Dispatches from the Montréal Biennial: Arctic Perspective Initiative

Without some explanation, the myriad objects on view created by artist duo Arctic Perspective Initiative might seem like props from a science fiction movie. However, the complicated field tools — which include an early drone used to create high procedure maps; a waterproof device built for recording sound; a traditional Qammutik sled dwelling nicknamed Kallitaq (which means “Thunder and Lightning” in Inuktitut); and a document called the “Phoenix Declaration” — are all real pieces of equipment that Matthew Biederman and Marko Peljhan use for their projects in the Arctic. Defining API as a transnational art, science, and culture working group, Biederman and Peljhan have embarked on several projects over the past six years in collaboration with Arctic Indigenous populations. We sat down with the pair to discuss the Arctic Treaty, caribou recipes, and the explorer/exploiter paradigm.

When did you become artists? Did you study cartography, technology, other things first?

Matthew Biederman: I studied time-based art and got a bachelors and a masters in Montréal. I think being an artist means becoming an expert in everything else. It’s been very organic. I get interested in something and it’s like, “Oh well I need to learn how to use a computer and write software. Or I need to become an expert in light bulbs or whatever.” You have to become an expert very quickly and move on.

Marko Peljhan: I went to classical theater radio academy in Slovenia. I studied Shakespeare and that helped, but as soon as I ended my studies I decided to leave the so-called Italian box of theater and move into different types of spaces with my performative work. I still do performance, but everything becomes a performance. Everything where there’s human engagement is also a symbolic act in many ways. It has performative qualities.

When did you come together to do API?

MP: API officially started in 2008, but we’ve been working together on the idea of engaging the earth’s poles for a longer time.

MB: Marco had a project called the Macrolab. It was essentially autonomous architecture that could move from place to place. It would be stationed in different remote areas around the world. What he did was bring scientists and artists to work together in a situation where you were in a remote location to submit proposals and do projects in three areas.

MP: Communications, Migrations, and Weather and climate.

MB: I submitted a proposal that was about the electromagnetic spectrum. We met there.

MP: Historically what brought us both together was radio. Matthew and myself are amateur radio people. If you want to get a lineage of our expertise, it’s radio. I was 11 years old and built all kinds of stuff and talked to people all over the world on my radio. It’s a beautiful kind of knowledge to have.

MB: It’s a natural resource.

MP: That’s what brought us together. If we get bored, we can still talk about radio.

MB: We got to know each other and came to understand that we have a very common view on the world and art-making and went on to do some performative projects together that really dealt with the electromagnetic spectrum and the politics therein. We still do these projects in fact that have to do with cryptology, the spectrum, politics, and President Eisenhower — a whole different area of expertise.

When did your engagement with the Arctic begin?

MP: We started an initiative called the Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation called I-TASC during the International Polar Year and there were other colleagues involved in that.

MB: There was always a hope that this Macrolab would go to Antarctica. This is how I-TASC came about. As we did more and more research about the Arctic and Antarctica we just became so enthralled. There is this culture there that couldn’t be ignored, but you have to scratch a little bit under the surface to find it — and that’s what we did.

What is the International Polar Year?

MP: International Polar Year happened from 2007 to 2009. It’s called a year, but it lasted three. Scientists, you know. It was a continuation of the International Geophysical Year. The International Geophysical Year happened in 1957. To celebrate the year, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, the Sputnik. This is not a very well known fact — it was part of the International Geophysical Year celebrations. And the US and the Soviets — of course, it was the height of the Cold War — both established permanent bases in the Antarctic in the name of peace and so on. In the Arctic, they were chasing each other with submarines under the ice so the Arctic was always kind of a zone of conflict with a disregard for local cultures and populations. Whereas in the Antarctic, because there was no native population except for other inhabitants of this planet besides humans, they decided to work peacefully together there. It’s interesting because it turned into this Antarctic Treaty later which, was signed in 1961, and specifically prohibits any kind of military or economical exploitation of the continent.

MB: In an obvious way.

MP: We have a continent on this planet that is not a nation state so that’s really interesting because most of the conflicts we have are because of nation states. All the land claims were frozen with the Antarctic Treaty, but of course because a Norwegian explorer went down in the beginning of the century, suddenly Norway claims a huge part of Antarctica. South Americans have their own land claims. Because Americans went down, they claim. Australians too of course. And of course the British — why not — because they dominated the seas until they didn’t.

MB: India. There are a lot.

MP: Everybody has their land claims of one sort or another. Some have more entitlement because they are physically closer than others. When the treaty expires, which unfortunately it will in 2041, it’s going to be a really interesting moment — if the planet still exists by then, the way things are going you never know — to renegotiate that. Everybody’s doing seismic monitoring, basically looking for oil. The British are doing that openly around the area they claim. So it’s a big mess. What the Arctic is today is what Antarctica is going to be in the future. All of the bigger nations — US, Canada, and the Russians, of course — have submitted claims to determine where their continental shelf goes. Submarines are racing and meanwhile people have to live there. Everywhere around the Arctic there’s overt or less overt oppression of the Native peoples. In Russia it’s quite overt, because everything is quite overt there lately. They abolished the indigenous organization that brought together all of the indigenous people of the Arctic of Russia. Putin abolished this like two years ago. In the West, it’s much more complicated.

So how does API address these issues?

MP: When we first went to the Arctic as part of I-TASC in 2006, it was kind of an epiphany for me. We were there and we met these incredible people. For API, the Arctic is always connected to the people. Part of our mission is educative. We feel that there’s so much misrepresentation of the Arctic. Especially nowadays because the Arctic, geopolitically in the last 10 years with the debates of global warming, has become a hot topic. In the geopolitical sense, you can see these patterns where there is a token nod toward the cultures instead of an integrated approach.

MB: When you think about climate change, when it’s talked about, it’s always the polar bear. And it’s like, where are the people?

MP: There are people living there too. We try to transmit this — this explorer/exploiter paradigm. It’s a difficult balance. We also work there and interact and bring the Arctic down south and present it in a museum. It’s not only the Arctic. It’s the idea of indigenousness on the planet. It’s the heritage of humankind. We are really trying to bring together traditional models of knowing and knowledges and a more scientific approach.

MB: An integrated approach.

MP: An integrated approach, which includes also art. What Matthew said is really crucial. I think that the idea of expertise is a currency in today’s world. Economics is built on the idea that this is an expert on economic algorithms; this is an expert on high level algorithms for communications; this is an expert on material science. In the university, expertise goes narrower and narrower. What happens when it goes really narrow is people tend to forget the big picture of why exactly they are doing that. Our atlas is always, we have to reflect the human condition. If you don’t do that, you lose the human condition.

So you started with hoping to go to Antarctica, but this current project is really focused on the Arctic. Do you want to go back to Antarctica?

MB: A wild dream would be to work with some of the people we are working with in the North and go to the South Pole. What happens then? What is that interaction?

MP: We want to bring some of our northern friends with us to the south to Antarctica.

MB: They would look at some of the architectures and some of these things that are built in the name of science and say, “Why would you ever do it that way? This is the way.” There are all sorts of different ideas. One of the long-term goals of API is to connect the whole circumpolar region through free and open technologies of communication to be able to share stories. To be able to share stories from Sami people to the Inuit of Nunavut, which have traditionally never been in contact, but yet the same animals are there. A caribou and a reindeer are basically the same. One of the fellows we work with was like, “I would love to know some of their recipes.” Even simple things like that. There are all sorts of chances for interesting exchange.

— Ashton Cooper (ashton_cooper)

(Photo: View of Kallitaq, 2010, at Hartware Medien Kunstverein (HMKV), Dortmund, Germany; Courtesy of Arctic Perspective Initiative)