Willona Sloan, curator & managing editor for Black Coffee & Vinyl Presents: Ice Culture. Interview with Gudrun Filipska.
Firstly, I really enjoyed the ICE CULTURE project and the publication. Have you always had an interest in the polar regions? What instigated the project?
Thank you so much! I have not always had an interest in the polar regions, and my interest in the topic came about only a few years ago. I live in Washington, DC, which does have snow and cold winters, but every year I become extremely upset by cold weather. It wasn’t until I did an artist residency in the Canadian Rockies at the Banff Centre for the Arts that I became remotely interested in the topic. I went in 2013, and then did a second residency there in 2014. That second time, I decided to take a day trip to the Athabasca Glacier, which is part of the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies.
That trip blew my mind, because I had never been interested in glaciers before and I became mildly obsessed with them afterwards. I visited Iceland, and did some traveling around, and again I visited a glacier. After that, I was officially hooked on the idea of doing some sort of art project related to climate change, and specifically how it affects glaciers.
For the past couple of years, I had been sort of trying to figure out how to make the project work as an idea, but when I landed on the theme of “culture,” it started to make sense for me and I got really excited. The project wasn’t about climate change science, but rather people and culture. People are connected to places, and their cultures are informed by these places.
It started as a question: What would happen to the people and places connected to ice if the ice were to melt?
I really wanted to expand the discussion of climate change as a data-driven conversation or a political conversation. It’s also a personal narrative. I felt that offering narratives that are both informative and creative could be a good way to engage people in these serious environmental issues that affect all of us, regardless of where we live.
Ultimately, I plan to tackle three additional themes with the project, Black Coffee & Vinyl Presents. The next one will be the theme of “city.”
How did you select the artists, writers and musicians for the project? Was the selection process difficult?
I published an open call for submissions last winter (2018). I ran submissions through an online platform and I sent the call to all the people I had met through artist residencies, and I sent it to various artist residencies and asked them to pass it along, as well. I posted the call on social media and then started writing to arts and cultural organizations, scientific associations and any related groups I could find online. I sent the call to art schools in the Arctic region as well.
I wanted to represent as many countries as possible, and also ensure diverse voices were included. That meant that I had to cast the net as wide as possible to spread the word.
I didn’t think I would get many submissions so I made a list of artists and musicians I would like to interview or ask for their work. For example, I went back to Iceland for the third time in March 2018, and I took a city walking tour with Ívar Pétur Kjartansson. It was a great way to see the city, and the focus was on art, culture and food. I asked him to consider doing the DJ mix for the project. He’s a DJ, drummer and glacier guide, so it was perfect. So, I did things like that.
In the end, I wanted to include work from only 20 artists. I ended up getting submissions from about 425 artists, and they were able to submit up to three works that I would consider individually.
My selection criteria was artistic quality first. I wanted it to be an art project first and foremost. The selection process was difficult because I had to make some really tough choices. Because I wanted to pay the artists a small honorarium, and because we did a print magazine as well, I really had to hold myself to the set number of works. I think doing so made the project stronger, but I had to exclude some work that I really loved.
There are obviously balances to be struck between environmental implications of travel and the idea that artists and researchers should 'bear witness' to climate change first hand. Do you have any thoughts on these dualities?
Yes, that’s a really good point. Some places affected by climate change are fragile or are in danger of being overwhelmed by tourists, but there are safe and ethical ways that artists and researchers can visit places being affected by climate change in order bear witness.
For example, I am really happy that I was able to speak with the artist residencies in Arctic Circle and Antarctica because for people who want to make those journeys, those are two safe ways to do so and the work that is produced will further aid research and education efforts.
I think artists and researchers have to go to the ends of the earth and bring back the stories and the images and make people aware of things they may never see with their own eyes – it is important. Art changes people’s perceptions, and it’s a great tool for persuasion.
I also think that we as publishers, curators, journalists, and activists, should prioritize the voices of locals who live and experience these places and see how they are changing year after year. I think that is equally important because the perspective of an outsider is going to be different than that of the local.
The theme of 'testament' seems to come through strongly in the work chosen for the project – artists travelling on often dangerous journeys - as in Keith Lyons 'Riddles and Answers in the Ice'. From a writer's perspective, how important do you think the devices of narrative and storytelling from those experiencing the Polar regions are in raising issues around climate change and ice melt for the public?
I am prejudiced because I am a writer, but I believe narrative storytelling and creative writing are the most effective ways to communicate the realities of the climate crisis. So many people do not understand the science and even when it’s explained we don’t get it. But, when you read Vivian Faith Prescott’s testament about how the landscape around her is changing, that gets my attention. Her poems express a deep fear about how these changes will alter a way of life, a culture, and the place she calls home.
That type of personal perspective is so powerful. It’s more powerful than slogans, and for me, personal stories are more impactful than scientific studies.
I wanted to include scientific information in a personal way. With Keith Lyons’ essay, I was really pleased to have that work because not only does he break down the science, he also offers a sense of levity and humor. What an amazing experience to be able to travel to Antarctica. Until I had read his essay, I had not thought of the continent as such a mysterious and special place.
How valuable to you think collaborations between artists/writers and scientists are in relation to the public’s understanding of climate change – Im thinking of programmes such as Antarctic Artist and Writers Program or the Arctic Circle Residency?
I think these types of collaborations can be really beneficial, and I am starting to read about them more often. For several of the artists who submitted work, they had done these types of collaborations or expeditions on scientific missions and that type of thing.
It is going to take addressing these issues from multiple perspectives – both the scientific and the artistic – in order to really move people towards action. For both of the residency programs you mentioned, part of their missions is to have the participants bring their experiences back to the rest of the world and to translate the science into something personal, creative and inspiring.
I am completely immersed in Ívar Pétur Kjartansson's Music for a Glacier , Pop culture is not often inserted into these dialogues around Ice/climate change but it seems possible to be a really powerful tool....?
Thank you! Music for a Glacier is so wonderful. As I mentioned, I met Ívar in Reykjavik, but he is also a guide at an attraction that is an ice cave at Langjökull, which is the second largest glacier in Iceland. As such, he created his mix around the feeling and atmosphere of being alone at Langjökull.
I took that ice cave tour (with a different tour guide), and I felt both terrified and mystified the whole time. The landscape is desolate and unforgiving, but I had also the strangest sense of calm there. It was also super scary and eerie. I remember thinking how vast the glacier was, and also how dangerous.
Ívar explains the songs that he chose for the mix in his notes, and in particular, I love the experimental and electronic songs because they fit so well with the landscape. It’s weirdly electric up there.
From a curatorial standpoint, I was thinking of this work as a fun piece for the project that was purely on the “culture” side. It has been the thing that has drawn the most visitors to the website. I think for people who love glaciers and nature, they must get something special out of it. For people who just love music, it’s a really solid mix! It’s meditative and beautiful. Pop culture isn’t often part of these climate change projects, but I think that’s a missed opportunity.
Parts of Antarctica are as mysterious to us as outer space – there are great swathes of land where no one has ever set foot before (no researchers, artists or scientists anyway) as I write this there is a team of scientists from Manchester University riding over un -charted terrain with a giant magnet looking for ancient meteors ... is there some thing about this mystery and 'otherworldliness' that appeals to artists do you think? I wonder if also the fantasy artists may have when visiting may also hold dangers, the overlooking of the everyday experiences of those who live there for example?
If so, do you think it may also be difficult to reconcile the impressions visiting artists give of polar regions with the experiences of indigenous artists living there? I am thinking of the experience of a place which may be generational – as in the poetry of Vivian Faith Prescott – in contrast to the perspectives of visiting artists and researchers?
Thank you for this question. To answer the second part first, yes, I think that indigenous artists, researchers, activists and community members, are often overlooked in the climate change conversation. A visiting artist or researcher, or even tourist, may have the best intentions, but will not understand the full picture. It’s the people who have seen the earth around their homes erode, or have experienced catastrophic weather, or lost traditional ways of life, or lost jobs, or seen wildlife that they hunted for sustenance disappear – those are the people whose stories should carry the most weight.
Regarding Antarctica, it is one of the planet’s final frontiers, and I think that makes it ripe for storytelling, but you really, really need to be sure that you want to go down there to make art. Once they drop you off, you have to stay.
I knew a guy years ago, who used to go to Antarctica for a few months every year and he would be down there jamming and recording music. He talked about Antarctica with this far-off gleam in his eye. I thought that was the most insane thing I had ever heard, but it kind of makes sense. You can see things and experience things like nowhere else on the planet. And, you can see the curvature of the earth.
Yes, Antarctica is an extremely perilous place and it’s a lonely place. So, that’s the downside. But artists like a challenge! It’s supposed to be absolutely magical.
Thankyou to Willona Sloane, Black Coffee and Vinyl and the artists involved in the project for use of their images.
You can buy a copy of Iceculture here.