Arie Altena

A Full Moon behind the Pipes of Nikel

The Second Dark Ecology Journey

This is a report of the second Dark Ecology Journey which took place in 2015. Somehow it was never published. (And consequently I'm not sure if this text has been properly proofread).

The second Dark Ecology trip took place from Thursday 26 November till Monday 30 November 2015. As a group – more than 40 artists, researchers, curators and theorists – we traveled from Kirkenes to Murmansk and back, visiting commissioned artworks in Nikel and Zapolyarny on the way. The programme consisted of lectures, discussions,  curated walks, concerts, a sound walk and visits to site-specific installations.

Wednesday evening we had organised a welcome dinner in the clubhouse of the small boats harbour of Kirkenes for participants who had arrived that evening from different places all over Norway, Europe or the rest of the world. The real kickoff of the programme on Thursday was a long lecture by the American philosopher Graham Harman, one of the most outspoken and clear voices of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). In his lecture he introduced some of the ideas of OOO and he referred to the lecture of Tim Morton that kicked off the first Dark Ecology journey in 2014. He specifically talked about the paradox of the Anthropocene (transformations of the Earth on a geological scale caused by humans, which show that humankind is not in control), Timothy Morton's idea of ​​hyperobjects, and Bruno Latour's view on politics, which is the topic of his at that moment most recent book.

We had decided to insert an additional presentation on the local political and economic situation in Kirkenes after Harman’s lecture. Kirkenes is located on the edge of Europe, and may seem pretty remote from ‘the news’. It’s not. Since the summer it had been one of the places where refugees tried to enter the safe haven of Europe, and mass-media had reported extensively on it. The 'hook' for the mass-media was the story of the bikes that the refugees had to use to cross the 200 meters between Russia and Norway, which may not be crossed on foot. Right on the second day of our programme the border between Kirkenes and Nikel would be permanently closed to refugees. The day before the iron ore mine, from which at least 30% of the workforce of Kirkenes is directly dependent, was declared bankrupt. (This had been expected since a while). The trade with Russia – economically very important for Kirkenes – had also virtually stalled, due to the economic boycott of Putin-Russia. At the end of November there was only one Russian ship in the harbour against an average of 20 the year before. While in 2012 the dominant story was still that Kirkenes was moving towards a glorious economic future thanks to global warming (which would make the exploitation of oil and gas fields in the Barents Sea feasible), the prospects had completely tilted in 2015 due to the crisis with Russia, and falling prices for oil and iron ore. At the same time the refugee ‘crisis’ was literally on the doorstep. This situation – and the fact that it exactly came to a (negative) conclusion during our journey, gave an extra edge to our programme and our discussions.

The journey was scheduled for the end of November, because is the beginning of the polar night and of the ‘slow time’ (in the Sámi culture). The sun doesn’t rise anymore above the horizon in Kirkenes from the end of November on, and in this weekend it was also full moon. The issue of the ‘light’ turned out to be very important to many participants, especially those who had not previously experienced the polar night. The four hours of bluish blue dusk each day and the getting dark at the beginning of the afternoon gave an immediate sense of being on a planet, of belonging to the planet Earth.

In the afternoon and early evening of Thursday we visited two commissioned works on the hill overlooking Kirkenes. The Dutch artist Joris Strijbos installed a kinetic sound-and-light sculpture Isoscope on the top of the hill. Isoscope consists of multiple robotic wind objects – there was no external source of electricity – that interact with each other and with the landscape to perform a generative composition. The audience could wander through the rotating lights and a constantly changing sonic cloud. Next to Isoscope was the small lake where Margrethe Pettersen’s (Norwegian with a Sámi background) soundwalk Living Land – Below as Above was set. The audience wandered over a small frozen lake, the route marked by small lights, listening to a half hour composition – in either an English or Norwegian version, both also using storytelling in Sámi ( Inspired by the 1979 documentary The Secret Life of Plants, Pettersen imagined the communication between species beneath the silent snow carpet, capturing a cosmology of the plants. She stated: ‘A more holistic thinking and behaviour towards animals and nature has always been part of living in the North. We took out only what we needed and used the entire animal or fish. The gratitude, knowledge and sensitivity to every living thing, believing in the powers of animals, stones, lakes, rivers and weather, has formed the peoples of the North, and defined its culture. A lot of these histories, memories and oral stories are not written down, they been travelling overland with the wind. They are a living experience.’ The theme of indigenous knowledge, and indigenous approaches to the Earth and nature would return several times in the discussions the following days. The experience of walking on the snow and ice in the dark, with a full moon in an almost clear sky, listening to Living Land was quite powerful.

Both these works were on show until the end of the weekend, and many locals showed up to have a look. The site was immediately adjacent to the area where many Kirkenesians walk their dog. Unsuspecting passers-by usually came to have a look, their curiousness triggered by the strange SF-looking wind machines of Joris Strijbos.

The next day we travelled to Murmansk. This meant a more than six hour trip by coach, including the border crossing at Størskog. The timing was perfect: crossing through the most beautiful part (the Pasvik valley) during the blue hours, and afterwards seeing the moonrise behind the pipes of Nikel. The timing was ominous as well: this was the first day without refugees crossing the border; only the containers with bikes at the Norwegian side were a visible sign of what had taken place until just a day before.

For the long bus trip– after the border crossing is still is three hours to Murmansk through the dark Kola Peninsula – we had organised a selection of podcasts to listen to. The podcasts related in various ways to the theme, from the brand new Radio Web Macba Objecthood #4 podcast, featuring myself talking about the Kola Superdeep Borehole nearby Zapolyarny, to Franz Pomassl’s live recording of his concert in Nikel that was part of Dark Ecology I, and several radio documentaries on the Arctic.

We arrived in Murmansk at the end of the afternoon. The evening programme was hosted by our Murmansk partners Friday Milk, and featured presentations of and interviews with all commissioned artists: Joris Strijbos, Margrethe Pettersen (in dialogue with Britt Kramvig), Hilary Jeffrey, and Tatjana Gorbachevskaja, followed by a discussion with the participants. (HC Gilje was originally scheduled to present as well, but was still busy installing his work in Zapolyarny; as the schedule was quite full already we opted to leave him out).

On Saturday Susan Schuppli explored what she calls ‘material witnesses’ in her lecture Bearing Material Witness to Climate Change. Within the context of the Dark Ecology lecture she focused on how industrial pollutants and global warming are creating new ‘material witnesses’ out of the chemistry of sunlight, ice and snow, and how these operate as evidential agents that can testify to contested events. (One of these is the observation of a more western sunset in the Canadian North, as told in the well-known documentary Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change by Zacharias Kunuk:

The afternoon and evening were for Hilary Jeffrey’s new commissioned composition for which he had collaborated intensively over the period of over a week with a group of local Russian and Norwegian musicians in the Roxy in Murmansk – a very lively cultural center that had the atmosphere of a thriving art-squat, very rare now in the Netherlands. They played two concerts, one before dinner, one after, attracting a good local audience (the venue was packed). It was an impressive experience, the ensemble was like a spaceship that took to audience on a trip through space to another planet.

Taking to heart the criticisms on the programme of 2014, we had accommodated more space for ‘individual research time’. The Sunday was free time, till the bus left (at 14:30). We had however arranged for several local experts who would take the interested participants to various interesting spots in Murmansk. I decided to walk through Murmansk on my own, searching for very normal places where there is nothing special to see.

It was eerily warm. Normally temperatures at the end of November in Murmansk are well below zero, if not below −20 Celsius. During our visit the temperature in Murmansk was +2. The snow was slush. December would be very hot in the Arctic, with record high temperatures of +8,7 on Svalbard, and a crazy +2 at the North Pole on 30 December, temperatures that normally are not even reached during the Arctic summer there when the Sun shines all day.

Sunday afternoon we travelled back to Nikel and Zapolyarny to visit two commissioned works by the Norwegian artists HC Gilje. In Nikel Gilje’s video Barents (Mare Incognitum) was installed outside in the football stadium, the expo was opened by the alderman of Nikel, and attracted a great crowd. The installation shows a slowly rotating view of the Barents Sea. HC Gilje shot the footage for the video in the border zone between Norway and Russia, facing the North Pole. On the outskirts of Zapolyarny he had realised a new work Crossing. The work explores and re-activates an abandoned construction site – we still do not know for sure what it was, nor who owned the land – using light and motion. Surprisingly there was a local audience here as well. Surprisingly because the site was not easy to find, and Zapolyarny is like Nikel predominantly a mining town.

We spent the night from Sunday to Monday in Zapolyarny. On Monday we first went to Nikel. Those who visited the first time were totally impressed by the town, overseen by the enormous nickel smelter which is responsible for severe pollution and the devastation of local nature. It was my fourth visit, and though the smelter (and the pollution) still feel impressive, I preferred to look at the other, more humane aspects of Nikel. The special history and architecture of Nikel, which totally depends on mining and heavy industry, was explored by the architect Tatjana Gorbaschevskaja – who’s born and raised in Nikel – in collaboration with Katya Larina, a specialist on Russian secret cities. All participants took guided walks to explore the area, and met near the smelter. The day, and the official programme was closed with an indoor presentation and a closing discussion session.

Another border crossing brought us back into Norway – again no sign of refugees except the abandoned bikes – and to Kirkenes for a farewell dinner and a small party. 

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Arie Altena