Expedition Svalbard

A team of scientists, artists and writers investigate the impact of climate change on the Norwegian archipelago. By Tyrone Martinsson and Hans Hedberg

Tyrone Martinsson is a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, researching historical and contemporary photography of the environment and landscape.

Hans Hedberg is a photographer and researcher at the Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg.


Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago; its name comes from the Norse for “cold shores”. Its arctic climate is home to a largely untouched ecosystem, yet one that is ever more fragile. 

Country: Norway
Area: 61,022 km(23,561 sq mi)
Population: 2,642
Time zone: GMT +1

Svalbard _1Rijpbreen, birds on ice cliffs, September 2011. Photos by Tyrone Martinsson.

On September 8, 2011, M/S Stockholm sailed out from Longyearbyen, Svalbard. On board were 12 artists, scientists and writers. The intention of this expedition was to have a dialogue through art and science around environmental issues, wilderness and the wild, narratives of history, place and travel in response to the Arctic landscape.

The project, Art, Science and the Research Journey: Expedition Svalbard 2011, was partly inspired by the book Voyage into Substance by Barbara M. Stafford. Long out of print, and subtitled Art, Science, Nature and the Illustrated Travel Account, 1760-1840, it discusses the relation between science and art and our representation of travel and nature in a period that lay the foundation for modernity.

Svalbard, an Arctic desert with traces of a human history of exploration, colonisation and traditions, is in a unique position to evidence the dramatic and escalating effects of climate change. It is a landscape filled with stories not only in books, images, maps and reports but also preserved and embedded in the physical landscape itself. Svalbard has, since its discovery in 1596, been in the midst of political interests in the Arctic. It remains pivotal as we seek to address conflicting needs for conservation and energy generation.

The impact of photography, science and writing has a tradition of being able to raise awareness among the public, and to support and influence policy makers, politicians, researchers, environmentalists and activists. Our expedition and responses to the Arctic landscape of Svalbard intends to contribute to and develop that tradition.

This is an extract from Expedition Svalbard: Lost Views on the Shorelines of Economy, edited by Gunilla Knape, Tyrone Martinsson and Hans Hedberg (Steidl, 2015).

Svalbard _2

View east from Rijpbreen, September 2011. Photos by Tyrone Martinsson.

Along the cold coast: notes on the Arctic and the sublime, by Hans Hedberg
“And so also the irresistibility of nature’s might, while making us recognise our own physical impotence, considered as beings of nature, discloses to us a faculty of judging independently of, and a superiority over, nature; on which is based a kind of self-preservation, entirely different from that which can be attacked and brought into danger by external nature. Thus, humanity in our person remains unhumiliated, though the individual might have to submit to this dominion” —Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement.Svalbard _5_01. On August 2, 2007, two submarines sank to the bottom of an ocean basin. The vertical depth from the surface was more than four kilometres – 4,079 metres, to be precise. It is hard to comprehend such a depth using anything other than scientific instruments. Above them, the pole star stood at the zenith, temporarily outshone by the midnight sun, 431 light-years away: again, a figure that is too abstract for human understanding or our comprehension of time and space. Between the submarines and the star loomed a melting ice cap. The crew’s mission was to place the Russian flag on the seabed, beneath the precise spot designated as the North Pole.

Svalbard _5_12. The submarines are represented on a monitor – two barely distinguishable points, growing smaller and smaller. Like two of Caspar David Friedrich’s Rückenfiguren, about to be engulfed and vanish. The tiny points flicker, growing weaker and increasingly irregular. But on whose monitor? The Russian military command? The CIA? The Norwegians? Is the flag really there? Or does it only exist in the infinite network of representation?

Svalbard _5_23. It is said that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) never travelled more than 10 kilometres beyond his birthplace, the former East Prussian city of Königsberg – modern-day Kaliningrad. Is this why in his third critique – Critique of Judgement – Kant develops Edmund Burke’s thoughts on the sublime? Kant conjures up abysses, both within and beyond mankind, that relativise him and provide a fleeting insight into a strictly limited influence over his own existence. As in Burke’s case, the immeasurable is a strong aspect, several sizes bigger than both perception and understanding. But also that which eludes description, that which cannot be described in intentions, that which is nonverbal. 

Svalbard _5_34. Purposelessness, chance and unpredictable development characterise a nature that lies behind good and evil. Nature’s indifference, its singularity and its dynamics are rarely comprehensible to the modern Westerner when he sees it on TV or in clearings, cultural landscapes or national parks – places that are all dominated by human purpose. In most contexts, the encounter between the modern man and nature is typified by a – presumably illusory – sense of security, an impression that he is dealing with something he can use or control. Or, less frequently, as a process of grieving for something he has ruined.Svalbard _5_45. Kant’s references to nature have become aesthetic public property, at the expense of other, more complex parts of his account: Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening, rocks; clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult… Mankind consigned to the margin.

Svalbard _5_56. The Arctic wilderness of Svalbard has never had any indigenous pop- ulation, but it still bears permanent scars from the people who have passed through and worked here; graves and enormous collections of skeletons from slaughtered whales. It is said that much of the oil that lit Europe’s many streetlights for a century came from the predatory hunting of whales, which were partly eradicated in Svalbard. In our time, food chains are affected from afar. Transported from the global textile factories’ ventilation systems to the fish and seals of the Arctic Ocean, via plankton, brominated flame-retardant material makes its way into the fatty tissue of polar bears. This is an imperceptibly sublime threat that conjures up the abyss within us. But the experience of nature in Svalbard is still more evident, more unpredictable and immense than in many other places. Nature moves on without intent, without language, without purpose or moral.Svalbard _5_67. Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. Inscription on Kant’s tombstone, which was damaged by a bomb dropped from a Soviet plane in 1945.

Svalbard _5_78. Something more tangible: the temperature of the water around Svalbard can be just below zero. It doesn’t freeze, due to its salinity. Without a protective suit, a human being can survive for around six minutes. Another aspect that can unleash the sublime quagmire: the polar bear is one of few animals that sees man as prey. Three thousand increasingly starved polar bears wander stranded on the northerly archipelago. This creates an unfamiliar perspective in the visitor, which chafes at his consciousness. And also in the bears – if they cannot find anything else to eat, they eat each other.

Svalbard _3Rijpfjorden, Haudegen Wettertrup WWII weather station, September 2011. Photo by Tyrone Martinsson.

Svalbard _5_89. Those who first “discovered” Spitsbergen – the name given by the Dutch to the islands in 1596, which was subsequently Norwegianified to Svalbard (“cold coast”) – were frozen fast at Novaya Zemlya (where they were forced to spend the winter) in their continued quest for the Northeast Passage. They watched helplessly as their ship was crushed by the ice and disappeared into the depths. Here, a tragic code evolved for explorers, adventurers and whalers. Ice-bound, bitter winters, scurvy and a lingering death in a drawn-out, deep-frozen polar night, where the blizzards are transformed by the moonlight. Is this what inspired someone to name a crater on the moon after the Arctic explorer William Edward Parry (1790-1855)? Parry’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage and to reach the North Pole inspired Friedrich to paint Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice, also known as The Wreck of Hope) in 1823-24. Perhaps the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) would have done well to have contemplated this painting before crossing the Weddell Sea in 1914, after which he too got stuck on the ice and saw his ship Endurance crushed by the ice floes.

Svalbard _5_910. Heroic deeds and tragedies are all the clearer when observed against a backdrop of inhuman hardship and trials. The imagined pain may lead the reader to forget his armchair and shiver with – or at – human megalomania. In Svalbard, it is now possible to practise another sublime aspect and allow the subject to be hidden, forgotten in general terms. Tourism, which is proportionate to the melting of the ice, allows the individual to disappear into anonymity, into the consuming mass of the market. This is a dangerous landscape, where the subject can easily lose his balance and topple in, exhausted, and perish in this trade in experiences and goods.

Svalbard _5_1011. André Malraux, perhaps despite his radical past in the Spanish Civil War as a leader of the Spanish Republican Air Force, was an intolerable snob. “But they are building blocks of flats in Samarkand,” he lamented to Bruce Chatwin. What would Malraux have had to say about the Russian settlement of Pyramiden, on the northern coast of Isfjorden? With its cultural centre, sports hall, library and swimming baths? And its blocks of flats. Pyramiden was abandoned in the 1990s, but still remains relatively intact with its gymnastics apparatus, cooking utensils and books, all overseen by a statue of Lenin but hidden by the polar night for three months of the year. The vast nothingness built of forgetfulness has a number of outposts. In Svalbard – as in many other places – they can spell silence, darkness and cold.

Svalbard _5_1112. Fear in the face of technology that cannot be controlled or understood could be yet another sublime aspect. The spider-like oil platforms and the nuclear-powered submarines of the world’s oceans move towards the Arctic, acknowledging a positivistic scientific view and confirming the end of both megalomania and capacity. The global networks, traffic systems, nuclear power plants and hydroelectric power dams; floods, drought, soil erosion, the constant flow of goods and people as goods, materialisation and alienation; everything is sucked towards the edge. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is owned by Norway and the Nordic Council of Ministers, is partly founded on this fear. One hundred and thirty metres above sea level and buried inside the mountain near Longyearbyen Airport, here all the world’s seeds are being brought together to be stored in an ever-shrinking natural permafrost for future generations.

Svalbard _5_1213. But where is our existence most uncertain in our time? Perhaps where it has always been at risk: in our ideas. There, the world is represented in language and images that mainly express ourselves and our relationship with the world. Kant’s declaration that we cannot know anything about things in themselves, but that we only share ideas about them, has – in the growing construction of representation and simulation systems – become increasingly obvious. The results of late capitalism’s global stock exchanges flicker past in the network diagram. From Hong Kong to New York, they are steered by short-term ideas and expectations, as unpredictable as the weather and as complex as emotions. And at least as closely linked to imagination, to dreams and nightmares, as to any realities in the space we still call the real world.

Svalbard _5_12214. In a similar way, we – our culture, our so-called civilisation – try to grasp an uncertain future through the models that aim to predict climate change. At the Hadley Centre in Exeter, England, on the edge of Dartmoor, meteorologists work to announce the future through a total digital representation. All data that could affect developments is to be included in a model which, perhaps more than anything else, reflects the megalomania of our scientific knowledge. How should the unthinkable, the nonverbal, be digitalised? Isn’t the future just as unseeable, uncertain and sublime as the firmament? Is the Milky Way our funeral cloth?

Svalbard _5_12315. Mary Shelley dreamed up the tale of Frankenstein and his monster in the summer of 1816. The story can be read as a warning, suited to the newly established scientific view of the Enlightenment: a science with the ambition of being omniscient, of understanding, controlling and ultimately being able to produce both life and natural laws. The threat conjured up by Shelley – a threat that has been repeated in many different guises from the age of industrialism to today’s global capitalism – is the danger of creating something that we can no longer control and which, conversely, begins to control us. Frankenstein’s search for his monster ends in the Arctic, where the exhausted man dies aboard a ship whose captain, Walton, is the one who recounts Frankenstein’s story in the novel. Frankenstein never succeeds in his goal of destroying the monster. The monster comes to the ship after Frankenstein’s death to bid farewell to his creator and antagonist. The closing lines read: Farewell. He sprung from the cabin window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.

Svalbard _5_12416. Two huge, uncontrollable, unmanageable forces have met in the Arctic, on the cold coast of Svalbard. They are inseparably united, and are dependent on each other. One is the climate, and the other is the global economy. As the ice caps and the glaciers are turned into water, heedless plans arise for new business opportunities. On August 31, 2011, US giant Exxon Mobil – “Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges” – and Russia’s Rosneft – “Energy for Growth” – signed an agreement for oil extraction in the Arctic worth $3.2 billion – an enormous amount of money to be placing on the edge of an abyss. In the shadow of such an agreement, the subject stands helpless and can only retreat further, deeper into the darkness. Ein Sof – the infinite. §

Svalbard _4Ice cave, Svitjodbreen, September 2011. Photo by Tyrone Martinsson.