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

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

Leslie Sharpe
Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts
Indiana University Bloomington

“North is multiple, shifting and elastic; it is a process, not an eternal fixed goal or condition. It is above all, Other, and as such emphatically a construction of southerners, paradoxically invoked to distinguish us from those who are more southern.” (1)


Winter, late 1960s. Location: Northern Alberta, Canada. Temperature: -40Fahrenheit.
A child is lying in the snow in the dark (anytime from 4pm until next morning at 9am). The cold air seems to crackle around her. The snow fits like a cocoon, and she stares up at the stars, which sweep across the sky in shifting patterns. She feels as close to those stars as to any place here on earth. A satellite may sweep over her head, but it takes longer for that satellite to affect her life than it did to reach outer space. I was that child.Bound by location and climate and my parents’ circumstances, the north was my point of reference, and in the winter, the distance from other places became more pronounced, as snow locked us in like an island.

As a Canadian, the ‘idea of North’ is something embedded within my sense of cultural identity. This relies on culturally articulated representations that depict North as remote, strange, and ‘natural,’ and have historically been derived primarily from voices of outsiders who have minimal lived experience of North. For those who live in the North, or who have lived there, north is both reality and ‘idea’ — formed through knowledge of place. For others — outsiders, southerners, visitors, a dialogue with North is formed through temporary access and knowledge to place and information that allows them to interpret, represent, and question. A new idea of north is emerging, one that includes the understanding of north of the indigenous people who have lived there for centuries, but also includes voices and representations of outsiders who access the North as visitors, or vicariously through data accessed online — through telemetric and telematic ‘voices.’ They are ‘north-minded’ in the idea of North.


I saw this caribou on Victoria Island in the Arctic as I followed the Northwest Passage.

Fig 1 Leslie Sharpe, “Caribou at at Johansen Bay, Nunavut” 2008

Fig 1 Leslie Sharpe, Caribou at at Johansen Bay, Nunavut 2008

It crosses over land,
over snow, over ice
crossing borders,
crossing pipelines,
(or avoiding them)
hiding from black flies,
moving to and from calving grounds

And while it does so it is being tracked

not only by following its signs
and traces on the land
but by telemetry.

Satellites are used to track the movements of animals wearing transmitters in collars or tags, sometimes with wet-dry sensors that detect whether the animal is on land or in the sea. In the north, animals being tracked include caribou, polar bears, musk oxen, seals, walrus, whales, fish, and birds. Imagery of their movement is publicly available on websites, often posted after real-time to discourage the use of this information by hunters.

I am using this imagery to form a series of line drawings and rapid-prototyped sculptures that present another representation of north — north from a distance, north re-imagined through an outsider’s access to data. The following image is derived from imagery of Polar Bear movements across the Hudson’s Bay available on the World Wildlife Foundation’s website. Movements across the bay are only possible when the ice is present, and indicate the animal’s movements to locate food. Over time, if the ice recedes due to climate change, the movement will change, just as it is already affecting these animals. In time, if the impact of the loss of sea ice is severe enough, we may see fewer lines of polar bear movement, or they may not be there at all. I will be creating this series of drawings over time, using the available data of movements of caribou, polar bears, and other animals and combining these with other ‘lines’ of the north that I am also assembling from movements across the North.

Fig 2 Leslie Sharpe: “WWF polar bear tracking” 2009

Fig 2 Leslie Sharpe: WWF polar bear tracking 2009

These other ‘lines’ include the passage of humans through the North — from early explorers seeking the Northwest Passage, to forced Inuit migrations, to recent oil and gas exploration, shipping routes, and tourist routes opened up due to sea ice decline, and to long-standing military ‘lines’ in the north, such as the line of cold-war anxiety that stretched across the periphery of the Canadian and American Arctic — the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) of radar stations that are now undergoing remediation for presence of toxins such as PCBs. These DEW Line stations and other military stations in the North were also sites of lines of forced migration, as Inuit who lived elsewhere were forced to relocate to station sites to establish human presence (and to provide labour or ‘company’ for military stationed there). The most notorious of these relocations also proved to be an experiment on human survival in the Arctic — as indigenous people from Québec were moved far north to uninhabited military sites of Resolute Bay and Gris Fjord, places which bore no relation to their former homes and were unequipped for human habitation.

Fig 3 Leslie Sharpe: “DEWLine-line”, 2009

Fig 3 Leslie Sharpe: DEWLine-line, 2009

The recent loss of sea ice through climate change is forcing renewed assertions of sovereignty in the North – and this assertion relies not just on the existence of borders to be proven through mapping of the sea floor, but on cultural attachments to the north — such as the ‘idea’ of north. This cultural attachment in Canada is being reinforced with increasing militaristic posturing and statements presented by the Canadian government —such as the recent military “Operation Nanook” or Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s statement about the North: “Use it or Lose It,” which was clearly aimed at southerners (and military, oil and gas development, and tourism) since the Arctic has been ‘used’ by indigenous peoples for centuries.

Our idea of North must include and acknowledge the important role of indigenous people of the North. One way is to give attention to narratives of North that convey the lived use and understanding of place by indigenous people, such as the linear routes formed through narrative in Zacharias Kunuk’s film “Atarnajuat” (The Fast Runner). In the film, the narrative moves across the ice as the characters move, showing us how the people used the land, ice and sea, and revealing how communities resolved social conflict through chosen or forced migrations, expulsions, and relocations. In Kunuk’s “Atarnajuat” environmental knowledge depicted in the narrative indicates acute observations of environment that were interpreted for the acquisition of shelter and food or social life. Indigenous voices on knowledge of place such as this must be considered within a new understanding of ‘North.’


In November 2009, 17-year-old Jupi Nakoolak drifted away from his uncle on an ice floe after their snowmobile broke down while hunting. Nakoolak was found close to the body of a polar bear (that he shot in self-defense) and the bear’s two cubs, which remained close to the carcass of their mother. Nakoolak and the cubs were both still — Nakoolak not moving, so he would not attract the attention of the cubs. The cubs not moving — we can only imagine that they were experiencing some kind of shock, loss and fear — not yet even knowing their own threat to the boy with the gun. But Nakoolak had knowledge of place that had been passed on to him from elders, and this knowledge understood danger that began with a crack.

There are numerous stories in histories of explorers travels across the Northwest Passage that show the impact of the ice ‘crack’ upon people and their modes of passage through the North. The crack becomes a metaphor for danger, a warning sign about severance from what is safe and what is solid, from what we know. The ice cracks, the boat cracks, and then people crack. What we don’t expect is that ice will crack and then just disappear — if the crack is a warning of its own disappearance, what will we have as warning? Or will it be too late for warnings?

Recently, it was discovered that the 3000-year-old Ward Ice shelf shows numerous new cracks that will likely break it apart. Is this the crack that is past warning?


If cracks are things to interpret, then we must also find more ways to understand and interpret data, to consider it meaningful in a cultural sense. I’m attempting to do so in my project Northern Crossings, (a work based also on my own histories in the north), by using data lines (and cracks) in drawings and installation to provoke re-readings of what would otherwise be spectacle. This project includes performance, wax sculptures cast in snow that shift according to sea ice data and historical information, altered kitsch objects, indexed photographs, and rapid prototyped sculptures that use the aforementioned data and lines created using telemetry, mapping or narrative as the basis for forms in a sculptural work.


Fig 4 and 5:Leslie Sharpe: “Polar Drift and Shift,” (details) 2010

Fig 4 and 5:Leslie Sharpe: Polar Drift and Shift, (details) 2010

What connects all this data — how do we make other meanings from it?
Here is an image of ice that I shot in the Prince of Wales Strait, Northwest Territories. The ice is devastatingly beautiful to look at, but more devastating is its potential loss to those who depend on it if climate change continues to cause sea ice decline.

Fig 6: Sea ice: Photo: Leslie Sharpe, “Sea Ice, Prince of Wales Strait, Northwest Territories, Canada” 2008

Fig 6: Sea ice: Photo: Leslie Sharpe, Sea Ice, Prince of Wales Strait, Northwest Territories, Canada 2008

We don’t see the animals, but we know they are never far from ice. Walrus, seals, and polar bears use ice for courtship and mating, resting, giving birth and denning, and stalking and hunting for food. Below the ice, narwhals also have a close relationship to it — using dense pack ice for wintering grounds, following ice, finding fish to eat, hiding from killer whales, and sometimes being trapped in fast ice.

I am forming a dataset of these and other connections with my series of photographs taken in Northern Canada and the Canadian Arctic. These image sets are structured by relationships with accompanying texts that reveal connections — of animals to sea ice, of plant and animal life to snow, of human presence along the Northwest Passage. The images may not reveal these relationships — however the dataset structures do, and a complex dataset would reveal the multiple connections of an ecosystem, or of the political and economic systems forming arguments as to who owns the North. My next step with these images is to combine them with related video imagery for a live database that can be performed using Pure Data in my performance “Nostalgia and Myths of North.” This performance begins with nostalgic texts of my own histories performed using hand-held mini projectors and two actors who embody animal/earth/ human, and ends with the two performers building an installation of myth and kitsch representations of North, while I play a counter-myth mix of the database using PD.

I hope in this project to contribute to a ‘new’ idea of North borne from the cultural representations and data sets of real and media-accessed experience and knowledge, realized as cultural representations created by both outsiders and insiders; each with different notions of what North is and means for them; each with potentially different agendas, whether they be cultural, political, environmental, economic. This inclusiveness could involve both wider and conflicting readings of the North than the historically dominant colonizing view, and include representations that emerge from indigenous knowledge or experience, from those passing through, and/or from those who access knowledge of place from a distance via media and information.