London Fieldworks’s Atmospheric Investigations at the North Pole
British artists Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson (known as London Fieldworks) use scientific research methods to translate natural phenomena for “poetic investigations into human consciousness and physiology.” For Polaria, Gilchrist and Joelson traveled to Hold With Hope peninsula on Northeast Greenland in August 2001 to investigate the region’s atmospheric phenomenon of continuous daylight lasting for several months as it transitioned into winter darkness. The purpose of the month-long expedition was to record the body’s responses to changing light using bio-monitoring equipment and a spectroradiometer to measure color variance at 6-hour intervals. London Fieldworks explain on their website:
In the field, the artist’s body was employed as a sensor evoking both the ethnographer Marcel Mauss’ notion that the body is our first technology, a set of instruments with which to generate knowing; and the Chilean biologist and cognitive scientist Francisco Varela’s idea of the body as a portable laboratory.
Gilchrist and Joelson used their data to design an installation for translating the arctic atmosphere into an interactive art experience. Polaria premiered in January 2002 at The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. Viewers were required to wear a white jacket and overshoes while sitting in a clear chair, placing their hands on electrically conductive bronze plates to trigger twenty-four different simulations of arctic daylight. Marcus Field reported his experience to The Independent, describing Polaria as “wonderful.” He writes:
This is how it works: you arrive in a dark and freezing boiler house to be confronted by a glowing cube the size of a domestic room. Around it, four giant photographs of barren landscapes are displayed on light boxes. These pictures taken in Greenland by Anthony Oliver during the summer months of 24-hour daylight are a clue to what you will experience inside.
Dressed in a padded white jacket and cloth shoes you enter the box, sit in a clear acrylic chair and place your hands on the two bronze panels on the arms. This is where the fun starts as a gentle electric currrent pulses through your body. When you make this connection the light in the room changes. With your hands flat on the bronze you get a bright white light. But as you wriggle your fingers and lift your hands the shade changes to blue-ish white, yellow and orange. It’s blinding at times, but also beautiful and strange. You might be happy not knowing what any of this is about. But if you’re the inquisitive or scientific type, artist Bruce Gilchrist and lighting designer Jo Joelson are on hand to tell you the exact nature of their research.
What you experience inside the room is a virtual representation of the summer light levels in Greenland, as measured by Joelson. And you trigger these as your own electronic skin resistance levels shift to match those of Gilchrist which were also measured during the pairs stay. It sounds complicated, but you can take or leave the data. And in any case, the artists themselves admit “there is as much shamanism as science going on”, which makes the experience of Polaria all the more delightful.
Polaria gave viewers a chance to transport their mind and body to the arctic through their senses using artistic simulation. The artists state in an interview with Verbeke Foundation, “It was our aim at the time to leave the ‘feeling’ and interpretation to the users of the installation once they had completed the (electrical) ‘circuit’ of Polaria.” London Fieldworks visited the North Pole on two other occasions, in 2004 and then to Svalbard in 2005 for Little Earth.
Credit: Photos by (top) Andy Paradise and (middle & bottom) Anthony Oliver. Video by London Fieldworks.