Humans have always imagined themselves as incorrigible wanderers, bent on discovering their Earthly surroundings with no environment too rugged, no distance too far. It seems we have an innate desire to discover ourselves in beautiful, sometimes inhospitable landscapes. And of all such places on Earth, the Arctic is among the most extreme.
For Furniture and Fine Arts faculty member Donald Fortescue, the Arctic represents a place of discovery, where reality and imagination intersect, and a source of fascination his entire life. It was his inspiration to apply for the Arctic Circle Residency, run out of New York and involving an international corps of artists and scientists, in summer 2014. Of the hundreds who apply, 20 are selected each year to take part in the three-week program aboard a three-masted tall ship that sails around the mountainous archipelago of the Arctic Circle. Once Fortescue received notice that he had been selected, he booked his ticket to Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, where the journey begins.
Originally from the southeastern coast of Australia, Fortescue was a botanist before becoming a designer and artist. “My interest in the natural world has never left me, and it deeply informs all of my creative efforts,” he says. “Being on board the ship meant not being able to work in my usual sculptural media, forcing me to adopt a radically different creative process.” His goal was to capture the wild, natural sights and sounds of a place very few get to see firsthand, in the hopes of re-creating them in some way for a larger audience. His medium, he decided, would be time-lapse videos captured on Go-Pro cameras, paired with audio recordings.
“Before the ship set sail, my imagined perception of the Arctic was one of isotropy, where the bare, seemingly unchanging landscape would make deciphering the scale of an area—and one’s personal scale in relation to it—almost impossible. But the Arctic had so much more in it than I expected. It has a long history of human habitation, with mining and whaling remnants all up the coast. It isn’t the blank page I’d imagined. Any place that humans can access is a place upon which they ‘write’ their thoughts, imaginations, and actions. And the Arctic has been written on.”
Armed with his cameras and hydrophone (a sound recording device that functions underwater), Fortescue recorded a variety of sights and sounds: from on board the ship, while standing on ice floes, and in the icy seas. He was able to capture on the hydrophone, among many other phenomena, seals using echolocation and sonic frequencies for communication. He also captured sound via accelerometers: devices that, when fed through a preamplifier, become highly sensitive contact microphones.
Back in his Oakland studio, Fortescue began tinkering with his recordings, figuring out the best way to present them to the public. “I’m working on several ideas, including reenvisioning the first experiments in 3D vision conducted by Charles Whetstone in the 1830s. In my version, participants will walk into a room where high-definition videos are playing on opposite walls. When they sit in a chair faced with small paired mirrors, the dual video recordings will resolve into three dimensions.” In addition to the visual component, Fortescue imagines using hyperbolic speakers to focus the audio “only where you are sitting in the chair, so that the sound pops up. The whole experience will be kind of like walking into an all-too-real dreamscape.”
Recognizing that the Arctic is the canary in the coal mine of global warming, he adds, “I hope my work will not only tantalize participants on a sensory level, but also spur them to think about the larger implications of our human impacts on the Earth.”
See more of Fortescue’s work at donaldfortescue.com or at Vessel Gallery in Oakland. It can be purchased online at in the fine art section of Amazon.com.