Thursday, 31 May 2018

Listening to the Unseen


With thanks to the NWCDTP I'm off to Svalbard in June (via - appropriately - some Marine Transgression in Bristol). I'm not sure when I first heard the name Svalbard (only in existence since the 1920s when the archipelago came under Norwegian sovereignty), but in some sense it feels like my body has known it since before my brain attempted to articulate it: Svalbard calls me – with its hissed beginning, long vowels and plosive consonants - it synthesizes my auditory sense with my tactile: in voicing it, I enter an unknown space, uncertain, angular and expansive.

Svalbard is a place of sparse human population, contested 'ownership' and exploitation. There is no record of an indigenous human settlement, and anyone may live or work there regardless of nationality. It is a nonhuman more than human world: more polar bears than people populate the islands; and the mix of warm gulf stream with polar currents churns up plankton so the waters around the archipelago contain more than half the phytoplankton of the Arctic Ocean. This abundance of plankton brings more fish and birds to the area: these in turn bring more cetaceans and other mammals: all feeding vigorously over the three months of the summer season.

In traveling to the far north I hope to hear more clearly what it is that speaks to me, how I will receive its language of wind, light, surface, birds, fish, molluscs and mammals, and how I will respond to it. Almost twenty years ago I crewed from Iceland to the Faroes to Shetland, so have some sense of the North Atlantic. But this time I won't be sailing, crewing three hours on / six off. This time I have the luxury of unmonitored time, the freedom to watch and understand the navigational decisions of others from a distance, allowing to me to observe what is going on around us, under us, and above. I hope to understand enough to relate to that which is most obviously foreign: my intuition operating to transmit the experience, to find a language to remake this transmission in my poems, in my artistbooks.

This remote ocean offers the chance to traverse my sense of perception: from how I perceive, through the blur of my short-sightedness, to what I can’t see: the depths, the microscopic marine world, and the inherent interrelationship these have with our unseen futures. I cannot travel deep into the ocean. I cannot descend in a submersible and explore the unseeable sea that way. To travel across the sea, 3000km north, to experience the Arctic at the far edge of Europe is the nearest I can come to encounter that which is concealed from my European / island / white / female / middle-class view. Being both part of my geographical identity and apart from it, the Arctic represents the zone where familiarity bisects unknown, my physicality meets high sea.

This may sound romantic, idealistic, tending towards the heroic sublime of the isolated figure. And maybe in part that is a driver, but I am not expecting a pristine experience. I anticipate seasickness, there always in for the first day or two of being on board. I've recently begun to consider this as a shamanistic ritual: the purging of landlegs to open the mindbody of sealegs. I will be onboard with a bunch of strangers, all on their own quests, some of whom I'm sure I'll connect with, others, perhaps, not so. I also imagine there will be plastic, oil rigs, other boats, the ruins of ex-industry. There will be scummy water and dead things.

June. It will be twenty four hour daylight. What will remain hidden? How will the shadow of the archipelago fall on the sea? How will the continental land mass of Europe affect the ocean there? How will the current, the eddies, the down-welling and overfalls behave up there, where the water cools and, as the ice melts, becomes less salty? How will I perceive this turning of the currents at the polar north, the intermingling of planetary past – as held in our debris – with planetary future – as held in what that debris does next. This fieldwork is a phenomenological experiment with how to immerse myself in that which eludes me. An experiment, I keep reminding myself, that doesn't have a clear hypothesis and may have no clear outcome. An opportunity, as Haraway has it, "to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity"