Based on experiences, stories, and representations of circumpolar regions, what follows examines (dis)orienting ways of technical knowing that align longitudinally. Jamie Allen's writings map the relations, tensions, and collusions between material and knowledge infrastructures and actual and modelled ecologies, and Merle Ibach prepares images to accompany these.
It is my birthday, June 20, and I have just walked out onto the north end of Storgata Street, in the settlement that the Northern Sami people call Romsa. Others call it Tromsø, Norway. I am out front of a bar called the Verdensteatret, also known by locals as the Kino or Kinematograf. It’s a seasonable and crisp 8°C and there are clear skies above the third-largest urban area in the Arctic Circle. Looking southward, the street is flooded with an extremely elongated shadow—my own silhouette—that seems to spread all the way to the other end of this unswerving section of Tromsø’s kilometer-long high street. Somewhere near the southern end of Storgata, a group of young tourists, or maybe students, come out of another establishment, and my embarrassingly long human shadow darts over their group as I shuffle around aimlessly. A brief test of solar object permanence, a timid game of peekaboo with an occluded star. My torso intermittently creates a flickering eclipse, amplified by a cosmic ratio: the distance between the sun and I as a somewhat greater distance than the span of Storgata Street.
During the summer months in Tromsø, the sun traces out a sinusoidal band that flirts with, but never dips below, the horizon. On June 20, 2018, its oscillation apexes and bottoms out at precisely forty-five minutes after twelve noon and twelve midnight, respectively. It is late into the evening when this sun grazes an asymptote skyline, positioning its rays parallel with the straightaway pedestrian street. People become gnomons (the stick part of a sundia). Bodily and planetary meridians align. It’s as if something is trying to tell us what time it is.
Earth is now evidently no longer just “our” home, no longer a carrier bag for nature, but a consummate scientific object, planetary laboratory, and ongoing experiment. The classical objective distance once required of scientific endeavors is contravened with each new site and type of “Earth Observatory” from which we purport to ob-serve and study that which we are in and on. Genealogies reconstructing the planet as the recursive, dynamic control system we understand it to be today are well charted. One starts with the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton, who propagated the idea of immense, cyclical, and fluid scales of time and movement, with evidence in the layered, undulated folds of once molten granite that are visible up here on the surface (specifically, at Gleann Teilt in the extreme north of Perthshire, Scotland, we are told). “Solid” land is the impermanent consolidation of organic and non-organic processes. Vestiges of historical beginnings and prospects of discernable ends duly dispensed with, in the nineteenth century Charles Lyell would add to his fellow Scot’s geology a systematic uniformity of process. The Earth began to exist historically, as continuous and overlapping change operations, capable of being explained through present and observable phenomena. In the twentieth century, cybernetic models layered onto the relatively sedate rhythms of geological uniformitarianism other effective spheres radiating downward and upward as (hydro-, atmo-, bio-, techno-, etc.). Second-order cybernetic models, like the Gaia hypothes, and the promotion of homo economicus as a force of geological redesign, systematize and modulate control cycles within these “spheres” and associate Earth’s interior, surface geology, the living, and the technological.
Each planetary becoming generates and is generated by particular perspectives and positions from which the Earth’s recursive objectivity is imagined. In Hutton’s and Lyell’s days, cross-sectional imaginaries propelled the importance and temporal metaphor of layers in Earth history (ge-schichte), imparting how “depth digs through time, and deep excavations down into the earth involved a kind of time travel. Precipitating all kinds of vertical adventures to the center of the Earth and elsewhere, the imaginary and visual expansions of technoscience move concentrically, inward and outward, very often by powers of ten, sometimes in IMAX Off-planet perspectives and imaginaries of self-contained, closed-system, and organismic Earths followed as centripetal and centrifugal geologies turn into revolutionist, spiraling, cyclical sphericity. In 1972, someone aboard the Apollo 17 mission used Hasselblad medium format and Nikon 35 mm cameras to snap a visual sample of the whole Earth in full spin (all three astronauts on the voyage “kind of jokingly take credit for” the phot). The Apollo 17 Blue Marble image was captured “southside down” in the weightless space between the Earth and its moon. Most reproductions and publications of the photograph show it inverted, to align with nordicentrist cartographic conventions.
Produced as eleven looped films with a single soundtrack, Polar Life was experienced as eighteen minutes of immersive, pan-polar political aesthetics. The central figure is a bird, a darting and swooping Arctic tern, allowing for sequences of Kubrickesque flyover landscapes, interspersed with narration and lively, ebullient scenes of Arctic-dwelling people, communities, and a festival, as well as the serene indulgence of the Northern Lights. Most important to the evocation of meridian perspective, and among the novelties that serve as experimental precursors to expanded cinema and the immersiveness of IMAX, was that the film was presented in a “carousel theater.” The entire audience sat on a giant turntable, continuously rotating past eleven fixed projection screens. The perspective was pan-Arctic, an immersive and integrative, contiguous and sweeping portrayal from the top of the world, in the round. The experience inferred, and given to Expo 67 visitors, is the comfortable ensconcement of spectators in a kind of top-down global observatory, a (con)descending point of view that provides rotational surveys of the planet. Any collective responsibilities “we” might feel for Spaceship Earth are oriented meridionally, and the Arctic is recast as a vast protectorate from which signals and warnings from the past and the future seem to perennially emerge.
Zoe Todd, writing on the erasures that this kind of circumpolar globalism can enact on Arctic Indigenous Peoples and their laws and philosophies, notes how “Greenpeace reminds us daily, after all, that the Arctic is a commons in need of saving from climate change,” just as “climate change and the Arctic are inextricably bound in the public consciousnes To avoid adding the insults of knowledge extraction and epistemic colonialis to the deep injuries of material extraction and territorial colonialism that have all but expunged ways of living for Sami, Yupik, Eskimo, and Inuit Peoples, Todd calls for heightened specificity, gratitude, and respect for the Aboriginal worldviews—worldviews that are in part precipitative of current European, settler, academic and artistic fascinations with relational and nonhuman “epistemologies”.
When we consider the progress of the Northern races of mankind, it cannot be denied, that while the struggles of the hardy races of the North with their severe climate, and their forests, have gradually endowed them with an unconquerable energy of character, which has enabled them to become the masters of the world; the inhabitants of more favoured climates, where the earth almost spontaneously yields all the necessaries of life, have remained comparatively feeble and inactive, or have sunk into sloth and luxury
Like Expo 67, and made public in the same year, “The Idea of North” is the kind of radio program that forms part of the cultural wallpaper of my home nation of Canada. I heard it more than a few times on CBC Radio while growing up. It is a mark of the production of Canadianness itself for the “cultured” white settlers of my nation. In his opening address at the start of the hour-long broadcast, pianist Glenn Gould observes, “Like all but a very few Canadians, I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained, for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid Untold research projects, artworks, and media profiles since Gould’s time have obligingly attempted to compose non-objectifying understandings of the static between the imagined transmissions and grounded realities of the North and the Arctic. A very select list of such experiments could include R. Murray Schafer’s composition for snowmobile and orchestra “North/White” from 1973, the multimedia investigation of Arctic magnetospheres Little Earth by London Fieldworks in 2005, and Leslie Reid’s milky-white paintings of the atmospheres of the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard from aboard the Antigua, a triple-masted tall ship, as well as earlier work that came out of the Canadian Forces Artists Program. Acoustic Ocean, a 2018 work by Ursula Biemann, is a perspectival scientific and sonic reverie, filmed in the northern Lofoten Islands, that casts sensitive subsea life in the Arctic as a canary in the global coal mine, as a dashboard for planetary drives. In the film Manifestations (2017), directed by Leena Valkeapää, narrator and nomadic Sami reindeer herder Oula A. Valkeapää says, “It feels like life is an eternity.” The North’s calls of projected solitude and infinitude, its portentous signals, once transceived, are difficult to ignore.
Perhaps in response to these drives, calls, and signals, I arrive at Tromsø airport on June 17, 2018, with a small group of Central European researchers and artists. I look across the luggage collection area while waiting for our bags and see a set of light boxes, advertisements for Kongsberg Spacetec and Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT). The first placard reproduces a well-worn image of KSAT’s Svalbard satellite station, and the other, a striated, glacial ice island floating in immaculate, glassy-blue digital waters, on the surface of which the words “METEOROLOGY,” “CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENTAL MONITORING,” and “SURVEILLANCE” also float.
Louis-Edmond Hamelin, the Quebecois elder statesman of northern geographies, has worked for half a century on fertile concepts such as “winterity” and “nordicity” in order to juxtapose real, extreme environments of high-latitude regions with the rich and complex ways they are perceived, imagined, depicted, and talked about. Hamelin even developed a “nordicity” scale, used by governments to allocate infrastructure and environmental resources. He named it the VAPO, or “valeur polaires.” The VAPO is a composite and somewhat subjective measure that tracks ten different aspects—things like “annual cold,” “types of ice,” as well as “accessibility by means other than air” and “degree of economic activity”— rating each on a scale between 0 and 100. The total score, out of a thousand, must be over 200 for a place to be considered “in the North.” The North Pole itself has a theoretical value of 1000, as VAPO as possible.
If boreal regions are imagined as a source of redemptive energies and infinite resources, then one way in which people use, abuse, or at least imagine northern territories is through the expectation of transformative, ascetic atonement in a world of hyper-attachment. If life gets tough in the south, if things get too harsh in the city, you can always head north, live on the cheap, and maybe even land a job with “isolation pay.” Edward Said wrote of an impossible “withdrawal from the world,” referring to Glenn Gould’s retreat away from the cultural life of southern Canada toward an imaginary North that he hoped would answer the nordic call of solitude Long drives in subarctic Northern Ontario in his beloved Lincoln Continental were part of the “technological self” that Gould cultivated This ascetic sensitivity to the cleansing promise of the North is most notoriously elaborated in the “Solitude Trilogy” — of which “The Idea of North” was one part — the first in a triptych of contrapuntal edits of ethnographic interviews of Northern Canadians, composed conversations overheard on an imaginary train ride along the western coast of Hudson Bay.
The numerous field stations I have visited in Canada, Finland, Sweden, and Norway are seasonally populated by researchers who spend their teaching and semester time in southern cities—Helsinki, Oslo—but find their way up to Kilpisjärvi, Ramfjordmoen, and elsewhere when there is enough light to do their fieldwork. Part of the draw of ecological fieldwork is no doubt the promise of an alchemical refinement of self in solitary and remote interaction with, and embeddedness in, one's subject matter The clean, pristine elements, environments, and horizons of the North promise salvation through simplicity, and the ability to thrive in extreme cold and in the absence of creature comforts, and other creatures, reconfirms a certain sanctity of self.
The azure, blue crispness of northern skies is also technological blue: “If you’re looking to establish a futuristic interface, shades of blue are an easy bet. Blue is the most popular color on the internet As Eric Snodgrass points out, there is “Tech logo blue. Facebook blue. Soothing, corporate IBM deep blue. The chirpy, social pastel of Twitter blue and the vaguely translucent gradients of iOS 7 blue. A showy blue LED… Digitality, like nordicity, projects (cyber)spaces of limitless cleanliness and apocalyptic decontamination, a technoscientific and nordic future of cold labs and clean rooms lit in sapphirine hues. Climate change discourses and realities also put the High North squarely in that “place” we call “the future,” as people imagine where it is they will need to withdraw to when seas rise and tree lines, agricultural promise, and livable environments move north. There is a frozen seed archive, adorned with a modernist cerulean light sculpture, somewhere up there in Norway …
As a place that most people just don’t go, “North” is a discursive system, a mythic structure, a historic and narrative device, a cultural technique. Henry Morley, writing in Charles Dickens’ popular weekly Household Words in 1853 sets the tone: “There are no tales of risk and enterprise in which we English, men, women, and children, old and young, rich and poor, become interested so completely, as in the tales that come from the North Pole. For white people, particular desires emerge, and preferred elements, forms, colors, and figures recur when we depict or imagine circumpolar regions. Certain others, such as Arctic Indigenous Peoples and their ways of being, are often discarded.
Yuk Hui’s idea of a cosmotechnics is an enabling directive, a unification of cosmic orders and moral, human activities through technology, accounting for how we value technics and technical instrument What parts of “nature,” and what parts of “our nature,” create the desire for us to bifurcate and then map out ecologies of which we are a part, in service of inevitable use and exploitation? If we were to open a dossier on the cosmotechnics of the Arctic, it would have to include how the navigator’s compass aligns with the poles and that cultures since time immemorial have taken advantage of the fact that the skies above the Earth seem to rotate around the North Star, or Polaris. Perhaps this coincidence is enough to explain why maps are consistently oriented with north at the top. It may explain, as well, how exploration, navigation, and mapping now compel astronomical and extraplanetary communication and exploration ever upward. Other entries in such a dossier would include the routine use of polar territories as simulation and training grounds for astronaut and robonaut and the fact that among the hundreds of lawyers employed by the US State Department, there is just one person responsible for all legal matters concerning both the Arctic and outer space, said to be called the lawyer for “cold, dark, and dangerous places
The twenty-first century has seen Norway arise as both petrocultural and extraplanetary infrastructure for the rest of the world, in reality and in our projective popular media. The country’s charmed planetary positioning and geology, relatively small population, compact geography, and efficient bureaucratic structures has positioned the Arctic nation as harbinger and beneficiary of new industrialization in the north. Due attention is corroborated by the recent popularity and topicality of the Norwegian Netflix hit Okkupert (Occupied), a near-future drama in which Norway self-imposes an ecologically minded oil embargo, triggering its occupation by neighboring Russia, backed by an oil-addicted European coalition—that is to say, Okkupert projects Norway’s global infrastructural becoming. Even as the energy industry—coal, oil, gas, hydroelectricity, and their transport—vastly outstrips the communications sector as a proportion of Norway’s GDP, few industries manifest the importance of Northness and nordicity to industrial exploitation like that of satellite ground services. Locating satellite ground stations above the Arctic Circle is particularly advantageous for accessing polar-orbit satellites, and these regions are typically flat and devoid of interruptive buildings and the meddling of animals, human and non-. Things up top are also rather celestially stable, as the linear velocity of a rotating sphere is zero anywhere along its spin axis (Earth’s “poles” are defined as the point where this axis meets the surface of the Earth). Arctic antennas are often seen pointed nearly horizontally, as they can also “see” a median number of non-polar orbit satellites as they clear the horizon. Other key advantages include the relative (and interrelated) meteorological and political cooperativeness and stability of Arctic nations.
KSAT’s particular corporate narrative is self-styled as a history of their Tromsø site, where in 1967 the Royal Norwegian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research set up Noway’s first telemetry station. The station’s birth as a satellite ground station is precisely timed. A nine-minute flyover of Europe’s first satellite, the European Space Research Organisation’s ESRO 2B, began when Tromsø confirmed acquisition of signal (AOS) at 03:31:15 AM, May 17, 1968. The 1980s and ’90s were darker and developmental years, respectively, but the 2000s saw the establishment of KSAT as a commercial operator. KSAT is now the world’s largest supplier of services for the control of and data acquisition from polar-orbit satellites. It is still headquartered in Tromsø, on the grounds of the original and still-active receiving station, where the complete KSAT network is operated as one single interconnected network out of the Tromsø Network Operations Centre.
In two days, it will be my birthday. Myself and a small group are walking the three-hundred-meter path between the parking lot of Tromsø’s Charlottenlund Recreational Park over to the site of KSAT's global headquarters and satellite ground station. Norway entered the space age on May 17, 1968, so this year is the ground station’s fiftieth birthday. We are a month late to visit on the precise anniversary, but the skies and general conditions would have been quite similar. KSAT will in any case not officially celebrate its jubilee until September 28, with an exclusive outdoor concert on these grounds for one hundred lucky guests. We have just had lunch. Locals in Tromsø are rumored to harvest (steal) and eat seagull eggs, but we see no sign of this practice, nor does it ever come up in conversation with anyone while we are there.
I try and get closer to a spherical dome structure that seems to be out of service. A bird—not an Arctic tern, but one of the very, very large seagulls that dominate the rooftops and command attention in the public squares of Tromsø—squawks angrily at me from the top of an adjoining tower. I continue my move toward the white globe and the gull aggressively dives at me, darting and swooping over my head, strafing me with an ample discharge of bird shit. The payload squarely connects with the top of my increasingly hairless head. I’m stunned, both by the fouling I have received and by the truly admirable aim of this massive seabird. I beat my retreat back to the human group, realizing as I back away that I had been encroaching on a small nest of seagull eggs in the tall grasses around the satellite dome. The Arctic bird had been safeguarding its unborn kin. Our initial impression that this ground station had been left unsurveilled and unprotected was entirely incorrect.