The Wire

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Bad Times Ahead: Dark Ecology and the Arctic Imagination

February 2016

Read The Wire contributor Nathan Budzinski's report on last year's Dark Ecology trip, a five day cultural tour put on by Amsterdam's Sonic Acts festival. The journey took place in the Arctic Circle, beginning in the Norwegian town Kirkenes and ending in Murmansk, via the Russian towns Nikel and Zapolyarny.

When I drink vodka I get emotional, my face goes numb, I do stupid things and then the hangover lasts for days. I am in the Arctic and I remember all this in a split second as I accidentally launch myself out of a warm coach headfirst into a dark and frozen night in the small Russian city of Zapolyarny. My skull hits the door frame and I fall right back on my arse painfully. I’m the first person off and so a coach full of people watch me do this. We have just been at a prolonged dinner where food, wine, vodka and karaoke flowed plentifully in contrast with the restaurant’s bleak, dilapidated industrial surroundings. Luckily I am surrounded by snow and ice and spend a considerable part of the rest of the night with toilet paper swaddled ice packs on my forehead to keep the swelling down.

I’ve been travelling on a bus that acts as the flagship for Dark Ecology, a cultural journey through the conjoined regions of Norwegian Finnmark and Russian Murmansk, just inside the Arctic Circle. Organised by the Amsterdam festival Sonic Acts, the journey takes its name directly from the work of Timothy Morton, an English professor and theorist who has been an important figure within the contemporary philosophy movements of Speculative Realism and Object-oriented Ontology (SR and OOO respectively). The journey is a multi-disciplinary assortment of talks, installations, performances and tours, a constellation of ideas and events that can be hard to put a finger on. Partly niche package holiday tour through the frontline of apocalyptic climate change, it responds to many of Morton’s ideas, ones that critique the old culture/nature divide in light of the ever growing (if not rather late) awareness about the environmental impact of human activities.

Morton was the keynote speaker at the first journey last year, and the philosopher Graham Harman, another central figure in OOO and SR, convenes this one. It would be hard to pick more influential thinking men figures – both their writings and ideas have travelled far and wide, with much attention coming from artists and academic cultural studies circles. Sporadically over the past few years I’ve tried to catch up on his work and both strands of thought, but generally I’ve been left with a feeling similar to the whack to my head described above – reeling and dumbfounded by the strict parameters of philosophy and academic writing. But despite my trepidation, Harman gives an incredibly lucid and entertaining rundown of his historical backstory to the two movements, setting a good tone for the rest of the journey – he spent some time in his early years as a sports reporter, and this punchy clarity of purpose shines through. Roughly speaking they are concerned with once and for all eliminating notions surrounding the nature/culture divide, and try to look out at a sentient world beyond the one we have mapped out, projected from our imaginations and imposed onto the cosmos.

Philosopher and ex-sports journalist Graham Harman. Photo by Michael Miller

As the tour progresses Harman becomes something of a mascot. A burly and quiet man from the American Midwest, along each leg of the journey the philosopher reliably seats himself right at the front of the bus, spending his hours travelling through the frozen arctic expanses silently staring off into the dark distance like a tour guide figurehead sitting inquisitively on the prow of a ship.

After the talk I wander around town in the darkness. I make my way down to the harbour to try and see some of the surrounding landscape, but it’s too dark and all I make out are some murky hills in the distance. I wander into a small shopping mall to warm up and am greeted by the smiles of two mobile phone contract salespeople, alongside the quizzical stares of a couple of OAPs sitting next to a bunch of shuttered shops. I venture back out onto the street and make my way up the hill to the church in the centre of town. Crossing between two cars I slip and pratfall onto the sheer ice as an older gentleman gracefully skates past me on what looks like a hybrid zimmer frame-sledge. Nearby, outside the town library, I look through the icy windswept Russian marketplace’s trinkets and fur hats but don’t buy anything.

Joris Strijbos’s IsoScope. Photo by Michael Miller

Later on we congregate outside the hotel and each climb into bulky snowmobile suits – basically full body windproof duvets. We’re bussed up to a hill overlooking Kirkenes and I can finally see some more distinct landscape with dark fjords in the distance and the low light of the sun just behind the horizon. Set around the hill are two installations: Norwegian artist Margrethe Iren Pettersen’s Living Land – Below But Also Above and Joris Strijbos’s IsoScope. Strijbos’s work is a cluster of tripods with whirling lights and droning sound powered by the wind. The effect is somewhere between UFO landing site and techno-cultic ritual contraption. At one surreal moment a Kirkenes local kitted in sporty lycra jogs out of the darkness with her dog, looking on at our group of waddling dark ecologists and then disappearing back into the landscape. Someone has brought some vodka. I pour myself a cup and, thermally protected by my mega-onesie, I lay back on the ground, listen to the drones, and feel the arctic air on my face and let my mind wander.

Pettersen’s Living Land is a sound walk around a frozen lake, along a path that’s nearly indiscernible from the rest of the icy ground. It’s made navigable by a series of LED strips guiding our dispersed and slow moving figures around the frozen lake surface, their light softly reflecting against the snow. The composition drifts between voices speaking English, Norwegian and Sami, and I soon stop worrying about following the narrative closely. I start to listen to my breath, feeling the heat of each exhalation against my lips and the outside cold, and the crunching footsteps in the snow beneath me. My ears catch an older sounding voice speaking about the healing properties of different roots and the earth in general. A low drone rumbles in the distant background and I find myself alone on a small wooded island in the middle of the lake. I stumble back towards the rest of the group.

One preparatory email before arriving at this well organised journey emphasised the high price of alcohol in Norway (while in Russia the opposite case is true). Consequently the dinner on the first night turns into a knees-up complete with a wide selection of duty free boxed wine alongside the ubiquitous Is Bjørn beer that’s brewed in Tromsø. The rest of the journey is marked with this pleasant dynamic, running from lecture to art and music, to socialising.

The road to Murmansk. Photo by Lucas van der Velden

The next day we all pack onto a coach and head towards the Russian border. We go through customs and make our way into the frozen white landscape. For the ride, the organisers have selected a series of audio recordings to listen to on MP3 players – the previous journey’s talk by Morton, a podcast on the Kola super deep borehole, field recordings by Justin Bennett – and as the brief daylight fades I nap to the hypnogogic droning sounds of field recordings by BJ Nilsen (also a fellow traveller on this Journey).

We arrive in Murmansk – the largest city in the Arctic Circle and an industrial hub for Russia, nearby to a heavily guarded naval base. The surrounding area is desolate and highly polluted from years of heavy industry and mineral extraction. One fellow Dark Ecologist tells me how on a residency during the previous year in Murmansk, she pretended to be a nomadic traveller picking berries so that she could get close to a moorage of junked submarines containing a vast amount of nuclear waste. The submarine solution for this terrorising sludge was meant to be temporary, but like many short term solutions, it turned increasingly permanent as the years passed.

We check into the Azimut Hotel, a great, gleaming plastic palace rising up over the now grimy cityscape carved through with broad and imperious Stalin era boulevards. The hotel is a world unto itself, its every room changing decor, every theme in constant and dizzying mutation, from Baroque to Vatican to strip club to Scandinavian minimalist and on and on. Security guards abound and fellow travellers tell stories about how some people who try to enter are bounced out because they look too scruffy, or local, or both. How they discern between some of the Dark Ecologists (myself included by that point) and the rest is beyond me. The day ends with a salon-type series of live onstage interviews between participants like Pettersen and Strijbos and Fridaymilk – an organisation run by Zhanna Guzenko and Oleg Khadartsev, two Murmansk locals involved in different artistic projects across the region. The stage is in a bar appropriately (and optimistically) called the Ice-Breaker.

The next morning we are bussed to the Aurora Kinoteater where we hear, sitting in complete darkness, artist and academic Susan Schuppli’s “Dark Matters: Bearing Material Witness To Climate Change”, an expanded lecture that explains her ideas about how non-human entities and ecologies can bear witness to changes in a legalistic way. Later that night we attend Murmansk Spaceport where the UK musician Hilary Jeffery has been running a collaborative project with local musicians. It sounds grand but it’s definitely a spaceport of the mind: an old building in the middle of a series of residential blocks. During non-cosmic activities it’s a community run centre devoted to spreading the word of hiphop through art and dance classes, run by locals without any municipal or government support.

Hilary Jeffery and musicians at the Murmansk Spaceport. Photo by Rosa Menkman

Jeffery and a group of young musicians work through a series of pieces that they have developed together, running from experimental pop to noise to drone and on. A well dressed couple in the audience leave after the first five minutes. People are sat on some chairs but most sprawl across pillows on the floor. I find a small space along the wall right behind a row of chairs and jam myself in for the hour, laying down and drifting off into the night. The music isn’t so interesting or cohesive, but the feeling of the night is good and full of potential. “It’s a problem that there’s this idea that I’m supposed to lead this collaboration as I’m an anarchist,” Jeffery tells the audience before the concert gets under way. That statement might make him sound somewhat ambivalent but the following day he tells me that this has been a life changing event for him, even if he still can’t put his finger on why.

Hilary Jeffery at the Murmansk Spaceport. Photo by Michael Miller

After a night out at what must be one of the very few Mexican bars in the Arctic Circle, the next morning we all set out in small groups on separately themed tours led by a Murmansk citizen, each of them having chosen a personally important place to show participants: the War Monument tour, the Whale Graveyard tour, the British Soldier’s Memorial tour – you get the entropic picture. I decide to join the Ruined Cinema tour, but at the last minute our guide informs us that the cinema house isn’t really that interesting anymore as it’s now being renovated. Better, he says, to head for a nearby suburb where we can see the remaining older part of the city.

We jump on a tram and drive out for several minutes. The guide’s friend shows us one of the numerous darkly surreal graffiti murals he’s created across the city. Wandering farther through old tower blocks there are Soviet era mosaics across the blocks’ walls. As we climb up into the surrounding hills the relatively newish gives way to definitely old, wooden slat buildings, mostly dilapidated by the elements but still inhabited. From this vantage point one can see out over the city whose greyness in the low arctic light blends in with murky oppressive clouds overhead. We arrive at what looks like a worn out church. Our guide says he thinks it might be an abandoned Mormon temple, which seems far-fetched and surprising they got so far. “Bloody Mormons,” one of my fellow trekkers blurts out uncontrollably. Nearby a man stands on a staircase up the steep hill on our other side, frozen still as if scared of slipping on the thick ice that thickly coats each step. From one hand dangles a plastic shopping bag and from the other he smokes a cigarette. He’s staring unblinkingly forward. We ask him if it’s true that this was a Mormon temple? No, he replies, but he doesn’t know what it’s original purpose was.

We walk down along a road with rows of old wooden residential housing and meet a postcard perfect geriatric woman carting some large plastic jugs to a nearby public water outlet. Immediately she tells us that this is a special place, that the water has unique properties and that she regularly communicates with aliens – but only she can understand their messages. No, she tells our group – all with our cameras gripped in hand – you can’t take my picture. She’s extremely chatty but ultimately withholds whatever information the aliens have passed to her. We make our way back into town.

Murmansk by night. Photo by Rosa Menkman

The next next day we travel to Nikel and Zapolyarny – both industrial cities set in incredibly polluted landscapes – and visit two outdoor installations by the Norwegian artist HC Gilje. Snowmobile suits back on. Barents (Mare Incognitum) is a projected video work screened on one end of a snow covered football field in Nikel. An image of the horizon of the sea rotates nauseatingly around and around, hypnotising everyone. Tea is served to the bulky looking travellers in the light of a car’s headlamps. We all bundle back onto the coach and drive to an abandoned building site outside of Zapolyarny. This is the most picturesque standard or desolate industrial Russian arctic scenery so far, I think to myself as I trundle through the snow to an old pit. Inside the pit is Gilje’s The Crossing – a series of foundational walls whose top edges have been lined with tubes of LED light strips, little batches of glowing energy pulsating along the construction and giving out an ethereal glow onto our dark clumsy spacemen-like figures. A couple of my compatriots slide down the side of the pit. I miss the fun so try and climb back up but am sternly told off by a Dark Ecology warden as the area is riddled with dangerous debris. The piece is pleasant as it illuminates the snow surrounding it, casting picturesque shadows about the dilapidated concrete structures, but standing there in the relative middle of nowhere I can’t help but feel a sense of purposelessness to it, that I’d rather wander out into the surrounding wastelands and keep going. But maybe that’s just me.

HC Gilje’s The Crossing. Photo by Michael Miller

Afterwards to a nondescript cluster of buildings and delicious dinner, drinks, karaoke and dancing at U Mangala Restaurant. Then my embarrassing fall, sleep and a horribly hungover journey back across the border to Kirkenes. I cry during my connecting flight to Oslo when I see the sun. Everything from the past year has been too much: death, illness, tragedy of all types cornering in my life and creating a complex of impossibility and grief. For all the cerebral rationality of the journey, I’m attracted for different, more romantic reasons.

In his book The Spiritual History Of Ice: Romanticism, Science, And The Imagination, Eric G Wilson wrote about the blurred borderline between real and imagined spaces, something that’s stuck with me for a while: “Fantastical worlds can become real in two ways – in the systems of the tyrant or the visions of the liberator. Likewise real spaces can become fantastical in a twofold fashion. On the one hand, a tyrant might fictionalise a physical space so that he can exploit it [...] On the other hand, a liberator might transform a humanised region into the sublime laws sustaining the cosmos. A poet might release chthonic energies underlying city grids.”

Don’t fence me in. Sculpture remembers nature in Nikel. Photo by Rosa Menkman

The twilight arctic world of my imagination is one that is on the edge of ending or beginning, either death or potential. I can’t escape or get outside myself – maybe it’s a lack of empathy or intelligence, but I always seem to project myself into different spaces and landscapes.

The dark in Dark Ecology, for Harman anyways, is more about the hidden qualities of things more than it means the forthcoming total climate apocalypse imminent on humankind’s horizon. “How can we know the world if we can’t even ever know ourselves,” he asks the group at one point. But a common sentiment among my fellow travellers is that the darkness has already fallen, the climate horror has already taken hold and we are surviving it now. “Ice caps melt,” Harman says when speaking about the thinking of ecologist James Lovelock, “algae dies, rainforests die, permafrost melts – there’s bad times ahead, and the next century will be a hard school for humanity.”

And that feeling of almost pre or post-linguistic limbo holds well with the experience itself: we travel in darkness, the surrounding glowing frozen wastelands explicitly hostile to much life. What can you say when confronted by that? Just go inside and stay there. The biting cold is counterpointed by the stifling warmth – I’ve been far more chilly in London than I was at any time during the journey. The effect is one of slumbering, a dopiness exacerbated by the lack of light. We are survivors, but only just barely awake.

Dark Ecology is a three-year art, research and commissioning project, initiated by the Dutch Sonic Acts and Kirkenes-based curator Hilde Methi, and in collaboration with Norwegian, Russian and other European partners.

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