What follows here are some reflections on my experience in the Field_Notes – The North Escaping field laboratory which was organised by the Bioart Society and hosted by the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki in the Sapmi region in Lapland, Finland. This edition of Field_Notes took place from September 17th to October 1st, 2023. Much of what is posted here is based on my contribution to the follow up blog on the Bioart Society website.
The field lab was based on a structure of 3 semi-independent groups conducting more or less self-guided research and investigations in the region surrounding Kilpisjärvi. Full info about The North Escaping and the breakdown of the groups can be found on the Bioart Society blog. It was a pleasure to be in the company of the Andscapes group hosted by artist and researcher Elizabeth McTernan. Located more than 300km north of the arctic circle, the sub-arctic context still felt welcoming for me at this time of year. There were some cold, wet and windy days but this helped to fee all the more immersed in the climate of the north. This climactic immersion through daily hikes and exercises (and many in-depth discussions), is possibly what led me to frame my experience in relation to primary elements.
A contextual diary of Elements: Water, Earth, Air, Stone, Fire
Thinking through my experience of North Escaping, I ended up attributing each day to one or more elements that defined this exploratory excursion. This thinking through elements helped signify the events, exchanges and moods of that particular day and the various meanings that came about. I will not make a complete run-down of day of the full two weeks but rather attempt to abstract the passage of that time through a series of elements, the numerous themes of Field_Notes and what they represent for me. My analysis here of elements relates primarily to the two weeks of the Andscapes guided, North Escaping lab, and is not meant to be tied to other elemental systems found in different spiritual traditions. One may read this more as a personal recollection with possible insights into some contextual symbolisms and meta-narratives that emerged from my time in Kilpisjärvi and in the Andscapes group.
Water equated to movement, transitions and the fluidity of change. On a group level, we had numerous travel days, from our Kilpisjärvi arrival and departure by train and bus to the extended day hike that brought us back from our remote overnight stay at Saarijärvi. There were other ‘water’ days where we navigated lakes, streams and shore of a fjord. On a few of those days I felt strong personal transitions, from one aspect of life to another or from one mode of working to another. In a few cases, water facilitated the need for conversation and brought about forms of collaboration among our Andscapes group. The need for me to address the elements also came on a water day. Whether brought about by our collective dreaming at the base of Saana or the culmination of many other things, it became clear for me at that point to start thinking through elements. So for the rest of that day I proceeded to spend time with water, studying its paths and listening to its many voices both literally and metaphorically.
Earth equated to grounding, regeneration and horizontality. Earth was also a prevalent theme throughout the two weeks, from our grounding actions, walks and discussions of soil kinship. Earth gives signals from below where it foments microscopic life forms and pluri-fungal communication. I spent a number of hours engaged in my current interest in ‘rooted listening’ and shared this with our group on one occasion. I continued to ask myself, what have I been hearing when I place my ‘sensing’ contact microphone as extended ‘ears’ at the roots of trees? I’m still learning but listening from below is a grounding experience in itself. While I have reservations about the term ‘attunement’ that found popular usage at Field_Notes, it might be appropriate in this case. As one can hear the resonances of leaves, branches, stems and roots of a tree through its grounded presence, it becomes possible to attune to its structural integrity and how trees sway and tension in the wind in an immobile dance of earthly rejoicing.
Air equated to forms of transmission, communication and signals from above. A good deal of attention was given to breathing and the cycles of our breath that, in turn, affect how we resonate between internal and external bodily states and conditions. One extension of the flow of air coming from our breath, is verbal communication. There was more than enough of that over the two week period… at breakfast, lunch and dinner… in the announcements, or meetings… in talks out on the trail… in the evening lectures, in interpersonal discussions, whether planned, chanced or circumstantial. To what intentions do we attribute all this articulation of thought and feeling? What becomes of all these transmissions of information? Much of this I am beginning to process. For me this implies that Field_Notes are not so much written, but experienced, processed and exchanged in the immaterial Air of the event. Air also facilitated much of our mediated documentation from the light inscribed in our solargraphic, analogue and digital cameras to the atmospheric sounds we recorded. Air eventually extended into the ether of the day and night, as we observed endless cloud formations, waited for the auroras and listened to the crackling of auroral earth radio from my humble coil antenna.
Stone equated to deep time, permanence and verticality. The stone world of the sub-arctic permeated our everyday thoughts and movements from living at the base of a tectonic stone mountain to navigating the infinite terrain of post-glacial residue composed of erratic boulders, fields of rocks, and tangible collections of pebbles. Our dear Aleksi Jaakkola shared his inescapable passion for stones, often drawing our attention to particular stones of strength, energy and knowledge. We attempted to communicate, play and dream with stones. Saana, the central stone monument of Kilpisjärvi, challenged us to ascend above while facing wind and snow that signaled a transition of seasons. I still feel the stones in my muscles, bones and knees. I took portraits of stones that gave character to the landscape and of the valleys where whole populations of stones inhabit the sub-arctic tundra. I studied the colors, surfaces and textures of stones as forms of ancient inscriptions resulting from exchanges with water and air. In the end the stones demanded our attention, keeping us in touch with the geo-logic of planetary scale narratives.
Fire equated to the intensity of exchange whether through convergence or conflict. During our hike to Saarijärvi, Leena pointed out the differences between conventional tourist fire pits and the various forms of fire making used by Sámis in their nomadic herding practices. Besides being a practical bit of knowledge I took this example to be a good metaphor for our own experience in the subarctic. While visiting an unfamiliar territory, I have to ask, in what ways are we mere tourists acting out of a mechanistic disconnect that defines so much of our habits? And, if we are able to realize that which we are disconnected from, how can we transverse those habits to find more meaningful forms of habitation? Fire rarely appeared in these two weeks, but when it did, I found it giving urgent signals, either to myself as an individual or to our group. Fire, in this sense, was not a ‘native’ element during this time but came through conditions to act as a guide or indicator, orienting us toward the other four elements.
What does any of this have to do with the Andscapes themes of scale, measurement, tools and attunement? I’m not entirely sure. Language and writing are also tools and through words I am able to scale my thoughts from the fiery and atmospheric into the grounded and earthly. And hopefully this carries with it some meaning shared among the various groupings that defined a rather unique whole. The framing of my experience in terms of elements possibly reveals, that in such a context, my desire was to reconcile the differences between the fragile yet vast more-than-human subarctic landscape with the transitory human camp that is Field_Notes. In doing so many of my conventional tools and scales fail me. Maybe witnessing the ways that scientists rely on ‘big data’ to answer questions, artists need something akin to ‘big sensing’ to explore other forms of knowledge. For myself, these sensory and extra-sensory forms of knowledge often come through the materials and elements I come in contact with.