A global collaboration between six international libraries from five distinct cities, the Arctic Imagination project has brought together conversation partners to reflect on the pressing relevance of the Arctic amid the threats of melting ice and climate change. The result? A brand new platform for discussions centering on the past, present, and future of our planet’s northernmost region.
What happens when the ice disappears? That is the question that resides at the core of the Arctic Imagination’s multiyear journey to the heart of the Arctic and its place at the edge of our collective imagination. For years, it was a question that lingered within scientific circles and among polar experts. But the pressures of climate change have lent the discussion about the Arctic’s future a stark relevance for humanity as a whole because, for the most part, what happens in the Arctic affects us all.
The product of a unique collaboration between the public libraries of Nuuk, Copenhagen, New York, Stockholm, and Oslo and the Consulate General of Denmark in New York, the Arctic Imagination project has connected a cast of creatives, writers, artists, thought-leaders and researchers to tackle the existential quandary in which the Arctic Region is now steeped.
To put the scope of the project into perspective, we spoke with #DenmarkInNY Consul General Anne Dorte Riggelsen about how art and literature can help answer complicated questions about climate change, the melting ice, and the Arctic’s ever-shifting topography, both imaginary and real.
DKNY: When we talk about the Arctic we have a blurry sense of an abstract space at the northernmost point of our planet. So, what does the Arctic actually mean, both to and for us? And what kind of images does it conjure up for you, in particular?
ADR: The all-dominant image of the Arctic in today’s political debate and public imagination is that of the fast-melting ice-sheet. At least, such are the images with which we are confronted in both national and international media on a daily basis. However, quite obviously, the Arctic amounts to so much more than these generic snapshots of climate change observed in real-time. The Arctic is a highly resourceful and culturally diverse geographical region in its own right, home to numerous indigenous peoples and threatened animal species across Greenland, Northern Scandinavia, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Perhaps more pertinently, the Arctic is also an immensely powerful imaginary space, a metaphorical last frontier, which has haunted artists, authors, adventurers and philosophers for centuries and which can still serve as an inspiration for humanity today.
DKNY: The Arctic Imagination Project is addressing some of the biggest questions facing humanity today regarding climate change and the disappearing ice. How can literature and art help in answering these complicated questions?
ADR: The great value of literature and the arts is their ability to bring novel, sometimes entirely unexpected, perspectives to light. And when it comes to climate change, I think that the present political impasse between believers and non-believers can benefit greatly from the introduction of the artistic perspective as a magic prism by which the Arctic as a region can be imagined and reimagined as an invaluable repository of new possibilities for humankind rather than seen as a narrowly defined battlefield for scientific truth. This radical reversal of perspective inherent in the very premise for this multi-year collaboration project is exactly what the Arctic Imagination Series set out to facilitate.
DKNY: What were some of the biggest takeaways from the Arctic Imagination project, both here in New York at the NYPL and at the other participating libraries around the world?
ADR: By far the most important takeaway from the Arctic Imagination Series, I think, is how art and the cultural archives hidden away in the our library collections on both sides of the Atlantic can shed light on the irreplaceable part of our civilization’s heritage that the Arctic represents. Interventions from internationally-renowned thought-leaders such as Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, Canadian writer-critic Naomi Klein, US composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson, Danish-Norwegian author Kim Leine, Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Greenlandic-Danish geologist Minik Rosing, and many, many more, have served to bring to light the multiple cultural narratives that inform the Arctic region. These narratives can then be tapped into in terms of offering hitherto unexplored answers to the world’s urgent climate crisis as centered around the image of the melting ice-sheet.
DKNY: The project offered a broad range of interventions from artists, scientists, writers and thinkers. How did the audience and viewers in New York react to the project?
ADR: I had the great fortune of personally attending a number of LIVE events in the Arctic Imagination Series, as well as viewing video footage from several other events. Wherever I’ve been, I have met only highly enthusiastic and dedicated audience responses. I think this “artistic take” on the climate crisis is a real eye-opener for many people. It has offered new images of the Arctic region, as well as added flesh and blood to voices in the international climate debate without resorting to the usual doom-and-gloom approach to the subject. Kudos to the two leading curators of this project: Lise Bach Hansen of the Royal Library of Denmark and Paul Holdengräber from LIVE at the NYPL for conceiving such a mind-boggling and richly inter-disciplinary conversation between artists as well as archives. Thanks also to Denmark’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Anders Samuelsen for his personal support of this project, as well as to the many different project sponsors, including the Danish Arts Foundation and Agency for Culture and Palaces, Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, A. P. Møller Foundation and the many participating libraries in the Nordic countries.
DKNY: The Arctic Imagination Project has resulted in the publication of a beautiful coffee table book which ties together the various initiatives. In your view, what is the result of this project? Was it a success?
ADR: I think that the Arctic Imagination has succeeded in creating a brand new platform for our discussion of climate change in the Arctic — past, present and future — which has the potential to shape our understanding and reinterpretations of this region for decades to come. The beautiful book– full of so many artistic contributions in text and images — plays an invaluable role for the legacy of this project, as does the website www.arcticimagination.com. I encourage you all to check out this website and get your hands on the book — this conversation is only the beginning of a new era for the Arctic!