Svalbard is a barren, rocky, ice-crusted chain of large islands at the top of the world, cut through by fjords with striated mountainsides, jagged glaciers forged over centuries, and waters that are frozen for most of the year. Despite the ice and cold, Svalbard, like the rest of the Arctic, is melting under a heat that the planet has not experienced in 125,000 years. In October of 2017, I traveled to this remote part of the globe to witness this meltdown first hand.
I had been invited to participate in the Arctic Circle Residency, a program that places 30 artists, scientists, and educators onboard a three-mast sailing ship named Antigua for two weeks, with the hazy prospect of allowing participants to “engage in myriad issues relevant to our time.” We would sail up the coast of the westernmost and largest island in the archipelago, Spitsgbergen, using the Antigua as a home base from which we would make daily landings along the coastline. At each landing, we’d be free to explore under the observation and guidance of polar guides to interact with the landscape as we saw fit, whether through taking photographs, sketching the terrain, staging performances documented with video for future exhibition, or merely absorbing the alien landscapes we found ourselves in. On one level, we were no more than a group of tourists given the opportunity to explore the Arctic. Yet being a diverse group of artists, photographers, and writers, we were expected to engage with the place on a deeper level than a typical tour group. This tension, between visiting a fragile ecosystem as sightseers, with the expectation that we act as sight seers, exposes one of the myriad complexities of discussing climate change. Our presence was possible only because of the C02 we expended in getting there. In arriving in the Arctic, we, in our small way, contributed to its death.
On a map, Svalbard appears as one of the most remote places on the globe one could travel to. But from Europe, it is a surprisingly quick journey. Flying non-stop from Oslo, it’s only a three-hour flight to the airport in the capital of Longyearbyen, one of the three towns on the archipelago, if you include the research station of Ny-Ålesund. Proximity, however, does not equal familiarity - Svalbard does not make you feel welcome.
Like all Arctic environments, it is a desert, and like all deserts, inimical to life, but even in death it provides little comfort. Between the temperature and the permafrost, the ground does not let the dead return to the earth.
"It is observable that a dead Carkase doth not easily rot or consume" wrote the German naturalist Friderich Martens, who visited Svalbard in 1671, "for it has been found, that a man buried ten years before, still remained in his perfect shape and dress; and they could see by the Cross that was stuck upon his Grave, how long he had been buried."
Not that it matters - you are not allowed by the authorities to be buried on the island, or give birth. From November to February, there is no sunlight. In the fall, dusk and dawn rotate interchangeably throughout the day as the sun glides low across the horizon, creating a disorienting sense of expectation and finality. Roughly sixty percent of the archipelago is covered by glaciers. Polar bears are known to roam the edges of Longyearbyen, so a gun is required by local law for anyone venturing off the main roads in case of an attack, leading to the town motto “Leave your boots and gun at the door.”
Svalbard is not, however, all so tough. Food and housing may be expensive, but wages are high. Reindeer is served in most restaurants and is delicious. Alcohol is shockingly cheap and the town is full of interesting people to drink with. Svalbard even offers a glimpse of a world without borders - its founding treaty in 1920 as a possession of Norway states that it is open to all signatory nations as a place their citizens can conduct business and scientific research. A strange blend of Nordic socialism and economic libertarianism prevails. There are no visa requirements, no taxes, and no welfare. The Norwegian state owns most of the companies that control key industries, but small, private businesses flourish. This has a brought an influx of South East Asians over the past two decades who come to work in the hotels as service staff, as workers in the few remaining coal mines, or who open their own businesses. There, in the frozen north, their high wages support families back home and allow them to eventually comfortably retire to their tropical homelands.
Despite how precipitously far north the archipelago sits on the globe, its west coast is warmed by the Norwegian branch of the North Atlantic Current, keeping the temperature on the main island of Spitsbergen an average of ten degrees higher than anywhere else in the Arctic. Perks aside, Svalbard is intimidating in its austerity. But when the sky is clear and filled with the purples and pinks that reflect off the surfaces of glaciers as the sun rises and sets, or when the moon hangs full, low and yellow, like an enormous paper lantern, over a dark ocean out of which singular mountains rise, its beauty is crippling to take in. If you look carefully and quietly in those moments, you can see beneath the static appearance of the world, to the vibrating, intensely alive being that it is.
Millions of years of geologic activity have to come rest there. The oldest rock is over 410 million years old. The archipelago is an mixture of geologic elements that were once part of every continental landmass that has ever existed, drifting northwards across millennia, meeting, grinding together and over one another - a slow process of mineral coupling that formed the mountains and rock that compose Svalbard. Time appears frozen in a distant past. In almost no other place that I’ve visited has the raw appearance of geological formation felt so present.
When we look on almost any landscape, we see the result of processes we know took thousands or millions of years. We see mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands and we feel we are looking at the end result of a process. In the American West, at sites like the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands, I’ve experienced a similar feeling of process made present, but the landscapes are distant, always admired as a horizon and with the impression, it is the landscape and not us that is out of time. In Svalbard, this sense of spatial separation does not exist. There is a feeling that it is you and not the landscape, that has somehow stepped back millions of years. With feet planted on its rocky shorelines, mountains appear to have just ruptured through the earth, casting off rubble and boulders, creating a cloud of hardened minerals that just moments ago fell back to the ground. Jagged mountains rise out of Arctic waters as if the land around them suddenly flooded only days ago.
In Svalbard, past and future meet. On an open plain above Longyearbyen, cameras sit beneath glass domes at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory, gathering images of the sky above. They track the movement of the stars, the lights of the Aurora’s and our shifting weather patterns. At Ny-Ålesund, further north, research teams from around the world study the Arctic environment. Through observations of how Svalbard’s historic body is changing, they make predictions about the future. As the Arctic heatwaves of the summer of 2018 conclusively showed, the future has arrived. In both locations, radar dishes and camera arrays stand out like alien technologies against snow-covered landscapes. Their presence hints at the tragic ingenuity of a species that can monitor the destruction of its own habitats in minute detail.
Devoid of human life until the 16th century and only then sparsely populated by adventurous and desperate men from the margins of society who sought to claim their own slice of wealth the emergent force of capitalism unleashed, it is a landscape open to the subjective projections of its visitors more than most wild places because it offers no resistance, however quiet, from indigenous people long acquainted with it. Its jolting blue glacier surfaces and sea green waters offer up a mirror to whoever looks. Like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, it molds itself to one's desires and fears, allowing it to become a sanctuary of the sublime, a living, organic monastery in which to peacefully lose oneself, or a landscape of opportunity and freedom, an escape hatch from civilization, or, a cold, heartless Other that terrifies because of its complete indifference to humanity.
“These mountains and the landscape I see around me is a landscape of beauty,” said my colleague the photographer Iveta Gabalina one evening, “but they’re really more like a landscape of guilt…they are really cold and senseless, and they really don’t care about us. They can exist without us.”
Svalbard is, of course, all these things, and none of them. Like all objects our minds come into contact with, Svalbard is defined by projections and narratives yet nakedly empty of inherent meaning. There are mountains. There are glaciers. There are animals. There is ice, water, and wind. There is life, and there is death. There was us, and there was me.
In my own mind, Svalbard is a landscape partly defined by failure. I came to see it as a place that represents the failure of people throughout history who came seeking something from it, and I include myself here, however positive I thought my intentions. Aware of the paradox that in trying to bear witness to climate change on what constitutes a geological frontline I was also contributing to it, I felt an increasing pressure to create something worthwhile to show for my time and privilege of visiting such a tenuous landscape. By the end of my trip, I would feel broken from trying to make a film by myself in an unforgiving environment and the increasing desperation that I was falling short of my goal. Yet through this perceived failure, I came to recognize that the landscape itself embodies a collective failure in which we are all implicit on some level. Svalbard, like the greater Arctic region, illustrates contemporary societies inability to confront the massive dimensions of the forces we have unleashed against ourselves if we want to continue to inhabit this planet with any semblance of comfort. Its melting glaciers and thawing permafrost act like solemn hourglasses counting down the amount of time we have left until all sense of normalcy has passed, their surfaces reflecting back the heat we have let out into the world.