Up Here: North as Place
December 21, 2016
The outside view of the North is one of mythic notions and proportions. It is wild, remote, unattainable — a place few would occupy by choice. It is the North of the Aurora, polar bear, narwhal, 24-hour light and darkness, ice, and other things fantastical, romantic and mysterious. The North has long been a land of dreams, realized and unrealized, attracting explorers, scientists, and artists. Despite its mythology, the North is not a land untouched. It is a place of human life and human imprint.
Anchorage is North of many places, but south of the Arctic. The most accepted boundary of the Arctic is the latitude at which the temperature never rises above 50°F (10°C) during the hottest month. This also corresponds to where forest becomes tundra.
“North” is relative to point and perspective. The Arctic, however, is north of everywhere. Home to some four million people, the limits of the Arctic are difficult to define, but the primary parameter is the cold. For centuries, the Northwest Passage was a European dream, a spectacular vision of a sea route through the Arctic to link Europe to the riches of Asia. When finally charted, the Passage was still closed to all but nuclear-powered icebreakers. But now it’s being unlocked by a changing climate. New realities and new Arctic visions lie somewhere between present and future. The world’s superpowers and the world’s attention are pointed north. The view from up here is of a globe with a keen eye for the Arctic adapting to change. Up here, in the midst of that change, we have an enhanced view.
The changes affecting the landscape and the lifeways in the North have drawn increased attention to the Arctic, ranging across science, art, literature, geopolitics, and cultural history. While persistent darkness and extreme cold will remain, the melting of the ice mass in the Arctic represents, to many, economic and strategic opportunities. The Arctic story is a shared one, as is what the Arctic represents — climate, resource extraction, logistics on a grand scale, futurist scenarios, and global change. The Arctic is central because it is important to people outside the region — Americans depend upon the Arctic, including Alaska, because of its location and resources, as well as its broader relationship to weather, climate and environment. What happens in the Arctic is a provocative indicator of what will happen everywhere.
Polar Lab and the Anchorage Museum
In 2012, the Anchorage Museum launched its Northern Initiative, to emphasize Anchorage as a contemporary Northern city, at the edge of the Arctic. It seems like an obvious emphasis, but for many decades we treated our location as a disadvantage; we were stuck off to the side and up at the top, disconnected from the “Lower 48.” Today we see our location in the world as our key, defining feature. We are a Northern museum, positioned to convey an authentic narrative for the region, one that reflects the North in all its complexity.
Our Polar Lab program grew out of this effort to reach out to the Circumpolar North as well as other regions. We convey narratives through contemporary art, science and culture, placing Northern people at the center of a contemporary and pivotal narrative about the environment and global change. We think the museum has an important role to play as a convener, to curate conversations as much as we curate objects and exhibitions, to raise awareness and to advocate for a genuine voice of the North in the era of its rampant erroneous portrayal on reality TV.
We are interested in artworks and actions that reveal transformative conversations about culture and the environment and emerge from specific local contexts while they inform global relationships. To create connections, the museum has developed an international artist residency program along with international networks of art museums around the Circumpolar North. We have connected Anchorage to other Northern cities in Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia. We organize, host and export artists, writers, filmmakers, performers, exhibitions, publications, programs, and conversations about the North, all around the North.
We work with places as distant and seemingly disparate as Scotland, Cuba and Colombia because we are interested in places perceived as both on the edge and at the center, through culture, design and discussion — in the idea that places separated geographically or through political conflict can are places of deep cultural context. Often, “remote” places, separated from the mainstream, inspire great creativity and innovation.
Artists as Collaborators
The interest in the North that preoccupied the artists of Romanticism and explorers from every corner has returned, greater than ever. But today’s artists, scientists and explorers question the future, rather than depict the grandeur, of the landscape. Artists are a significant marker of the interest in the Arctic, part of the influx of players into the region that includes researchers, policymakers, and reality television. The outside artists most often drawn to the contemporary Arctic are those who pursue an experiential, conceptual and social action practice, with a curiosity about the distinction of the place and the urgency and the global relevance of the issues.
Our Polar Lab artist residencies encourage long-term engagement and collaboration with the museum, expanding from one to three years. This allows for meaningful, thoughtful interactions and more transformative experiences for both the museum and the artists. “Residency” is defined as “in collaboration,” suggesting an engagement process — in research and practice — rather than “in the museum.”
A Polar Lab Exhibition
The View From Up Here: The Arctic at the Center of the World exhibition opened in May 2016 to feature the work of many artists who worked with the museum “in residence.” An international contemporary art exhibition, it highlighted artistic and scientific investigations into the Arctic and conveyed a complexity of place and people.
The exhibition proposed that the Arctic continues to be a place of scientific, cultural, and artistic examination, as it has been for centuries, and presented both inside and outside views of the Arctic — both the Alaska Arctic and the Arctic that is international and borderless. Although the featured artists were from Alaska and from northern and southern places around the world, each shares an interest and investment in the North, in how humans respond the landscape, and in how the changing landscape requires a view to both the past and the future.
The 7500-square-foot exhibition was video and installation-based and highlighted Arctic culture, landscape, scientific research, and future scenarios, to explore the relevance of the North to the world in a time of great environmental change. Individual installations and public programs from the exhibition have and will travel to other parts of the United States, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, France, and the Netherlands. The exhibition featured components throughout the Anchorage Museum, from formal galleries to installations and graphics in common spaces and outdoors on the museum site. Included in the exhibition were contemporary indigenous artists in Alaska working with film, as well as contemporary artists from around the world who have developed projects through Arctic investigations and fieldwork supported by the museum over the last two years, such as: Derek Coté, Magali Daniaux, Nicholas Galanin, John Grade, Paul Haas, Anna Hoover, Christoph Kapeller, Ole Kristensen, Mary Mattingly, Annesofie Norn, Cédric Pigot, Daniel Plewe, Marek Ranis, Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir, Jeroen Toirkens, Allison Warden, Paul Walde, and Mark Wilson.
Corresponding public programs, including performances and temporary installations in the museum and the community at large, explore cross-disciplinary conversations between artists, indigenous leaders, scientists, and traditional and nontraditional researchers. They address common misperceptions in and outside the North to foster critical commentary about these issues.
Defining the North Through Landscape and People
The Arctic was not discovered. American and European polar explorers in search of the North Pole and the Arctic Circle were interlopers to a land already touched.
The Arctic includes part or all of the territories of eight nations: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Russia, and the United States, as well as the homelands of dozens of indigenous groups that encompass distinct sub-groups and communities. The people of the Arctic include indigenous people, who have adapted to the Arctic for millennia, recent arrivals, hunters and herders living on and with the land, and city dwellers. The inside view of the Arctic is a place of adaptation, complex landscapes, and diverse people. It is the opposite of nothingness.
Humans have long been a part of the Arctic system, shaping and being shaped by the local and regional environment. Today there are more than 40 different ethnic groups living in the Arctic. The presence of indigenous people in the Arctic goes back millennia. Indigenous people currently make up roughly 10 percent of the total Arctic population today, though in Canada, they represent about half the nation's Arctic population, and in Greenland they are the majority. Non-indigenous residents also include many different peoples with distinct identities and ways of life. In the past few centuries, the influx of new arrivals has increased pressure on the Arctic environment.
Many distinct indigenous groups are found only in the Arctic, where they continue traditional activities and adapt to the modern world at the same time. Indigenous societies acutely understand the risks of environmental change. For Arctic peoples, flexibility, innovation and adaptation has always been a way of life.
The Anchorage Museum is interested in conversations around these issues, convening people to host meaningful discussions about future scenarios and contemporary conditions. Polar Lab focuses on investigations and dialogue, with programs that are unexpected rather than ubiquitous. Our Curated Conversations program is about connecting people and encouraging dialogue. It explores the compelling issues facing Northern people and places, based upon the understanding those issues have global impact. The series is multiplatform, inviting people from varied fields and perspectives to address common misperceptions in and outside the North and to foster critical commentary about these issues. Curated discussions have included broad explorations of the commodification of indigenous cultures, indigenous and contemporary indigenous art, translation, and food — from harvesting and subsistence hunting to what “locally grown,” “organic,” and “farming” mean in a place like the Arctic. In 2016, Curated Conversations also takes form into an exhibition, curated by Sonya Kelliher-Combs and featuring contemporary indigenous artists.
Other conversations explore social issues, environment, language, music, literature, place names and more. These conversations take place inside the museum and out. They are local, occurring in Alaskan communities, but also international — bringing people from around the world to Alaska for discussions in person or online.
We work with indigenous artists as community curators and we host urban interventions by indigenous artists and indigenous youth. We invite emerging artists and elders into the museum collection. By emphasizing contemporary indigenous culture, we emphasize conversations, relevant connections, experimentation and risk taking, in addition to the care and preservation of objects. Social impact is key, as museums find their place as agents of social change. We are interested in the role the museum can play in revitalizing tired narratives, empowering indigenous and other marginalized voices, serving as a forum for dialogue around the provocative issues of our time, and not just serving as bystander or witnesses to history.
In the first arrangement of its kind, the Smithsonian Institution has loaned hundreds of indigenous Alaska artifacts to their place of origin, allowing access for hands-on study by Alaska Native elders, artists and scholars. These cultural and historical treasures are exhibited in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage Museum. The Center’s main exhibition is Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska. The exhibition features more than 600 objects from the Smithsonian's collections that were selected and interpreted with help from Alaska Native advisers. Many Polar Lab programs take place in proximity to the exhibition, as a way to emphasize the continuation of culture and contemporary context for the objects.
The ‘Creative placemaking’ term is now part of the national art lexicon, but often needs a new context and specificity when applied places like the Arctic. The norm of creative placemaking requires infrastructure to redevelop and references impact to neighborhoods––seemingly simple starting points, but problematic in a place like the North, where even terms such as “rural” and “urban” are multifaceted. While Polar Lab is a creative placemaking project, it seeks to provide a new context and relevance for how community and place are defined.
Creativity under Polar Lab is about presenting creative research in the visual arts; presenting information on Arctic science to illustrate the importance of this knowledge to human ways of living; promoting alternatives to Western perspectives; supporting all art forms in their ability to convey meaning and human connection; exploring approaches to the understanding of nature and the environment; working with community curators; and encouraging the participation of as many people as possible in the sharing of ideas and perspectives.
The Polar lab project catalyzes a persuasive vision for enhancing the livability of the community, in creating conversations around what kind of places we want to create, what communities we want to live in, and what world we hope to see in the future. The project incorporates the arts into civic development and will support artists and design professionals. The museum is committed to integrating arts and design into the fabric of civic life. With the emphasis on the North, the project strengthens a unique community identity and sense of place and creates a galvanizing conversation about the environment. It reframes the tone of urgency to take the opportunity to launch a discussion about the world and empowering people and ideas for present and the future. The museum can play a role in creating a new level of stewardship and a new paradigm for sustainable design that transforms people’s relationship to the environment from abstract to concrete. The environment is a physical place.
We are interested in creating contemporary experiences and a contemporary cultural context. We seek to convey a visual sense of the Arctic and the North that breaks from stereotypes. We believe artists are key collaborators, as many contemporary artists who create site-specific works move art out of the museum and into communities to address socially significant issues and raise social consciousness.
— Julie Decker, Director/CEO of the Anchorage Museum