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Arctic Notes 09/13/10

“how can I know what I think till I see what I say”
E.M. Forster

Here in the far North, weather conditions can change rapidly. A crystal clear day can be erased by cumulus, grey fogs drift into bays and fjords and obscure everything in site, or light beams can cut through clouds to illuminate mountains in a way that no laser show could ever invoke. I sometimes think of that kind of radical shift in perception as though nature was playing out a theater set of vast proportions, but at the end of the day, it trumps any sense of the conflict between the artificial and “natural” in perspective. Places like the fjords of Svalbard simply need to be experienced, not as art, but as what human beings aspire to create and mimic.

A year ago I had an exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery simply entitled “North/South” that was a pun about some of the issues that confronted me as a composer and artist when I went to Antarctica to begin writing an electronic music symphony called “Terra Nova”

Several months after my gallery show, the New York Times ran an article about the same phenomenon that I used in my gallery exhibition – I remixed Frederick A. Cook’s infamous claim of discovering the North Pole in a silent film, and re-scored it.

In 1912, incensed that his claims had been supplanted by Peary, Cook self-financed a documentary that was a venture back in history with this one of a kind silent film. Made by Dr. Cook in an effort to claim himself the true discoverer of the North Pole, the film is one of the first examples of propaganda in movies. With so much action packed into these short clips, viewers are sure to be mesmerized by the content. A truly historical video and great silent entertainment, but basically, it was simply self-financed propaganda. So let’s call it art. From the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s actually pretty amusing.  Basically, Frederick A. Cook created a film studio to get his version of the story out in 1912 and created what might be one of the first media spoofs of the 20th century. I love seeing things like that, because as the 21st century evolves, the whole idea of “truth” has become a game changing situation in the sciences as they grapple with climate change issues. But here in the far north, I’m thinking about something from 1968 – the tragedy of the commons.

1968 was a wild year. Some things like riots, assassinations, civil wars, Chairman Mao’s revolutionary scenario in China – they just look like so many radically staged videos in the rear view of history. So far this trip to the Arctic is a place for me to ponder both history and the forces that shaped the landscape up here, and the politics and competition for scarce resources that defines global culture circa 2010.

Garrett Hardin coined the term “tragedy of the commons” in 1968, and when I look back to that time period, before I was born, I still think of some of the Utopian issues that drove him to look at how people squander resources. That’s the difference between the Arctic and Antarctic scenarios. Somehow Antarctica, of all places on the planet was set up as a shared cultural landscape where there is no government. One could argue that it’s the most Utopian place on Earth. The Arctic, sadly, because of the proximity of so many competing nation states and corporations, is almost the opposite, and once that is understood, so many things fall into place for the active composer.

Basically, Hardin’s concept of the tragedy of the commons is a paradoxical situation that rises from a kind of mise-en-scene in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally, as economic rational “agents” consulting their own self-interest, ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. When you look at the history of the Arctic, there’s a long very abstract situation that has moved from perception to reality. In 330 BC

Pytheas of Massalia was a Greek merchant, geographer and explorer who somehow made it far enough north to explore Britain and the waters north of Scotland. He was obessesed with an island six days sailing north of Britain called “Thule.” This may refer to Iceland, but could also have been the coast of Norway, or the Shetland or Faroe Islands. Pytheas was the first person to record a description of the midnight sun, the aurora, and Polar ice.

I wonder what sounds would have drifted through his mind when he observed these things. But the way I see it, when you have countries claiming everything from Greenland (Denmark), New Siberian Islands (Russia), Nunavut (Canada), Sápmi (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia), Northwest Territories (Canada), Aleutian Islands (USA), Franz Josef Land (Russia), etc you are looking at a collage of geographies and cultures that make for a kind of patchwork situation. On one hand, I celebrate that, and on another, I look forward to an era when we can move beyond things like when Russia planted its flag on the bottom of the ocean in the submersible, Arktika 2007, that went to the Arctic floor beneath the North Pole. Flags have always been a marker of territory. Dogs piss to mark corridors, chambers, paths of movement defined by biological fictions. Let’s compare that to Robert E. Peary’s competition with Frederick A. Cook. Cook ended up disgraced because he had built a film studio to actually fake a North Pole exploration. I think stuff like that is hilarious, and I’ll be writing more on that in a bit… All I can say is that Matthew Henson, the African American explorer with Peary, was probably the first person to reach the North Pole, and he didn’t have a cool film.

Anyway, more soon.

An amusing video (kinda old, but still funny… biology rappers)


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