The three-year art and research program ‘Dark Ecology’ explores the border zone between Northern Norway and Russia. This zone of ‘Ultima Thule’ has inspired fascination among travellers for centuries. During our first Dark Ecology journey from the 9 to the 12th of October 2014, we met international artists, researchers and curators in Kirkenes (Norway) and Nikkel (Russia), all grappling with ecology and darkness through art, sounds, concepts and practice. These encounters between art, ideas and dialogues were open to anyone with an interest, and included a number of public events (for example at the local school in Nikkel). There was showcasing of new commissioned works and presentations by political thinkers such as Timothy Morton, bringing alive the concept Dark Ecology for a group of fifty people. Returning from our journey, we reflect on the life and light from our close encounter with the ‘other side’.
Bordering land, bordering landscapes?
Borders are part of, and represent the landscapes of, modernities. Geopolitics – politics as determined by geographical factors – is increasingly buzzing in and about the Arctic, with politicians and commentators envisioning states as self-maximising static containers. In this milieu, climate change is used as an excuse to intensify resource extraction, and higher temperatures are leading to more activity. The notion that humans and nature are divided runs through the politics of increasing resource exploitation in and ‘of’ the Arctic, in which Russia is portrayed in contemporary Western geopolitical discourse as an ‘Arctic other’ (the villain). Borders entered into the Arctic landscape where people and animals have been migrating for millennia across the tundra following the rhythm of the season and by definition also the rhythms of nature. When national borders where asserted across northern Scandinavia in the twentieth century, it had implications for the lives of both people and animals, and also for nature. Nature became entailed in the realm of political negotiation: but is Nature up for negotiation?
Entering Nikkel, we saw and felt, but mostly smelt, the dystopia of the extraction of resources. The impact of industrial extraction became present in our bodies as we crossed borders, such as fences, empty buildings, trails of lost forests, broken glass – lost landscapes – even in the safety of our tour-operator bus: safety inside – danger out there. The collective ‘we’ of Dark ecology are concerned with a new order of nature and the experience of walking on the dystonic land. Our navigational tools confirm to us that this is the landscape of others. This is what they do: and this is the ruined landscape that results from destruction.
It is cold standing on the stairs of the cultural house in Nikkel, but the town still has a very distinct smell, which sticks to the bodies of people walking to and from the nickel factory. A young girl walks with firm steps across the open square. She opens her bag and starts throwing bread to the pigeons that soon drape themselves around her body like a shawl. She moves in circles like a dancer, and the pigeons walk on her arms that reach out, as if bridging, connecting. Two black dogs walk across the square, one quite fat and one small. Side by side they pad into the schoolyard and up the stairs, determinedly. They sit down together, and wait. Who for?
Our journey into Nikkel takes another road. Other events are attended to. Inside the dystopian landscape people work to make connections, and with a more considered gaze, moments of care and love present themselves. People with dogs, and even cats in a line, walk in the park. There are flowers in the windows of buildings that otherwise seem uncared for. People we meet care for the city, and care about the buildings from different periods that from their perspective are neither respected nor maintained. We met people from Nikkel who talk about their city with passion and expressed a lack of opportunity to influence the distribution of goods from resources taken from the ground. The minerals are taken from the land, and taken from the people who live in this city. The us/them divide with the Russians cracks and we hear the similarities with the language of people on the other side of the border, as we know it: other people of the North who articulate a need to reorganize political power relations in order to act responsibly upon their own community, place and landscape.
Arctic encounters co-commissioned a work by Signe Lidén called krysning/пересечение/conflux, presented in Nikkel, Russia. Lidén ‘sound-measured’ the border-zone by walking across pastures, mountains and manmade landscapes such as military zones, harbours, mining areas and settlements, determining her route by shooting an arrow. Lidén researched and entered the landscape using bow and arrow, a device that has not been in use for some generations. In a deeper historical perspective, though, the bow and arrow are very present. They are found in considerable numbers in the Rock art in Alta, and in tales and stories from the region. The bow and arrow are even identified in the natural world: one of the motifs of the Sámi sky is a hunting scene. One of the hunters is Fávdna and his bow, Fávnnadávgi . The story is told in different ways, but the central element holds that this hunt through the heavens has been continuing since time immemorial without anyone ever succeeding in felling Sárvas, (the elk or the reindeer). If this should ever happen, it would end the world. During the night, in the dark sky, the hunt goes on, and hunters and animals move across the sky as the hunt unfolds. The hunt is a mimesis: look up and remember that Sárvas needs open landscapes to run through: landscapes without thresholds, without borders. It reminds us that we need to respect and make space for the elk and the reindeer to move freely, it is our land but it is also the land we share with other species, our human companions, those we depend upon: and if we forget, then the world as we know and love it will fall apart.
The story tells us that we need to find another concept of nature, one that includes dark and light, recognises nature outside but also internally. We need a concept of nature that enables us to become responsible as humans? While scholars have argued that we must think outside the nature-culture divide, perhaps there is value to be found in the ontologies that the indigenous people in the Arctic have used as their guiding devices? Can we imagine nature as in/out of darkness or a nature that enacts humans? For many indigenous people in the north, humans must ask permission from nature and respect its view, we may use the bow and arrow but also mourn the terror of human brutality in nature. It tells us to listen to the sky, not to fell Sárvas, not to end the world. Dark Ecology takes place in a time and space where the renegotiation of nature is a matter of necessity. The journey for us has just begun.
Britt Kramvig and Berit Kristoffersen
PS: Here is a video interview with us from Dark Ecology Day 2 where we reflect on Arctic Encounters role in Dark ecology