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Open Waters

[Northwest Passage & Polar Sea]

On View Friday, December 13, 2019–Sunday, March 29, 2020

Open Waters [Northwest Passage & Polar Sea] is an interdisciplinary, multimedia arts-technology project that investigates a five-hundred-year history of British, Canadian, and American Arctic endeavor, in the context of addressing twenty-first century environmental and geopolitical change at the top of the Northern hemisphere.  This work is the newest project in an ongoing collaboration among a visual artist, Andrea Wollensak, Professor of Art and Director of the Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology at Connecticut College; a computer scientist, Bridget Baird, Professor Emerita of Computer Science at Connecticut College (and former Director of the Ammerman Center); a sound artist-composer, Brett Terry, from Sonalysts; and a poet-scholar, Judith Goldman, Associate Professor and Director of the Poetics Program in English at SUNY, Buffalo.   

Our title Open Waters is meant to capture multiple, productive contradictions on which our project reflects — such as the historical irony that the Northwest Passage, once so ice-impacted it was thought to be mythical, is now traversable by commercial transport vessels and cruise ships alike; the longstanding, Western, tragic-Romantic fantasy of a polar paradise and “Open Polar Sea” that was held tenaciously, against all evidence of the frozen, impassable state of the high north; the contemporary conflict between, on one hand, scientific and indigenous perspectives focused on understanding, assessing, and halting ecological damage and, on the other, forces that see the rapidly melting Arctic as an opportunity for resource extraction, economic growth, and alterations of the parameters of political sovereignty.  In sixteenth-century Britain, the spatial technology of a Northwest Passage was central to the inception of globalization and imperialism, while the Arctic, as a region where climate change is amplified and accelerated, is proving to be the capital of the Anthropocene. The interconnected pieces of the Open Waters installation thematically and formally echo, in a number of modes, the process of ecological and other change affecting the Arctic cryosphere.

Open Waters transforms the gallery into an ambient environment, produced in large part through generative artworks.  Visitor interactions, both intentional and involuntary, with these generative ensembles triggers audio-visual events that shape the gallery space and happen differently each time they occur.

An interactive artist book features a suite of archival poems on Arctic exploration, politics, and ecological change, composed using documents from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century.  Across the double-page spread, containing printed poems, appears digital generative art consisting of fading poetic text and animated phrases that coalesce and then fade away (or melt). Ice cluster forms appear across the pages, briefly obscuring the text. As the viewer/reader turns the pages of this unique, print-digital hybrid book, RFID tags embedded in each page signal a sensor that in turn signals a computer to “turn” the projected digital page. Because the digital text complementing a particular print page changes with every reading, generated by algorithmic selection from materials matched to that page, the book is different each time it is read.

The interactive back wall of the gallery combines video and audio works that, using a Kinect motion sensor, respond to the activity present in the room, evoking the effects of human disruption of the Arctic environment. The audio embodies a long, multi-layered loop made of processed sonic material from the Arctic landscape (flowing water, glacial calving, whales, and sonar) and spoken language that includes phrases from the poems and from responses in an interview about the Arctic from a member of the US Coast Guard.  Against this background sound, audience motion triggers sonic events of ice cracking that intensify with the increased visitor presence and activity. The back-wall’s video component contains processed drone and ice breaker footage, inter-spliced with animated, digital graphic vignettes that combine mesh-structures based on climate data with language from the poems; these visuals pixelate and granulate in response to the room’s activity.  As in the computer projections for the interactive book, computer coding in the language Processing enables these intertwined transformations.

Each of the other components in Open Waters is also indexed to the environment and history of the polar north. The wall map of the Arctic features newly feasible travel routes and graphically translates scientific data about receding ice coverage. Wall texts around the gallery draw brief phrases from archival documents, while a long vellum scroll collects historic statements speculating about the physical realities of the Northwest Passage and the North Pole made over the course of four hundred years. A pamphlet giving further explanation of the conceptual underpinnings and the process of making the exhibit, a bibliography of sources, and acknowledgment of sponsors and archives rounds out the show.