Other Antarctica
Antarctic Pavilion, Oceanic Fund Projects, Paris, AVC Charity Foundation, 2014
Antarctica is the geographical end of the world. Yet, more than a century after man first set foot there it sustains a population of 1162 throughout the sunless winter and 4000 in the summer months. Given the time that has elapsed and the amount of human activity, can we speak of culture (beyond official mission structures) peculiar to Antarctica? How does this culture relate to the public face of the continent? Does paying attention to life as lived in Antarctica bring our priorities into focus? Our vanities? Subterfuges? How do we – who will never go – also claim our stake in the Antarctic imaginary?

Antarctica is not generally communicated as a cultural space, despite the fact that it has been inhabited for more than a century. The lack of will to cultural analysis is clearly indicated by the dearth of comparative studies of artistic production since man’s first engagement. Indeed, there have been no attempts to investigate image-making practices in Antarctica across expeditions or personalities. While attention has been paid to the work of creators individually, no ‘Art History of Antarctica’ has been written. Even excepting the will to intellectual synthesis, libraries are without anthologies of paintings or drawings made there. Given the opportunity that obtains to successfully catalogue, without omission, the entire corpus of such images from at 1840 until the late 20th Century, Century, it is surprising that no one has tried. In no other sector of the entire globe could such an enterprise be ventured with such a plausible hope of success. Neither are there any journal articles comparing work facilitated by various national ‘artist in residence’ programs aboard Antarctic service vessels or research stations – despite the fact that complete documentation might easily be collected. The conclusion we must draw from these observations is that, as yet, there is no developed notion of Antarctica as a human environment that generates its own interpretive or relational frames transcending national-institutional ‘missions’.

The repressed cultural dimension of Antarctica is no mere concern for gourmands of exotica. The lack of an architectural historical enterprise has direct consequences upon what is built. Almost without exception – save for Halley VI by Hugh Broughton Architects – stations have been designed by engineers with zero regard for what it might be like to inhabit them. How does this pseudo-architecture circumscribe understanding of man’s place in Antarctica, as developed by those who actually live there – those who play decisive roles in interpreting the continent on the behalf of we who will never go? Perhaps opportunities to build upon previous innovations are also being missed. What could a master plan for Graham Land, the most populous of all Antarctic regions, do for a reduced ecological footprint – for instance? How might it catalyze greater cooperation among various (national) research groups, potentially incorporating lessons from unofficial practical collaborations hitherto unstudied, facilitating new scientific and social advances? What are we being denied by the hegemony of intellectual silos that lead to bunker-like projects?

The lack of an architectural/analytic enterprise is, at least in part, a symptom of geo-political conditions that limit and even contradict the transnational project of Antarctic occupation as pure science. If undertaken, the analysis involved in drafting the aforementioned master plan might conclude that the area could lose a few stations altogether without harming scientific discovery. Indeed, the relative proximity of Argentina and Chile’s stations there is a clear a function of competing national territorial designs.

It seems there is tacit agreement not to acknowledge the diplomatic cover that scientific enterprise provides state actors jockeying for natural resources. Most research can be turned towards practical ends unforeseen or even contrary to researchers’ intentions. ‘Pure’ inquiry can easily be made applicable to such things as the exploitation of mineral and biological reserves: accurate geological surveys beget knowledge of where to drill oil wells or establish gold mines. Science need not even be practiced in order to serve rapacious appetites: evidence suggests that some ‘research’ stations are little more than Potemkin villages built by countries in order to obtain Antarctic Treaty membership, so as to influence management decisions regarding the continent’s fisheries.1 In concrete terms, many state actors are only paying lip service to the singular importance of the Antarctic Treaty – and we must worry that it may be amended for the worse if enough members deem it expedient.

All of this points towards the abrogation of Antarctica’s utopian potential. In order to rehabilitate it we must entertain visions of living there that go beyond the mission. While most of these visions will remain theoretical – given the resources necessary to make things happen on the continent – architecture constitutes an important field of interface between idea and application. Though a functional, material enterprise it also has the potential to encapsulate and impart values. It can condition behavior and inform subjectivity. Antarctic architecture may yet, therefore, build futures whose relevance and power transcend the continent.

We will not reform the Antarctic imaginary and the architecture that serves it without challenging the prevailing edifice of Antarctic man. At present, the hegemonic image of human activity there is squeaky clean – with residents commonly portrayed as morally unimpeachable ciphers solely engaged in the pursuit of eco-scientific inquiry. They go there to penetrate its crust and scale its peaks without guilt or egoism – for knowledge. Their tests are impersonal and hygienic. They leave nothing behind and take only ice-cores and photos back home – clinical twenty-first century negations of trophy hunting. They are the first witnesses, a hermeneutic oligopoly. The continent is more exclusive than the holy cities of old – Mecca, Lhalsa, or the Kingdom of Bhutan – and they are a guardian elect. Such an image renders the global public’s non-specialist interest in Antarctic matters irrelevant.

Let us briefly entertain an iconoclastic perspective that subjects the shiny figure of this elect to its repressed other. There is certainly evidence of questionable interests and even transgression in this special class. It is worth recalling events that no mission hagiography can obscure: In the 1950s a man on the Mawson base spent most of the winter season imprisoned in a storage room after becoming deranged and indiscriminately violent. It is also said that a Russian once cleft a man’s head in two with an axe after losing a game of chess. These incidents are easily dismissed as outliers, but acknowledging that life in Antarctica is messier than commonly portrayed reminds us that the continent’s inhabitants can change, radically, in response to their surroundings. In 1983 a staff doctor burnt the Argentinean Almirante Brown station to the ground when the setting sun announced the onset of winter. His act has been interpreted as such: ‘the thought of spending the next seventy days without light was unbearable and so he decided to evacuate himself and other residents’. 2 While it is tempting to view his action as a literal manifestation of lunacy, perhaps it should be viewed differently: as the most categorical form of architectural critique. There was, after all, light in the station – so one imagines that its built environment was missing other important qualities. On a related note, among some people who have spent time in Antarctica trading images of burning stations is a pastime.3

That everyday life in Antarctica is messy enough to change people is something we have begun to forget. Indeed, as more people have come to inhabit the continent, everyday life has been given less attention. Most serious cultural analyses are limited to discrete expeditions or personalities of the heroic era – taking them as case studies for imperial national history.4 Considerations of the texture of living, desire and organic practices of communal identification seem to taper off after the First World War. Contemporary travel writers such as Sarah Wheeler do take interest in the particular. However, for the most part they are content with diaristic meditation – foregoing methodical approaches to oral history or archives in favour of subjective discovery.5 Something is missing. Whatever official agendas Antarctica’s inhabitants pursue, it is certainly not beyond the pale to infer that they entertain additional definitions of its placehood and their role in relation to it. Given the fact that the continent is an international zone with suspended sovereign claims, don’t these potential modes of identification hold some promise?—Perhaps the spirit of a transnational project even more ambitious, and worthwhile, than the one currently in effect? Let us hypothesize the existence of Antarctic folk cultures and whole new worldviews emanating from this region that have nothing to do with the ‘mission’.

The new Antarctic imaginary will not be developed by the traditional broadcast media. Even within this industry – normally obsessed with ‘reality’ programming – the everyday is repressed; budgets adventurous but messages conservative. Why? Not least, because almost without exception visiting cultural producers are ‘embedded’ – like those covering America’s invasion of Iraq. Official and semi-official cultural production in Antarctica assumes a subordinate role, communicating the ‘useful’ research being carried out by the unreconstructed resident elect. Otherwise, it brackets them entirely in order to concentrate upon high-definition eye-candy. Excepting Werner Herzog – independent and perverse enough to film the operations of a soft-serve ice-cream machine – no one gets much remit to concentrate on the human backstage.6 Within this image regime there is little place for non-debentured reflection or creation to represent the continent – no bottom up.

Under these conditions we must ask—What feats of exploration and inhabitation are possible without a visitor’s permit? Where is the other Antarctica? How does one reach it? Just as a reformed Antarctic imaginary must deny the sanctity of an elect – in favour of their profane mutations in time – it must also reject the characterization of non-residents as a class of wreckers whose only Antarctic culture is the structural violence of a world system based on petroleum.7 We must assert the potential of visions that spring not only from those who live there, or who work for official Antarctic organizations. We – who are currently disenfranchised of Antarctica – can be its creators and constituents.

Le Corbusier once said that the first proof of human existence is to occupy space. As the virtual topography of the continent expands to fill computer screens in bedrooms worldwide it is only natural that non-specialists should attempt to colonize it. Citizen geographers of the Antarctic Internet already use Google Earth to explore its peaks and valleys, mostly in order to expose the true existence of half-buried UFOs, entrance tunnels to Hollow Earth and secret Nazi bases. These outlandish claims indicate enthusiasm for an Antarctic imaginary transcending the parameters of official representation. They also demonstrate that, in the absence of a critical enterprise, Antarctica’s repressed cultural-historical dimension returns in paranoiac modes: The subject of a short story by H.P Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, gets interpreted as a ‘real’ account; and Second World War misinformation – relating to the apparent siting of ‘Hitler’ near Argentina – becomes a secret colony of storm troopers still living down south.8

While the web affords Antarctica’s non-residents space to explore unofficial concerns it appears to lack a developed site for aggregating, analyzing and discussing material. Such a site could be a key bridge between speculation and practice. The construction of a virtual ‘research station’ will empower broader critique of how the continent is conceived and managed by its governing bodies. It may even generate projects that influence south polar agendas. While individuals are already (web) publishing, the establishment of this site would be the initial basis for an cultural institution dedicated to consolidating the notion of an expanded Antarctic imaginary.

This institution need not be a walled garden. It should engage with other structures as yet unconcerned with the continent. Given the need for historical and creative activity in the domain of Antarctic architecture, polemical interventions in such contexts as the Venice Biennale are warranted. Establishing an Antarctic Pavilion here will, initially, alert the profession to its disregard for what is built in the South Polar Region. In time, the pavilion’s program may impact upon the design of real stations. Furthermore, its problematic position vis a vis the biennale’s nationally over-determined structure will be productive: Proposing a pavilion that represents a transnational space challenges the biennale’s politics of territorial representation. More importantly, it points to Antarctica as a Giardini of sorts, in which the sovereignty-obsessed cultural ambitions that were relevant two centuries ago still seem to hold sway.

Perhaps this institution should also confront Antarctica’s resident elect with visions of Antarctic enterprise that they do not recognize. An independently funded Biennale of Antarctica – bringing artists, architects and other thinkers to the continent – might be conceived as a pedagogical gift to scientists and support staff. Exhibiting alternative conceptions of the Antarctic enterprise – and confronting highly practical residents with less than instrumental positions – is sure to provoke productive reflection and debate on the matter of the continent’s utopian potential. This is certainly oversize idea, but Antarctica is a superlative place.

Despite all the kilometres of ground untrodden by human foot, mountains unnamed and creatures unknown, Antarctica is a cultural space. However neatly the mission is defined, schedules implemented or social structures regulated, pockets of organic meaning emerge. In the most frigid pools there is life. In dormitories and chemical toilets, cupboards and cafeterias, we find new figures in need of description. Beyond the limits of polar geography, in suburban bedrooms, in amateur video uploads, conspiracy theories, biennales and comic books – testaments to the Antarctic community that would yet know itself, and the continent, in ways imperceptible to scientific mission. Among enthusiasts and projects yet to be dwells the promise of a new Antarctic man.