Arie Altena

Dark Ecology, First Journey Report

Arie Altena

9–12 October 2014
Kirkenes, Nikel, Zapolyarny

This report about the first Dark Ecology Journey was published on

Wednesday 8 October 2014
I am in Kirkenes again. This is my fourth trip up North. Tomorrow the event that we’ve been preparing for so long will kick off: the first Dark Ecology journey.

This is my fourth visit to the border area between Norway and Russia. My first visit was in 2012, with Lucas van der Velden and Annette Wolfsberger. We were very impressed, and that visit planted the seed for the Dark Ecology project. My second visit, in 2013, was to establish if a project here would make sense and be feasible from both an organisational and artistic perspective. I came over a third time in the summer of 2014 to prepare for this journey. Now it will happen.

Today most of the artists, speakers and other participants will arrive at Kirkenes airport, travelling from Oslo, and places as far away as Montreal and Houston. Some will come by bus or car from Murmansk. A few will fly in tomorrow morning from Tromsø. The longest journey is that of the two young guys (TILMIL and Mnogoznaal) from the Republic of Komi in Russia. Because there aren’t any roads between Kola and Komi they first have to go by train to St Petersburg to catch a flight to Murmansk, and then travel by minibus to Nikel. They don’t have passports, so they’ll only join us for the Russian part of our journey.

When you organise a cultural event that takes place in Russia, you’re usually issued with cultural visas for the participants. To get one you need an invitation from an official Russian organisation. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear to us, we’d been unable to obtain such an invitation. It might have been that we approached it the wrong way. I was bothered by a lingering suspicion that the title ‘Dark Ecology’ had ticked the wrong boxes in Putin’s Russia. ‘Westerners zooming in on industrial pollution in Russia.’ Wrong. ‘Political event.’ Also incorrect. ‘Ecological activism disguised as art and culture.’ Definitely ‘Nyet’! On the other hand, there wasn’t any real sign that this could have been the problem. It was just that e-mails and telephone calls weren't answered.

Going beyond the first impression the title may have given, it should have been clear that our aim wasn’t straightforward ecological activism, nor did we want to meddle with Russia’s politics. Instead, we wanted to go beyond the schemata of pristine nature versus polluting industry that often inform activism. Dark Ecology is about reconsidering the (modern) ideas of nature and ecology, taking our cue from, for example, Timothy Morton’s notions of ‘ecology without nature’ and ‘dark ecology’. It’s about coming to terms with the Anthropocene as a human being. (In fact, this turns out to be one the central themes of the next few days.) In a non-trivial way, Dark Ecology is about experiencing firsthand what we’re doing with the Earth by visiting a region where a few of the paradoxes of modern civilisation are clearly visible, and inviting artists and theorists to make new work that reflects on this. Maybe, for those of us who live in nice ‘smart cities’, it’s also about becoming acquainted with aspects of our world that remain invisible behind the ‘clean surface’ of a technologised society. (Peopled by consumers glued to the glowing screens of their smartphones, believing there’s a technological solution for everything.) Dark Ecology is also about inhabiting an ‘in-between space’ for a moment, staying with the darkness. We also wanted to take the fascination with large industry or apocalyptic devastation just as seriously as the political ‘what to do?’ question. And most importantly, if with Dark Ecology we zoom in on the industrial pollution around Nikel and the scars in the landscape left by open pit mining, then it is to seriously consider our attachment to it, our responsibility for and fascination with it, in all its many facets, and certainly not to simply condemn it.

We hope that this encounter, examination, or exploration will take many forms. In this sense Dark Ecology and the first journey are an experiment. It’s about imagination as well, imagining a past, a future, a politics, our connections. It’s also about trying to imagine something larger than us humans. Personally, I’m happy to leave the question of how political this is unaddressed.

To be honest though, one cannot completely exclude this question from the equation. (Certainly not in an area as remote as Pechenga on the Kola Peninsula. Nearby Murmansk is the harbour for Russia’s nuclear fleet, most of Kola was a military zone until a mere two years ago, the quantity of nuclear warheads deployed in Northern Russia has recently increased, et cetera.)

I arrived yesterday. I spent some of my time preparing the programme for tomorrow, which I have to introduce. I will explain why we’re here, and what the artistic, philosophical and theoretical context of the project is, and introduce Timothy Morton’s keynote lecture. He will arrive today, after travelling for 24 hours from Houston. We are very happy and lucky that he immediately wanted to come up here. He felt flattered to be invited to a project that boldly borrowed a term from his work – dark ecology – and used it as the title. I hope his jetlag won’t be too bad: to build a good programme, we pretty much had to schedule him as the opening speaker.

In the past few weeks I’ve also written an extensive text on the Kola Superdeep Borehole, and I’m quite happy with it. I’ve also made an annotated reading list for the project, which also functions as an outline of a particular theoretical field that we’re trying to inhabit with Dark Ecology, combining Morton, Latour, and Serres.

The participants start arriving at the end of the afternoon. We’ve organised a dinner for everyone at the small boats harbour in Kirkenes. There’s food and drinks inside, we have a fire outside. It soon becomes a lively party. People catch up, old friends meet, new friends made, discussions started. We’re already starting to be a group.

Thursday 9 October
After breakfast in the Arctic Hotel (with lots of fish) we all meet at the Samfundhuset, next to Kirkenes’ public library, on the other side of the town square. The room fills slowly with the participants, some of the locals, and several people who will only join for this day. Yesterday I discovered that the text I wrote about Dark Ecology a year ago is a perfect introduction for today. It’s an unfinished essay, some of the best parts were used in the subsidy requests; other bits were used in e-mails to possible participants, or were transformed into publicity texts. The essay had been plundered, the text was in tatters, and at the time it no longer made sense to finish it as a short essay.

There’s no sign of jetlag in Timothy Morton’s energetic delivery of his lecture. He knows how to animate the written word in oral delivery, and captivates his audience with his presentation There are all these sentences that stick in your mind, like ‘We lack reliable evidence for imagination’, and ‘There is no one anti-bacterial soap to rule them all’. His lecture is entitled ‘Human Thought at Earth Magnitude’ (video). This last term he borrowed from Douglas Kahn – a friend of his, but also someone who we’ve invited to Sonic Acts several times. Kahn’s most recent book Earth Sound, Earth Signal. Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, in which he looks at how artists started to use ‘energy’ and make works at the magnitude of the Earth (like Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveiros, and Joyce Hinterding), has been an inspiration for us as well.

I imagine that some in the audience are familiar with Morton’s ideas, but that for others it is quite new, if not strange. During the Q&A, I take the opportunity to ask him questions that address the ideas he set forward in his previous books, like ‘ecology without nature’, ‘dark ecology’, and ‘hyperobject’. He graciously explains, expands on his ideas, and ad-libs trying to get to new insights. (Later in conversation he says that in his writing he always tries to push the ideas a step ‘beyond’.)

Urban Wråkberg, a researcher who works at the Barents Institute and a long-time Kirkenes resident, introduces participants to the local context, to travelling through the Norway/Russia border zone, and to the pitfalls of looking at exactly the same things that everybody else looks at. Of course, after driving through Nikel, every tourist stops at exactly the point we did on our first trip here to take photos of the smelter.

The afternoon is for exploring Kirkenes. We divide into groups. Some walk through Kirkenes, another group goes on a boat trip to the site where the new harbour will be built. Speculating on economic growth and the increased use of the North-East passage between Europe and Asia began a few years back already. A third group visits the mining factory in Kirkenes and actually goes down into the mine. For all of them this is a truly mind-blowing experience. Kirkenes is economically dependent on the iron ore mines – it grew from a small fishing village into a town because of them. They had been closed, but were opened again at the end of the 1990s, leading to new prosperity for Kirkenes. But in 2014 the price of iron ore is falling, putting the exploitation of the mine and the factory in jeopardy. Still, Kirkenes is an expensive place: all eyes are firmly set on the predicted economic growth in the North.

The mayor of Kirkenes joins us for dinner. In her speech she refers to the idea of Dark Ecology, quotes from our programme and from Tim Morton, and thanks Hilde Methi for all her great work. Now we feel flattered, because it’s not every day that politicians take an active interest in the ideas that trigger an art project. She also stresses how important the project is to her. She and her Russian colleagues would like to continue stimulating regional and local cooperation in the border zone. Over the past few years this cooperation has intensified. Roads are built and improved, and border procedures are simplified for Norwegians from Sør-Varanger and Russians from Pechenga. Historically there have been good relations between people on both sides of the border, and the numbers crossing it have gone up. But the cooperation is under severe strain due to international geopolitical developments. Our project embodies the collaboration between Russia and Norway that they hope to be able to continue.

We asked Love Cult, Petrozavodsk’s Ivan Afanasyev and Anja Kuts, to curate two of their ‘Secret Chambers’ events for Dark Ecology, one in Kirkenes, one in Nikel, featuring talents from Norway and North-West Russia. Tonight is the Kirkenes edition. It’s at a not-so-secret location near the harbour, which is regularly used for parties. Chikiss – from St Petersburg – plays her songs, accompanying herself on her vintage synths. I’ve listened to her music in Amsterdam, and it’s quite eerie to hear her sing her songs in Russian – which I don’t understand – while knowing them (almost) by heart. Sergei Suokas makes me fantasise about how his music would go down at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. He plays a type of ambient-techno, and though he mostly stays ‘inside’ the genre, he inserts unusual, strange ‘things’ throughout. It’s very imaginative, and it opens up the music in a good way. It might come from Suokas’s interest in nature, his love for the Karelian forests and the Urals, the isolation (in nature) that he prefers, and his use of nature soundscapes. The long day ends with harsher sounds from Andreas Nordenstamm’s vintage modular synths and self-built electronics.

Friday 10 October
Today we travel to Nikel. It’s not that far in kilometres, and not far at all as the crow flies, but it will take us about three hours, as we have to cross the border with the whole group. That takes time. We ‘lose’ even more time because Nikel is on Moscow time: clocks are two hours ahead of those in Kirkenes. It’s my third time in Nikel and the town has started to grow on me. Initially, it looks run-down and neglected. You tend to only see the ugly side – because you cannot avoid seeing and smelling the smelter, you can’t miss the ruined houses on the ‘main square’ (which is unpaved, it’s dirt, so it could also be a park), the blocks and blocks of Soviet-style flats, some of which are completely empty. But once you realise the roads are partly made of dirt because this makes sense in the Arctic, and the profusion of potholes is because the road freezes every winter, it already starts to look friendlier. This is an industrial town, inhabited by factory workers and their families. Most of the residents own their apartments. If you look closer there is a diversity of architectural styles (including houses built by the Canadians in the 20th century), and I’m not the only one to remark on the human side of Nikel, this town that at first looks so apocalyptic. We split up into groups to explore the town, guided by locals. Of course, most of them go to look at the smelter from a distance, and see the newly built wooden Orthodox church nearby. Some go to the local museum to have tea where they have a somewhat unsettling encounter with a refugee from Ukraine. One group goes to see ‘the woods’ of Nikel, which in truth is a place where there once was a forest, but now just a single solitary tree remains. An apocalyptic sight. (Because, yes, notwithstanding the human side of Nikel, the area is extremely polluted.)

We’ve scheduled three presentations at the Nikel Culture Palace for the late afternoon. It’s a large building on an even larger square, overlooked by a tall statue of Lenin, standing as proudly as it did in Soviet times. The palace also houses the world’s northernmost zoo, and is usually used for small markets and as an indoor playground. Berit Kristoffersen, Britt Kramvig, and Femke Herregraven investigate subjects that are directly pertinent to this region. Sociologist Britt Kramvig connects to the indigenous knowledge of the North – she has extensively researched Sámi culture. Berit Kristoffersen explains how in the Lofoten (Norway) the local people are resisting the exploitation of the Northern oil fields and imagining a future without oil. Femke Herregraven gives an overview of her research into landing points of the Internet’s backbone – literally the places where the transoceanic cables emerge from the sea. A new landing place is planned near Murmansk, possibly in Teriberka, which she visited. She argues how these landing points change the global economy, because they are crucial for high frequency trading. Her text is published in The Geologic Imagination.

No hotel in Nikel is large enough for all of us, so in the evening we travel on to Zapolyarny, another mining town with a smelter built in Soviet times. We have dinner in the Azeri restaurant where we ate during our first and second research visits. The food is good, the time too short. We check into the large hotel in Zapolyarny. More than a few participants explore the ‘night-life’ in this town, and return with exciting stories; others go to sleep immediately. I can’t imagine Zapolyarny being ‘flooded’ like this with ‘tourists’ from the West that often.

Saturday 11 October
Winter has started. The streets are white and icy. It’s considerably colder here. Zapolyarny is more inland, and about 200 metres higher than Kirkenes – where it’s still autumn. Apparently those 200 metres make all the difference. We travel back over a slippery road to Nikel where we visit the garages – a terrain with hundreds of small private garages that are used to park cars, but also occasionally to drink in and socialise. This men's world an unlikely location for an art installation, but it’s quite nice, and in some ways, perfect. The garage of the brother of Roman Khorolisov – our partner in Nikel and guide to everything here – is transformed into a temporary arts gallery that shows Signe Lidén’s commissioned work krysning/пересечение/conflux. The few other men who are working at their garages stare with some suspicion at this group of Westerners that includes a lot of women who wander around their terrain and gather at a fire in front of one of the garages. Signe’s work is a video installation using footage she made by shooting an arrow (with a small camera attached to it) while wandering through the border zone. It’s beautiful; for some this work is the high point of the journey.

We walk back to the Culture Palace where we have lunch. The afternoon is filled with artist presentations. Jana Winderen, Benny Nilsen, Signe Lidén, and Espen Sommer Eide – four artists who use sound in very different ways – provide insights into their research, working methods, and motives. Signe Lidén focuses on her commissioned work; Espen Sommer Eide on his building of instruments to perceive the landscape (his project Silent Reading); Benny Nilsen on how he works with field recordings; and Jana Winderen on her interest in ecology and the sounds of nature. In retrospect it was good to have them talk quite informally about their work. It was an opportunity to find out some of their shared interests, but also tease out the differences between their approaches. Both Jana Winderen and Benny Nilsen are here to work on a commission; they’ve dragged a lot of their equipment across the border and will stay a few more days to research and record. Benny Nilsen’s commission, unearthed, was published in late 2014 on an USB-device that accompanied The Geologic Imagination, and premiered live at Sonic Acts. Jana Winderen’s Pasvikdalen will premiere at Sonic Acts in 2015. To round off, there was also a presentation by Anna Ceeh and Franz Pomassl about their impressive research into Russian electronic music: S/O/N/I/C Z/O/N/E/S/.

After dinner in Nikel’s disco we head off to the second Secret Chamber. It’s in an unlikely building: Nikel’s primary school gym. It’s a strange location for an event like ours – a gym in the Arctic in an isolated town – and it will be a very special night.

Because it’s a school building, we have to be out before midnight, so we start on time. That’s fine. But nobody had anticipated the presence of about 60 school kids aged between 6 and 10, running around in what is most definitely their gym. Their parents had allowed them to come to the early part of the evening. It was fun to have them there; for them it was extremely exciting, but it was very strange for Love Cult and for Phonophani / Espen Sommer Eide to play their quite fragile ambient electronics for this crowd: 60 children plus all these artists and intellectuals. Timothy Morton described Espen Sommer Eide’s piece quite beautifully in the interview we did with him on the last day. He said: ‘He basically took what I guess was a first inversion of a harmonic minor triad – the kind of chord you play before the tragic resolution of a sad symphony about your deafness, or whatever – and he made it ooze, sort of atonally, a little bit around the edges, and made it bleed a little bit. Then he took the oozing-bleeding and bent it and moved it around and started playing with it. It was as if he took some kind of hard clay and warmed it up and bent it, transmuting it until it became something much more sensual, something that set the stage for what happened next’. The parents collected their kids after this, and the youngsters from Nikel – the local audience we did plan for – arrived just in time for the exhilarating Russian hip-hop by TILMIL (Bandcamp) and Mnogoznaal. This was their first live gig together and it was fabulous. I’m told their lyrics are dreamlike and crazy. They are quite original. Great response from the crowd. ‘Is it always like this?’ they asked Ivan Afanasyev after the show. ‘Is every show like this?’, ‘No, this one was very special.’

Afterwards I wrote on my blog: ‘Best concert of the year. Best show of the year. Minds were blown; the lives of some people were changed. Secret Chamber in the gym of the Nikel school. (Where’s that? Nikel, Russia, Pechenga district. Look it up on the map.) With Love Cult (Ivan & Anya from Petrozavodsk). With Phonophani (Espen Sommer Eide). With the first ever live gig by TILMIL and Mnogoznaal from the Komi Republic. With Franz Pomassl. I cannot describe the emotional feeling of it all. It was great. It was mind-blowing. And think of the 14, 15, 16-year-old kids from Nikel, who were following everything that Franz Pomassl did very, very closely (making noise with loose contacts and fluorescent lights, morphing into strange noisy acid house), and all coming to thank him and give him a hug after the event. It was unreal.’

Franz Pomassl’s performance was extraordinary. The best one I’ve ever seen by him. Tim Morton (who was reliving his acid house days during the second part of the show) called it an ‘explosion of demonic play and laughter’. What I particularly loved was the fact that the 15 and 16-year-olds didn’t want to leave, and were watching every movement Pomassl made from very close by. They must’ve been transformed by it, because what he was playing was far from conventional music, it was raw sounds, improvised noise, chaotic beats.

Afterwards everyone helped to clean up.

Sunday 12 October
The last day of the journey… We travelled back over the border to Kirkenes, ‘gaining’ two hours, and returning to autumn. We head straight to the site of Raviv Ganchrow’s Long Wave Synthesis. He’s worked extremely hard on this large-scale sound installation in which he uses several types of custom-made loudspeakers. We wandered around in the landscape, listening to the interaction of the sound waves. One of the interesting aspects of the work was that it sounded just as loud (or soft – it wasn’t particularly loud) at a distance of a couple of hundred metres as it did right next to the loudspeakers. Raviv gave a talk on-site, an edited version of which is published in The Geologic Imagination. He explained some of the connections between infrasound and the landscape that he’d discovered while doing research for the work, and was exploring. He saw this installation as a first working prototype. His idea to make an infrasound installation on the scale of land-art had ‘exploded’ into a multi-faceted research project involving extended discussions with meteorologists, experimental loudspeaker design, and much, much more. He will continue this research, give talks, and show subsequent iterations of the sound installation at various other venues.

In a certain way this is where the journey ended. To wrap up, we had prepared a closing session with short presentations and discussions after lunch, reflecting on the whole journey. There were great improv presentations by Timothy Morton and others, but I think most of the participants were ‘full’ of what they’d seen, heard, and experienced, brimming with new thoughts, or overflowing with new questions – and needed time to let it all sink in.

In the evening we headed back to the small boats harbour of Kirkenes, where we had our last supper and party. That night we could see the Northern Lights.

Actually, it wasn’t entirely over. A few new people had arrived on Sunday for the ‘alternative academy’, to explore field recording, site-specific sound and sound art with Franz Pomassl. This workshop took place on Monday and Tuesday, with as an extra screening of the film The Expedition to the End of the World at the Filmklubben in Kirkenes. Though this film was scheduled for Monday night, and was hardly normal fare for the local cinema, the Filmklubben had a full house, and the local public received the film very favourably.

By this time, most of the participants were on their way home, to Oslo, Amsterdam, Montreal, Houston, London, and other places.

There are lots of photos on the Sonic Acts Flickr pages:
Set I
Set II
Set IV
Set V
Or, if you prefer, there are also some at Facebook

(October 2014, reworked August 2015)

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Arie Altena