The Silver Lining on Doomsday

I have some disappointing news due to a turn of events in Svalbard that couldn't have been foreseen (it's nothing health related, just to get that thought out of the way), but I also wanted to counter balance my recent run-in of disappointment with all the amazing things I have accomplished so far and what I can hopefully pursue in my remaining time here.  Start reading which ever column you would like, we've got the good and bad sides of life to deal with here; good on the left, bad on the right. (If you're viewing this on a mobile device, the good news column will appear above the bad news. I thought that was the best symbolic way of formatting it since mobile devices can't view columns through this webpage design.)

Optimistic Side of Life

The best way to counteract the disappointing news I received about the Vault was for me to step back and consider all the amazing places I have had access to, the people I've been lucky to meet, and the networks that I'm excited to maintain and grow overtime. Not to mention, with this change of events at the Vault that I and other visiting artists now have to deal with, I am already thinking of new ways to format and tell a story about the Vault through my future book(s).  

Let's overview why Svalbard has already been so enriching:

First off, the obvious: I made it to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault! That in itself is insane.. I had an image of this place pinned up in my studio at RISD until the end of school and I never thought I would suddenly be in Svalbard walking around the Vault.  

It's a bit like what you would imagine a frozen Mars to be like, with all the mountains covered in the perfect skipping stone rocks, black ice, and odd foreign structures that look like something NASA had misplaced. *Side note: NASA actually has a satellite base here constantly broadcasting and monitoring outer space.*

I spent hours on hours mediating with the Vault as I filled my memory cards with images that convey notions of landscape obstruction. My original proposal revolved around this dichotomy of obstruction and preservation, exploring how the Vault is a back-up for the damages that could come to global crop life in the future, in large part caused by ourselves. With no longer the chance for interior shots of the Vault, I'm working with new ways to portray injury to landscape and the difficulties to protect it. 

Next on my thankfuls list was the chance to have met a tour guide named Phillipp Bergau who recently started his own husky sled and hiking tour company. @svalbardpolardogs

Though I didn't know it beforehand, he would be one of the most helpful people in showing me true Svalbard. Check out the small gallery of photos below from our first hike. Our next trek is in a few days! 

I've also met the oddest and greatest grouping of researchers, writers, photographers, explorers, and students that all fall into the one category of having a love for polar research, in all its forms. In fact, if you are interested in anything at all pertaining to polar research, this place is perfect for you. The Svalbard University offers amazing programs if you want to live a life of polar love. The museum located within the University is also adorably small but incredible with details. 

Because only in the Svalbard Museum can you read on a bed of pelts. 

So yes, Svalbard has been more helpful to me than I could have imagined. I'm pretty sure I can speak for the other visiting artists and writers that are here with me when I say we will all be walking away with content that, although may be different from what we expected coming in, we will surely find new ways to work with it.

The Sad News at Svalbard

I've been holding back some bad news for a few days now, only because it takes me a while to consider the gravity of an incident when something goes off course for the worse. Case and point, there were severe mechanical problems within the Vault that have now halted access to the inside. At first, I was very angry how this sudden course of events changed. Taking a long and patient step back, though, I've come to realize I really can't place my anger towards anyone. I ask you get to the end of this post and know that I think this project will work out in the end...  an end that will happen much later than I originally planned. Who knows, maybe I was meant to be here to see this malfunction that occurred due to climate instability. 

I'll try to simply explain what exactly went wrong, how it happened, and why It's only bad luck (and climate change) to blame. 

  1. A record amount of rain fell onto Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the exact Friday that I and other invited guests flew in; it continued to pour through the weekend. Snow is supposed to have covered the ground by late October in Svalbard, never rain. This quantity of rain was unheard of. 
  2. The Vault, never designed for such high levels of rain because it has never had this much in excess in the region before, took in a significant amount of the water. The water went down one of the core tunnels of the Vault and made its way down the electricity corridor. 
  3. I was postponed a few days from entering the Vault, or even getting near it, because of this temporary problem, as my contact for the resource center had told me. I wasn't worried.
  4. My contact works for the resource center that maintains and monitors the seeds, but it is the government (not my contact's agency) that has final power and oversight of the upkeep for the Vault. He was not told by a government representative that the overall problem within the Vault was worse than what everyone had originally thought. 
  5. We were told that the Vault (which is a multi-million dollar investment for the Kingdom of Norway) had been flooded enough to fry the electrical system that provides the power down the 85 meter core tunnel to the seed chambers, power for all the lighting down the tunnel, power for the back-up cooling units at the base of the Vault, and power for climate monitoring devices within the Vault. 
  6. The local government branch on the Island responded immediately and prevented any damage to the seed chambers, while trying to make sure coolness levels did not change. However, the entire facility (built down into the depths of a mountain) is now pitch black and has ongoing electrical repairs, making the facility a hazard to any visitor who would be at a great risk of electrical shock, icy slips, or run-ins with construction equipment in the near dark, as we were told. And again, this is a huge investment for the government, not to mention all the countries around the world who contributed seeds, which is why they are taking it seriously before heavy winter arrives.
  7. I, another photographer from Estonia, 6 journalists from Sweden and Japan, a book author from Brooklyn and a Brazilian researcher all came here to eventually have access to this facility that pertains to our work in different ways. This access inside will not be able to happen for several weeks, maybe months, as nothing has been finalized and the buildings electrical power source is going to have to be reallocated to a different part of the building to prevent this from happening again. We are all allowed interviews and access to the exterior of the Vault, but the interior will have to wait. 
  8. The Vault was built nearly 8 years ago. This is the first time in those 8 years that a problem like this has caused a shutdown. The fact that it happened on the last scheduled period of the year when the Vault opens for researchers could not have come at a worse time. This all started the day I and other invitees to the Vault so happen to have come from around the World. 

"What possible silver lining could you see in this," you definitely are shouting at your screen right now. 

Well, it took me a few days, hikes, and solitude to try to navigate this all out. Many of us visiting artists came to the conclusion that this should be another wake up call for the future.

What really dawned on me came from my new friend Phillipp who lives and works out in the tundra of the region. "Besides your own issues with the situation. you can clearly see that this northern world is going to shit man... it was supposed to be a doomsday vault, safe from all elements, even nuclear strikes..."

He was right. This facility was built as a global backup for crop life biodiversity and conservation. It is supposed to stand the test of time, of elements, of human-driven destruction... and yet, due to unheard of weather patterns that had not been considered in the design of the entryway to this bunker, the Vault is now wounded. If this failsafe in the mountains of the Arctic is not prepared to address climate change, how could the rest of the world be ready? The poetics and irony of global warming affecting the Vault are all too real and too present to go untold. 

I will eventually be looking for a grant or fellowship in the future to bring me back here for some of the images I didn't get around to this time. 

Until then, I am going to take the content I have now and see what I can fold it into... there's definitely a story brewing here. And again, I still have exterior imagery and content from around the Island, so I ain't walking away empty handed. This new plot twist is only going to spin me forward, now at a new pace.  

Now everyone, let's stare off into the distance together and breathe slowly.