Tania Dibbs

The Arctic Circle Residency, October 2016

If this post is too long to hold your interest, please skip to the movie at the end.

The ArcticCircle.org is a residency program for creatives of all types on board a tall ship that sails in the international waters of Svalbard, north of Norway. The program’s mission statement says “the Arctic Circle is a nexus where art intersects science, architecture, education, and activism – an incubator for thought and experimentation for artists and innovators who seek out and foster areas of collaboration to engage in the central issues of our time.” Yea, I didn’t really know how that would translate into my time on the ship either. Basically, participants either brought supplies for experiments or projects that they worked on during our journey, or like me, just came to experience the trip and to work from those experiences later. There was an opportunity to disembark at different shorelines, glaciers, or areas of interest twice a day unless we were sailing. There were some epic hikes, a visit to an abandoned Soviet era mining town, a visit to small research station at 79° north, a visit to Smeerenberg, the site of a 17th century whaling outpost, slide presentations of our work at night, occasional dancing on the deck, nighttime viewings of the aurora above the masts, a costume party, and lots of sailing.

I wrote this journal entry the second day on the ship:

Already this boat feels like a space station. The lounge area, which includes 3 large booths and a small 3-stool bar, is intimate and softly lit. The portholes don’t have too much light coming in today… it is really grey outside. The captain came in and told us that beluga whales were nearby this morning. Jordi and I went outside to see. They were quite close this time; close enough to hear the hiss as they breathed. It really is magical here, both on the ship and off. We are floating in a giant bowl of blue ice and water. It is not too cold out so the air feels melty and wet. You can hear the ice chunks clicking and clacking as they bump against each other and melt. It is an eerie and lovely sound that punctuates the quiet.
Jess went to shore with the group this morning. I’m getting a sore throat and feel weak so I stayed inside and worked on my slide presentation. I am not sure how this trip will inspire me or affect my work. I don’t care. I met Jess, and I met Jordi, and they have made the trip worthwhile already.

The days got 20+ minutes shorter every 24 hours and the captain put us on “ship time” to maximize daylight. It took me days to give in to the dim light, to the time zone, to the rhythms of life onboard, to the constant rocking, to the tight quarters, the constant direction by the captain and our guides, and lack of sunshine. This combined with the experience of the small theatrical looking indoor space that was our shared dining room/living room/bar/meeting place, punctuated by exits into the fantastic and ethereal landscapes made the whole trip very dreamlike.

I could not envision bringing art supplies all the way to Norway and beyond to try work without a studio so I brought a camera instead and decided to spend my time just experiencing the adventure. Of course I began to desperately miss making which is an integral part of my everyday life. I had no interest in drawing – something I have not practiced for probably 20 years – but eventually I had to do something so I started doodling on the piece of paper I had been carrying around that Lene had given to me from her pad. Once I started I couldn’t stop. She gave me more paper and Jen Crouch gave me an eraser and I doodled for the rest of the trip. To use a pencil again after so many years of painting was a homecoming. I am not really interested in returning home and painting scenes of the Arctic. The drawings are an offhanded way of expressing the trip. They are doodles inspired by the cracks in the glacial ice, by the surrender to the rhythm of our days on the ship, by boredom, by nature, by physics and by the slow, creeping perseverance of life.

The trip was a constant exercise in adjusting to being outside of the comfort zone in so many ways. It was also an exercise in rising above, adding to the whole and not personalizing or judging. First of all there were the challenges of being in tight quarters with a group that is diverse in age, backgrounds and countries of origin. I honestly feel like every person on the trip added to the whole, and the group did an exceptional job of giving each other slack and working together. There was an awful lot of witty humor and laughter.

Then there was the adjustment to managing seasickness, being out in the wet cold for hours, the water shortage, the failed salt water pump for flushing toilets, the weird schedules, the cough and sore throat that spread through the ship, the lack of sun, and the mostly grey, short days. It was also difficult to be so managed. On shore you could not roam freely because of the danger of polar bears, so armed guides created a sightline territory within which you could walk. If you wanted to come or go from shore you had to plan around the zodiac schedules. The rest of the time was measured between scheduled meals and twice daily debriefings.

I had not realized how sad it would feel to have such uncannily warm weather in the Arctic. A few really cold days punctuated the usual misty wet weather that only hovered around freezing. There was not much snow, and it left me heavy in my gut to see white arctic foxes, white ptarmigans, reindeer, and white polar bears standing out like flags on the dark brown hills. I think we all imagine the glaciers dripping away when in reality there are rivers of melt water gushing from them constantly. I learned that climate change is more extreme at the poles and witnessed it firsthand. Glaciers are calving regularly – loud thunderous crashes as they dismantle into the sea. It was also saddening to be beyond any human sound or habitation but to find disintegrated plastic washed up on shorelines.

Let us also not forget our Napoleonic German captain who had made it known that he did not think too highly of Americans. On the first evening we were all so excited to finally be on board, but as we started out straight into the wind on rough seas the excitement quickly turned into groans and vomit. Crystal, who manned the kitchen and lounge, said she went to the wheelhouse to complain to the captain who laughed and said he “wished he had told them not to throw up in the dust bins,” and then eventually changed course for a calmer ride after our initiation was over. Then there was the next morning, when he publicly singled out my roommate for a public berating, thinking that she was a guy challenging him when she was neither male nor provoking him.

Best of all was the man overboard drill that lasted three hours in biting wind, driving sleet and rough seas. It was near the end of our journey when we heard the alarm siren and so put on our heavy clothes and met on deck in order of our cabin assignments as we had been trained to do. One of our participants, Oskar, had made a small pontoon boat rigged with a sieve for particulate plastic collection that was being dragged behind the ship. It had come loose and a lifebuoy had been thrown in after it, but as had been explained to us before, hopes of finding anything overboard were dim. Nonetheless we were to stand watch at the rail of the ship in hopes of a sighting. After twenty minutes or so the captain came out of the wheelhouse to angrily scream at us for talking amongst ourselves during a “man overboard situation.” Chastened, we all went back to the railings until we were allowed to start rotating for fifteen minute breaks in the lounge to prevent frostbite. During one of these rotations the captain came in to lecture us for not taking the drill seriously enough. Everyone was quiet. I was prepared for a harsh response when I respectfully asked why were treating it as a “man overboard situation” when in fact there was no man overboard. That really triggered the captain, who repeatedly pointed a finger at me and kept reiterating the phrase “people like YOU” during his explanation, which ranged from safety of needing to recover the lifebuoy to not wanting to leave debris in the ocean to needing to have us trained. I pointed out that we were only on the ship for two more days so our training wasn’t of much benefit, then he said it was to train his crew. So many people thanked me after the meeting for asking what they all wanted to know. Against all odds we actually did spot the red lifebuoy on the horizon and eventually recovered it. At that time I decided I was not going to spend any more time in the driving wind with my sore throat since we had recovered the most important item, we were not his employees, and no one could fathom the purpose of spending our few daylight hours recovering seemingly insignificant items. Several people had bagged the whole affair and were hiding in their bunks. I had done the same but then decided I had nothing to hide and returned to the lounge, only to find out that the captain had thrown open the doors of the cabins to yell and threaten to throw off the ship those who were in their bunks. It was such a weird and tense day. I made a silly movie on my computer to break the tension, which made everyone laugh hysterically, even the crew. When darkness came drinks went round out on the cold deck and a party broke out, dissipating the tension. To see the funny video click here.

All of these hardships were the spice in the mix that made the trip memorable and brought us together. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. We helped each other cope and listened to each other’s gripes and constantly found things to laugh about. We broke through each other’s barriers and got to know our shipmates in a way that a year of working together in another context couldn’t possibly achieve. I loved the interaction with so many generations and backgrounds whose paths would otherwise not cross, all held together by the glue of our shared creative sensibilities. I realized I am not around my kind enough. I am so inspired by the people I met. They left me feeling good about my work and about myself. I feel more determined to live by my ideals, to let my freak flag fly, to not bother being affected by bullshit. I came home wanting to do great work. I both care more about art and life and give less of a shit what anyone inside or outside of the art world thinks. My comfort zone is larger. Somehow experiencing a sense of being dislodged ended up making me feel home. In the face of melting glaciers and the power of the sea and the vast quiet, all of my personal trivialities seem comfortably miniscule.

The trip left me with faith in something but I am not sure what – I just feel a sense of ambiguous faith. It is as though the experience brought something in me close to being dislodged, or busted loose, and I will see where it drifts. I cherish the change in perspective I got from this voyage. I desperately wish I knew how to make it last. Scroll down for a movie about the trip.

For a higher quality version of video below, click here 



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