Illusion Machines at Kilpisjärvi
posted by Milla Millasnoore on 1 July 2024

The following text is written by Neal Cahoon (FI), who was in The North Escaping residency in April-May 2024 with working group consisting of Espen Sommer Eide (NO), Erik Fallgren (NO), Anne Lindgaard Møller (NO), Hilde Methi (NO).

The starting point for our residency had been to try to follow and attune to the seasons, and to think quite broadly about phenomena such as mobility and relationality with the rest of nature within this seasonality. More concretely Hilde and I were interested in following up some curatorial threads left over from when we were working together during the 2019 edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival, when the topic of tourism was one of five curatorial arms we were thinking through – especially the birth of tourism as we know it in the North, and the relationship tourism has to art and to the art world.

Back then, we had heard about the landscape painters Joseph Krieger and Johann Adalbert Heine who were commissioned to create an enormous 360 degree rotunda painting in Berlin in the late 1800s, where people from the city could “experience” the beauty of the Northern Lofoten landscape. After royal visits from the king of Sweden and others, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany who was so impressed with the artwork that he organised a sailing trip to the place where it was painted in Digermulen in order to see it with his own eyes. Scholar Ortrun Veichtlbauer subsequently described this rotunda as an “illusion machine” and the term has stuck with us. Parallels can be drawn to the effect of social media on tourist visitor numbers in certain landscapes in the contemporary moment, as well as, tangentially, to the popularising of ideas like the Simulation Hypothesis, which is perhaps now being taken more seriously again with the current accelerations in AI. As the residency was approaching, we were realising that the question of “what is the illusion machine of today?” was perhaps missing the point. Rather, “what isn’t an illusion machine?” seems more apt. But how do we get close to answering this?

Another context I was bringing with me was that I am now part of a research group called Intraliving in the Anthropocene at the University of Lapland where “proximity” is being used as a method to think through ideas of closeness with other species, and to inform the tourism industry of alternative ways of engaging with the rest of nature in less human-centric ways, and more in the direction of reciprocal actions. I have therefore been thinking a lot about some of the perhaps uncomfortable resonances between the tourism industry and the art world from some perspectives, including the approaches of artists visiting “distant” northern places, and the responses they might have when experiencing these localities. Where is it that ethics and aesthetics meet in these situations? What separates the tourist from the artist-tourist? What kind of exchanges occur in a place like Gilbbesjávri?

Research, and the very act of researching is also present in these conversations. What types of methodologies do we use at a Biological Station? What are the findings, and how do we acquire them? Why here, specifically? And how has this changed over time? Quantitative, Qualitative, Post-Qualitative, Artistic and Practice Research. From the study on and about phenomena, to approaches “with” phenomena. Now I am asking the question with which with? All of these relational questions seem important to raise.

These were some starting points, but the nature of working in terms of praxis, we would follow what emerged in the process of getting to know the surroundings in small incremental ways. We explored the fells on skis, tried our luck with ice fishing – scavenging for ice holes drilled by others and breaking them open again with our ski poles. We witnessed from the sidelines the Kilpisjärvi fishing festival “Vain kaksi kalaa” (Only two fish), where the lottery of prizes such as snow scooters made up for the lack of success for those who were fishing. We listened to the dawn chorus at 03:00, contributing to the Northern hemisphere’s Dawn Chorus Day online streaming event. We overheard the contents of a seminar where the delegates and presenters were arguing for a new railway line that would run through Finland to Troms. These dystopian imaginaries led me to think of the Biological Station in another 60 years' time, now existing as Finland’s northernmost railway station…and I have started writing that radioplay.

Most of all we got to know the ice on the lake itself, and the atmosphere below the ice, intra-acting through the fishing holes with our technologies. With an underwater camera we saw the phytoplankton as their collective bodies composed a great green canvas, helping us gain the perspective (we assume) of the communities who sense from below. We listened too with hydrophones to the ice squeaking and stretching, to the snow scooter traffic from great distances, to the sound of ourselves using skis above. We built an ice instrument from materials we had found, we heard it play in the wind, and we disassembled it again. We read from lists of local species in multiple languages, and from the scientific posters in the station. We built a sculpture, observed it in its surroundings, and took it down again. We were part of the changing seasons, out of the spring-winter and into the spring, summer not far away. We went out on the ice, to the middle of the lake to write together about things concrete – to write sheltering from the wind, or to write facing it. To try to write without adjectives. To write haiku.

Ski tracks to Sweden,
A few days old and faded,
One bird in the sky.

Neal Cahoon works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lapland as part of the MESH Profi-7 project which is funded by the Research Council of Finland. He is currently working on a monograph and poetry collection that explores the poetics and politics of the preposition “with”.