Making Art in the Arctic Circle

Photographer Daniel Kukla is running a Kickstarter project for an Arctic Circle Residency (image courtesy of Daniel Kukla)
Photographer Daniel Kukla is running a Kickstarter campaign for an Arctic Circle residency (all images courtesy Daniel Kukla)

In recent years, more and more artists have found their way to the Arctic Circle, a landscape that inspires no shortage of fascinating work: see photographer Dornith Doherty’s documentation of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault or Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s dreamscapes in far northern Canada. But what is it really like to work in subzero temperatures, in a place where you might be sharing an outdoor studio with a reindeer, polar bear, or even a beluga whale? 

Brooklyn-based artist Daniel Kukla aims to find out. He’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign for an Arctic Circle residency on a ship in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, just 600 miles south of the North Pole. “I was told that in October the average daylight will shrink as rapidly as 30 minutes per day,” he told Hyperallergic, adding that he’ll probably be too excited to worry about the cold. “After this past winter in NYC, I’m ready!”

Svalbard is one of the few places in the Arctic where people can live year-round. For that reason, 14 international research stations are based there; scientists monitor the sea’s shrinking ice coverage, water temperature, and atmosphere. It’s an ideal place for Kukla to continue the photo-based explorations of climate change and environmental issues that he began with series like Glacial Rebound in Alaska and Oil Palm in Malaysia. 

An image from Daniel Kukla's 2012 series, The Edge Effect (image courtesy of Daniel Kukla)
Image from Daniel Kukla’s 2012 series ‘The Edge Effect’

“Landscapes are at the root of most of my work,” Kukla said. “I’ve always been interested in translating the vastness of them into a photograph or frame, which is usually impossible because the vastness of the landscape usually consumes the frame held to it.”

So what does an Arctic Circle residency actually look like? Kukla said he will live in close quarters with about 19 other artists, scientists, and researchers — a big change from the cabin he inhabited at Joshua Tree National Park while working on The Edge Effect. The group will sail to different destinations in the area, disembarking to hike, kayak, and collaborate on site-specific projects.

An image from Daniel Kukla’s 2012 series ‘The Edge Effect’

“I’m sure we will be constantly bouncing ideas around and helping each other with projects,” Kukla said of his future shipmates. “I think there is this assumption that artists and scientists have dramatically different thought processes, but from my experience I have found that both professions are driven by creativity and curiosity.”

Kukla himself studied biology and evolutionary ecology in college before enrolling in a photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography. For him, preparing for the trip means hunkering down with academic articles about climate change, though they can be disheartening. “Action regarding climate change at a global level is for the most part a stalemate and what is moving forward is happening far too slowly,” Kukla said. 

The idea that art could be a more powerful way of provoking public discourse — explored extensively by Edward Morris and Susannah Sayler at the Canary Project — is precisely why Kukla wants to go to Svalbard. As an example of artists working provocatively in this vein, he points to Akroyd & Harvey’s “Polar Diamond,” a work in which the duo reduced a polar bear bone to carbon and created a diamond from it as a way to talk about the declining polar bear population. 

“While it is hard to say if something like this advances the conversation in climate change, I certainly think that projects like this steer the conversation away from the typical doom and gloom approach and can potentially help people understand the mechanisms at work and talk about them in a different way,” he said. 

Daniel Kukla’s is fundraising on Kickstarter through July 12.

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