Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change, and the Poles

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Jane D. Marsching
Associate Professor, Massachusetts College of Art & Design

Andrea Polli

The first photograph of the North Pole was a fake.

On April 6, 1902 Admiral Robert Peary and others including Matthew Henson claimed to reach the North Pole. Peary returned with photographs of five heroic explorers standing exhausted in front of a small snow mountain topped with an American flag and journals in which the scanty entry for that day included: “The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last…” His claim was thrust into immediate controversy as Frederick Cook announced that he had arrived at the Pole a year earlier in April 1908. Cook’s declaration was later substantively dismissed due to his poor records and scanty evidence. Peary’s own claims were hailed as the honest truth, and recordings of the time reveal his continual pronouncements of his triumph as factual, direct, and authoritative.[1]

However, despite this, doubts about his achievement have continued to this day. The National Geographic Society, who backed and supported Peary all along, to this day continue to post the original heroic image with uncontested claims to his discovery. In other places artifacts including “Peary’s undershirt with pockets for chronometers” [2], narratives, journals, and photographs are studied and exhibited with the lingering doubt. [3] Extensive research into Peary’s photographs of the sun examining altitude, angle, refraction and a host of other scientific factors have resulted in a multitude of books, articles, and websites claiming with equal fervor his failure (and cheating) or his victory.

Fig 1: Jane D. Marsching, NOAA Web Cam, 2005/2007 (6 min. video with sound, collaboration with Victor McSurely)

Fig 1: Jane D. Marsching, NOAA Web Cam, 2005/2007 (6 min. video with sound, collaboration with Victor McSurely)

What is the significance of this narrative? Why do people care so much about Peary’s story? What hallowed place do technologies play in this legend over the last century? One of the many answers can be found in examining the cultural, political, and environmental significance of the North Pole. The long rich history of Western exploration of the far north is still a part of our anxiety over the disappearance of its age-old climate. The images, lectures, lantern slides, poetry, and journal entries picturing the far off lands fueled deep desires to experience and conquer to the culture that produced so many men willing to throw themselves at this harshest of terrains at ever greater expense and national pride, the north pole was our farthest north, spiritual summit, heroic destination, most extreme landscape on the farthest edge of the world. Its vast tracts of land and sea and ice existed beyond our borders of representation and understanding, yet were pictured as sublime frontier, filled with the supernatural or paranormal, a place outside of the normal vagaries of life, where even our shadows, footprints, and breath act alien to us. As Mary’s Shelly’s Walton said in Frankenstein: “What may not be expected in this country of eternal light?”

Fig 2: Jane D. Marsching and Mitchell Joachim/Terreform1, Future North, 2007 (3 min animation)

Fig 2: Jane D. Marsching and Mitchell Joachim, Terreform1, Future North, 2007 (3 min animation)

But, Shelly’s Frankenstein lecturing about the quest for glory on the way to the North Pole is now Al Gore on an elevating platform gesturing towards complex graphs of temperature fluctuations. Both poles have become the epicenter of the climate crisis news cycle and data glut. They are our canaries in a cold mine (literally), as the effects of forced anthropogenic warming affect the delicate ecosystem more extremely than climates closer to the equator. Melting faster than scientists’ predictions can keep up with, the possible effects of the rapidly transforming boreal climates keep us hooked up to the morphine drip of cataclysmic prophecies.

As a result, we are paying attention to the poles in ways we have never done before. New technologies have allowed for nearly real time experience of the landscape through webcams and other networked technologies. Advances in engineering have allowed for penetration of otherwise truly remote wilderness as never before; witness the invaluable data found in mile long ice cores carefully screwed out from deep within ancient ice sheets and glaciers. Developments in energy production and travel allow for tourists and scientists both to cheaply (relatively, at a cost of often $25,000 per ticket), quickly, and comfortably sail up to the pole in nuclear icebreakers or subs. These mythical places, which were once our most remote, our most inaccessible landscapes, are now almost on our doorstep and irrevocably connected to very real, even quantifiable, daily human life in the not so distant future.

Returning to Peary, it is not really surprising the long awaited and dreamed of moment of real encounter with the geographical 90°N was a failure, a crisis of representation, and a many layered fiction. Prior to the nineteenth century, the North Pole was a land beyond our ken. A classic and typical image is this one from Jane Eyre: “Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive.” [4]
Bleak, dreary, vast, forlorn, extreme, rigorous, death-white, half-comprehended, and impressive: these are words repeated over and over again in nineteenth century literature and other accounts of the arctic and North Pole.

Fig 3: Jane D. Marsching, DeepNorth: A Virtual Expedition to the North Pole, 2005 (images from yearlong blog project)

Fig 3: Jane D. Marsching, DeepNorth: A Virtual Expedition to the North Pole, 2005 (images from yearlong blog project)

Western culture of the nineteenth century longed for stories of our human conquest of nature, and the north pole offered not just an ultimate spiritual destination, but also a terrain seemingly absent of any culture and full of only nature or wilderness. To inhabit this alien place with a concrete human presence would be to own it, if only in our imaginations. Further, since we could not live there, the landscape being too harsh for the architectural and domestic capabilities of the time, what does it mean to own a place in our imaginations? Narratives and representations, symbols of our desires, offer a comforting sense of our secure world, of a world mapped and possessed. Images brought to us by developments in the technologies of representation and communication offer a rich fantasy of human inhabitation of a land previously seen to be the dwelling place of the impossible.

These concerns are the focus of a book project Andrea Polli and I are developing. Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change, and the Poles, a collection of essays by artists and scholars, seeks to explore the transformation of cultural understandings of the unique position and rapidly changing environments of the North and South Poles through digital technology, with particular focus on how the realities of the climate crisis have fueled new technologies in the fields of science, engineering, and art. The volume includes essays by Lisa Bloom and Elena Glasberg, Tom Corby, Simon Faithfull, William Fox, Peter Krapp, Jane D. Marsching, and Andrea Polli and is expected to be published in 2011.


Panelists

Airspace: The Practical Use of Radio in Antartica
by Andrea Polli

Disappearing Ice and Missing Data: Climate Change in the Visual Culture of the Polar Regions
by Lisa E. Bloom & Elena Glasberg

Second Skin: UV Fashion or Data as Memory
by Judit Hersko

Myriad Couplings: Towards an Information Aesthetics of Climate Change
by Tom Corby

Voices, Lines, Cracks and Data-Sets: Formations of a New Idea of the Canadian North
by Leslie Sharpe

To Erode or Not To Erode: The Opposite Poles of Environmental Cultural Engagements
by Lanfranco Aceti


Endnotes

1. Eyewitnesses to History. (2010). Retrieved February, 2010.
2. Celebrating the Centennial of Robert Peary’s North Pole Expedition. (2009). Retrieved February, 2010.
3. Though not his April 1906 journal which went missing right after his return. DIO: The International Journal of Scientific History. (2009). Retrieved February, 2010.
4. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, (Googlebooks), Chapter 1. Retrieved February, 2010