mean that we have to in some sense jettison our 18th century Enlightenment idea about culture. Culture can no longer identify itself as separate to nature, and we have to put the notion of human survival back as the focus and purpose of art.”{{Antony Gormley the Cape Farewell ‘10’ Workshop, London 2010}} On May 28th, 2003, the schooner Noorderlicht sailed north from the port of Tromso, the first of eight Cape Farewell arctic expeditions. Leaving the shelter of the fiord, we sailed into the teeth of an Arctic storm that raged for five days. Of the crew of twenty only four were left standing as we broke through a skin of ice when we entered the fiord in southern Spitsbergen. Instant calm descended and slowly the artists and scientists onboard emerged to celebrate the summer arctic night with the sun shining directly overhead. Sound artist Max Eastley lowered hydrophones through the ice as a wave of incredulity spread from the headphones and across his face. Bearded seals were mating “en mass”, sending a cacophony of unbelievable sounds through the ocean. Eerie high-pitched sounds held for over a minute met flights of other sounds as the animals indulged in sexual ecstasy. The cold desolate setting, the midnight sun, the snow and ice landscape, the transforming sound – the High Arctic magic had begun. Art has the capability, when it is at the top of its form, to distil such magic, turning the awesome raw beauty of The Arctic into a human scale narrative. The ask from Cape Farewell of the “creatives” was to rise to this challenging reality, incorporate the complex language of climate change and craft artworks that are public facing, inspirational, transformative and visionary. The High Arctic is at the front line of all our concern and fears about climate change, a most precious wilderness of ice that is deeply affected by our warming planet. We have entered into the Anthropocene, where the force of human existence is equal to the natural forces that govern our planet; it is almost unimaginable that feverish human activity is melting the whole of the northern ice cap, irretrievably. On each of the eight Cape Farewell expeditions since 2003 aboard the sailing schooner Noorderlicht, the crew of artists, scientists and film crews aboard have struggled to witness, interrogate and create. The challenge thrown down to the “creatives” is to absorb the complexity of climate science, be inspired by the harsh desperately cold environment of The Arctic and craft artworks that address what it means to be human in the anthroprocene age, attendant with all the baggage of empirical knowledge and a sense of foreboding. Art can triumph where complexity overwhelms the rational mind. Storytellers, C. S. Lewis said, carry meaning in a way that rational truth-tellers cannot. “For me,” the novelist wrote, “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” The 10 years of arctic voyaging by Cape Farewell has witnessed a flood of outpouring of creative endeavour and art. Over a hundred artists and creatives, two major worldwide tour expeditions, two broadcast films, books, poetry, ice works, conceptual art and installations. All witness to The Arctic under threat. “What chance has human existence if we cannot even protect the poles of our planet, our habitat.”{{Ian McEwan}} “The pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of our desires and needs are generating a heat—the hot breath of our civilisation. How can we begin to restrain ourselves?” wrote novelist Ian McEwan, after visiting the melting Arctic ice on a Cape Farewell voyage. “We resemble a successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a fruit. We are fouling our nest, and we know we must act decisively, against our immediate inclinations.”{{Ian McEwan, The U-N-F-O-L-D exhibition, 2011 – 14}} Ian McEwan wrote “Solar” five years after he was on the 2005 Cape Farewell arctic expedition, initially struggling to find the narrative hook, a novelistic form for a climate narrative. Other artists immediately responded. Antony Gormley cast himself in ice; a sculpture left on the frozen seas only to be consumed by summer ice melt. He also worked with the architect Peter Clegg tirelessly for five days to make “Three Made Places”. The initial form was provided by Peter, a coffin that represents one kgm of CO2 by volume. This human scale container was then tipped vertically to make the smallest possible human shelter, carved from snow blocks. Hard edged – we are the only animal to build hard edged habitats – and finally the third “made” place, a snow cavern carved into a snow bank, a ship’s company refuge should our boat catch fire, a place of survival.
Antony Gormley Peter Clegg, Three Made Places. 78.30N 16.30E, 2005
Sculptor Alex Hartley made a discovery. Beguiled by the names of places on the islands of Svalbard – Russian, Nordic, English, French – he searched to claim a piece of land not yet named. As the glaciers retreat, sometimes islands of moraine are left and Alex searched for six days from the schooner Noorderlicht to find such a place. Finally, in front of the Sonklarbreen glacier, which had retreated or melted by over a kilometre in a few decades, he sighted from the boat an island of moraine. Leaving the mother ship in an inflatable boat he set out to land, conquer and claim his island. A film crew witnessed his landfall, he measured his island, the size of a football field, built a cairn and buried a tin containing his claim. This simple beginning led to ten years of work and in September this year we celebrated this first initial claim. In 2014 the story had just began on this ice strewn shore, Alex then set about the legal claim which went all the way up to the Norwegian government, their first such claim in a hundred years all because of our warming planet revealed new land, new opportunity to name and claim, to own. His initial wall sized artwork exhibited the photographs and legal documents, geographical, visual process of his artwork. “Nymark” became a larger work where he retrieved two tons of the island and built a new island (Nowhere Island) which was towed along the coast of U.K. inviting the public to claim citizenship and a passport of a place that exists because of climate change. In the time of the anthropocene do we have the individual right to own a place, to use it as we see fit, or what value the commons and the rights of the community?

Climate is Culture.

The scientists have done a heroic job in highlighting the peril and dangers of climate change. If we continue to use fossil fuels as our source of energy, wilfully burning nature’s carefully stored excess carbon dioxide, then the scientific facts are clear, we will cause irrefutable damage to our habitat for future generations. In this frozen north I worked with the marine biologist Dr Debora Iglesais-Rodriguez to comprehend the changes to The Arctic seas due to warming. We think of the Arctic as ice but unlike Antarctica, it is sea, a northern ocean that will be navigable as open water within a few decades. Dr Debora Iglesais-Rodriguez is a world-renowned scientist specialising in ocean acidification and the study of marine life, notably cocolithaphores, which we all rely on for nature’s balance. Our oceans absorb 70% of the carbon dioxide we humans release, the oceans are the lungs of the planet and are becoming dangerously acidic, as we demand that they absorb ever-increasing amounts of CO2. As we sailed north of the eightieth parallel, to within 600 miles of the North Pole, Debora sampled the oceans for life. As an artist this scientific work was an essential narrative and Debora and I worked to take the essence of her scientific work and transform it into art. On her return to her laboratory at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, she subjected her samples to an electron microscope and found that we had discovered the most northerly cocolithaphore ever found, a sample that was stressed and deformed, probably by ocean acidification. These plants are four microns small, they are impossible to see except with an electronic microscope, they are also sculpturally fantastic, a miracle of nature. They breathe in CO2 and convert it biologically to calcium carbonate – chalk. Every white chalk cliff you see is just piled high dead shells of cocolithaphores, millions of years of carbon sequestration on a scale many times larger than the Amazon forests. Debora and I work on our collaboration to make an artwork which would be exhibited at the EDF galleries in Paris in 2012 as part of the Carbon12 exhibition. We constructed a chalk floor, 5 centimeters thick that represented 10 thousand years of careful carbon sequestration by nature.
Exhibition Carbon 14, EDF Foundation Gallery Paris, 2012
Exhibition Carbon 14, EDF Foundation Gallery Paris, 2012
Debora wrote her scientific explanation on a ten metre blackened wall, illustrated with drawings of the cocolithaphores. These texts and drawings were made with chalk, basically using the shells and calcium carbonate of dead cocothithaphores to tell the scientific story of their own demise. Next to the chalk floor in cabinets, chalk shards are preserved, each imprinted with the visual records of human and natural procreations.
Cocolithaphore on Chalk Shard, 2012
The science of climate change is so complicated and in the work Debora is doing, most of it lies beneath the sea surface and is a hidden activity. The importance of carbon capture by cocolithaphores and ocean acidification are at the pinnacle of the scientific agenda, if these natural systems fail then all humanity will become beyond its sustainable tipping point. The arts intervention is one way of making this essential scientific work public facing and only by bringing it to public attention can we expect action to mitigate this science as a doom scenario. Each of the expeditions has their own unique identity, we have explored east and west Greenland and circumnavigated Spitsbergen three times, on board were creatives and artists from the complete spectrum of activity. Poets, painters, sculptors, musicians both contemporary and classical, novelists, performance artists, film makers, choreographers, architects, craftsmen, actors, photographers and sound artists each of whom embraced the scientists and their detailed quests for data and knowledge of a planet under threat. In our rarefied enclosed reality of the sailing ship we carried the soul of humanity as we ventured through this disappearing ice reality.

What price value?

Against this polar landscape two artists explore, with very different narratives, what we in our societies constitute as valuable. Sophie Calle with the third of her mothers eulogies and Dan Harvey with “Polar Diamond”.
Ackroyd & Harvey, Polar Diamond, 5.34 - 5.37 x 3.20mm, 2009
Dan Harvey found the skeleton of a polar bear in West Greenland and on his return to the U.K. he sent it to Chicago to be ‘carbonised’. Dan had heard that it was possible to “carbonise” your deceased loved ones and have their carbonised bones subjected to intense pressure for a four-month period to end up with a real diamond. This diamond, made from the polar bear bone was exhibited at the Royal Academy in November 2009. Cased in a secure structure, a tiny diamond constitutes value but what value do we place on the polar bear from which it was made? Sophie Calle’s work also entailed diamonds, this time the ring of her recently deceased mother, a very emotionally charged object. Sophie buried this ring and a string of pearls under a glacier high on the western coast of Greenland: “I buried my mother’s jewels on the Northern Glacier. We were lucky. A few meters south and they would have landed on Starvation Glacier. My mother had a dream to go to the North Pole. She died two years ago with her dream intact. I guess that’s why she never went. Last year I was invited in the Arctic, and the reason I went was to take her there. In my suitcase: her portrait; her white and red Chanel necklace and her diamond ring. During the war my grandfather, who was hiding out in the mountains of Grenoble, was afraid a building he owned in the city would be seized, and swapped it for a diamond ring. Not a good deal. My grandmother did not talk to him for a year. But kept the ring all the same. I waited to reach the northernmost place on this trip, a place where I could go ashore to bury my mother’s jewels. Laurie, my cabin mate on the boat, suggested that if the weather was not permitting, I could still flush the ring down the toilet. The prospect would have made my mother laugh. But the weather was fine. I chose a beautiful stone in the middle of the shore and buried the portrait, the necklace, and the diamond beneath it. “Now, my mother has gone to the North Pole. I wonder if her glacier will advance or retreat, if climate change will carry her to the sea to be taken north by the West Greenland current, or retreat up the valley towards the ice cap, or if she will stay on the beach as a marker of where the glacier was in the Holocene Period. Maybe in thousands of years, specialists in glaciology will find her ring and endlessly discuss this flash of diamond in Inuit culture.” Sophie Calle’s “Pole du Nord” was first exhibited during the Royal Academy Exhibition “eARTh” in 2009, it is a major work including video, photographs and text tablets made of clay.
Sophie Calle, North Pole, 2009, Light box, sandblasted porcelain plaque, video, screen, colour photograph, frame, Collection Musée VALENCE
Working with scientists in the field was eye opening for the creative crew and at times the shared exploration of fact and creative endeavour became intertwined and surprisingly parallel. The scientists have modelled and hypostasized that the amount of green house gasses being released will cause a warming planet and destabilised weather systems. But a scientific fact is not accepted until it is established through the arduous task of data collecting and proven to be true. The artist absorbs sensations and information and visions an idea, which at the time of inception is so tenuous and unstable. Through skill, hard work and endeavour this tenuous idea is born into reality, but whether this artwork is deemed to be successful, it has to obey some unwritten code of truth. On board the teams of scientists and artists exchanged and struggled to create and prove, which at times became an interchangeable process. In the 2010 expedition, after three weeks of sailing where we had battled being stuck in ice, encountered polar bears and walked up glaciers. We finally embarked on an ocean mapping experiment of the Norwegian Current that entailed a 200-mile voyage into the western arctic oceans and a short stay in an abandoned research station. At the journey’s end we collected in the saloon of the Noorderlicht to swap stories. Poet Nick Drake shared something he had been working on during the whole journey – he read to a spellbound gathering his chilly arctic words:

The Farewell Glacier

(For Cape Farewell and all who sail with her) What is it like? That is a difficult question. You might think of a high-rise mega-city, Ice-filled penthouses, snow-stocked apartment towers And locked ziggurats - or a cathedral façade, An unfinished work forever in progress; Or the Snow Queen’s abandoned mansion, Eroded dynasties of peeling white wallpaper In ballrooms lit by chandeliers of ice, Dadoes and cornices broken off, zigzags Of stairs which led to attics rooms where time Froze to death - Or perhaps a cold library of snow, Where every winter’s tale’s a long-lost folio Of white pages on unnumbered shelves of ice In the crowded stacks balanced on stacks Receding infinitely back through centuries; Maybe the frost fairs when the Thames froze over Are recorded somewhere here, and Breughel’s hunters Are returning home in the last of the light; Maybe there’s a thin black line where ancient cities Burned down to ash. We stood and stared, face to face With the ancient beast, waiting for the thunder To crack deep in its blue heart, hoping for The satisfying, frightening finale Of towers of falling ice, going, going… Which did not happen; But once the sea drew in a different breath And held it, And then a single wave ran all along the shoreline Like a cardiograph registering The result of a slow war Fought for a hundred centuries. And when we sailed away Across the inches of the sea-charts, What did we think we’d seen through the cruel eyes Of our cameras framing, clicking, and failing to capture The beauty of the beast? Would we confess To the tiny cries which issued from our mouths? Did we understand what we tried and failed To make out in the infinite fractures Of its blind archaic mirror of lost time Was only ourselves? And when we return to our warm living rooms Where we live like gods on borrowed time, How will we recall this frozen auditorium And its oracular silence, And the last, long performance Of its disappearing act? Nick Drake, “High Arctic,” National Maritime Museum, July 14th, 2011 Ice is the most complex of materials, glacial ice often ten thousand years old, sea ice now sadly mostly less than two years old, ice crystals, ice fields. Ice is the material of the high arctic, it embodies the meaning of the place and was my canvas. I had prepared a video for projection of a pregnant woman walking, formed it into an endless loop, together with a series of texts, short form poetry, slogans. Working from the deck of the Noorderlicht, I had asked the captain to sail steadily along a glacial wall probably only 10 – 15 meters away. We used a video projector and computer feed to project the assembled images onto the distant ice, just at the cusp of time when daylight was beginning to establish but dark enough to be able to read the image. A window of time of less than 30 minutes. The image struck to ice and often disappeared into the belly of the glacier then as we transverse magically reflected with total clarity. The glacial ice which embodied the meaning of The Arctic also contained its own surprised and illogical rational. Over forty text images have been made – “Burning Ice”, “Sadness Melts”, “The Cold Library of Ice” and “Discounting the Future” made with artist Amy Balkin, each of which have become icons from a changing arctic.
David Buckland, Amy Balkin, “Discounting the Future. Ice Texts,” 2010
The climate scientists have described in detail the why and the how of the disappearing ice, all backed up by reams of data which details the cause of the truth but what is the condition of this meaning? The Ice Texts are new metaphors, cultural conditions that are short form poetry. “Sadness Melts” grabs us emotionally where the ice on which it is projected carries the medium of the message and the text is it’s meaning. Transforming words into an image, an icon, I have taken film of a nude pregnant woman walking where she represents all out collective hopes and fears. Using the same technique as the Ice Texts, I got the captain of the Noorderlicht to sail impossibly close to glacier walls or through sea ice fields and video projected the image as both she and we transverse through physical frozen time at a walking speed, projected at that point of half light, half technology, half natural, when such projections are readable. The pregnant woman walks along glacial walls, across sea ice and frozen landscapes, she turns to look at us, she continues, an ice maiden. At one section she is now joined by the baby who was in her womb, each marking a point in glacial time. Maybe when that child becomes the age of her mother the ice will be gone. She is at once pathos and emotional weight, she engages where language fails, mirroring our collective loss of words when faced with the future truth of climate change. Climate change will globally challenge our collective notion of society, we humans have caused it and we (and the planet) will now have to pick up the tab. We will also have to put in place solutions and this will take continued focused effort. Given that we have a collective inability to comprehend the magnitude of this threat I fear for our future. The Cape Farewell project is political; we are in the business of changing people, using the collective power of art to transform, to comprehend and to motivate collective action worldwide – transformative action.
David Buckland, “Pregnant Woman,” 2010
Choreographer Siobhan Davies spoke of her experience of making a “Walking Dance” on the ice in Svalbard, “I sense a vulnerability. I feel myself as something hot and bloody… So if I find the little bit of warmth I have, I need to protect it. The idea of protection, of care, seems particularly momentous here. If we can protect ourselves then surely we can extend that notion of care to also include protection for our habitat.”
Siobhan Davies, Walking Dance 78.20N 16.20E, 2005
Siobhan Davies continued her artwork production to make the work “Endangered Species” for the exhibition Burning Ice at the Natural History Museum in London. She worked with a single dancer who makes use of slender rods projected through her costume, thereby enabling her to extend her arms and movement, a useful tool. As the dance progresses, additional rod extensions are added and the final “dance” was performed as a 3D video inside a museum vitrine, the dancer becoming synonymous with an endangered animal saved for human curiosity and record. The film narrates a process of human technological evolution, which reaches an end point in extreme physical encumbrance. The dancer’s body becomes increasingly inhibited in its movements with the additional plastic rods. In the end, adaptive movement becomes impossible, and the illusion of progress fades into ironic eulogy. The Arctic canvas is inspirational, Siobhan’s work and her highly tuned perceptions would not have existed without the immersive experience of “being there”. The question of what work an artist makes in the Arctic becomes a central challenge. If you accept the above argument that art should be a true witness and be transformative, then working and taking from the arctic canvas without addressing the destruction that is being wrought upon that place extends the contemporary human condition of “taking from” without any acceptance of the responsibility for the place in which the artists inhabits. “The Arctic is not a place for humans” states Rachel Whiteread in the film Art from the Arctic. It was not possible for us to survive without the technology of equipment and shelter, although the Inuit have for centuries managed a symbiotic and sustaining relationship with this cold and dangerous environment. Theirs is the practice of balanced exchange within the natural systems of the arctic, ours heralds in the Anthropocene without, as yet, any notion of responsibility for the largely destructive forces we have created. The arctic brings into sharp focus the “state we are in” and it demands that we consider our own mortality and our responsibility for place and for others. It seems wanton for an artist to exist and work with this precious canvas without embracing the wider landscape of the contemporary human condition. Being able to make work in and be inspired by the High Arctic is a gift and we artists should reciprocate with an equal gift, a creative act, a transformative work that strives to care for and protect this the most precious of natural beauties. The High Arctic. October 2014.