In October 2015 I went on the Arctic Circle autumn art/science expedition to Svalbard, the Northernmost permanently settled place on Earth. There were 26 artists and one climate change scientist on board Antigua, a barquentine tall ship, and we spent three weeks sailing in and around the fjords on the western coast of Spitsburgen.
[The following was written in Longyearbyen just before I travelled back to Manchester]
We flew into Longyearbyen, the largest town in Svalbard, with a population of around 2000. Founded in 1906, Longyearbyen has historically revolved around the coal industry. We arrived at a time of upheaval as the coal mine (the main source of employment in Longyearbyen) had laid off most its employees just the week before we arrived.
Knowing I would be sharing a very small space with lots of people for three weeks, I decided to spend a bit of time on my own. Longyearbyen is the only place you can wonder around on your own legally, outside the limit of the town you need to be escorted by an armed guard to protect you from polar bears. I hiked up the hill to an old mine which was closed in 1968. It was stunning, with all the old machinery still there and the building being taken over by ice. It was reminiscent of abandoned buildings in the desert with sand blowing up the walls but with ice instead of sand. I met a man from Texas who was out here working for one of the oil companies looking for oil. There were lots of amazing rooms to explore and hundreds of rickety stairs.
The night before we set sail I was outside videoing the full moon and taking photos of the stars when the aurora started.
The guides are amazing women, around my age. They all live up here in the far north. Sarah lives in a yurt in the campsite at Longyearbyen – hers is the only tent left in winter. She talks about gradually building up the skills and experience to live in this environment independently. She learnt how to ski so she could go on long distance trails pulled by her husky Nemo. She goes for days at a time, staying in little huts along the way. Her artwork is also great; once during the winter months when it’s dark all day and night, she asked a friend to drop her at a secluded cabin with no way of knowing the time. She wanted to experience being lost in time and was there for nearly 3 months.
Kristen lives 11km out of town with her boyfriend and 12 huskies. They have no running water so have to bring it from town, and sometimes get completely snowed in. She talks about hunting reindeer and eating every part. You can even eat the antlers if you kill them at the beginning of hunting season while they are still soft.
I went down to the engine room of the ship to shoot video and take photos. It was great, and reminded me of the boiler room and tech services cupboards at MOSI. They have a little workshop area and it smells like grease and heat.
I filmed Moritz (the mate) filling in the nautical charts. They need to do this everyday to make sure there’s no new rocks in the path. He normally does this between 4 and 8am when he’s on watch.
Most of the time the ship was powered by the mighty 4 stroke diesel Volvo engine but we were able to sail for 2 long stretches. Utah (the other mate) taught us how to belay so we could help get the sails up. I volunteered to be woken up at 3 am to help reconfigure them.
I took my homemade sextant to try trace our path through my amateur knowledge of celestial navigation.
I spent a number of days being unable to get over the beauty of the landscape. I found it hard to make work as everything I would normally do seemed so insignificant in comparison to the vast beautiful landscape.
Every day the sun sets 20 minutes earlier. Sunrise and sunset last forever.
Most days we had a morning and an afternoon landing. This involved getting dropped off on the shore in one of the zodiacs. While on shore we had a fixed area where we were allowed to work, with the 4 guides in position looking out for polar bears. Everyone would usually spread out as much as we could, doing various projects. There were people skating on ice, wading into the sea with cameras, lying on the floor. Lots of GoPros and sound recording. We would inevitably get in each other’s shots or recordings. Every few days, instead of a typical afternoon landing we had the choice to go for a hike.
I did some Engine Maintenance Performances with a little Hero’s engine I made out of washed up junk which spins in the water.
We saw so many amazing glaciers, the blue colour is very intense. Many were very active and there was the regular thunder of ice calving into the sea. Usually by the time you heard it and looked round there was just a large cloud of powder where the ice once was. Sometimes a particularly large calving would cause the sea to first suck in in eery silence before large waves would come right up on shore and crash up the sides of icebergs. In places where there was lots of small chunks of ice in the water there were popping sounds, like Rice Krispies in milk. Older glaciers don’t have the blue colour, but look more like rocks, with the stripes of their geological history.
It’s interesting to think that every piece of wood you see up here must had traveled a very long way. I haven’t seen a living tree for weeks now. It means that you can’t see the wind on land.
On one of the landings we saw a trappers station. We were able to explore it because it’s currently in the process of being sold. There was a wooden structure for hanging meat and lots of dogs houses. Everything seemed to be there ready to go, even sheds and a boat. It appears up here if you leave, you just leave everything behind.
On some landings there was beautiful tundra (the ecosystem that exists when there’s permafrost). We had to be careful while walking, as it can take years to regrow if trodden on a lot. There was one landing where the light was beautiful, and the tundra was a rich rust colour. I took some videos of the guides from afar.
One of the most memorable landings was at Smeerenburg (blubber town). Smeerenburg is where there was once a settlement of dutch whalers. There were the remains of huge fire pits made from earth and whale blubber where they would melt and refine the blubber. The ground had been stained yellow by all the blubber too. Smeerenburg was also where the walruses were, around 8 of them. We were able to get within a few metres of them and they loved to show off in the water in front of us.
After one landing I went for a skinny dip! There was snow on the sand and ice in the water. Getting in wasn’t all that hard, it actually felt pretty good. When I got out my body felt great – super warm. But my feet were so painful and I felt very nauseous after I got my clothes back on. It wasn’t until I was back in my cabin taking a shower that my feet started to ‘come back’.
I collaborated with Josh from LA on a little boat project. He’d been making ice boats from a silicon mould (he had to freeze them in the freezer because it wasn’t cold enough outside!). I tried to make a steam engine for his boat with some copper tubing. We took it out on the zodiac and let it go.
After days of complete wilderness and not seeing another person or ship, we went to Ny Alesund, a small scientific research station. There are only around 50 people living there over winter. We arrived late afternoon so were able to wonder around a little. There were some impressive satellite dishes on the top of a hill. The plan was to go back the next day and have someone show us the airship mast and witness the launch of a weather balloon (as well as post postcards from the northernmost post office in the world). Unfortunately a storm came during the night. When we got up the next day we were told that we’d had to leave in the night and weren’t able to go back to Ny Alesund.
After more days of beautiful wilderness and glaciers and ice formations, we again met civilisation (sort of) in Pyramiden. Pyramiden is an abandoned Russian coal mining town. It was founded in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. It was a model communist community with everyone living and eating together. There was a tower block for single women called Paris, one for men called London, and the families were in ‘Crazy House’. It was the only mine in Svalbard not destroyed in the war so has a mixture of 30s buildings and lots of buildings from the 70s when money was thrown into expanding it. Over 1000 people lived there during its peak and it was abandoned in 1998 after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We were met by Sasha, who’s one of around 5 people who live there now, all in one hotel. He’s been there for 4 years.
The town remains basically intact. Everything was left. We were able to explore 3 of the buildings – the canteen, the culture house and the swimming pool. There were so many rooms I soon felt completely alone and much of it was pitch black so I had to use the flash of my camera to explore (on the first day I didn’t have my head torch). I found rooms of musical instruments, changing rooms with rows of sandals, a projection room with reels and reels of film, old offices, gymnastics equipment, large once grand open spaces. The town had a well equipped hospital and was nearly self sufficient with imported soil, greenhouses and a farm. The residential buildings had metal boxes hanging out of every window – fridges. There is the Northernmost statue of Lenin in front of the culture centre and I played on the Northernmost grand piano.
I made a new Production Rings video in the basement of the swimming pool.
This has been a phenomenal experience. I’ve fallen in love with the Arctic, and dream of the darkness and solitude experienced by those that live out here in the beautiful vast wilderness.