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Meaning Attribution:
The Inflation of Personal Life
Interview With
Péter Forgács

– Sonja Simonyi
and Niels Van Tomme

Looking for Black Art
in Baltimore
Conversations With
Joyce J. Scott &
Theresa Chromati

– Abdu Mongo Ali

Geopolitics on the Edge
– Stephanie Bailey

November/December 2016
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Geopolitics on the Edge

Text: Stephanie Bailey

Santiago Sierra, Black Flag (Part 2), 2015, South Pole [photo: Lutz Henke; courtesy of the artist]

Identity. Behind the Curtain of Uncertainty opened at Kiev's National Art Museum of Ukraine in March 2016, just steps from Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) where the Euromaidan protests to demand greater European integration (and less Russian involvement in Ukrainian affairs) started in 2013 and led to the ousting of then-president Viktor Yanukovych a year later. Curated by Solvita Krese, the show was conceived as a gesture of solidarity toward the situation in Ukraine by the Nordic and Baltic embassies of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Iceland; it featured artists from Europe's northeastern periphery, where a Soviet specter remains. Works were brought together to create an interregional map. This included images from Anna Aizsilniece's upcycled fashion line, Ethnography (2014), in which the detritus of Latvia's past—Soviet-era electrical appliances, and santims, coins now rendered useless by the Euro, for example—is reconstituted into clothing based on traditional Latvian folk designs. Also on view were five knitted sweaters created by artist and architect Joar Nango, a member of the Sami ethnic group, for the ongoing project Sámi Shelters (2009); each sweater depicted variations of Sami lavvu tents found throughout the Baltic-Nordic region, from Lujávri in Russia to Liksjoe in Sweden, representing the indigenous people of Northern Europe, who today inhabit Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Russia.

Woven into this regional cartography was a call for allegiance in the face of a growing Russian threat, which intensified after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, among other events. Similarly, in September 2016, the Nordic-Baltic cooperation organized an exhibition in Riga, Latvia, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Nordic Council of Ministers' Offices in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—all opened by 1991, the year the Soviet Union fell. Titled (In)visible Dreams and Streams, the exhibition presented 22 artists who have benefited from the Nordic-Baltic Mobility Programme for Culture. Aimed in part to highlight the geopolitical links fostered by the program, works explored histories that lurk beneath modern borders. Included was Saskia Holmqvist's short film Blind Understanding (2009), for example, in which the artist considers the politics of language over a long, uninterrupted shot of a river. Mention is made of Finland's historical position as a buffer zone, having been governed by Sweden and Russia alternately, with Sweden ruling Finland from the 12th to the 19th centuries, until it became absorbed into the Russian Empire, and later coveted by the Soviet Union with which a "Friendship Treaty" was established in 1948.1

Santiago Sierra, Black Flag (Part 2), 2015, South Pole [photo: Lutz Henke; courtesy of the artist]

These exhibitions point to the intense proximity between Russia and the Baltic-Nordic region, bound not only by the northern coastline of the Arctic Ocean, but by the Baltic Sea—a body of water that is as historically and geopolitically loaded as the Mediterranean is, and where Russia has recently sent its warships. Today, the region around the Baltic Sea has again become a highly contentious zone, where a Cold War-style standoff with NATO is unfolding.2 In July 2016 NATO ran military drills in the Baltic ahead of its Warsaw summit, where the defense of NATO's eastern flank was high on the agenda, described in The NATO Review as an issue "of rising importance in the context of Europe's changing security order."3 That month, Vladimir Putin visited Finland and advised President Sauli Niinisto "to keep out of NATO." One month earlier, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited Helsinki, where he claimed Russia would "never attack" a NATO member state, which would have been reassuring had Finland been a member.

Such rising tensions may explain why both the Kiev and Riga exhibitions shared one work in common: Four Edges of Pyramiden, a 2015 film by Ieva Epnere that explores the Soviet coal-mining town of Pyramiden, abandoned in 1998. That place, located on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago on the Arctic Ocean, stands between the North Pole and Norway. It is on Svalbard that the geopolitical fault lines extant throughout the Nordic-Baltic region (and beyond) truly intersect, in a historically, geographically, and legally unique zone that is "an emerging centerpiece of a new global power race for influence and resources."4

This race has played out in Svalbard since Dutch explorer Willem Barents, the Nordic Christopher Columbus, is claimed to have "discovered" (in the colonial sense) the archipelago in 1596, when the search for a northern sea route to the East was at its height. (Spain and Portugal's "dominance over all known shipping lanes forced other European countries to search for alternative routes, mainly across the Nordic seas."5) During this search, Svalbard's waters proved to be an abundant whaling ground—whale blubber being the off-white gold that fueled the Age of Discovery—and whaling stations were established throughout the archipelago, leading to various overlapping territorial claims. The Dutch countered them with the concept of mare liberum, advocating for the sea as an international territory free to be used, and exploited, by anybody.6 In Svalbard this concept lasted until the local whales died out, and was reformalized in the late-19th century, when a Russia/Sweden-Norway pact described Svalbard as a terra nullius: a place that could not be exclusively possessed by any single state.7

Santiago Sierra, Black Flag (Part 2), 2015, South Pole [photo: Lutz Henke; courtesy of the artist]

Yet, again, this status wouldn't last. When commercial coal mining started at the turn of the 20th century, new claims arose. In the lead up to World War I, attempts at joint ownership between Norway, Sweden, and Russia were thwarted by opposition from Germany and the US. At the time, the Boston-based Arctic Coal Company constituted the main presence on Svalbard. Founded by American capitalists Frederick Ayer and John Munroe Longyear (after whom Svalbard's administrative capital Longyearbyen is named), the company was sold to the Norwegian company Store Norske in 1916.8 Then came the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, which officiated the end of WWI—the effects of which continue to be widely felt, given the establishment of the League of Nations as a result, and the disastrous mandates that were created from it. Famously, the Russian Empire did not participate, though the Soviets did sign one thing that came out of the Paris conference: the Spitsbergen Treaty, which was ratified in 1925 (and later by the USSR in 1935).9 Finally, Norway was awarded sovereignty over Svalbard, albeit within the scope of international law and with echoes of both mare liberum and terra nullius inscribed into the treaty's stipulations, which entitle signatory states to equal use and resources.10 As a result, Svalbard became an economic free zone and demilitarized space, where 42 nations today share the right to settle, exploit, and conduct scientific research, free of visas or taxes.11

Yet not all states possess equal access "in practice."12 Soon after the treaty was signed, Norway sought to consolidate its sovereignty by purchasing mining rights from states whenever they became available, and Russia followed suit. By the 1930s, Russia and Norway became the only two states to exercise mining rights on Svalbard, turning the industry and its towns into a front line. Both states sought to retain a presence on the archipelago, despite the industry's eventual decline.13 In 2000 former Store Norske CEO Robert Hermansen put the reason for all this activity bluntly: "To keep control of Svalbard we have to have a community here. If we left, the Russians would immediately claim it."14 (The state-owned Russian mining company Arktikugol continues to operate a Barenstburg mine, and it recently registered as a tourist company.15) Russia and Norway in particular have vested interests in Svalbard, since their northern borders sit directly on the Barents Sea, which in turn connects to the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. Both states are currently driven by the promise of oil and natural gas that are becoming more accessible as the Arctic melts. (A US Geological Survey assessment estimates the Arctic holds 13%—90 billion barrels—of "the world's undiscovered conventional oil resources and 30% of its undiscovered conventional natural gas resources."16) In January 2015, for example, Norway offered its 23rd licensing round, opening up "fifty-seven blocks for exploration, thirty-four of which were in formerly disputed waters with Russia, including, controversially, three blocks in waters offshore from Svalbard."17 Russia responded by accusing Norway of breaking the Svalbard Treaty, which was followed by an unannounced visit in April 2015 to Svalbard by Russia's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who compared the Arctic to Crimea—a clear threat, in Norway's view.

With mining in decline, culture has emerged as a new weapon in Svalbard's slow war. This shift was especially palpable in June 2016, when an international, cross-disciplinary conference titled "Thinking at the Edge of the World" was staged in Longyearbyen, convening people to consider Svalbard's unique geopolitical heritage and vantage point. Guests, invited from all over the world, included director of the New Museum in New York, Lisa Phillips, and Candice Hopkins, curatorial advisor for documenta 14. Proceedings covered the enduring struggles of the indigenous Sami, the relationship between the First Nations of the circumpolar North, and the impact of global warming on the Arctic, among other globally urgent topics. Two state-funded Norwegian institutions presided over the gathering: the Office for Contemporary Art in Norway (OCA) and the Northern Norway Art Museum (NNKM), the latter having just opened a permanent cultural outpost, Kunsthall Svalbard, in Longyearbyen. In 2015 Joan Jonas became the first artist to exhibit there, and in 2016 the space launched an international artist residency program.

Santiago Sierra, Black Flag (Part 2), 2015, North Pole
[courtesy of Studio Santiago Sierra and a/political]

Internationalism was a strong theme in "Thinking at the Edge of the World." As OCA Founding Director Ute Meta Bauer noted, Svalbard has the potential to become "an arena for kaleidoscopic global thought"—and the conference sought to articulate this fact in practice. It pointed toward the shared intentions of culture and research institutions to catalyze Svalbard as a world destination for knowledge production and exchange, as promoted here through the dynamic and adaptable language of contemporary art.

The impetus behind such ambitions in Svalbard's case was alluded to in the final day's program, when Luba Kuzovnikova, artistic director of the Pikene pa Broen curatorial collective and manager of the Barents Spektakel festival in Kirkenes, Norway, addressed the politics behind these cultural developments through a presentation offering a commentary on the Russian king crab's "invasion" of Norway. As Kuzovnikova noted, it was in the 1960s that the USSR introduced this strongest species of crab into Arctic waters, where it has no natural enemy. In recent years the crabs have been on what scientists have called a "relentless march" south, and they reached the Svalbard Archipelago in 2003, with some reports describing the issue as a "Russian invasion."18 The language used here speaks to the very palpable Nordic and Baltic fear of an invasion that would affect the entire continent—a scenario that seems increasingly possible, as Russia moves nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, positioned between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic coast, and sends a naval fleet to the Mediterranean.

In light of such developments, the framing of Svalbard as a place to "think at the edge of the world"—as a global center for artistic research, experiment, and discourse—also suggests a use of culture as a form of self-defense, not unlike the tactics at play in the Baltic-Nordic exhibition collaborations mentioned at the start of this text, wherein cultural links are fostered so as to form a protective edge. This view of culture—and, by association, of knowledge production and exchange—as agents in the soft battle for territorial sovereignty recalls what political sociologist Alexandre Kazerouni observed after the devastating Iraqi invasion of Kuwait between 1990 and 91, when global museums were developed as visibility projects, whose facilitation of international links offered ostensibly protective (and/or pre-emptive) shields from invasion.19

Santiago Sierra, Black Flag (Part 2), 2015, South Pole
[courtesy of Studio Santiago Sierra and a/political]

Such tactics can be seen in other initiatives on the archipelago, notably those surrounding scientific research, education, and tourism. The Norwegian Polar Institute was founded in 1928, a Polish Polar Station in 1958, and additional research stations were subsequently established by 11 institutions from 10 countries around the world—including China, India, and South Korea.20 The Svalbard Museum was founded in 1979, and the Svalbard Satellite Station (SvalSat) was established in 1996, as "the only facility outside Antarctica downloading data from all 14 orbiting polar satellites."21 From the 1980s, the Norwegian state encouraged tourism by forming Spitsbergen Travel. Opportunities for higher education have also played an important role in attracting people to Svalbard: the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), a Norwegian state-owned enterprise, opened in 1993 with only 23 students, and its enrollment now exceeds 500.

Then there is the Global Seed Vault, which opened in 2008 with an ambitious aim to house sample specimens of most of the world's genetic crop material. The facility's construction costs were covered entirely by the Kingdom of Norway, and the vault itself is owned and administered by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, with the Global Crop Diversity Trust providing support and funding, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen) operating the facility and maintaining a public online database of stored samples.22 The vault is a 21st-century botanical Noah's Ark—a house of world heritage that exemplifies the internationalism and the international contention that Svalbard's treaty seemingly represents, drawn up as it was after the world war before the world war that was supposed to end all wars. The very fact that Syria became the first nation to retrieve seeds from the vault in 2015 as a result of its civil war offers a macabre sign of this historical interconnectivity.23

In response to this geo-complexity, this dossier of artistic work has been compiled as an abstract articulation of the conditions of ownership inscribed into this historical site. It is a phenomenological study of a contested place and the politics that surround it, expressed through the works and words of artists who have all visited the archipelago and produced work on it: Cédric Maridet, Ieva Epnere, Michael John Whelan, and Bahar Yürükoglu. Also included are three contributions that were made during "Thinking at the Edge of the World": a poem by Sami artist and activist Synnøve Persen, published here for the first time; a series of images taken from the family archive of musician Aggie Peterson, annotated in collaboration with artist Petra Hermanová and the photographs that illustrate this introduction, which represent Santiago Sierra's Black Flag project, for which the artist planted the anarchist symbol on both the North and South Poles.

Stephanie Bailey is an ART PAPERS contributing editor.

1. The Economist, "Just visiting: Russian aggression is pushing Finland and Sweden towards NATO," July 9, 2016:
2. Gabriel Samuels, "Russia gathers troops at Baltic military bases ahead of Cold War-style stand-off with Nato," The Independent, July 5, 2016:
3. Eoin Micheál McNamara, "Securing the Nordic-Baltic region," NATO Review:
4. Christopher R. Rossi, "A Unique International Problem: Svalbard Treaty, Equal Enjoyment, and Terra Nullius: Lessons of Territorial Temptation from History," Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2015, p. 103.
5. History of the Northern Sea Route, 1.2 "Voyages in the 16th and 17th Centuries," by I.Y. Frolov, V.Yu. Alexandrov, V.Ye. Borodachev. See:
6. Adam Grydehøj, Anne Grydehøj, and Maria Ackrén, "The Globalization of the Arctic: Negotiating Sovereignty and Building Communities in Svalbard, Norway," Island Studies Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2012, pp. 100-101.
7. Rossi, p. 116. See also: Robin Churchill and Geir Ulfstein, "The Disputed Maritime Zones around Svalbard," Changes in the Artic Environment and the Law of the Sea, Panel IX, October 3, 2011 (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2010).
8. Grydehøj et al., pp. 101-103. See also:
9. Central Intelligence Agency, Spitsbergen Report, June 26, 1950:
10. Churchill and Ulfstein, p. 555.
11. Elizabeth Braw, "The tip of the iceberg," Politico, May 17, 2015:
12. Grydehøj et al., p. 103.
13. Adam Grydehøj, "Informal Diplomacy in Norway's Svalbard Policy: The Intersection of Local Community Development and Arctic International Relations," Global Change, Peace & Security, Vol. 26, No. 1:'s%20Svalbard%20Policy-1.pdf
14. Grydehøj et al., p. 114.
15. Braw, 2015.
16. "Today in Energy," the U.S. Energy Information Administration, January 20, 2012:
17. Rossi, pp. 96101.
18. Lars Bevanger, "Norway fears giant crab invasion,", August 9, 2006,; and James Owen, "Giant Crab 'Red Army' Invades Norway," National Geographic News, March 9, 2004,
19. See Monira Al Qadiri on the "visibility museum," a concept coined by Dr. Alexandre Kazerouni, in "Myth Busters," Ibraaz 007, May 8, 2014:
20. Grydehøj et al., p. 103. See also:
21. Randall Hyman, "Norwegian Town Rebuilds After Major Mine Closure And Deadly Avalanche," The World Post, April 1, 2016.
22. The Crop Trust, "FAQ About the Seed Vault":
23. Kevin Conlon, "Syria's civil war prompts first 'Doomsday Vault' withdrawal," CNN, October 23, 2015:

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