Arctic Disko

Tags: Hannah Bird


“Two weeks ago I was sat on a boat in the Arctic eating breakfast next to Jarvis Cocker. And, no, it wasn’t a dream. Well, it might have been a dream, but if it is I haven’t woken up yet so please don’t wake me when you leave…” Read Hannah’s article on the Disko Bay expedition written for online magazine Tweakerzine.

Two weeks ago I was sat on a boat in the Arctic eating breakfast next to Jarvis Cocker. And, no, it wasn’t a dream. Well, it might have been a dream, but if it is I haven’t woken up yet so please don’t wake me when you leave…

I work at an organisation called Cape Farewell, eight years ago we were founded by artist David Buckland as a way to try and engage artists in the climate change debate. Speaking to people who knew what they were talking about at the Met Office and National Oceanography Centre, David was alarmed at the changes occurring to the ocean’s currents due to the changing climate but he was more alarmed that there didn’t seem to be much or indeed any public engagement about the issue. And so, in 2003 he took some artists on a scientific research trip to the High Arctic, Svalbard to inspire them to respond to the environment and some how ‘talk’ about climate change in a language other than graphs, science and policy.

He did the same in 2004 and 2005 and after the first three trips we created an exhibition of work (shown in London, Liverpool, Hamburg, Madrid, Tokyo and now on world tour), a film, book, CD and award-winning website. Here we are eight years on, having just returned from our fifth arts expedition from the west coast of Greenland. It was our biggest yet, a crew of amazingly talented artists, poets, comedians, theatre makers, composers, musicians, journalists alongside two science crews both completing research in the Arctic.

Why did we go? The simple answer is to inspire all who journey with us to respond to the changing climate, to witness first hand the changes to the environment occurring in the Arctic and allow our crew to partake in real scientific research with our two onboard science crews. We must all think and innovate our way out of this current climate scenario and this is our aim, by bringing together this eclectic group of creative individuals, we are taking the best of our creative minds right into the heart of the debate.

So that is how I ended up in a dream, eating breakfast next to Jarvis Cocker… and KT Tunstall… and Feist, Robyn Hitchcock, Martha Wainwright, Laurie Anderson, Vanessa Carlton and Ryuichi Sakamoto and on and on, our destination Disko Bay (for where else would you take musicians), west coast of Greenland on a boat; the Grigoriy Mikheev.

Our first walk on land at Ilulissat Kanglia and I had an overwhelming feeling that I’d entered the unpublished 6th book in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy. It was surreal, I’d been picked up in London and dumped in this landscape, a landscape I should have expected; I’d seen it in images, film and read people’s descriptions – but I’m still not convinced what I saw was real, somehow the more logical explanation is that it’s some figment of Slartibartfast’s imagination. Something about all us humans clambering over rocks and ice older than the oldest of human existence, alive and existing way back then, when we were nothing more than a mere twinkle in the eyes of the gods was all too much in the realm of fiction. I kept expecting to turn the corner and see the restaurant at the end of the universe (complete with recycling bins, obviously), but I guess it was just around the next corner, that one there, over the edge of the iceberg-scattered horizon.

Day three and we awoke with a message over the tannoy that we were sailing past icebergs the size of carparks, the size of buildings, your local cinema, Big Ben, topshop, Euston station, the pub at the end of my road, the power stations at the side of the M1, Ikea, Wembley stadium, the thunder-looper at alton towers, the size of small towns with people living in them all just waiting for us to look outside our port windows and collectively sigh at their presence. We had entered a world heritage site – sailing up the Fjord to the front of the Jakobshavn Glacier (now for the science part – one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, losing 20 millions tons of ice every day – moving at a rate of 1 meter per hour and so far not slowing down as much as it should for the winter freeze). It’s moving pretty quickly and I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if no-one was there to see the last ever iceberg melt, or even worse everyone was there to see it, the flash of the bulbs speeding up the melt of the lone survivor of man’s gluttony? I guess that’s a question for my unborn kids, or their kids, or theirs, so fuck it, I don’t need to worry about it.

Day six and we visit some kids in Uummannaq that might have to worry about it, after all their lifestyles are being effected by the changing climate. We’re told that new phrases that are starting to enter everyday vocabulary include “just a few years ago”, “i’ve never seen that before” and “well usually, but now i don’t know anymore”. The local choir sung us a song which celebrates the changing seasons, as the sun disappears for the long dark winter they thank it for its presence and look forward to its return. We are told that local hunting traditions are changing, people can no longer use the dogs to travel across the ice from Uummannaq to Disko Bay, it’s not thick enough to stop them falling through and the arctic sea ice isn’t one that you want to fall into in the dead of winter with only a team of howling dogs to pull you out (no help from the polar bears, they’ve all disappeared, trying to find somewhere that bit colder). These communities rely on the seasons like we rely on google. Climate change isn’t just a slight inconvenience – daffodils in February not April – one less ryanair flight per year – if the ice doesn’t freeze in Uummannaq, it could mean life or death. Thankfully they can just turn up the air conditioning a bit more and get that water to freeze just right, god bless the wonders of modern technology.

We walked, we saw the northern lights, shooting stars, photo-plankton, we disko-ed to Jarvis Cocker’s disko in Disko Bay, we were inspired, overwhelmed, shrunk to the size of peas in a landscape of giants, dumbstruck, angry, sad, tired, we rock climbed, argued, were tempted by a chinese takeaway restaurant in Ilulissat, shocked by the human existence in the harshest of harsh environments, some of the crew wrote songs, recorded the sound of glaciers breaking – glaciers never been dirtied by human activity except in the most profound, fundamental way of being broken by it, we listened to stories, artists completed art projects – lighting up the icebergs red for photographs, a full-length reading of Milton’s (abridged) Paradise Lost, we talked, we listened, KT Tunstall & Luke Bullen played with their new backing singers The Icebergs (scientists Carol Cotterill & Emily Venables) at their most northernly gig in Ilulissat (most northernly until two nights later at Uummannaq), we all took photographs, many many photographs, Shlomo taught me to beatbox at the mouth of a terminated glacier that could only have been part of the Hoth set, we saw icebergs breaking, ice that has lived side by side, compacted over decades, centuries, millennia separated for the last time by the unforgiving black arctic waters and these pesky humans looking on, we listened to Marcus Brigstocke explain how to ‘remain positive in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary’, we listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto play Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence on the boat, we listened to Karen & Ludvig our Innuit guides telling us how the lives of their communities were changing, we listened to the seabeds when the scientists surveyed them, we listened, we listened, we listened. Our lives will never be the same again, how could they be.

But what now we’ve back? What we do now is work with the artists who joined the expedition, helping them to weave the experience into their creative practice. It could take days, weeks, months or years – Ian McEwan who joined our expedition in 2005 has just announced his next novel is about climate change. So ask me again in a few months, but for now I’m out of words, thoughts, memories and experiences.

Read Hannah’s full article (pics and all) in online magazine Tweakerzine. ›