Book review: Arctic Perspective, Cahier No. 1 and No. 2


Warning! This is a rather messy attempt to review two books in one go!

Arctic Perspective Cahier No. 1 – Architecture, edited by Andreas Müller (available at amazon USA and UK) + Cahier No. 2: Arctic Geopolitics and Autonomy, edited by Michael Bravo, Nicola Triscott, texts by Michael Bravo, Lassi Heininen, Katarina Soukup, Nicola Triscott, David Turnbull (available at amazon USA and UK.)

Publisher Hatje Cantz Verlag writes about both books: Involving HMKV (Germany), Projekt Atol (Slovenia), the Arts Catalyst (United Kingdom), C-TASC (Canada), and Lorna (Iceland), this collaboration focuses on the global, cultural, and ecological significance of the polar regions. These zones are causing current geopolitical and territorial conflicts, while at the same time posing opportunities for transnational and intercultural cooperation. Arctic Perspective uses media art and the research of artists to investigate the complicated, global, cultural, and ecological interrelations in the Arctic, and to develop concepts for constructing tactical communications systems and a mobile, eco-friendly research station, which will support interdisciplinary and intercultural collaborations. Scheduled to run over a period of years, this project will involve workshops, field work in the Arctic, publications, exhibitions, and a conference.


API team and Igloolik community members, Trip to Foxe Basin, August 2009. Photo: Matthew Biederman

While volume 1 focuses on the challenges of inhabiting the Arctic, volume two takes up geopolitical issues in the region. Upcoming Cahiers will explore questions of technology and landscape.

Both publications stem from the Arctic Perspective Initiative , an international media arts partnership that attempted to provide the public with alternative insights into the Arctic as a living environment and a critical marker of global change. The API approached Arctic as a complex and compelling cultural territory, instead of a mere object of political, military, commercial and economic interests.


View inside the book

Cahier No. 1 documented the result of an open design competition to create a modular research unit that had to be easy to transport and assemble but also have a negligible impact on the environment. The presentation of the winning architectural designs by Richard Carbonnier, Catherine Rannou and Giuseppe Mecca is accompanied by a series of essays that put the competition and the whole API architectural experiment into context. The first one is by Marilyn Walker who provides an overview of shelter forms and functions in the far North (includes tips on how to build a long-lasting igloo!). Carsten Krohn pens the mandatory essay on Buckminster Fuller’s dynamic architecture. Jérémie Michael McGowan invites readers to question the status of Arctic architect hero that Ralph Erskine has been enjoying for decades.


Winning design for Arctic Perspectives open design competition by Catherine Rannou

The third part of the book brings side by side 2 very different perspectives on an exploration trip to the Arctic. Captain John Ross‘s extract from A voyage of discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty’s ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin’s Bay, and inquiring into the probability of a north-west passage dates back to 1819. Matthew Biederman and Marko Peljhan’s Fieldwork journal was written in August 2009 to chronicle their arrival at Igloolik, their moves from campsite to campsite, experiments at fishing, cooking caribou and communicating locally and globally under antagonistic weather.


Arctic Perspective Initiative trip to Foxe Basin, Nunavut, Canada. 2009. Photo: API


The ‘media lab’, API, July 2009. Photo: Matthew Biederman


Now the most fascinating book for me was Cahier No. 2: Arctic Geopolitics and Autonomy which demonstrates with brio that the Arctic territory is far more than a reserve of oil and natural gas energy, more than a space to build military bases and meteorological research centers, more than a world of commercial opportunities ripe to be seized as soon as the dwindling ice sea will have completely melted and opened up new Northern sea routes. The book sets aside geopolitical interests and calls for independent, intellectual conversations between artists, journalists, scholars and the people who are actually living in the Arctic. As the introduction to the book states:

Counteracting historical amnesia and contemporary self-interest and indifference goes to the heart of these essays. Together with the Arctic Perspective Initiative, they aim to ground perspectives on politics and art in technological interventions (that include broadband communications, environmental monitoring, satellite observation, video documentary -and writing) by making them embodied, geographically anchored to a specific strategic indigenous place, and politically self-aware.

In her essay, Nicola Triscott from The Arts Catalyst, looks at how the cultural and political characteristics of technology in the Arctic need to extend beyond strategic interests and commercial exploitation and take into account the needs of the people living in that part of the world or the challenges presented by climate change. I discovered some amazing works in Triscott’s review of artists who have recognized the complexity of the Arctic situation. I’m particularly curious about On the Third Planet from the Sun. This documentary, by Pavel Medvedev, follows inhabitants of the Arctic region of Arkhangelsk 45 years after the test of the H-bomb, who recycle the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base.


Pavel Medvedev, Still from On the Third Planet from the Sun, 2006 (via)

Michael Bravo‘s contribution brings light on how outsider focus on Inuit’s traditional craft knowledge tends to perpetuate clichés about populations who, just like you and me, enjoy high-tech gadgets. His experience shows that Arctic communities are more than ready to collaborate with international labs and produce new knowledge and designs that meet their own needs.

The three remaining essays reflect further on the necessity to discard simplistic perspectives on the Arctic region: Katarina Soukup wrote about Inuits’ artistic appropriation of new technologies. David Turnbull sums up observations about human movement through time. Finally, Lassi Heininen encourages us to see northern indigenous people as credible political actors, both on a regional and international level.


View inside the book

Arctic Perspective was not only an expedition, it was also a series of workshops, conferences and exhibitions (such as a show of the same name at HMKV in Dortmund.) I missed every single one of them. The first two cahiers of Arctic Perspective allowed me catch up with the experience. I’m now looking forward to reading the upcoming books in the series.

Related posts: (Un)Inhabitable? – Art of Extreme Environments, Green Platform – My Sunshine, Lucy + Jorge Orta’s Antarctica expedition, Transmediale 09 – Survival and Utopia, etc.

See also: No More Potluck interview with Matthew Biederman and Marko Peljhan about The Arctic Perspective.