At least, we all live with the Arctic, since what happens in the Arctic – and the Antarctic – affects every other part of the globe, and vice versa. Melting sea ice brings changing weather patterns; ocean temperatures and currents are shifting, with fish and other sea life following them, changing the availability of food not just for people but for marine life generally. Environmental campaigners have long used images of the Arctic – icebergs, polar bears, arctic foxes and other wildlife – to raise awareness about climate change and embody the threat from greenhouse effects. But how do these images circulate and what do they mean for people living in the European Arctic regions in particular?
Some campaigns have specifically set out to bring artists and journalists on polar cruises, to see the Arctic for themselves and communicate their impressions more widely back home. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand cruises like these as a form of tourism. In this context, Arctic Encounters sets out to compare travel writing and images of the Arctic with the practices of tourism in the region from the perspective of those directly engaged with it. But of course this begs at least two important question. The first is, what is the Arctic? There are, of course, various definitions, from geographic ones (above 66 degrees north, for example) to botanical ones (beyond the tree zone) and meteorological definitions (average summer daily temperatures under 10 degrees celsius). But there are also conflicting political definitions, such as the High North (an equally imprecise Norwegian concept); Arctic states are usually defined as those bordering the Arctic Ocean, yet many states now have Arctic policies, as does the EU. It’s worth remembering that unlike Antarctica, which is a large land mass, the Arctic is an ice-mass. Most of these definitions melt into the general mush of Arctic images and hyperbole that circulate around tourism. These tend to follow one or two well worn narratives, with polar exploration discourses on the one hand – the harsh frozen wilderness – and ecological discourses on the other – pristine environments, wild animals and (common to both) landscapes empty of human presence.
In fact what unites these is the very concept of the Arctic as a region. The term does something similar to terms like ‘Africa’ or ‘Asia’, in suggesting a unifying theme, whereas it is largely the term and the idea of a continent that offers unity to an otherwise bewildering diversity. The label ‘Arctic’ has recently been seized upon in all sorts of contexts, and has become a convenient vehicle for political manoeuvring (and from here on, please assume these labels are appearing in scare quotes). Suddenly the northernmost university in Norway acquired the name ‘the Arctic University of Norway‘. The point is not that the merger between the University of Tromsø and Finnmark college meant that a new name had to be found, but that the name chosen emphasises the idea of the Arctic as a meaningful place, reinforcing the sense that the label has significance, and, of course, tying the university strategically to increasing political interest in the region.
A recent exhibition, simply called ‘Arctic‘ (or Arktis in Danish) at Louisiana contemporary art museum in Denmark reminded visitors of the dominant images that made the Arctic make sense for Europeans and Americans. Displaying images of the sublime in ice-floes, and objects and images from polar expeditions alongside scientific reports on ice-cores and glacial melting, the exhibition focused largely on how the Arctic was seen from the South. Unfortunately, in doing so, it appeared uncritically to reproduce these visions of the Arctic-as-Frozen-Waste and explorers’ playground (see Lars Jensen‘s comments). Half way through the exhibition, a small collection of antique Inuit objects and a screening of Nanook of the North seemed the only acknowledgement that the region we call Arctic is far from the polar waste of this southern and scientific imagination. As Marionne Cronin explained at our recent conference, if you look closely enough at the material supplies taken by some of the famous explorers on their polar adventures, the presence of indigenous peoples shines through since they provided much of the clothing and supplies the exploration parties required. Yet you have to dig deep to find them, since so much work has gone in to making them appear invisible in so many kinds of media.
The newly renamed Arctic University of Norway offers us a clue that the contemporary Arctic is inhabited in a most Modern way, but the idea that indigenous people have inhabited the High North for a very long time, and continue to do so, is frequently disregarded in the persistent reproduction of ideas about empty space and apparently endless images of sunlit icebergs. Uninhabited space has long provided the legitimacy for colonial expansion, and it continues to serve that purpose today. Some participants at the Postcolonial Arctic conference argued that, in fact, the Arctic continues to be a colonial project, whether we call it postcolonial or neo-colonial.
The second big question is what do we mean by tourism? But that will be for another blogpost.