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United Visual Artists x Cape Farewell: High Arctic

The National Maritime Museum hosts an interactive environment that combines Captain Scott's historic expedition with a visionary landscape

Two visual arts projects join forces at the National Maritime Museum’s newly opened gallery space ready to faze us with the dark reality of the Arctic’s meltdown. Across a black void three thousand stark white columns punch into the air. Sitting among them is Matt Clark, one of the founding members of United Visual Artists. Clutching a UV torch able to activate digital animations from artificial pools of water in the gallery space he seems at ease. It’s no secret UVA revel in large scale digital art projects. They’ve worked commercially on Massive Attack’s live show, won the D&D yellow pencil for their Volume project and been commissioned by Tate Modern to take on the Turbine Hall. The bigger, it seems, the better.

Not long ago Clark couldn’t have been further from the comfort of the 820m2 gallery space. Aboard the Noorderlicht, a 100-year old ice breaker, a team of scientists, poets and musicians found themselves en route through an ever changing landscape of three thousand glaciers. As evoked in Nick Drake’s poetry, when triggered by visitors in the London installation, this was a journey into the Arctic’s forgotten past, a Victorian era when Captain Scott’s expedition to North Pole was equivalent to man’s first steps on the moon. Now the abstract interactive environment commissioned by Cape Farewell aims to bring us a new vision of an extraordinary place, that has inspired artists and scientists for centuries.

Dazed Digital: Why was the choice made to leave visitors exploring in the dark? What animations can they expect to see in the animated pools?
Matthew Clark: If you live in high Arctic, you'll spend half of the year in 24 hour daylight and the other half the year in total darkness. The Inuit’s of Greenland believe that when the great darkness comes it gives us a chance to think and imagine. We liked the idea of creating a space where people could think and imagine. Within the landscape, there are several projected environments where the visitors can interact and reveal animations using an ultra violet torch. The animations are code driven rather than traditional, this allows us to create dynamic experiences rather than passive ones.

DD: What is the d3 Software ultimately programmed to do?
Matthew Clark: d3 is a software toolkit that we have developed at UVA and we use on most of our projects. The software allows us to create complex interaction systems using various third party devices. There are a number of projected scenes which simulate natural environments, in which you can pollute the landscape, melt ice, navigate, influence the direction of wind and light, depending on where they are placed in the installation. The scenes create visual metaphors which are juxtaposed by Nick Drake's poetry.

DD: Nick Drakes poetry quotes explorers racing to the North Pole. There's nostalgia for Victoriana yet the narrative of the exhibition surely challenges the spawn of the industrial revolution?
Matthew Clark: Nick's poetry highlights the relationship between humans and the Arctic both positive and negative. The idea is to personalise the experience rather than create a feeling of nostalgia. There are stories from explorers dating all the way back to the 4th century and the Victorian era plays a part of our history with the Arctic. There are also stories from the ice itself, and chemicals such as mercury.

DD: What other approaches did you consider before settling on the final form, which parts got rejected or kept and why?
Matthew Clark: There are 3000 columns each with an individual name of a glacier that will disappear due to climate change. Together the columns make a glacial terrain for the visitors to explore. The original idea was to create the illusion of the columns floating as if it were sea ice, but this wasn't feasible. Practicality and budget are always important factors in realising ideas, but we experimented with many ideas and materials before agreeing to this solution. The final form is mainly dictated by how we can best translate the story we want to tell to visuals.

DD: Did the spirit or context of the Maritime museum evoke itself in the exhibition?
Matthew Clark: The museum has many wonderful Maritime artefacts, model boats, navigational devices and paintings etc. We wanted to do something completely different and create an environment the visitors could experience and be immersed in. The visitors are free to explore the space how ever they want, so you could say they are going on their own expedition.

DD: Is there a shift you've observed towards locking together technology, art and politics outside of the Cape Farewell project?
Matthew Clark: Using digital technology is very much a part of everyday life for people. It comes as no surprise that artists and designers are exploring the use of technology as a medium to express ideas. For us, the technologies we adopt are tools, just like a paintbrush is to a painter.

DD: Ultimately isn't there a tipping point where art is about escapism and politics is about engagement?

Matthew Clark: The challenge for any artist that has been on a Cape Farewell trip is how to engage an audience with the issues of climate change, without being too preachy or using a lot of statistics. Our installation creates a very surreal environment but we also want it meaningful and engaging.

Photos by John Adrian

High Arctic is at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, open 14 July 2011 - 13 January, 2012