From 26.8.2023 to 16.9.2023, I had the pleasure and huge privilege to be an artist in residence at the Biological Station in Kilpisjärvi for the Kilpisjärvi Science trails project of the University of Helsinki. This text is about impacting, the second of three blog entries about my time in Kilpisjärvi. Read about Revisiting Microworlds and livecoding in the first post, and Station activities and planned further work in the third post.
Impacting, or the wicked interrelations of Reindeer, their grazing patterns, and international relations
Because of the scarcity of the land, Kilpisjärvi is a good place to witness, how various factors and stakeholders — no matter if human or non-human, current, historic or contemporary, cultural or natural (sic!) — and their interests and slowly but steadily collide into each other.
From scientific observations, it is evident that the current practice of reindeer herding in this area is significantly and negatively impacting the vegetation. Since centuries, it was practice by Sámi people to follow/guide the reindeer herd in their migration from Tundra to Arctic ocean. But the agreement on borders between Norway, Sweden and Finland and the subsequently built fences between the nation states hinder the traditional migration process since they were established.
Instead, reindeers are kept in relatively small compartments of land. The region around Kilpisjärvi is one of those. The resulting all-year-round grazing of reindeers in this region has the effect that there are, among other things, no young birch trees around since they are eaten by reindeers. In a way, this is a direct consequence of the fences. Continuing this behaviour would mean that the land around Kilpisjärvi will change its face and will loose yet another species and their dependants.
This, however, does not mean that there should not be any reindeers here, or that it is the fault of the reindeer herders or the Sámi people. They are not the ones that put the fence between Norway and Finland in the first place but they are the ones suffering from its existence.
Isn’t it strange that a political decision, namely to introduce nation states, dictates the migration patterns of large mammals by the manifestation of fences and hence creates an unsustainable behaviour in a once well-balanced ecosystem of semi-domesticated reindeer husbandry and its environment, a dynamic equilibrium of flora, fauna and culture in this area?
And all this is known since a long time, yet, it seems to be difficult to do something about it. The reasons for this can be found in apparent political irrelevance of reindeer husbandry and Sámi people, but also in interests and active lobbying for tourists and related fields of work. This and related thoughts led me to invent (?) an idiom.
impacting [noun]: to have an (active) impact on sth.
- See you later, I have impacting to do.
- Today, I impacted the trail.
While recovering next to a creek from hiking, I got annoyed by a less-pleasant gurgling of the stream next to me. I found some stones and slightly altered the flow of water with the goal to change the sound of the stream. I was quite sufficient with my first attempt at one spot.
The second spot, however, was much more difficult. I added stone after stone, starting to make it an engineering task, assuming a certain behaviour of the water and almost fell into the water balancing on a loose rock. All three rocks you see in the photo below have been added to the stream by me, yet the sound did not get better.
This sonic engineering of a stream (A term coined by Joshua Rutter. Thank you!) was, in that moment, such a wonderful small-scale example of fixing-breaking and creating a Wicked Problem from nothing and, actually, for nothing, really. I had to turn it into an artwork.
Video production of Impacting Water.
Related but different: Very early in the residency, actually already back in 2019, I was fascinated with the impact of infrastructure in the Kilpisjärvi environment. This theme struck again during my time now and it surfaced in the photos I took and the sounds I captured.
I asked myself
- What is infrastructure?
- Is there non-human infrastructure?
- How does the (change in) availability of infrastructure shape our everyday acts?
In my current interpretation, infrastructure consists of structures that support the supply of something of everyday value such as healthcare, (waste-/drinking-)water, electricity, communication, waste management, transport and logistics of goods, or housing. Infrastructure consists of artefacts intended for the purpose of continuous and unobtrusive supply. Infrastructure therefore exists within a context, and it tends to be made invisible, or we think of it as invisible.
An ICOS tower will be erected on Saana fell, probably next year (2024) in summer. ICOS stands for Integrated Carbon Observation System and is a standardised measurement system to monitor relevant greenhouse gases such as Carbon dioxide, Methane, or Ozone. Against my fears, it will not be higher than 4 meters, so not so much of an obstruction there. However, this will be quite a change (again) to that environment and its inhabitants.
I wonder what artefacts of human infrastructure look in the eyes (ears?) of our non-human co-habitants. Those artefacts may be obstacles, death-traps, dwelling places, or simply nothing of interest, really.
Kilpisjärvi biological station will be an associate of the ICOS program, not a partner, which means that they will not have a full-fledged station here, but for now only a tower. The requirements for the tower are that it should be at least 2 meters above the highest tree in that vicinity, which means that it will be approximately 4 meters high.
How will it affect those that live on the fell? How will it affect those that come to live on the fell next to it?
The ICOS tower will be on the Saana Fell, because it requires a relatively undisturbed wind situation, so it needs a flat surface and not so much of ground-level air turbulence.
The place where the ICOS tower will be located. Note the reindeer and the rainbow. It must be a wonderful place for a tower.
I stumbled upon an anthill. It was surprising because it wasn’t located near the road but rather on the fell. The structural knowledge of ants (and ant hills) intrigues me. How do they coordinate? Is there failure? How does the anthill and its inhabitants relate to the outside?
You see it? it is in the center of the photo.
Huts at Retkeilykeskus
Retkeilykeskus (Finnish for camping/hiking center) is a weird place that is mainly occupied by small makeshift huts of Norwegians which come to Kilpisjärvi for fishing and/or motor-skiing. Each hut is basically an extension of a caravan or mobile home and has an airlock of sorts. If the mobile home is not there, the airlock is sealed by a plywood board.
Makeshift huts at Retkeilykeskus. If the hut is infrastructure* then the airlock is its interface.*
Dynamic field recording
One of the findings of this residency was that I am indeed able to do dynamic field recordings.
Here is the backstory:
Somehow I never worked with a boom pole. I had a really bad first experience with it. I bought all the equipment. A portable recorder, an XY stereo microphone without any kind of wind protection, and a boom pole. The latter was very heavy, it was the cheapest I could find and at the same time the most I wanted to (and could) afford.
First thing I did was try the setup in the local forest and… failed miserably. The recordings were unusable because of shaking and wind noises. I never did that again until I saw this one photo on facebook the other day in which a fellow field recordist posed with a boom pole stuck into a crevasse.
I realised that I can attach the recorder to my hiking pants so I don’t have to hold it in my hands.
I realised that it is possible to detach the pole from the Manfrotto tripod I carry around and I tried just that to create a stable position for the microphone setup that I can swing around to get really close to all kinds of sounds and acoustic niceties.
Self-portrait with boom pole.
One of my intentions for this residency was to create content that undermines the notion of “beautiful nature”, the romantic image we tend associate with the kind of landscape that surrounds Kilpisjärvi.
One element by which I convey information in my artworks and which thus has an inherent aesthetic layer is photography. Within the microworlds project, it was my intention to take portraits of the non-human inhabitants of these places. I wanted to create a narrative that is less romantic but shows a matter-of-fact-like view on the actions and environments of the (non-human, small-scale, vegetal) people of the Kilpisjärvi area. I wanted them to be portraits of places and interactants, a little like the famous worker portraits and photos of places of Walker Evans.
A portrait of a dweller at Crevice next to Waterfall.
Also, I guess, I am intrigued by the aesthetics of a prototypical romantic utility for painters in the pre-photography era, the Claude glass. It is a piece of polished obsidian that one can use as a mirror to look at scenery, as if it would be painted.
Another portrait of a community next to Stone Creek.
I also experimented with microscopy. This was inspired by Maija and Anu from the station’s field team who invited me to take plankton samples from Kilpisjärvi (lake). After successful sampling on one of the test fishing trips (see below), I spent hours in the lab searching and photographing critters.
Microscopy of zoo-plankton sampled from Kilpisjärvi (lake).
Later in the residency, I took up the process and I collected samples from two microworlds: Rock and Water and Moss and Water.
Photo of plankton collected at Moss and Water.
All in all, the last three weeks were a wonderful experience with lots of encounters with human as well as non-human entities. I was happy to find so friendly and helpful people here. My special gratitude goes to my housemate Susanna, who is responsible for the cleaning at the station. Her friendliness and heartiness combined with the Finnish attitude to give space spread a wonderful atmosphere over my stay. Her cakes were the best.
Additionally, I’d like to thank the rest of the house crew for their moral and concrete support; there was always a smile to exchange, namely Kalevi Laurila (caretaker), and Mervi Haapala (kitchen staff) and crew.
Writing wrap-up reports is hard.
Furthermore, I would like to thank Silja Veikkolainen (field team intern) for her patience by which she endured my strange questions, Maija-Susanna Sujala (field team) for her pro-active support in my field research babysteps, Hannu Autto (service coordinator) for his networking support and general friendlyness, Oula Kalttopää (field team) for his practicality and helpfulness, Anu Ruohomäki (research coordinator) for her curiosity and lifeliness, Julia Kemppinen and Pekka Niittynen (geographers) for their openness and honesty, and Pirjo Hakala (station manager) for always making the impossible possible.
Apart from the direct contact to people related to the biological station, I was very happy to receive support and valuable insights into how to live and work in Kilpisjärvi by nature photographer Merja Paakanen. Particular thanks go of course to Leena and Oula Valkeapää without whom I would never even had the chance to begin to grasp the many layers of political and (other-than-)human influences involved in the region.
From the Bioart society, I would like to especially thank Maija Fox (former intern and helping hand), Lisa Kalkowski (producer), Milla Millasnoore (communications), Piritta Puhto (managing director), Erich Berger (former director), and Yvonne Billimore (current artistic director), I cannot stress enough, how valuable their work is in general, and how much help they are in terms of producing residencies and activities related to the Bioart Society in general. You are awesome.
From the team of the Kilpisjärvi Science Trails project, I would like to thank Ditte Taipale and Sini Bäckström for their remote support and general friendlyness and helpfulness. It was very nice working with you on this project and I am grateful for the trust you had in me and my artworks.
Finally, I would like to thank Anu Pasanen who thankfully drove me from Rovaniemi up to Kilpisjärvi, Mila Moisio, without whom I would have never even have known about Kilpisjärvi in the first place, and Anja Riese for her unconditional support and general wonderfulness.