The Topicality of Cultural Heritage notes

Report – Online-Workshop Mediating the Arctic and the North. Contexts, Agents, Distribution 28th to 29th January 2021

Mette Tronvoll: Svalbard #20 C-print, 2014, courtesy of Mette Tronvoll,

In recent decades, the Arctic increasingly become a field of geopolitical and geoeconomic interests. Furthermore, the images of melting icebergs and polar bears swimming while searching for ice have become powerful and easy recognizable epitomes of environmental loss. Nevertheless, beyond the Scandinavian research landscape, the Arctic has only marginally been perceived as an object of research in the humanities.

An institutionally broad collaboration between the Nordic Institute and the department of Art and Visual History at the Humboldt University zu Berlin, and the research group WONA (Worlding Northern Art) at the University of Tromsø – Norway's Arctic University – took a step towards changing this with the workshop Mediating the Arctic and the North. Contexts, Agents, Distribution, which took place from 28th to 29th January 2021 as an online event. As the organisers Linn Burchert (Berlin), Marie-Therese Federhofer (Berlin) and Stephanie von Spreter (Tromsø) explained in their introduction, the aim was to introduce a new thematic focus by bringing together Norwegian and German researchers together in order to explore how image production in and about the Arctic could be researched with regard to colonial and ecological discourses.

The chosen approach of mediation did not only refer to a media, but, as mentioned in the title, also included questions of context, recontextualisation, agents and negotiation. The survey of topics and approaches was rather broad, including the early 19th-century photography as well as contemporary photography and exhibitions. The synopsis of the lectures emphasizes three issues:

1) How was landscape and indigenous populations "discovered" and represented, especially in early photography? To what extent are the photographs conditioned socio-culturally and what relationships between the photographer, the viewer and their mostly objectified, ethnologised indigenous people result from this? What stereotypes are being (re-)produced in those circumstances.

2) The second focus was set on the relationship between a cultural imagination of the Arctic and the profound interventions in the landscape through current mining.

3) This leads to a third point in which the role of the Arctic in the ongoing debates on the Anthropocene and climate change was discussed. In particular, the last two topics raised a question which has also been negotiated at the IFZO: How can landscapes as both objects and media of remembrance, preservation, and constant change can be seen as cultural heritage?

The first issue includes the presentations of works by artists like the Danish Emelie Demant Hatt who with her photographs and books about the Sami in Northern Sweden with the “ethnographic conventions” (Hanna Horsberg Hansen, Tromsø), or the first professional Greenlandic photographer John Møller who, on the one hand, fulfilled the then demand for ethnological photography of indigenous people which produced colonial relations of dominance, but, on the other, also created conventions which served establishing Greenlandic self-identity (Ingeborg Høvik, Tromsø). Furthermore, the complex oeuvre of Pia Arken was discussed whose biography is closely entangled with the Danish-Greenlandic process of colonisation which she emphatically addressed in her works along with the construction of gender identity (Stephanie von Spreter, Tromsø). The problem of how Sami culture is exhibited in museums was discussed on the example of the artist Iver Jåks who carried out an “indigenisation” of ethnographic objects (Hanne Hammer Stien, Tromsø).  All in all, the lectures showed that the focus on women artists in particular creates a shift in the perception of the Arctic which confronts the male-dominated explorer narrative and the associated documentary, ethnological image productions with other forms of negotiating cultures and self-identity.

Following papers touched upon the second issue of the cultural imagination of the Arctic: The lecture by Elisaveta Dvorakk (Berlin) on the works of the Swiss photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach showed the transition to the industrial perception of the North. By means of the socially critical photography of the 1930s, Schwarzenbach created a kind of counter-image to the myth of the Alps, which had also for a long time been decisive for the perception of the North and which was then increasingly appropriated by the National Socialists. Under the catchword “Black Arctic” – a quasi counter-image to the imaginings of the vast, white landscape of the North – the photography of mining and extraction was presented in the lecture by Elin Haugdal (Tromsø). She asked, among others, how the "restoration" of the landscape through the removal of all mining infrastructure contradicts the claims of a cultural heritage that places material preservation - also of forms of industrialisation - in the foreground. To what extent does the claim of becoming heritage collide here with the ideas of an untouched landscape deeply rooted in Romanticism? The artist Mette Tronvoll (Oslo) presented her own work which created a kind of link between the questions of heritage and landscape in terms of an archive of cultural practices and nature. The insights into her working methods illustrate that the artistic and scientific "discovery" and exploration of the circumpolar areas is undergoing environmental changes, but that economic exploitation is still constantly present. This statement was followed by presentations which focused more on ecological discourses and with it on the before mentioned third issue of the workshop. Maike Teubner (Nuremberg) discussed Tyrone Martinsson’s work on the Svalbard’s glacier. As though in an empirical series of experiments, the artist shows the shrinking of the glaciers by assembling old photographs and graphics with images of their present state. Teubner underlined that mediating the Arctic means mediating the climate change. The related question of staging the Arctic and its actors was finally presented by Linn Burchert (Berlin) based on the analysis of exhibitions which were discussed in relation to climate summits and other political events. This presentation showed the dubiousness of installations which include, for example, melting ice figures and blocks, and thus evoke emotions and imaginations which above all solidify stereotypes. 

Intended as a first overview, the workshop showed the discursive potential of the Arctic as a conceived idea as well as a space to rethink contemporary ecological as well as postcolonial discourses.


- Antje Kempe