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Artists & Scientists Travel To The Arctic To Discuss Climate Change

We chatted with UVA’s Matthew Clark about his experiences on the trip.
November 22, 2010, 9:42pm

What do you get when you take a group of scientists and multi-disciplinary artists, put them on a sailboat together and send them on a three-week expedition to the Arctic? Well, we're not quite sure yet, but the results are bound to be fascinating and inspirational.

Matt Clark, creative director for UK-based creative collective UVA was among a group of 15 artists and 5 marine scientists invited to participate on this voyage to the north-east coast of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian arctic, organized by Cape Farewell. The trip was meant to expose the artists to the magnificent landscape and atmospheric conditions of this remote region, but also to engage them in scientific research and discussion about climate change and its effects on the environment. The hope is that through this cross-disciplinary dialogue, a cultural response to climate change may come about—finding new and creative ways of relating the consequences of climate change to the lay public.

For Clark, that lofty task is possibly more pressing than for his fellow artistically-inclined shipmates. Clark and the UVA team recently won a commission to design the inaugural exhibition for the new contemporary wing of the National Maritime Museum [NMM] in London. This expedition to the arctic was part of his artistic research for the exhibition, entitled High Arctic, which will debut this coming July.

We chatted with Clark over the phone to learn more about his experiences in the arctic and how he was impacted by his experiences there.

The Creators Project: So you just got back from a 22-day trip to the Arctic recently. How did this crazy expedition come about?
Matthew Clark of UVA: I went with a group called Cape Farewell who organize trips to get scientists and artists together to create the cultural response to climate change. They've been going on these trips to the Arctic and also to the Amazon to get artists and scientists together to discuss ideas around how to communicate in a non-patronizing, inventive way, how to engage people and get people interested about climate change. But it wasn't just a holiday or fun trip, the scientists were conducting research and experiments such as taking sea temperatures and researching micro-organisms in the ocean, so it was really interesting to watch the scientists work and learn about the research.

Obviously, it was an amazing adventure at the same time. We went to a really remote place in the arctic called Svalbard, which is an archipelago of islands about 400 miles from the North Pole. We were gone for 3 weeks and were constantly on the move and everyone had to help sail, so there was a quite strict routine of when you had to eat, what time you had to get up to help with the sails every day in the morning. It was hard work but at the same time, an incredible adventure.

Had you ever been sailing before?
No, I hadn't, and I was a bit petrified, actually. Of getting seasick, of being stuck on a small vessel in the middle of nowhere. We were trying to do a circumnavigation around the whole archipelago of islands and we got stuck in sea ice at the very northern tip of the island. We were drifting towards some rocks and the captain, basically the look on his face, he was just petrified, which made everyone else rather nervous. He called emergency services and they sent a helicopter, which took 4 hours to get to us, and as we were waiting for this helicopter a polar bear walked over to the boat, just started crossing the sea ice, and then there were another two polar bears and all of a sudden our boat was surrounded by polar bears. The guys all took their guns out because polar bears are known to eat humans, so that was quite an amazing and scary point. Eventually the helicopter got to us and we got out of the sea ice and were able to continue our journey.

Wow, that’s insane! So, tell us a little bit about how the dynamic on the ship played out. Do you see yourself as having been impacted by this cross-pollination of artistic and scientific worlds?
For the first 2 weeks every evening one of the artists and one of the scientists would give a kind of lecture about their field and what they're interested in. It took a long time for it all to fit into place because climate change is actually a very complex issue. The whole point of going to the arctic was because the arctic is the most visible sign of climate change. The glaciers are melting, the size of the ice is rapidly declining and it's very visible what's going on. But it wasn't until the third week that people started to really exchange ideas. I was keen to understand how the scientists communicated these complex issues to people who aren't scientists and they themselves said it's very difficult because it's so complex. In a way, that's why Cape Farewell organizes these expeditions to fuel new creative ideas and make people aware of these very serious issues.

Is climate change something you were interested in before?
Well, to be completely honest, I try to do my best—we recycle at my family home, and we try to use the car as little as possible—but really, when you live in an urban environment, I think it's really difficult to get a sense of what's going on in the world. Unless you have a natural catastrophe or an extreme weather event, it's really difficult to get a personal experience.

Actually, when I was in Svalbard and I was standing on this glacier that took 50,000 years to form, but is melting really fast, one of the scientists said, "You know, when your son's your age, none of this will be here." And I found that quite profound. But it's not really losing ice which is the major issue, it's the consequences of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the temperatures rising, and it's probably going to be the third world countries that suffer the most. Millions of people are going to be affected. It's already happening at the moment and we need to take some action and Cape Farewell are motivating people to try and get bigger changes by governments. We can all do our best, and we have to do our best, but it's going to take some serious action from the countries of the world [to change things].

Can you give us a bit of a sneak preview as to what we might expect from the exhibition?
One thing it's not going to be is a kind of chronological series of events that you might find in a typical museum. We want people to enter a space where they go on an adventure and they have different opportunities to explore the space. We want a sense of exploration to be in there, and also the atmospheric qualities of being in the Arctic—light, atmospheric sound, all of those things. But beyond that, our final submission for the design is actually in two weeks, so we're f in the middle of that right now. But hopefully it's going to be awe-inspiring, like the Arctic was, and also [convey] a sense of loss. As I said earlier, when I was standing on the glacier, the history of the Arctic is in decline very fast and it might just be too late. Life will go on in the Arctic, but the effects that will happen in the rest of the world could cause real problems, and probably will. So, those kinds of issues will be touched on, but it will be alongside the sense of modern day expedition.

It sounds like there might almost be an element of memorialization happening here…
You might be along the right track, but we also want a sense of hope and a positive element to it. It's not going to be a depressing exhibition by any means. We want it to embody the beauty of the Arctic, but also touch on the sense of loss because that was the point of the trip and I've got to do what my heart tells me. But I think the sense of modern day expedition and what it was like to go on the trip, those parts will definitely be in there too. We want it to be an enjoyable experience.

All images courtesy of Matt Clark. Read more about his experiences on the Cape Farewell expedition and view more of his photography on his voyage blog.