2005 Expedition Blog - Day 4

Date:

Wednesday, 09 March 2005, 3:59pm

From:

Rachel Whiteread

Expedition:

Art/Science 2005

Subject:
9th March, Day 3, Spitzbergen, -28 Degrees
Attachments: 3 images
Rachel Whiteread Rachel Whiteread and Alex Hartley on a skidoo Rachel Whiteread and David Buckland

Having frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed, I'm beginning to get the hang of how many layers of clothes to wear.

I've now been on two completely sublime walks where I have felt totally humbled by the environment. The scale of the place, the 360 degree vistas, the different tones of white and the longest blue shadows I've ever seen are simply breathtaking and the silence when you can actually experience it is deafening.

I've concentrated on two main activities when walking -

  • The sound and feel of your footsteps silent, soft, loud, crunching and resonating, your tread on the different densities of snow and ice make music.
  • Searching for signs of life - it's quite remarkable how many species can actually survive here
  • Polar bear tracks
  • Arctic fox
  • Svalbard ptarmigans (that are apparently so stupid that they will willingly stand and watch their friends being shot)
  • Fulmar
  • Svalbard Reindeer - Svalbard pigs as the locals fondly call them (think Welsh pit pony)
  • Various lichen which look so colourful, robust and beautiful in this environment
  • Blades of grass
  • And finally the odd dried leaf (it's all very reminiscent of scenes in recent, rather good children's cartoon beginning with the word Ice..)
  • Oh yes, and of course the very noisy Homo Sapiens on their skidoos.

All of this, with great company and fascinating conversation, all in all, this is an experience I will never forget and I feel very privileged to be lucky enough to experience it.

Rachel Whiteread

Date:

Wednesday, 09 March 2005, 3:14pm

From:

Siobhan Davies

Expedition:

Art/Science 2005

Subject:
Daily Log March 9th 2005
Attachments: 1 image

Making a series of footsteps Max and I were attempting to make a series of footsteps that could be recorded by sound and camera. Both of thought how important the act of walking is in this immense landscape. Walking gets us somewhere and keeps us warm. It is a simple action but in many layers of clothing it becomes more dense than we had ever experienced.

We went to a beautiful open space, mountains in a circle, and an open more cruel and distant expanse to one side. A wind came up just shifting the snow on the ground but the wind chill factor made the temperature go from - 29 to close to -40. All the microphone wires froze, the lens of the camera developed crystals, and our only means of transport stopped working. While we were waiting for the skidoos to be mended we looked at glacial ice that had pushed its way above the snow, complex maps of lines and shapes imprinted through the dark ice.

It is so beautiful here and the weather is blue skies, low sun, long shadows but one of the guides is made restless by the calm of it and the more we are here we know we are witnessing more of the beauty and less of the ferocity than is normal.

Lemon and ginger tea now, and then outside to see again the strange moving image of Deborah walking naked on the snow. After that I look forward to a glass of wine with Rachel.

Siobhan Davies

Date:

Wednesday, 09 March 2005, 3:10pm

From:

Nick Edwards

Expedition:

Art/Science 2005

Subject:
Daily Log March 9th 2005
Attachments: -

Every piece of kit malfunctioned yesterday, a supremely frustrating situation given the short amount of time we have here, this has just led to more invention, re-thinking, improvisation and desperation. I vainly thought I'd prepared for this but nothing could be further from the truth, this cold drains any and all energy from what ever is exposed to it.

Flexible pliable electrical cable becomes brittle curly-wurlies, film a stiff sluggish coil that staggers through the camera at a disturbingly variable rate, and every metal object gives tiny electric shocks to the bare finger tips.

The light is pure unadulterated photon, sometimes having the disturbing effect of looking like a computer simulation, too crisp, too clear. The colour range on this trip seems to blue and yellow-orange, the first trip in 2004 was only black and white and last year gave the whole spectrum, but this year is the most crystal.

Nick Edwards

Date:

Wednesday, 09 March 2005, 2:59pm

From:

Charlie Kronick

Expedition:

Art/Science 2005

Subject:
Daily Log March 9th 2005
Attachments: -

A trip to Svalbard is many journeys, some taken simultaneously, some in sequence. Arrival is gradual, an institutional education in airports: from Heathrow - noisy, busy, big and British, to Oslo - quiet, composed, big and Nordic - to Tromsø - small, surprisingly alive, nearly snowed in, and clearly Nordic - to Longyearbyen - tiny, and at 3 in the morning unfeasibly busy, very, very cold - minus 30ºC. - and full of teenagers.

It's also counter-intuitive: the silent arctic isn't, silent that is. Squadrons of snowmobiles are fantastically loud, a kind of deafening two-stroke din, like Italian mopeds on steroids. The absence of machinery delivers a different experience, but still not the one that's expected. A walk in the snow, at least at minus 30ºC is complex sonic experience, each step creating a different kind of noise, from not so gentle squeaks to something resembling a fighter jet rounding a headland into your line of sight, but which you heard (and felt) before it became visible. Other than the cold, it is different in every way to what is expected.

What happens when you come to 78 degrees N. to document your experience of a vulnerable environment in a changing climate - which at this temperature seems unchanging, immutable, eternal? Your experience tells one thing but 15 years absorbing the contents of peer-reviewed journals and computer models suggests something very different. In a sense both are right, the reality of standing on the ice confronts you with the power of the arctic - but living with the gradual deepening of climate knowledge over time inhabits the same mental if not emotional space.

What enables anyone to cross the barriers of belief and experience? What motivates anyone to leave their comfort zone - either emotional or intellectual? What makes change happen? I'm waiting. I'm willing to keep waiting. But I know I can't wait forever.

Charlie Kronick

Date:

Wednesday, 09 March 2005, 7.34am

From:

David Buckland

Expedition:

Art/Science 2005

Subject:
Daily Log March 9th 2005
Attachments: -

It went to -34ºC last night and fresh bear tracks are 30m from the boat, a visitation last night that nobody saw. Yesterday was a day of activity, Antony and Peter nearly completed Three Made Places, arriving back on the boat way after dark. My projected walking figure on ice and cloud came into some form in the twilight hours, to be repeated again today but working in these temperatures where cables adopt steal like qualities and electrical equipment keeps crashing. Nick's 16mm camera struggles to get its almost solid film through the gates.

David Buckland

Date:

Wednesday, 09 March 2005, 7.29am

From:

Charlie Kronick

Expedition:

Art/Science 2005

Subject:
In Extremis
Attachments: -

I awoke thinking of extremities. Feet, toes, fingers, socks, mittens, boots, all in various combinations are occupying my mind in a disconcerting way. I've never thought about these things in just this way before, but then, I've never been in a situation where I was so likely to lose them. Any trip of course to this part of the world is largely about extremities, or at least existing in extremis (it's remarkable, even a stock cube tastes delicious in extremis.)

What happens when you bring a group together with the stated, or at least implied, purpose of looking ahead to a variety of potential outcomes (at least in terms of the climate), perhaps not awful (but likely to be very bad indeed), but the nature of the environment means that looking ahead at all, or at least beyond the end of your nose is very challenging, especially if you think it's about to fall off . This is the dilemma of climate change, at least for what we laughingly call decision makers or opinion formers. Politicians famously refuse to look beyond the ends of their electoral noses, for fear of leaving their electorates behind. Polls are conducted, focus groups are convened, but what is learned? Who's doing the learning? Who's teaching?

Charlie K

Date:

Wednesday, 09 March 2005, 7.12am

From:

Tom Wakeford

Expedition:

Art/Science 2005

Subject:
Daily Log March 9th 2005
Attachments: 2 images
Four Ptarmigans nibbling lichens and plant shoots on a Svalbard mountainside under the shadow cast by the photographer Arctic lichen on a rock

Finding signs of life in the frozen desert demands a keen eye. It is hard enough to see the white-on-white tracks of wild mammals like polar bears and snow foxes. Many miss the bright orange of lichens - a crusty-looking group of ancient organism - because it challenges our assumption of what life looks like.

Even at home, most of us have already seen lichens - as a rough layer on rocks at the seaside or on tree trunks in our local wood - without even knowing it.

Often confused with the larger and damp-loving mosses, lichens are less intricate but usually longer-lived than their cousins. Early European explorers of the Arctic learned that eating lichens could stave off scurvy on long expeditions. Most biology students know that lichens are not a single entity but rather the symbiosis of two organisms - algae and fungi. Before she became a writer of children's books the leading British pioneer of these ideas was Victorian naturalist Beatrix Potter.

The metabolisms of algae and fungi complement each other perfectly. Algae, the common name for yellow, brown, red and green protists, manufacture themselves almost out of thin air - from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the absorbed rays from the sun. This ability to make their own food autonomously has lead to them being given the put in the technical category of autotrophy, where they join many species of bacteria. Fungi and animals by contrast, depend on various kinds of 'heterotrophic' metabolism. In other words humans, like mushrooms, mice and monarch butterflies, derive our nutrition from compounds made by other organisms.

Symbioses often arise between organisms of the auto- and hetero- class of trophism. Why does this happen? One of the key reasons is that, at the micro-chemical level, the cells of all organisms slowly leak their contents like tiny tea-bags. To take the lichen example, green algae cannot prevent sugars passing through their cell walls, while fungi leak essential nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates through their outer membrane. Most chemicals leaked by one associate are useful to the other. The integration of the two organisms into a permanent symbiosis allows the fungus to derive food from these leakages generation after generation, and vice-versa. This exchange of resources with fungi is fundamental not just in lichens, but for the success of virtually every plant species on Earth.

Lichens have a particular lifestyle that allows them to tolerate a wide range of conditions of intense cold, heat, light and barren rock, which neither the fungi or algae on their own, let alone larger plants, could tolerate. They cling to rock surfaces, often only visible as black specks that you would be forgiven for mistaking for pieces of soot or parts of the rock itself.

These very features, which allow lichens to be easily ignored, also allowed them to be the first visible colonisers of the land, perhaps as long as 1 billion years ago. Though bacteria were already present - living in the cracks in rocks, and at the edge of shallow pools, the lichen invasion began a fundamental change in terrestrial ecology, from rock to soil.

World-wide, the hundreds of species of these lowly life-forms cover as much of the Earth's surface as tropical rainforests. They are thus vital photosynthetic lungs of our planet, yet they are too readily ignored, even when they are such a vivid colour.

Tom Wakeford

2005 expedition route map