2005 Expedition Blog - Day 8
Sunday, 13 March 2005, 12:21pm
A boot room in the frozen north
So, we have come to this ship in a frozen fjord to think about the ways we might communicate our concerns about climate change to a wider public; we will think about the heady demands of our respective art forms, and we will consider the necessity of good science, and shall immerse ourselves in the stupendous responsibilities that flow from our stewardship of the planet, and the idealism and selflessness demanded of us as we subordinate our present needs to the welfare of unborn generations who will inherit the earth and thrive in it and love it - we hope - as we do. But first, we must remove our wet boots. Stepping out of minus 30 degrees, craving the warmth of the boat that is our home, we are obliged by our hosts to pause in a cramped and crowded space below the ship's wheel, and in near darkness, try to bend over in our thick Arctic clothing to loosen our laces with numbed fingers. Then we must stand on a drenched cold floor in our socks and hang up our 'skidoo suits' - they resemble a toddler's splash suit - along with our helmets, and all the while keep track of our gloves, and the liners of our gloves, and our frosted goggles and frozen-mouthed balaclavas that gape at us from the floor in astonishment; we must do this against a flow of our fellows coming out of the boat, intent on putting all these items on, for it is our collective fate, to be going in and out all day. Naturally, we do all this with good cheer.
The whole world's population is to the south of us, and up here we are our species' representatives, making in the wilderness, a temporary society, a social microcosm in the vastness of the Arctic We are the beneficiaries and victims of our nature (social primates, evolved through time like wind-sculpted rock) merry and venal, co-operative and selfish; and as it happens in this pure air and sunlit beauty, we find ourselves in a state of near constant euphoria. When did you ever hear such shouts of laughter at breakfast? We are all so immensely tolerable. We potter about in the day with our little projects like contented infants in a day-care nursery. And it is because we are gloriously imperfect, expelled from Eden, longing to return, that it will happen that on the second day, when you venture out into what I shall call the boot room, in your socks, in a hurry because your companions are waiting outside by the belching skidoos, ready to set off on yet another face-peeling punishment ride (oh God, seven more kilometres - when will it end?) across the cement-like floor of the fjord, that you will find that someone has made off with your splash suit, or your helmet, or your boots, or your goggles, or all four. This person has his own stuff, but he has ruthlessly, or mistakenly, taken yours. In a moment's extravagance of self-pity, you might think all of history's narrative and all injustice is enacted here - this is how some people end up with three goats and nine hens while others have none. The history books tell of little else - the filching of the neighbour's land, water, chattels or cattle, and in reaction, war, revolutions, genocides.
Well, what are you going to do? Your impatient companions are stamping their feet on the ice. You might reflect that it is not evil that undoes the world, but small errors prompting tiny weaknesses - let's not call them dishonesty - gathering in rivulets, then cascades of consequences. In the golden age of yesterday, the boot room had finite resources, equally shared - these were the initial conditions, the paradise we are about to lose, the conditions before the Fall we visitors are bound to re-enact. It could go something like this: the owner of size 43 boots left them last night in a remote corner he has already forgotten about. He comes out this morning, sees to hand another pair of 43s and puts them on. Half an hour later, their true owner comes out into the gloom of the boot room, cannot see his own boots, cannot see the 43s obscurely stowed, and empowered by a sense of victimhood, does exactly what you are doing now: reaching for the nearest 44s. 'Of Man's first disobedience', Milton blindly wrote, 'and the fruit of that forbidden tree...' - now you yourself are about try that 'mortal taste' that 'brought death into the world and all our woe, with loss of Eden...'. Ten minutes later, there comes the owner of those size 44 boots. He's a good man, a decent man, but he must now take what is not his own. With the eighth Commandment broken, the social contract is ruptured too. No one is behaving particularly badly, and certainly everybody is being, in the immediate circumstances, entirely rational, but by the third day, the boot room is a wasteland of broken dreams. Who could be wearing five splash suits when they weigh twenty pounds each? Who needs more than one helmet? And where are the grown-ups to advise us that our boot room needs a system; or as Hobbes put it, we need a Common Power in which we might stand in awe. As things are, this is Chaos, just as Haydn conceived it, and tomorrow morning it will make us miserable. Meanwhile, as Arctic night gathers tightly around Tempelfjord, inside the toasty warmth of our Ark, elevated by the Vin de Pays, we discuss our plans to save a planet many times larger than our boot room.
We must not be too hard on ourselves. If you were banished to another galaxy tomorrow, you would soon be fatally homesick for your brothers and sisters and all their flaws: somewhat co-operative, somewhat selfish, and very funny. But we will not rescue the earth from our own depredations until we understand ourselves a little more, even if we accept that we can never really change our natures. All boot rooms need good systems so that flawed creatures can use them well. Good science will serve us well, but only good rules will save the boot room. Leave nothing to idealism or outrage, or even good art. (We know in our hearts that the very best art is entirely and splendidly useless). On our last morning, when all the packing has been done and the last reluctant skidoo had been started up, and as the pure northern air is rent by the howls and stink of our machines, our tirelessly tolerant hosts (as forgiving as God has not yet learned to be ) come down the gang plank and set down on the ice a vast plastic sack with all the recovered gear found in every corner of the ship. A few of us gather around this treasure, and poke about in it, not ashamed or even faintly embarrassed, but innocently amazed. Here's our stuff! Where's it been hiding all this time? We barely know ourselves, and our collective nature is still a source of wonder - why else write fiction? We haven't stopped surprising ourselves yet, and the fate of all our boot rooms hangs in the balance.
Sunday, 13 March 2005, 1:45pm
Cape Farewell Final Log
I've just received an email from Tom which sums up our return well:
London, 10am Sunday, and we are all safely back - we have now completed our three expeditions, each one dangerous in its own way and thankfully have had no accidents or body damage. This is not a concern I often share with the crew but when you consider how easy it would be to break a bone in this ice and how very vulnerable we were where only the action of movement keeps the body protected by warmth - 30 minutes of lying incapacitated at minus 30ºC would become very quickly a serious situation. Rachel observed that I appeared 'without stress' on the aeroplane back, mostly due to the above and the profoundly stoic and intelligent nature of our artists, scientists and film crew.
I have spent a day running through my head all the work projects achieved during our five days of high arctic activity and over the next few days we will use this site to add pictures and words, but in truth it will take the time of normal artistic process for the real work to float to the surface - so much by so few! Antony and Peters's 'Three Made Places', Dan and Heather's lenses and ice, Max's sounds, Gautier's photographs, Nick's beautiful imagery crafted on 16mm Bolex, my video projections on carbon clouds, Alex's sites for installation, Rachel receiving and filing all (as she now first grapples with her Tate turbine hall work and Gagosian expedition in September), Siobhan's ice walks with illustrious pick-up dance company and Ian's endless workings in notebooks - all will come to pass and make it into the public domain, watch this space!
All is down on film. The cold workings, the sense of place, the frenetic activity, the monologs to camera and the conversations over dinner. I gently bow to the film crew - twelve hour days working in temperatures that even the Norwegians shunned, struggling with equipment and transport, embracing artists as they struggle with ideas and cold realities - awesome. So thank you to director and lifelong friend David Hinton, Norwegian Ole Birkeland on camera and Johnny Burns on sound, Duncan Harris on second camera and Andy Robbins who single handily crafted a piece for the Culture show and has now a very handsome frost bite mark on his nose - heroic efforts by all. And Juliet Butler, who bounced off all, wrote endlessly, interviewed and used her journalistic skills to bring our work to print.
Antony has just penned me a note of which this is part:
“What a truly wonderful euphoric visit to the ultimate Thule - difficult to come down - difficult to believe that this was really us up there! I have to say that I found the experience immensely enriching - how it will help to save the planet remains to be seen - human beings have destroyed to survive from the very beginning - and in the end it is hubris to think that it will be us that can either save it or ourselves. Having said that environmental issues are the way to find a meaningful politics of responsibility that are not defined by corporate or nationalist interests and it is a way that the technosphere/biophere could come together in a meaningful way...”
Having Dr Tom Wakeford and Charlie Kronick gave perspective to the why, politics to the how, and were fantastic company, endlessly engaging discussion and helping getting cold brains around the immensity of our artic space and environmental perspective - the new breed of science thinkers that make the supposed boundaries between scientific and artistic activity and quests meaningless.
Five years ago when I created the Cape Farewell project, we set ourselves the ambition of bringing the knowledge and reality of climate change to the public forum. By the adventure of our journeys on the Noorderlicht and the meeting of minds of science, education and art we are now well on our way to achieving our stated aim. But the debate has now moved on, public awareness of just how serious climate change will be is now more the norm rather than exception - what has not happened is any meaningful engagement in what we have to actually do to mediate this real long lasting damage. The Cape Farewell team are shifting its focus onto the kind of society that both is sustainable, economically viable and exciting to be part of. Much of our discussion, art and thought processes drifted in this direction - we, for sure, will not shout eureka with the answer, but it is good to feel part of the world wide process of debate and potential action.
Our artworks are being evolved, the film edited and public venues and funding assessed to bring these works into the public domain. Kathy, our web designer and editor, will continue updating and posting our website, so please visit regularly to become part of our progress.