Arie Altena

Diary: Dark Ecology Journey 2016

Arie Altena


Here are some initial impressions of the third Dark Ecology Journey, mostly written on the spot by Arie Altena, one of the curators of the project. The text is quite rough and at times personal, more diary-style than factual reporting. This text was originally published at

Wednesday 8 June
I’m looking forward to the third Dark Ecology journey, especially because we’ll stay at the Svanhovd conference centre in Svanvik in the middle of Pasvik Valley. And I’m particularly keen about walking in the hills around Nikel, and visiting the ruins of the Kola Superdeep, which I’ve written about, but never seen with my own eyes.

The weather in Kirkenes is bad. Our departure from Oslo is delayed, and it’s unclear if we will be able to land in Kirkenes. The alternative is the closest airport, plus a bus drive of six hours. But we’re lucky. The fog lifted for a moment. We land in Kirkenes on time. It’s raining, three degrees above zero with a strong wind. An earlier flight was diverted to an airport ’close by’, those of our group who were aboard that flight had to endure the six-hour bus ride in addition to their flight. That’s better than the plane that left from Tromsø: it was diverted to Oslo and five people spent the night there.

In the bus we meet the participants who were already in Kirkenes. We head straight to Svanvik. After a hearty dinner we don our snowmobile suits. We didn’t really need them on our November trip, but we certainly need them now for our outdoors fireside welcome. Imagine 30 people in the rain wearing snowmobile suits around a fire, grilling sausages and drinking. The light is grey. The light is already playing tricks on us. It’s completely overcast. The light hardly changes. It could be late afternoon, early morning, or one o’clock at night. The light changes you, and changes how you connect to your own body and the world around you.

Thursday 9 June
Get up. Overcast, clouds in various hues of grey and white. Breakfast with a view over the green Pasvik Valley.

The morning lecture is by Heather Davis. While she talks about plastics, Timothy Morton types constantly. His quick summary and comments are already online when she ends. What I remember vividly from the lecture is the idea of a ‘geology’ of plastics, and the idea (which she derives from a First Nations anthropologist whose name escapes me now) that the First Nations already have lived through the Apocalypse.

Thursday afternoon is for the ‘curated walks’. I’ve signed up for the ‘dark heritage’ tour. It’s the longest tour, and the furthest away. We travel about 70 kilometres by car, south along the Pasvik River almost to the Finnish border, to one of the spots where archaeologists have excavated ancient Sami fireplaces. They’ve been unearthed at three locations, and are dated to about 800 years ago. The location we visit has about ten fireplaces in a line, marked by stones arranged in a perfect rectangle. Our guide is a logger. He has lived at this spot in the valley since 1964; it’s just past Vaggatem, where he set up the campsite at the Pasvik River where we have coffee and waffles later on. He knows the area well, and hosted the archaeologists while they were doing the excavations.

Here in the Pasvik Valley, there is no visible sign of pollution or industry, just nature everywhere. Soft mosses, lichen, birch trees with light green leaves, pines, all sorts of flowers, grasses, little ponds. I’m a bit concerned that this might create the contrast of ‘beautiful Norway’ versus ‘polluted Russia’. Here you don’t see the mines or the Nikel smelter. I hope the nature in the hills of Nikel, and around the Kola Superdeep will be equally impressive. Yet in Nikel one cannot escape the presence of mining, and the smelter will almost always be visible in the distance. The Russian side the Pasvik Valley is just as lovely, but because it’s the border zone it’s less accessible. Later on we hike 3 kilometres to the ruins of a prisoner-of-war camp in the woods, just a small barbed-wired plot where you can see the small circular wall that enclosed the tent where the POWs (Russians forced to work as loggers) slept.

It’s surprising how present history is in the stories about this region. The other side of the river used to be Finnish. There was a ferry between Svanvik (Norway) and Salmijarvi (now Russia). Many people were forced to move after the Second World War and never returned to what they considered their home ground. Back in Svanhovd we enjoy Dmitry Morozov’s (aka :vtol:) installation Lessophon. Rolls of tape hang from the ceiling and slowly unroll. Contact mikes are attached to the rolls. The mics are connected to an FM transmitter which transmits the sounds mixed with sound created by an algorithm (generated using data from a camera that measures the height of the rolls of tape). Small radios are tuned to 99FM and transmit the sound. It sounds even better on an iPhone-FM radio, especially if you listen on headphones and there’s a bit of interference (what we used to call the sound of the ‘ether’). Jana Winderen’s Pasvikdalen, a work she composed for Dark Ecology, and which premiered live at Sonic Acts 2015, plays in a headphone version in a great space with large windows on three sides.

Friday 10 June
Wake up at 8. Breakfast. Overcast. Not too cold. Preparing for the Timothy Morton’s lecture.

Timothy Morton’s lectures are really performances, even though every word is written out beforehand. Often he pushes his ideas just a little bit further than where you think they would still make sense. And I think he experiments a bit, to see if words, concepts, insights, lines of poetry, and ideas will stick together. Every time I hear him speak, there are things that I don’t get. But there are sentences that stay in your mind, like lines from a poem. Often they begin to make sense half a year later. This is also because he re-uses ideas, re-blending them in other ways for a new lecture. I now understand his concept of subsendence; I understand the ‘We never have been neolithic’-bit; I understand the idea of agrilogistics. He’s a great performer, and that makes him enjoyable to listen to even if you can’t follow the entire argument. I’m moderating, and as usual I’m stuck for questions afterwards, so I begin by relating the anecdote of R. (my almost 6-year-old daughter), who at some point claimed with great certainty that it’s bad to wash your hands because it kills all the little bacteria. This connects of course in various ways to the idea of coexisting with other beings. Interestingly the word solidarity pops up repeatedly in Timothy’s lecture – as does symbiosis. He’s writing a book for Penguin explaining all these things to people who don’t care. And a book for Verso, which will delve into Marxism. I can’t wait to read those.

The bus is late, so we enjoy an extra hour of free time. The sun comes out. It begins to feel like summer.

The border crossing to Russia seems to be easier every time we do it. Maybe it’s because we know the procedure now, and we’re comfortable chatting while waiting in line. At one point an alarm goes off for a few seconds. A red light flickers on a grey box. It happens just after Roger Norum goes past it. Two minutes later a border guard with a scanner asks him to pass through the grey thing again. Nothing happens. He asks Peter Meanwell to do the same. Nothing. He passes the instrument over our bags. Is it a Geiger counter? Nothing. It takes just 2 minutes and is done in a fairly relaxed way – or maybe it was because Roger didn’t get excited. We shrug our shoulders. That evening during dinner in Nikel one of our Russian friends who works in the Nikel administration tells us that a friend of his who works as a border guard phoned him earlier. The border guards had totally freaked out that afternoon because for the very first time ever the alarm that detects nuclear radiation had gone off.

Nikel looks even better than it did a year ago, and so much better than four years ago. The Culture Palace is painted and so well maintained. We hear that someone is planning to open a hotel with a view of the smelter.

Seventy locals turn up for the hike up the hill to Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide’s work Altitude & History. That’s already moving in itself – such a large turnout from a city where you wouldn’t expect much interest in experimental art. Of course, the fact that Espen and Signe worked with the locals and collected the sound histories of Nikel’s old residents probably helped. But still. We walk almost an hour, 120 of us trudging up the hill outside Nikel. The view is glorious. There is absolutely no wind. It’s completely still. That’s actually not good for the piece, because Espen and Signe have built Aeolian instruments, played by the wind. They chose this hill because there is always wind there. On the way up Espen performs three short pieces: a voice recounting a sonic memory in Russian and English, accompanied by a self-made instrument. Their wind instruments, wooden speakers, a metal cap with a wire that amplifies the sound of the wind are spread out on the hilltop. And further down are four upright tubes (with little speakers underneath them). Espen and Signe play a metal stick, which makes a ringing sound, while the installation plays back field recordings. At the same time people from the audience swing the antenna-like wind instruments through the air.

The piece is absolutely beautiful, and even better thanks to the initial ‘ritual’ of walking uphill, and because we’re free to play the instruments ourselves. Listening and looking across the valley, with the mountains in the distance, you just long to walk on straight through that landscape. You can do it; it won’t get dark. Many people stay on the hill for a while, many of the Russians play and interrogate Espen and Signe about how their instruments work. And Timothy Morton says: ‘it’s a masterpiece’. Peter Meanwell says: ‘playing these instruments is like inserting the wind into the landscape’. And Joost Rekveld says: ‘it’s so great to see the people, who would never think of going to an experimental music concert, play the instruments while Espen and Signe performed’.

Saturday 11 June
In the morning we go to the Kola Superdeep Borehole. I will get to see it at last. I’ve been asking if we can walk there and the answer is ‘no’. We expect a local audience of 100 people, which is a challenge for the production team, to say the least. (There are only 50 iPods for 150 visitors). The bus takes us up one of the unpaved industrial roads as far it can. From there Lada Niva’s will take us up further up the road to the Kola Superdeep site. The sun is shining. I’m not the only one who wanted to walk from where the bus dropped us. In the end we do walk the 4 remaining kilometres to the Kola Superdeep. First through a landscape of rubble, formed by what is dug out of the earth, then through a landscape that gradually becomes more beautiful, with little lakes, little rivers, some snow, moss, flowers. And then we see the ruins of the Kola Superdeep offices on Wolf Lake. It’s even more dilapidated than I expected. The area is breathtaking, with the lake and the small mountains. And all this wrecked Soviet science and engineering in the middle of it. Large office buildings, the carcases of electronic installations and rusting metal everywhere. It’s a sad place. High tech from the 1970s abandoned to dust. Once this was a place for avant-garde science and hi-tech experimental engineering. This major project was all about learning about the Earth, and it’s all gone to ruin. This is what is left if you choose to stop exploring and doing science. Maybe it was a typical Soviet-modernist scientific project with few qualms about nature and ecology – nonetheless, it’s still a moving sight. I walk around the building. I first want to take in my own observations, thoughts and emotions, before going through Justin Bennett’s narrative soundwalk. Yuri Smirnov – 87 now, and the former head of geology at Kola Superdeep – is also present. He’s happy and proud. Over a 100 Russians come by bus and car from Zapolyarny and Nikel (and even from further away). I see some faces that were also on the hill outside Nikel on Friday. Many people are taking photos, and I see Yuri Smirnov busily explaining things and telling stories. So many Russians come to see and hear Justin’s work that we run out of iPods with the Russian version. We end up putting the Russian version on the English-version iPods. Everywhere people walk around plugged into earphones, and head through the building towards the Borehole: the metal cap with 12.229 written on it. The hole once was over 12 kilometres deep. Afterwards people ask: ‘Where’s Victor?’ Victor is the (fictional) character in Justin’s narrative. But he’s not there. He doesn’t exist in this world. It so wonderful that we pulled this off – with the audience, and restoring respect for this scientific project as well. It shouldn’t be a ruin. There is nobleness in the drive to understand the Earth. (Though the methods might be crude.)

On the way back I take a closer look at the location and the other hills and conclude that we’d been very close to this place on our first trip here, in 2012, when we couldn’t continue due to snow on the road. We were simply on the wrong side of the mountain.

After lunch in Nikel, there’s only an hour left for ‘free research’. I walk down the ‘main’ path into Nikel. I want to see the small river. Forest fires have destroyed the landscape on the other side. The trees never re-grew, the moss stayed black, the barbed wire is from the Second World War. It’s a scarred landscape. Now I turn right, and it’s suddenly very green. A landscape with trees, a communal vegetable plot, green fields. The sun is warm. I have to take off my coats. It’s almost like a holiday, people on their Sunday walk. I have a look at the river before I have to turn around to get back. No time to walk all the way down to the lake.

Sunday 12 June
The last day of the third Dark Ecology Journey. Departing from Zapolyarny. The central square with the hotel and the Culture Palace, the colourful concrete boxes for plants and the little park. Full-on sunshine this morning. A car with open doors has been blasting Russian hip-hop and commercial pop since 8 o’clock. You think for a moment, what a way to start your free Sunday in the park. But these guys and girls are drunk; it’s a continuation of late night partying. Dmitry says: ‘A typical Russian day: someone is still drunk, someone is missing, someone has been beaten up.’

The weather is getting warmer. We cross the border without any problems. Indeed seems to go faster every time. Maybe they know us now? Peter and Mariaspot the Russian woman who was at History and Altitude with the Russian flag poking out of her bag, cycling from Nikel to the border, waving them goodbye. Coincidence? Russia is an intriguing country. We’ve met many great people, we have good friend in the Nikel administration.

It’s peculiar to see that Nikel looks so much better now than it did 4 years ago. A new tourist centre for the Pasvik Valley in Nikel is being built. A hotel with 20 rooms will open in October: the rooms have a view of the smelter. Sure, we’re not the only ones to bring a new public to Nikel – there is mainstream tourism as well. But it’s still surprising to see these developments, as generally the economic circumstances in Russia aren’t improving (the same is true for Norway). People seem to be proud to be from Nikel.

In the afternoon we walk up Langøra hill in Kirkenes, listening to Peter Meanwell’s specially commissioned podcast about Cecilia Jonsson’s Prospecting: A Geological Survey of Greys, the work we’re going to see. Further up the hill she drilled a 170-metre-deep hole with the help of geologists. The 170 metres of bore-cores are exhibited as a sculpture. Again, the whole experience is well designed: walking uphill in a scattered group of about 100 people, many of whom are listening to the podcast, to look at the sculpture and enjoy the landscape. Peter Meanwell’s podcast, with the voices of Cecilia and a geologist, focuses our thoughts and senses. I’m quite tired, the sun is agreeably warm, and the mosquitoes are inactive, so I lay down on the moss and have a rest.

It’s quiet in Kirkenes. Literally. Until less than a year ago the hum of the separation plant (where they separate iron ore from the stone) was audible day and night. The hum was always there, as the plant ran 24 hours a day. But the company that exploited the mine and ran the plant was declared bankrupt in November 2015, one day before our second Dark Ecology Journey. All the personnel were let go. Only a handful of engineers stayed on for a few more days to take care of the machinery: after operating continuously for years it couldn’t be shut down just like that. It happened a few days later. Now there is only one caretaker on the premises.

It is quite uncanny that our last event takes place inside this empty separation plant. It’s as if the workers have only temporarily left the building. The scaffolding full of machinery and spare parts, the lockers with work clothes, work boots left on the floor, refrigerators with notes stuck to the doors, cartoons on the wall, coffee mugs in the canteen. Nickel van Duijvenboden invites us to the canteen for his performance. He reads letters about his stay in Kirkenes, letters he wrote during the past week, the last one finished just an hour before the performance. The letters are about various subjects connected to the current situation in Kirkenes, our Journey, a visit to the Allthing in Iceland (location of the first parliament), philosophy, the theme of living together, connections, sociality, and the need to (sometimes) be alone. He takes the audience to the rooms where the workers changed their clothes. He narrates how he cycled all the way to the asylum centre near the airport. The guard didn’t want to let him in. ‘Who are you and why do you ask these questions?’ The reading of the letters is interspersed with drumming; he also plays some field recordings and a Moog. The piece is long, and sometimes awkward – in a good way. In the end he leads the audience to the enormous machine hall, where the drumming sounds phenomenal. Nickel’s performance is quite different from the other works in the Dark Ecology project because it is discursive, narrative, tries to weave different philosophies into the story, and because it is highly personal in a quite straightforward way: ‘Who are you and why do you ask these questions?’

(So we had two deserted locations for our events. Weird. The Kola Superdeep, once a pinnacle of Soviet hi-tech engineering and science; and the Kimek separation plant, once a hub of economic activity in Kirkenes. The first a memorial to Western – Soviet – science, the second symbolic of an economy in shambles.)

The final performance is Mikro, a live improvised audiovisual piece by Justin Bennett and HC Gilje. Both have collected a lot of tiny objects during the Journey, bits of stone, moss, lichen – things connected to the places we visited. These are the material for the sounds and visuals that they generate with their set-up. HC Gilje uses a customised camera to photograph fragments, which he mixes together to become part of the projected abstract imagery, and Justin uses microphones and his laptop to create a cracking noise ‘soundtrack’. It feels like a good Sonic Acts evening in a (cold) industrial warehouse.

As with our previous Journeys, our farewell party that evening is in the boathouse of the small boats harbour. We perform a vodka ritual to celebrate the ending, and hope for a continuation. But we can’t just leave yet.

Wednesday 15 June
Most of the participants leave on Monday. Some of us stay in Norway, because there is a joint Arctic Encounters & Dark Ecology Forum in Tromsø on Wednesday in collaboration with Fylkeskommune Tromsø. Annette Wolfsberger, Hilde Methi, Espen Sommer Eide and Margrethe Pettersen are on a Dark Ecology panel that I’m moderating, and we show Signe Lidén’s work Conflux – made for the first Dark Ecology Journey – in a film version. Berit Kristoffersen and Britt Kramvig, who were part of all three Dark Ecology Journeys, organised this conference and are present as well. The conference is in the beautiful Verdenstheatret and is well attended. Britt Kramvig quotes quite a bit from the interview with the Dark Ecology curatorial team, which is in the Living Earth book, to explain the project. We sell a lot of books.

In the evening we close with an event at Kurant. This turns out to be the emotional finale to the Dark Ecology project. At 7 o’clock Jana Winderen gives a moving live performance of Pasvikdalen (another Dark Ecology commission), which leaves everyone in the audience – well, gasping for breath. In fact, it feels quite impossible to do anything after this concert. Just have a beer, stare into the distance, or go home to let it all sink in. But we’ve scheduled a lecture and Q&A with Timothy Morton for 8 o’clock. (Why we chose this order is a mystery to all of us). Timothy feels like Santana having to go on stage after the Mahavishnu Orchestra has blown the audience away. He has prepared a ‘love letter to dark Ecology/Sonic Acts’, and is quite emotional. The text is a 30 minutes mash-up of the e-mails we exchanged, interspersed with remarks about the Sixth Extinction event, and excerpts from texts he’s written for Dark Ecology. It’s a fitting finale – even after Jana’s breathtaking performance. He also says – I think it was during the introduction to the lecture – that he hardly understood himself what ‘dark ecology’ could be before we invited him, and that Dark Ecology has been life-changing for him. After Tim’s lecture, I – as a moderator – am confronted with the awkward task of initiating a Q&A. At first it stays quiet. The theme of the Q&A is very much ‘how to live together’, humans and non-humans. And maybe that’s the direction we should head towards with our Dark Ecology project.

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