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The Arctic As Artistic Muse: Two Artists Turn Intrepid Explorers Of Frozen Tundras

These French artists went from creating rubber sculptures to exploring the Arctic.
March 29, 2012, 6:41pm

Many visual artists claim to be adventurers seeking extreme conditions where they may uncover the purest source material for their creative endeavor. But in reality, only a certain kind dare to ever leave the comfort of their studio. French artists Magali Daniaux and Cédric Pigot belong to this category of intrepid explorers.

The duo has been working together for the past 10 years (and fell in love in the process). Their early work focused on the respective mediums in which they were trained, mostly music and sound composition, visual art and photography. Then they came face-to-face with a barren landscape that has become their obsession ever since: the Arctic. This Herzog-ian encounter has given birth to a wide array of works that embrace the fields of music, video, documentary, and other digital formats.

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In a few weeks, they will embark on a new expedition to the frozen Arctic. This time, they set sail for Svalbard, a large archipelago in the North of Norway that hosts the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a Millenarist underground bunker facility and global multimillion dollar initiative designed to become the world's largest seedbank. It is mysterious, apocalyptic, poetic and a little bit creepy. Its nickname is the “Noah's Ark of Biodiversity.”

We were lucky enough to catch them before they embarked on this solitary raid on the ice to discuss their creative process. As far as we can tell, they looked quite normal for people who like to spend their time in one of the most silent and extreme places on Earth.

The Creators Project: Last year, you produced Arctic Tactics, a radio doc that was broadcast on France Culture [the closest French equivalent of NPR] and that has been since 'exhibited' in many art galleries, museums and radio stations around the world. How did the radio execs reach you?
Magali Daniaux and Cédric Pigot: France Culture invited us. They gave us free reign because they like our work and were impressed by the material we produced during one of our expeditions in Kirkenes—and besides, they knew we had contacts in this field.

We went to the Norwegian Embassy in Paris because they had been following our work and had already offered to be our patron when needed, and that was the occasion to fulfill this nice promise. We landed there with the radio's sound engineer and his complex mics and it was -30°c. We interviewed many people there: global warming experts, architects, urban planners and the like. We did all the interviews in our hotel room that we had transformed into a radio studio. It felt interesting and important, so we dropped our fiction project and decided to go for an informative yet artistic documentary, Arctic Tactics.

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Radio documentary : 46 min. 2011 (IN ENGLISH)
Atelier de création radiophonique, France Culture

You are heading to Svalbard, where you will shoot and visit the Global Seed Vault. What drew you to this outlandish place? Was it the political or aesthetic dimension?
Svalbard is actually a strong symbol of sorts that carries many of the themes we wanted to use in our Arctic trilogy. In our first Arctic expedition, we went to Kirkenes to set up a stream flux and write a series of fantasy tales to go with it: Cyclone KingKrab & Papuer Sigma. During our time there, the Deepwater facility broke and unloaded thousands of gallons of rough oil into the ocean. The sea of Barents that borders Kirkenes is the largest oil reserve that is yet to be drilled in Europe. It's full of oil. We were literally swimming in oil! This explains why the energy and oil angle was so strong, and why we discussed financial transactions, oil speculations and such issues, with an Apocalyptic Arctic background.

In Svalbard, we will spend 10 days at the international research station, a highly secured military zone. Us being financed by the Royal Embassy of Norway helped a lot during the authorization process. Then, we will stay 10 days in Longyearbyen, the main city of the Vault. We are negotiating right now to get in there with our camera drone, to shoot some scenes and interview the Professor in charge of the seedbank. This Vault is somehow a 'survivalist'' initiative that raises a lot of questions. It embraces a lot of fascinating themes such as agriculture, biodiversity, the common good, biotechnologies…

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The Arctic artworks are mainly immaterial—photos, videos, sound. Yet you have a more traditional training and started off with physical pieces, like sculptures.
It's ambiguous. We make objects. But at the moment, we can't make them anymore. We can't craft objects to address these issues. It's too heavy in terms of production, shipping, and other logistics. Objects are no longer fit for the specific pace of our media, writing, music, sound, streams, the things we do now.

What do digital technologies bring you? Quick, lightweight material?
Yes. They are more compliant with our 'ecology' and our economy today. We stopped exhibiting our main physical pieces. Last time we brought something to Moscow, for the Biennial, it cost us 15, 000 euros just for shipping. It seriously sickened us, so we put a hold on these things…

Are you trying to find new means of exhibiting artworks?
Yes, maybe we're switching to something new, even if we have always had a foot in the whole digital arts scene. We recently did an exhibition in Tarn [Southwest France], and we exhibited our sound pieces in someone's house, like in his living room. That was really great, they cheered us very warmly. We broadcast our readings of science fiction stories, with music, and the people passing by were really into it and stayed to listen to the whole thing.

Because we are barely financed with public funds, we work a lot with private patrons. There was Michelin of course, with whom we produced a 5-ton sculpture in Bangkok in 2005. We worked closely with them to craft the material that we needed, which turned out to be a mix of rubber and silicon. We wanted something dark that would trickle and drip, like a heavy slime.

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Then there was Mane, with whom we worked on two occasions to create smells. Right now, it's Axis, the network camera maker, who gave us a highly sophisticated and rough video camera that can operate when it's -30°s outside. But it's true that since we first set foot in the Arctic, our work tends to dematerialize.

There seems to be a new undercurrent in contemporary art, which has close relationships with practices like engineering, and is interested in stuff like R&D, innovation, new materials.
It's our case. We have basic traditional objects and furniture to exhibit our works right now. We would like to develop reactive structures. That would involve new technologies, designers or motion capture. But so far the materials we want to use don't exist yet. We are patiently waiting until they are invented.

What could it be? What can you do when you've already created odors ex nihilo?
We want to work on the idea of a collective chair to listen to our SF stories, a large armchair with topography. We want it to move, but we don't want to use pistons. So maybe specific foams, in which we would dig tunnels to let some air in. We want a material that could move and transform on its own with certain parameters, a material that could inflate, dilate, and retract. But it does not exist yet, we'd have to use nanotechnologies.

Rubber, 1200 silicon blocks, 30 × 30 × 5cm, 2005.
Lo Moth, 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok.

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E_0625325, smell, 2006.
Qui vive ! Moscow International Biennale, 2010.
Alors Alors, Galerie Chappe, Paris, 2006.

You are planning to do a web-documentary with the material of your next expedition. Will you try to find a new technical narration, a specific interface for this? A new way to exhibit your work once again?
Right, we would like to work with developers and find a smart, adapted navigation, something not too intricate, not too convoluted. We also want to impose some stuff on the viewer, play videos that last a bit longer than usual and that lead to another video without having to let the viewer decide what's next. The goal is to create a playful experience with a limited number of clicks.

And avoid the whole "Gamebook" interactive thing?
Exactly. The graphic design will be important too, a web-documentary can be a mix of an ebook and a website, and you have to think of the most relevant visual identity for it.

Cédric Pigot is a trained electronic musician with an ambient drone inclination and an eye on the Black Metal and atmospheric electronic scenes. He has done a lot of scores for movies and art installations and extensive live performances for both music and visual art venues. He was kind enough to upload a couple of tracks for us, which give us a fair synesthesic idea of the vast, barren, icy plains of the Arctic:

Photos, images and tracks, courtesy of Magali Daniaux and Cédric Pigot
Their projects in Kirkenes (2011) and Svalbard (2012) were funded by L’Ambassade Royale de Norvège in Paris.