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Nowhere special

What does Alex Hartley's island art teach us?

Philip Strange 28 November 2011

Uncharted: Nyskjæret is still not on the map

I am a great believer in the possibility of art to influence science and vice versa. Scientists who are exposed to the work of artists, of whatever kind, may be inspired by the creativity they see

In 2004, the artist Alex Hartley discovered a new island in the arctic archipelago of Svalbard about 500 miles off the coast of Norway. The island, about the size of a soccer pitch, had been revealed by a glacier melting in response to climate change. Hartley’s discovery was made while he was part of an expedition of artists and scientists organised by Cape Farewell, a group that aims to provide a cultural response to global warming. Hartley originally called the island Nymark (Norwegian for “new ground”) but it was given the official name of Nyskjæret and has since become the subject of a major art/science project for Hartley.

Inspired by the discovery, Hartley produced a large wall exhibit, called Nymark, containing framed rock samples, letters, maps, photos and other documentation on the finding. This was exhibited as part of the exhibition “Cape Farewell – Art and Climate Change” at the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool in 2006 and as part of a cross-cultural arts/science project called “Exploratory Laboratory” at the Bridport Arts Centre in 2010.

The project has now taken on much greater significance, as Hartley is the artist for the South West in the “Artists Taking the Lead” section of London’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012. His project, now called Nowhereisland, was awarded £500,000. Its first phase involved an expedition to Nyskjæret with a group of sixteen “thinkers” – artists, writers, students and academics. The group collected six tonnes of material from the island and brought it back to the UK, where it will be fashioned into a floating replica of Nyskjæret and towed round the south coast of England, reaching Weymouth to coincide with the Olympic sailing events. The material will be returned to Nyskjæret at the end of the project.

Nowhereisland was declared a new nation on September 20th 2011. Anyone can become a citizen, and these number more than 3700 at the time of writing. The project includes the Nowhereisland Embassy which is part web site and part travelling museum, which will be sited on land near the island when it is moored. It is hoped that many will visit the museum to learn about the aims of the project and to debate the issues. So, what are the aims of Nowhereisland? On Hartley’s web site these are stated clearly: to “expand people’s view of what art is; to explore sense of place; to address the most significant global issue of our time: namely how can we respond to the urgent issue of climate change together.” On the project web site, the aims are more focussed on exploring the idea of a nation state.

The debate about the issues behind the project began on the expedition when the sixteen voyagers were asked to contribute to discussions about the implications of forming a new nation. In particular they were asked to consider how they would begin if they started a new nation from first principles given the current failure of nation states to address important global issues. The voyagers also experienced the effects of global warming first hand. The project has additionally engaged seven communities in the South West of England where it is hoped to reach a quarter of a million people. Five schools in the South West are using the project to teach citizenship, geography and politics.

What are we to make of all this? The response to the project so far has not been positive, and Hartley has managed to achieve the unusual feat of uniting the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Taxpayer’s Alliance in a common condemnation. Will Gompertz, the BBC’s Arts Editor, speaking on the Today programme, described the project as “quirky but quite fun” – not a ringing endorsement for a project with serious aims. Hartley himself is quoted as referring to the project being “absurd”.

I am a great believer in the possibility of art to influence science and vice versa. Scientists who are exposed to the work of artists, of whatever kind, may be inspired by the creativity they see. This may influence their own work, how it is planned, how it is presented and their understanding of how it relates to society. Sometimes art can help scientists to see their work differently. It is said that Harry Kroto’s knowledge of the work of the designer Buckminster Fuller helped him see the structures of the new molecules he created, later christened buckminsterfullerenes. Fleming used to “paint” with bacteria and it has been suggested that this helped him to recognise the unexpected effects of the penicillin mould on his Petri dishes

Artists have also been influenced by developments in science. Landscape painters in the early 19th century were influenced by contemporary scientific developments to produce more realistic depictions of nature. At the same time, advances in chemistry provided new pigments that transformed artists’ palettes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was partly a response to the 19th century debate over vitalism. In the 20th century, Salvador Dali was extensively influenced by science and one of his paintings even includes a double helix (“Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid”, 1963). Cross-cultural art/science projects provide opportunities to explore the place of science in society as well as providing better public understanding of difficult scientific concepts. The Wellcome Trust, a major British medical charity, has championed this approach and encourages art/science projects in the visual arts, theatre and film.

In Nowhereisland, Hartley has put together what should be a major art/science project. It is also a political one as it is trying to use the visual arts to make a political statement about nationhood and climate change to challenge people’s ideas and perhaps change their behaviour. Communities and schools are getting involved in order to widen the influence of the work. For all of these reasons, Hartley should be applauded for his vision and energy. It is a pity, therefore, that the science aspect of the project feels rather weak. On the expedition, very few of the voyagers had any serious scientific credentials. It doesn’t feel like Hartley tried hard enough to include scientists; it would have strengthened the project if, for example, scientists and particularly a practising climate scientist had been involved. Perhaps it is very difficult to lure scientists out of their labs to participate in this sort of project, but there seems no shortage of scientists willing to participate in Wellcome Trust art/science programmes. I am also uneasy about the project plan; it feels self-indulgent. The project is designed to engender reflection on climate change, which is a very laudable aim. So was it really necessary to desecrate the island by removing material and transporting it back to the UK to make the sculpture? Surely a replica would have made the point just as clearly. How much fossil fuel was used to fly the “thinkers” to the Arctic and ferry them around the island on the expedition and how much did that contribute to climate change?

These concerns put a considerable onus on the project to achieve its aims, especially given the costs involved. So what impact might we expect? The popular response has so far been poor, suggesting that the project may not capture the imagination. Critics have questioned the money being spent during financially straightened times. The writer Laurie Penny took part in the expedition and addressed some of the concerns about costs on her blog: “….if we can’t collectively subsidise artists to imagine new worlds for us, we have no business speaking of social progress”. Tamsin Omond, a climate activist and another of those on the expedition, described her view of success in a video on the project web site. She feels that the project will be judged a success or failure by how much people engage. In her view, success requires people to visit the travelling Embassy sited near the moored island to look at the information, speak with the representatives and engage with the project issues. The current interest in alternative ways of organising society represented by the Occupy movement may also stimulate people to visit the Embassy to see what alternative strategies the Nowhereisland project has come up with.

An important lesson that emerges from considering Nowhereisland is that putting together good arts/science projects is very difficult. A good project will have clearly defined aims and will encourage engagement, understanding, enthusiasm and humility from both sides. Artists may find the world of science very difficult to understand and to penetrate and may need help to locate and involve scientists. Scientists may be so focussed on their research that they may not even see the value of these projects, and may need encouragement.