Postcard from the Edge of the World

A report from the inaugural ‘Thinking at the Edge of the World’ conference, held on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard

BY Harry Thorne in Critic's Guides | 29 JUN 16

I think that’s what the Arctic means to me. I think that up here, I’ll be able to 'breathe with my own lungs', as Mr Eriksson says: to see clearly for the first time in years. Right through the heart of things.
Michelle Paver, Dark Matter, 2010, p.41

In Western culture, there exists a long history of the Arctic being depicted as an inhospitable landscape; an impenetrable icy fortress disconnected from the everyday operations of modern man. Romantic painters like Peder Balke and William Bradford have presented it as tranquil and barren, while others have foregrounded its innate savagery. Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1824), for example, pictures a wall of jagged glacial slabs and the splintered timbers of a shipwreck; Edward Landseer’s immaculately titled Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) captures two polar bears (God, in this situation) savaging the remains of a deserted vessel (Man, unfortunately). 

In art history, the Arctic is an unknown and therefore menacing land; its very foreignness seen as threatening (an association that continues to be all too frequently drawn). The same goes for literature. Think back to the final passages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). After the doctor cruelly denies our dejected monster a wife, the only place where he feels at home is in the coldest depths of the glaciers: ‘the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge.’

A view of Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Courtesy: © Herman Dreyer, OCA

Things have progressed a little since these Romantic depictions were first made. Since its discovery in 1596, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, which sits roughly halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, has proved fertile ground for whalers, hunters, scientists and miners alike. Today it is one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas: In the capital of Longyearbyen, which sits on the island of Spitsbergen, there is a contemporary art gallery, a kunsthall and a sizeable auditorium, as well as a number of restaurants, a sports centre and a Radisson Blu hotel. Our monster’s fortress of solitude has had an upgrade.

The population of Longyearbyen currently rests at around 2,100 people, a figure just large enough to sustain the local industries, but numbers are dwindling. As Consolidated Immigration Regulations of the European Economic Area do not apply on Svalbard, technically anyone can move there (and live a blissfully tax-free life), so long as they can find a home and secure some sort of income. But before you scramble for your passport, you should know that upon arrival you will find yourself with no social security. You will also find a mining industry facing bankruptcy, temperatures that dip to −20 °C and a latitude that dictates polar night descends for three months, while the midnight sun remains for near to four. Add to that a curious law that forbids anyone to be born or to die in Longyearbyen, and you will understand why people might not be too keen to settle. (Due to Svalbard’s sizeable community of arctic birds, it’s also illegal to own a cat.)

Courtesy: © Herman Dreyer, OCA

As a visitor, however, the immensity of the surrounding landscape immediately obscures these realities, cryogenically preserving that romanticized image of the Arctic north as a raw, forgotten land of potential escape. It’s the stuff of fiction: vast glaciers roll down to the ocean, jagged, protective mountains loop the horizon, and clumps of ice float absent-mindedly around bays, gently crackling as thousand-year-old air escapes into the atmosphere. As Balke and Bradford's paintings rightly proposed so long ago, this scene evokes a remarkable feeling of stillness; as if the entire world (seen and unseen) is collectively holding its breath. That said, the violent depictions of Friedrich and Landseer also hold true, because there is undeniably a latent savagery here. The adverse weather conditions regularly lead to avalanches, travel is often a perilous exercise, and polar bears supposedly outnumber residents. That final imbalance can and does have fatal consequences. In 2011, Horatio Chapple, a 17-year-old British pupil of Eton who was visiting the area with his school, was mauled to death by a bear at a campsite near to Longyearbyen.

Where these early imaginings fall down, however, is in their depictions of the area as wholly disconnected from the rest of the world. In addition to the international community that has assembled over the years and the understanding that shifts in the ecology of the local environment can have meteorological repercussions on a global scale, Longyearbyen is also the home of the Global Seed Vault – a stockpile of plant seeds collected in case of global catastrophe elsewhere – and sits above two submarine communication cables, which allow the Norwegian Space Centre to transfer satellite data to NASA at speeds approaching real time. It may be distant, it may be small, but it is far from detached. In fact, it is inextricably linked to numerous countries, cultures and ecologies, but they probably don’t know it. 

From left: Julie Decker, Camilla Svensen, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel and Francis McKee. Courtesy: © Herman Dreyer, OCA

It was this idea of Svalbard as a nexus, or maybe a raised microcosm of the world at large, that inspired ‘Thinking at the Edge of the World’, a two-day conference co-organized by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) and the Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø to announce a rejuvenated push to establish Svalbard as something of a northern cultural hub. With speakers including Norwegian artist A. K. Dolven, curator and founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore, Uta Meta Bauer, and director at the New Museum in New York, Lisa Phillips, the conference took the visual arts as its starting point, but used that platform to look further afield, to science, politics, history, architecture, economy and anthropology. 

Elena Isayev, for example, a professor of ancient history at the University of Exeter, joined a panel of artists, curators and architects to discuss the pejorative terminology surrounding the free movement of people in the 21st century (‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’) and the historically quotidian nature of mobility. And despite the (sometimes aimless, sometimes enriching) detours that several participants made through topics such as ecology and environment, civil conflict and art as social practice, it was this question of place (or placelessness) and the right to identity that was most frequently raised. Unsurprising, given the impact that the migrant crisis continues to have on so many shores. 

Niillas Somby. Courtesy: © Herman Dreyer, OCA

Architect Alberto Altés picked up where Isayev left off with the suggestion that, if society is to ever solve the enduring problem of displaced communities, then we must somehow reconnect with the innate human desire to roam. Poet and artist Synnøve Persen recited her recent poem ‘The Land Outside the Map’, which, in its suggestion that ‘home’ is an abstract concept that can be carried between physical spaces, brought at least one visiting journalist to tears. But as moving as both presentations were, no tale was more intriguing than that of Niilas Somby, who was placed in conversation with Albuquerque-based curator Candice Hopkins. Somby is a writer and political activist who has long argued for the rights of the Sami, a Finno-Ugric people who inhabit a region known as Sápmi, spanning Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. During the 19th century, Norwegian authorities increasingly leant on the Sami in order to greater establish Norwegian language and culture. Despite the election of a Sami parliament in Norway in 1989 and the passing of the Finnmark Act in 2005, which gave the parliament a joint responsibility over the land areas previously considered state property, the Sami fight against what Somby calls ‘Norwegianization’ continues to this day. 

Somby’s struggle, and that of the Sami people, is a very particular and perhaps under-broadcast one. (It is also one that was slightly hindered on this occasion by the absence of any even vaguely contesting viewpoint.) While he cuts a composed figure, that of a man who has long committed himself to a single cause, his protests have often led him to extremes. He has organized hunger strikes, been imprisoned, escaped prison, stolen passports, snuck across borders, and lost an arm and an eye to an explosion of his own making. But in its rawest form, his tale is that of a populace fighting to retain their identity and establish their connection – physical, spiritual – to the land. Though particular, this has a resonance that is universal. 

Courtesy: © Herman Dreyer, OCA

It’s seen as a bad thing to be on the edge – to be waiting in the wings or living in the margins. But in a time that insists on ploughing forward at such dizzying speeds, there’s something to be said for occasionally taking a step back and gathering your thoughts. As I sit here writing, I am struggling to come to terms with the fact that the United Kingdom has moved to remove itself from the European Union. I feel disconnected, disillusioned and despondent, as I know many others do. I understand that this is a democracy; that the majority has arrived at a decision and that said decision must be respected lest we risk regressing even further than we have already. But that said, I believe that this decision was the result of a devious, post-factual politics that promoted wild parochialism at the expense of tolerant liberalism. Amidst the waves of hate-mongering rhetoric, I believe that many have lost their sense of perspective. 

I can’t say whether Longyearben will be able to ‘establish itself as a cultural hub’, nor if that culture will be able to bolster what is currently an unstable economy – such a removed geography will always present numerous practical issues. But Thinking at the Edge of the World, in this strange, removed locale, offers a unique vantage point. Perhaps a future iteration, a little clearer of its objectives, presents an opportunity to gather, survey what lays below with fresh eyes, and find answers to abiding, universal questions that might reverberate on a global scale.

Courtesy: © Herman Dreyer, OCA

On our final day in Longyearbyen we went on an hour-long ‘non-verbal walk’ in the nearby Bear Mountains, which was organised by Elin Már Øyen Vister, an artist, queer ecologist and ‘eco-essentialist’. Elin had previously explained how she was attempting to embody an Arctic puffin (having failed to take the form of a rock) and, despite my frustrations at the prospect of trekking for an hour with no opportunity to make sarcastic comments, she had urged me to ‘send thoughts out to the valley’. It took ten minutes for my cynicism to drift away. I didn’t speak, I didn’t worry, I didn’t think; I just walked. It wasn’t epiphanic, nor was it life changing, but for that brief period, a little more removed than I normally was, I felt calm. 

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.