Tracing the Land

Alice Smits

Last September I was one of the participants of Field_Notes: Ecology of Senses, an art and science field laboratory organized by the Bioart Society at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in sub-Arctic Lapland in the north of Finland. As a curator and researcher of site-specific practices around art and ecology, I was particularly interested in learning and experimenting with new methodologies of fieldwork that would arise from the exchange between artists and scientists. Being foremost an observer, I joined the “Second Order” group convened by Hannah Rogers (also the editor of this series for Art Journal Open). The group’s members infiltrated the other groups as researchers reflecting on approaches to embodied learning and environmental sensing. I went equipped with a small video camera, with the goal of expressing myself in a language I am less familiar with, that of video documentation.

Below I include some of the sounds and images of my experiment in documenting both our field research activities and the voice of the land to which we responded. My short video, which I titled Tracing the Land, features some of the people who participated in the Field_Notes residency. We watch them in various activities through which they try to tune into their environment: through voice experiments, using technological extensions to pick up electromagnetic waves or taking bird’s-view images by flying drones, through listening and recording, reading texts, and discussing. We also encounter the land and some of the creatures that inhabit it in various ways of framing, offering the viewer a different level into the materiality and voicing of the environment itself.

Following are some reflections that I wrote during my experiences of “tracing the land” of Kilpisjärvi with my fellow travelers, be they people or other living and nonliving entities. I intend for these words and images to instill within you some of the feelings, sounds, visions, smells, and tastes of our exploration.

The chief value of Field_Notes, for me, was found in the generosity and openness of the program, allowing for free experimentation and exchange with a group of people in a fascinating environment (though all the while realizing the lack of enough connection to the culture and history of the community that inhabits it). Though we were all from different cultures and backgrounds in arts and sciences, we had one thing in common: we wanted to understand better how to learn and connect with all our senses to the world around us.

Nature writing has often been about humans reflecting on what they see from six feet above the ground, bringing along representations and symbols to make sense of a place. But what is the sensing in sense-making? In Kilpisjärvi, we roamed around for eight days in the tundra, bending our gaze low at micro scale with attentiveness to the realm of “cryptozoa”—critters unseen and hidden—and to the macro scale of the clouds and skies above us and everything animate and inanimate, visible and invisible, in between.

Stories of reindeer were with us all the time—part of the land and part of the lives of the locals we talked to—with their shifting of minds as they adapt to the seasons, guiding us as we set foot in strange lands. On the first day, we tried to be a herd, to submit our individuality to the consciousness of a group. While we walked silently as the stones cracked beneath our feet, always being sensitive to each other and our environment, always looking out, sensing the other, we became more aware that the space around us was not empty.

So landscape, as a space that is laid out in front of us for only our gaze to dwell in, became land, where our bodies met with the wet mud and hard rocks. As we were made to understand by a local, stories are only told by those who stay inside; those who are with the land have no time for stories. On the second day, we crawled like slime mold in the dirt, eyes cast downward to the earth, fingers grasping, backs touching, imagining ourselves as a collective intelligence, twisting and turning together, breaking up and coming back together. We tried to be fluid. Later in the week, somebody proposed the term “enlichenment.”

We invented new languages, bending words to allow us to feel and think differently: to disorient, rewire ourselves, to leave our fixed patterns and follow new paths to explore what we are capable of. “One being’s signal is another being’s noise,” somebody quoted Jakob von Uexküll, who proposed the term Umwelt for describing each person’s subjective sensory world. We tried to hear and feel all the noises as well as we could, and added our own, not sure who was listening. They might have been there …

We used all sorts of gadgets to sense the world better. Reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light, to allow them to see things in the glowing white of snow; we use black lights to see what they see. We wired ourselves, grew antennas to pick up electromagnetic waves, flew drones to see from up high, explored our technological bodies to sense beyond what our bodies are capable of. We took samples—lots of samples, while we straddled the land—and put them under microscopes to see things that otherwise remain invisible. We dug into the earth, tried to imagine the passing of time for the rocks, and listened long and attentively to the rumbling of water underneath.

We were thirty-eight artists, designers, biologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, curators, writers, and researchers from many places in the world, coming together in the sub-Arctic region of Finland. Most of us flew out there to experiment with situated and embodied practices together, understanding what these can really mean when exploring the land, and questioned why fieldwork always was about working upon rather than being with the field. Equally we were redefining artwork as art that works in the world. Circling back and forth between experiences, narrations, impressions, memories, facts, and smells, we tried to open ourselves through all our senses and to voices other than our own. Yet we also worked and took samples wherever we went.

This time I did not go equipped with a pen and paper but a video camera to observe the processes and methods we experimented with, to approach the land as we spent our days roaming the tundra. I registered (tried to, at least) not only the images and sounds of my fellow explorers, but also those of the rocks, the lichen, the reindeer, the clouds passing, the horizon, and the earth under our feet. With my camera’s zoom, I focused closely on the edge of stones, shot right through the surface of the water to capture its touch upon the rocks, moved quickly to catch the roaring wind on the nearby Norwegian cliffs to then again fix a wide frame, moving from landscape to land and back again. The editing process allowed for a deeper experience of this circling back and forth between various layers of knowing and sensing, as I juxtaposed widely divergent images and timeframes. Using various camera techniques—wide shots, extreme close-ups, near abstraction through grainy, out-of-focus shots and erratic movement, and insertion of silent dream images—on top of literary quotations and spoken word, I tried to capture different approaches to and sensations of the land. This process resulted in a short observational video that captures some of the artistic practices of fieldwork and a cinematic experience of the voice of the land itself.

Modern science equaled rationality with its distanced gaze. We did not move into the irrational, but instead sought another basis for knowledge that is situated, of a place, recognizing our sensing bodies as organs that make sense. Thinking as practice is always part of the environment, focusing on the event, the specific rather than the general, allowing ourselves to listen, feel, smell, hear, and taste before passing judgment. It is this intimate attachment that brings a sense of care into the encounter and what Donna Haraway so beautifully calls response-ability: the ability to respond to that which is intrinsically alien yet related to us. We slowly realized that we are not moving through empty space but through one that is filled with life, and we imagined our entanglement with everything around us and the fluidity of our bodies.

There are also other things, the common, little things that mingle and cross as we stretch out, trying not to grasp. We also fail, all the time, but we keep searching, exploring, we fall and lay still to then move on, always moving, changing, transforming, learning how to move without direction and closure. We learned a lot.

These are the risks involved in trying to make sense of the world and the changing sense of self that appears in an effort to acknowledge entanglement, complexity, and complicity. The landscape in the Arctic is not silent. It is a slow landscape that retains traces of its past like scars on its surface. We now might be part of it too.

Alice Smits is the artistic director of Zone2Source, an exhibition platform for art, nature and technology in the Amstelpark, Amsterdam, and a researcher of contemporary land art practices and Anthropocene theory at Lectorate of Art and Public Space/Rietveld Academy Amsterdam