The first artwork I “met” by Charles Stankievech, a Montreal/Dawson City multimedia artist, was his delicate, subtle work Whispers (for WB) at the Parisian Laundry (Montreal) in 2005. For this piece, Stankievech set a series of speakers attached to long, rambling wires along the floor of a skinny concrete hallway. The speakers exuded a wash of overlapping whispers in multiple languages, mixed from 12 channels.
The audio effect was either spooky or soothing, depending on your mood. Visually, it was spare yet also inviting, since you could pick up the speakers if you wanted to listen more closely.
Since then Stankievech has continued to work with overlaps between architecture, acoustics (connecting more broadly to communications technologies), and visual art (most frequently sculpture and video). He’s on year three in Dawson as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts (SOVA).
And ice has begun to appear in – or literally around – Stankievech’s geographically northern art on a regular basis. Pale landscapes add to his minimalist aesthetic, and the North is definitely a place where sound travels farther and feels thinner. But even more importantly, Stankievech is currently contemplating boundary issues in remote places – places where international defence systems install themselves. The North provides the specific history of the DEW Line plus the current US HAARP project.
From April 1 – 26 2009, Stankievech exhibited The DEW project. “As much ideological deterrent as defence infrastructure, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line constructed between 1954-56 was a joint venture between the US Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force,” he writes in a press release. “A long distance radar and communication system, the DEW Line created an electromagnetic boundary able to detect airborne invasion while also problematising Arctic sovereignty – an issue once again at stake.”
So The Ice Cubicle decided to interview Stankievech about The DEW Project. This multi-part project was housed in a remote transmission station – a plastic-and-wood geodesic radome on the Yukon River, at the Klondike River confluence. It included:
- headphones attached to a hydrophone inserted through a hole Stankievech drilled through the ice, allowing people to listen to live recordings of water moving under the ice;
- an internet audio stream that mixed the river’s sounds with pre-recorded audio from the BAR-3 DEW station. the audio could also be heard live on the local radio station during April 09, and can still be enjoyed on Stankievech’s site here and here;
- a video from from the BAR-3 DEW station close to Tukotoyuktuk on the Arctic Ocean – formerly a USAF DEW Line station BAR-3 and today still operational under the North Warning System.
Stankievech chose the date to coincide with the centenary of the discovery of the North Pole. He also used the occasion to launch the online publication of the BAR-1 DEW Line Archive – an online publication of David Neufeld’s 1996 CD-ROM archive of one of the Yukon’s DEW stations. (Neufeld is the Yukon and Western Arctic Historian for Parks Canada.)
:: INTERVIEW ::
Ice Cubicle: Your research for the DEW Project took you to several remote locations in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Did you venture into Alaska or any other circumpolar nations?
Charles Stankievech: The DEW project’s initial field research started during one of my many solo snowshoe hikes in the Tombstone Mountains, where a string of microwave towers and antennae connect Inuvik to the Whitehorse. The first recordings and videos I shot for The DEW project were of these strange manmade structures standing alone in a vast wilderness connecting small communities across a sublime landscape; they also became interesting markers of territory that ended up being goals for me instead of the traditional summit climb or mountain lake.
Last January SOVA/KIAC artist in residence Aaron Flint Jamison and I made a trip up the Dempster Highway and the Mackenzie Delta Ice Road to Tuktoyuktuk, NWT. I arranged this trip to the Arctic Ocean because it once was the site of the USAF DEW Line station BAR-3 and today still operational under the North Warning System. Driving on a road made out of ice on the Mackenzie River is one of the most beautiful road trips I’ve ever undertaken: seeing the land slip away into a flat icescape with the occasional pingo backlit by a pink light.
In the last year I spent an uneventful night in Iceland and a trip to HAARP, Gakona, Alaska to make some recordings of a less historical military installation. HAARP [High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program] is another US Air Force project, though unlike the DEW Line it is a research facility experimenting with the Ionosphere for a plethora of reasons, some benign and others, some argue, not so benign—but this is not the place to delve into that discussion.
Ice C: Your art has combined audio and sculpture for several years now, but as I understand it The DEW Project was a leap forward for you in terms of making a large outdoor work that could withstand serious temperature and weather challenges. Why did you want to present this work in the winter?
CS: While not the largest installation I’ve built, I would definitely say this was the most ambitious project. This is because it required a number of functioning systems: solar power, radio transmission, computer controlled lighting, structural design, heating and insulation, underwater sound recording, and internet streaming.
As you know from living in the Yukon, the temperature and limited lighting conditions exponentially increases the difficulty of making the most ordinary things work: like a toilet or my bicycle.
It would have been significantly easier to build and exhibit this project in the summer, but I would not have been able to place it in the middle of the Yukon and Klondike rivers and thus on the ice, which was something I was recording.
I also needed the darkness so I could back light the translucent geodesic dome to have a glowing rainbow orb in the middle of this expansive white “gallery” space of the frozen Yukon Rver. The snow is good for a minimalist aesthetic important to the piece.
Ice C: What kinds of ice formations did you observe around any of the DEW Line geographies that you visited in person?
CS: Pingos in the NWT, frozen Arctic Ocean (with boats frozen right into the ice), the radiant Ice Road to Tuk, Ice frost on the buildings of the North Warning System, massive chunks of ice (larger than trucks) floating down the Yukon River, the pressure ridges of ice, a changing spectrum of ice colour as I drilled down through the Yukon River with an ice auger (about 5ft thick), and a lot of ice crystals frozen to my beard.
Ice C: How did you form the decision to place your scaled-down version of Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Radome on the frozen Yukon River, rather than on a nearby piece of frozen land?
CS: There were several reasons. First, the Yukon River is an international waterway because it flows into the ocean and is under a different jurisdiction than the rest of the surrounding area. It was important that the project was located in this territory of a fluid boundary.
Second, the project is very close to Tr’ochëk, the traditional fishing area of the First Nations people of the Klondike. I wanted to keep a respectful distance. While The DEW Project looks at military colonialisation in the Arctic, I did not want to repeat a gold rush atrocity again in a contemporary context. To have placed my project on the land at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, I felt, ventured into this area.
Third, there is something phenomenologically wonderful about standing on a sheet of ice with water rushing underneath you. I wanted people to be able to stand on site listening with headphones to the ice shifting and water flowing right under their feet. Most people experience DEW by listening online or in archival format, listening on the ice was a reserved experience for those people who actually ventured out of town to the site.
Fourth, it made the site temporary, its existence delineated by the melting of the river, and thus connecting to the pressing issue of water ownership and global warming in the arctic. I should note here, this is an issue I’ve been openly interested in since the piece I built in 2006 in a sinking Venice where I constructed a floating island out discard tourist water bottles in the footprint of Robert Smithson’s Island of Broken Glass.
Ice C: What was the most beautiful ice image you came across in the making of the BAR-1 archive?
Ice C: In your online introduction to the DEW Project, you look to the future as well as to the past when you mention that the same countries involved in the DEW (Canada, Russia, US, and Denmark) are once again:
turning their attention towards the North driven this time by what could be called the ‘Warm War.’ The Cold War might have been a successful negotiation over the frozen landscape of the Arctic but will the current battle over natural resources and sovereignty in a rapidly melting world share the same quiet fate? A germane topic today, sustainability is not just a question concerning a particular architectural design but the infrastructure and networks between nation states that will determine not only what—but who—is sustained in the future.
How would you respond to The Ice Cubicle’s prediction that circumpolar (and other) nations may realistically end up fighting for ownership of icebergs, floebergs and the different stages of sea ice formation, as part of the struggle for ownership of natural resources in the northern polar area?
CS: During the Cold War we didn’t really fight. It was a time in history when war was a Public Relations game. Military zones were built up, armament tests and experiments were conducted. Treaties were signed or not signed, and then not honored, colonialisation occurred to protect assets and other aggressive actions that tried to fight an ideological war without direct confrontation.
Today a lot of the same actions are occurring, with the major addition of scientific claims being made. But Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is just as threatened today as it was during the Cold War. It is open knowledge we cannot as a country patrol the waters we supposedly call “Internal” but is very much open for debate (particularly by America), nor do we even have the satellite systems to remotely monitor our arctic waterways.
I don’t believe nations will “fight” for actual water/ice, just like nations do not fight for oil (another fluid). Nations fight for territory that controls resources.
In my opinion there are three main reasons to control the arctic:
1. The Northwest Passage (the initial interest in the arctic was to find a trade route to India, once a rejected route now opening up as a possibility again);
2. No Man’s Defense Zone (for military protection and testing as in the Cold War.); and
3. Oil Reserves (from 1960s on mainly including today and the future).
I don’t feel fighting for actual sea ice or iceberg ice will be a real issue because I can not see the need for a single nation to possess it. A near enough population does not exist to utilise it on a grand enough scale and moving it does not make any sense, environmentally (global warming), economically (desalination plants seem more efficient) or practically (it would melt if you moved it).
But one never knows, I’m sure before 1900 no one thought people would be fighting for that black substance in Texas.
Ice C: If you had to describe the sound of river-carried ice to a deaf person, how would you describe it?
CS: While standing on the ice I would say this: imagine if the cracking and crushing of your bones was a pleasurable feeling.
I had the fortunate experience last spring of actually seeing and hearing the Yukon River break. I just happened to be on a bike ride at 2 a.m. in the morning along the river when it started to shift and break up. I obviously was not on the ice, but standing on the shore; in this circumstance it sounded like distant thunder.
Ice C: The DEW project website mentions a “Publication with 7″ record scheduled for release in the Fall 2009.” Is this released by now? Would you consider creating a cast-ice version the vinyl record that could be played in Dawson on the anniversary of The DEW Project’s opening in 2010?
CS: The record is still in production, but I hope for it to be released for the exhibition Magnetic Norths which I’m curating for the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery in Montreal come Feb 2010. I’m trying to work with some musicians to create remixes of the source material in addition to the record so the process has been extended.
I’d love to make an ice record. It was done, by an artist several years ago in Europe, where he played the record as it melted. I think I recall the song being about love and produced this rather melancholic experience of it melting away. A fitting idea to steal for DEW; though I question the veracity of the story, a beautiful story none the less.
Ice C: Would you work in an ice-laden environment again? Or directly with ice?
CS: I have a series of performative works to be conducted this Winter Solstice again near Tuk on the Arctic Ocean, including a video remake with military smoke grenades of the 60s colour field painting “Instant Loveland,” a rocket launch as part of my Ghost Rocket World Tour where I launch a ballistic missile off the ice to a rock’n’roll anthem, and another piece where I drill into the ocean ice and transmit music into the ice to be recorded using hydrophones in an aesthetic adaptation of the seismic tests my father conducted on that very ocean exactly 40 years earlier.
Ice C: And please explain how you pulled Buster Keaton into all of this exploration!
CS: Actually Buster Keaton was not officially associated with The DEW Project but in an exhibition called Last Train I curated here in Dawson City celebrating the death of Martin Kippenberger’s Dawson City Metro-Net.
The Keaton film is the first example I know of of creating a technological wormhole between an urban centre and the remote arctic by way of a comedic sketch of Keaton walking out of a Subway Exit in the middle of a snowfield.
It’s interesting you bring up this work as the image of the subway exit and documentation of the DEW project are somewhat similar—a symbolic architecture out-of-place. The irony of course is that while Keaton was commuting into the Arctic, I was transmitting out! But I sure wish there was an MTA subway stop in my neighbourhood; it would make catching the L-train a lot easier.