arctic circle

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Medienlabor Munich Talk, 14 July 1995

I'd like to extend our thanks to Florian Roetzer, Hubertus von
Amelunxen and Stefan Iglhaut for an inspiring exhibition concept
"Fotographie nach der Fotographie" (English and German book
editions available from Verlag der Kunst, Berlin). And as well to
the Siemens Culture Program, Alexis Cassel and Stefan Iglhaut,
first for their belief that <<arctic circle>> can work. As well,
thanks are due Armin Medosch, Oliver Schwarz for Telepolis, and for
this event, Andi, Herman and Oliver, all of you, here tonight.

Circle City, Alaska got its name when gold found there was thought
to lie on the Arctic Circle. Those superstitious prospectors were
wrong a century ago but the name for this town at the end of a
desolate Alaskan highway stuck. The Arctic Circle has been many
things, but it remains in theory a geographical zone, different
from physical boundaries like rivers and mountains, it is an
imaginary boundary, like the threshold of twilight between day and

Geographically, the Arctic Circle is the gateway to the land of
polar nights and the midnight sun. It rings the 66,33' parallel
North above the equator, but shifts a few seconds every year. The
Arctic Circle is that impossible place where we're told day exists
on one side and night on the other for two days of the year. During
the summer solstice, between June 20th and 21st, above it, the
sun shines right through the night. A 'virtual' sun, however, due
to refraction, appears to hang in the sky over the Arctic Circle
for not one night but four.

Cabin fever and Midnight madness, the drastic polarity of life in
the Arctic Circle has been felt by its indiginous peoples for
millenia. The only circle to them is the sun, not our geographer's
compass. The stakes are, or at least were, too high for Laps and
Eskimos to visualize their world as an elegant mathematical model,
encompassing their visual field but not their entire body of
sensory perception. Their response to hard times was never to study
weather maps or satellite images, but to dance and carve - hold
rituals. Nature rituals are evolution's cultural means of selection
for nature people, serving to pass along life-giving methods as
memorable myths to young minds. Technology has its own ghosts in
the machine. The ritual of media has been called by Les Levine "a
bio-tech rehearsal for leaving the body".

Technology has weighed into the evolutionary balance ever since
someone picked up a rock and shaped it 2,2 million years ago. Both
technology and ritual will play a central role in what we will be
up to up North and on-line this August in the Arctic and beyond
on the Internet. We will be probing the proximity and distance
between these spaces, one geographical and remote, the other,
medial and crowded.

Hunter-gatherers wandered across the Beringia land bridge into
North America between 40000 and 10000 years ago. Among them were
the Athapaskans and the Eskimos. Eskimo is a pejorative Indian
term meaning "those who eat raw fish". Inuit means "mankind" and is what
Eskimos call themselves. Like all nature people, they could not
afford to catalogue their lives in isolated visual terms as we do
today. To visualize the arctic field was a luxury Eskimo technology
could not afford them. They had to listen to the ground not look
at it, touch it, feel it, taste it with their only machine, their
body. They embraced northern darkness and light, fire and ice, not
as the contents of an abstract circle, but with all their senses
to survive.

At least this was the situation before Russian and European fur
traders, prospectors and adventure-seekers invaded in the 18th
and 19th centuries. They brought back minerals and furs, detailed
maps and books of images. Now, like their trespassers, Native
Americans depend on a culture of consumerism to keep the wolf from
the door. And as we all know they are in a crisis because of it.
We fish out their waters, package Alaskan fish in squares, you
know those lovely seelachs in Kaisers and Plus.  And thanks to
synthetic thinsulate and animal rights groups, fur exports may be
banned in the EC, and native exports have dropped from 3 million
to 900,000 pelts a year. But the Athapaskans and Inuit are
resourceful. One Canadian handbook states there are more artists
in the Northwest Territories per capita than anywhere else in
the world.

Western technology transfer has been a tragedy for these people.
Marshall McLuhan makes this point well with the surprising story
of the igloo. Inuits traditionally live in round stone dwellings.
Round dwellings, he points out, are primarily tactile enclosures
and common to most so-called primitive cultures. Square rooms -
like this one - are primarily visual spaces, designed to compart-
mentalize or exclude all the senses other than an elevated sense
of vision. A product of this was the portable stone. And it was
the portable stove that built the igloo. The tragedy occurred
when one winter fuel supplies didn't show, and Eskimo hunters,
thinking they had extended their mobility and ability to find
food in winter, froze to death, perished in the cold.

polar map

The rise of the Western view of the Arctic Circle, that neat line
on the map with mathematical precision was perhaps a rational
conclusion to Aristotle's observation 2400 years ago of ring-like
traces of sunlight sweeping along the ground during a total solar
eclipse. But many developments, particularly in the areas of
astronomy and analytic geometry, were to come before it could
become a visual fixture in our mind's eye and memory.

The necessary revolution in astronomy broke out when Nicholas
Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model for the solar system in
1543 ("De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri VI").
Johannes Kepler refined his proposal with Laws governing regular,
elliptical planetary orbit about the sun (1616). But it was
Galileo who paid for their 'sins' following his famous proclam-
ation in 1633  "eppur si muove" (Und, sie bewegt sich doch!)
which landed him in church prison. Galileo went blind in 1637.

Necessary developments in analytic geometry followed the Renaiss-
ance and Leon Battista Alberti's central perspectival scheme,
which elevated vision to new heights, although it assumed the
viewer to be immobile and monocular. René Descartes gave sight all
the industrial power it has today, ironically the year Galileo
lost his, enlightening the world with his treatise "Discours de
la Méthode" (1637), laying the groundwork for the Cart-
esian coordinate system of x-, y- and z- axes, that fixes systems
of objects in incremental grids to behold with the eyes, devoid
of sound or smell or touch or time, making it simple to picture
objects and, therefore, manufacture them.

Recent media theory is trying to propel technology beyond Des-
cartes, or back to an Ur-Weltanschauung, but Descartes will
continue to inform all digital media, until contemporary programm-
ing techniques based on his grid and the pixel itself disappear.
The current trend to disparage Descartes is only indicative of
our desire to move on, or rather return to a more synaesthetic
or nomadic lifestyle, which ironically media helped undo.

The desire to find new legs and walk out onto the new media
savannah like our Ethiopian cousins did 8 million years ago
appears to be genuine and widespread- the World Wide Web grew
341,000% in 1993, 700 times the population growth seen
during the greatest gold rush of all times 99 years ago this
August 16th, along the North American Arctic Circle. And natural-
ly, technophobia surges, in the wake of the present info-rush.
We are media sceptics, against all the positivist and utopian
rhetoric we see and here. So much technology-based art never
makes it through the machinery and out into society. So much of
it is what I call WOW-nerful. There is a built-in danger to
artists working with technology. It's called the tehnological
imperative, meaning that if the button is there puch it. And
WOW! That danger sets up a short circuit between the artist
and the machine, and what he or she may be interested in saying
vis a vis content gets lost. I've seen this time and time again.

Another deterent to technology-based art is our lingering cultural
paradigm - what I call 'thingness'. Painting and installation
are 'thingly' processes, photography and video lesser so, but
pure information transfer and data communications are more like
'happenings' when they're working. They are at the other pole of
this paradigm - what I call 'isness'. 'Thingness' is based
on clear, fixed pictures, whereas 'isness' moves, not only
across our field of vision like a movie but pan-sensorialy, like
touching with the eyes, or tasting a form.

Until this paradigm shifts in our consciousness, until the
boardrooms of most major companies get 'isly', virtual reality
will remain a visual boy-toy, or at best or worse, a uni-sense toy, 
like the dataglove and teledildonics, always segregating the senses
under a higher visual order.
Scientific American recently reported on the state of virtual
reality today. They spoke only about vision, saying the eye
perceives 800 million polygons per second and Silicon Graphics
RealityEngine® generates only one quarter of one percent of this,
that is 2 million polygons per second under optimal conditions.
Even the highly experimental PixelFlow® machine at the
University of Chapel Hill only approaches a mere 15 million poly-
gons per second. But, you see, the point to me is, who cares.

Virtual reality is not isolated vision, or touch, in any special-
ized way. It's an experiment in restructuring our perception.
As virtual reality 'heats up', in McLuhan's sense of 'hot',
a high definition medium, aimed primarily at one sense, requiring
only passive participation, a danger exists for life on the Net.
We will not be driving a Beamer to the Arctic (that's what Amer-
icans call a BMW), and we will not be driving itsequivalent on
the Internet. We will be driving to you. We are interested not in
the state of the art but in the system of communication and its
content, who's in the car, who and what's out the window, and who
and where we're driving to, both on-the-road and on-line. 

If the Internet system 'heats up', and there are many indi-
cations that it will, cybercommunities will become as passive as
what we call bedroom communities in Canada, suburbs with a TV in
every bedroom, or simply cyber-ghosttowns. As the Internet 'heats
up', information will likely flow then in only one direction,
downstream to its passive consumers in the home with very
little traffic upstream back onto the Net. This already happen-
ed to community cablevision in New York in the 1970s, and it
happens to every medium whenever they get 'overheated.' We
are not programmers but we have managed to program our rudiment-
ary Web site at the Thing in New York. If things go wrong in
Manhattan, or at our end in the middle of nowhere, we are prepared
to use the Internet a the text-based system it was set up to be
in the first place. In fact, it is only electric Gutenberg
technology. As sceptical as anyone is when it comes to working
with technology, we are willing if need be to send our video
performances and sound bites as text files, as email, to be con-
verted back into color, motion and sound at our primary Web site
in New York, as well as mirror sites hopefully at Telepolis and
here at the MedienLabor.

Travelling with a minimum of computer equipment, with 'transparent'
technology, we will try to be as 'cool' as possible, not as
far as the weather goes we hope, but in McLuhan's sense again,
meaning low definition media, aimed at more than one sense, not
asking you to view but to participate in our whereabouts.

The Ur-world was a 'cool' place. Then civilization 'heated'
up. The Middle Ages 'cooled' down again, but then the Renais-
sance and the Enlightenment 'heated' things back up again. The
message to 'cool' down again has been around since Natur-
philosophie, electric technology, Delacroix, Seurat and Cézanne,
Albert Einstein, and James Joyce to name only a few who gave us
the cue. Their thread, however, as I have said has not been woven
deeply enough into our consciousnesses. We can read about it this
thread slipping through our hands in much of the recent philo-
sophical debates concerning the Other and the simulacrum. A lot
of recent theory I have read has based its critique on exactly
what it was intending to criticize, namely - visual signs and mass
media, which in the end only reinforces 'thingness' rather
than invokes 'isness'.

Felix S. Huber in Natural History Museum (with Grizzly) in NYC

Time is the other issue. Media has not speeded it up. It has
ground it to a halt, like the feeling one gets watching reruns
on TV. That's future shock - appropriation, sampling and repro-
duction techniques have made media time as banal as spending
time everyday. Real time has always been boring; and infinite
time, infinitely boring. Time lost its individuality in the 17th
Century when the second was invented. Time became a 'dividual'.
One reads about the collapse of historical time in art and archi-
tectural styles; its fragmented nature to TV channel hoppers and
magazine junkies, but that time denotes essentially boredom, a
sense of having seen it all before. Our sense of time will not
change until we become 'isly'. Seconds haven't gotten any
faster, they've just split like atoms into nano-seconds.

Our arctic circle travel-as-art-as-information loop explores
this banality of real and virtual time. The instantaneity of our
sending messages at electronic speed (over great physical dist-
ances from a place like the Arctic) can subliminally be mistaken
for urgency. In fact, our video clips, sound bites, digital images
and text pages will not be urgent at all. Time the 'dividual' will
govern our work time for sure as it governs our car, computers 
and schedule on-the-road. But we will be slowing both physical
and media time down, by extending our physical journey on the Net,
months after we return to New York and Cologne. We will be playing
one time off against the other. And one space off against the
other. We want to feel your reaction, and find out how the actual
and virtual transmissions differ and compare.

The Arctic Circle I had been culturally conditioned to imagine is,
unfortunately, as visually manneristic as the Western one I pre-
viously put down. It was for me a land map, a weather map, a cold
front, a cold drink, aftershave lotion, even the screen world of
Howard Hughe's favorite movie Ice Station Zebra - he watched
it 164 times - or Robert Flaherty's naturalistic film Nanook
of the North (1916). However, my preconceptions came into
question recently when I read that Nanook starved to death on a
hunting trip two years after the film came out, and as we began
to plan the physical logistics of our journey. I no longer saw
the snow as a television disturbance when I thought about wearing
a parka to the Frankfurt airport in July, or how to isolate a sleeping
bag on frozen ground, or how to ward off clouds of mosquitoes
and black flies, known to have killed dogs left out overnight. I
read in handbooks cautions in bold type about grizzly bears,
dazed and unpredictable of late, following a rash of northern
forest fires, reading things like aside from keeping food in
air-tight containers and out of the tent, to be sure to wash any
trace of food from one's hands and face before retiring. And
there were cautions about auto travel, likewhat to do about
rubber tires on hard, cold gravel roads, to bring not one but
two spare tires, to protect headlamps and the windshield with
wiremesh and the radiator and gastank with rubber, or risk being
stranded in the middle of a nowwhere so vast it's hard for a
European to imagine. And then having to swallow hard wondering
if, as tourists essentially, we will fall into the trap of mere
cultural voyeurism, like Helmut Kohl did on his June visit to the
Canadian arctic, to fulfill, as he told our primeminister, "a child-
hood dream". Kohl shyed away from being photographed next to
any animal furs but was seen ducking out of an Inuit craft shop
with a rather large sculpture. To travel, as Kohl did, in a
private jet for a weekend with all the comforts of home, one tours
the Arctic with the eyes only. We cannot afford this luxury, nor
do we want it. We would rather be nowhere.

We have only two preconceptions that we'll be packing along with
us. One is, we don't know where we are going, but we'll know
where we've been. And the other, that travelling through one of
the last, remote wilderness regions on the planet, isolated for
days in a wide-open treeless landscape, and then to sit in front
of a computer screen trying not to look out of the tent flap or
the van window will be very difficult, trying to conjure up an
image of a world on the other side of the screen, while nature
looms endlessly all around us will be techno-stress for sure. We
imagine both worlds will evoke one and the same feeling

We encourage your participation. We have a Web site that will
slowly be built up. Right now, it's only provisional like the
images you're looking at right now. (At this point, before we are
underway, there are only the archetypical tourist images to work
with, as well as the typical Web site architecture.) Our Web site
address is: You can email us
from any page at the site.  There is an email discussion group as
well, a listserv, you may subscribe to at the Thing. Subscribe to Write SUBSCRIBE in the message
body. To send us a message this way, once subscribed, send email
to another address, and this can be confusing, not arctic-request
but just, and your post will be
forwarded to all subscribers. Check with Wolfgang at his address: if you have any problem. Another important
email address for arctic circle is our back-up compuserve
address: Our private addresses
are,, and

We may be emailed directly above the Arctic Circle at:, a mail account borrowed from the
senior technician at the Inuvik Research Center, at the mouth of
the mighty Mackenzie River delta, that spills into the polar sea.
Please keep your postcards and messages brief, one-page. We are
their guests. Their inukshuk machine is one of the Internet's
most northerly nodes and the name they chose I think is great. In
a fax to me from Barb Dillon, at the Northwest Territories
government, she defines inukshuk, and I quote:

"The word inukshuk is an Inuktitut word meaning 'like a person' for at a distance they are just that. When hunting caribou on open tundra, the Inuit erected a series of inukshuks with both arms and legs. These inukshuks would be about 100 yards apart. Men would be waiting at the end of the line, while women drove the caribou along the line of inukshuks. The women were careful not to enter the line, because this would upset the spirits. Children would stand beside the inukshuks to provide some movement because the caribou at times, sensed the inukshuks were not people. In the Baffin region, the traditional meaning of an inukshuk has to do with direction. An inukshuk on land with two arms and legs means there is a valley, and at the end of the valley, you are able to go in two directions. The same inukshuk near the sea means there is a channel, and atthe end of the channel, you will be able to go in two directions. An inukshuk on land with no arms, but both legs, means one-way passage. The same inukshuk by the sea means there is a channel that allows for a one-way passage. An inukshuk with no arms and legs is simply a guide for a hunter in unknown territory."
And that is our northern machine. Thank you very much. Tourist brochure photo of fully clad eskimo with Samoid in a living room NOTE: I would like to make a couple of comparisons between Inuit language and digitaltiy. Zero was discovered in the 13th Century when the Italians Latinized the Arabic word sifr aszipherum, meaning cipher or zero. Binary calculation then became thinkable. Eskimos, however, have counted with a binary system for ages, They have number words for one and two, composite numbers until six, and then they say heap (Haufe). Marshall McLuhan points this out in Understanding Media. Another etymological link between the Eskimos and the computer is pointed out by another Canadian, Steven Pinker, MITs director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, in his book The Language Instinct. He links Eskimo and Latin words for finger to the Ur-language word for one. It goes like this. Our word digital derives from the Latin digit meaning finger. The Eskimo word for index finger is tik. The Latin digit derives from the ancient Indo-European word deik meaning to point, Deik, that in turn derives from the hypothetical Proto-World word tik meaning one identical phonetically to the Eskimo word for index finger. The Inuit language helps locate the bridge between our notion of being digital, a number system, and our bodies.
Links Background Info I, "Gold Rush", February-May, 1995 Background Info II, "Virtual Realists", February-May, 1995 Background Info III, "Cultural Alchemy", February, 1996. "email reading", Ars Digitalis, HdK Berlin, April 1996 "Medium bedeutet Mitte", Institut für Deutsche Philologie, Munich, July 1996 main menu..................arctic circle...................tropic of cancer email forum (Mailbox entry to the circle.)
copyright 1995-96 felix s. huber, philip pocock