Q&A: Melissa F. Clarke On Traveling To Greenland By Boat, The Kickstarter Model, And Hyperawareness


The entry for Melissa F. Clarke is mercilessly brief, and with good reason. This New York-based sound artist doesn’t go in for headphone music; she crafts immersive, science-fueled audio/visual experiences that demand observation of the interplay between images and sonics, like the haunted hum of Untitled Antarctica—which riffs on Sonogram-reading image onrush as it calls to mind the majesty of arctic ice while nodding at its depletion—or the nullifying, cornea-peppering turbulence of Bacteria, her collaboration with video artist Shimpei Takeda. (Her single-medium work is arresting, but her multi-sensory adventures are transcendent.)

Today, she sets sail on a three-week group voyage that will follow a course set by American painter William Bradford in the late 1860s and lead to the northernmost tip of Greenland. In the weeks leading up to her trip, SOTC emailed with Clarke about Arctic ice, the art she hopes to make on her journey, and the definition of a “work in progress.”

You staged a Kickstarter campaign [to fund your forthcoming trip to Greenland]. How did that turn out?

I feel like “After The Ice,” the Kickstarter campaign, was very successful. Beyond raising funds, Kickstarter is such an excellent platform for meeting people and sharing ideas. You know that most of the people messaging you and pledging support to your work are already intrigued by what you’re doing and your project, so after that, it becomes a community of people really around an idea and a project. To me, you then have to release the authorship a little to the backers to be successful and let them in as part of the campaign process. I received quite a few messages from other artists working with similar media and also people in the education field, professors and elementary school teachers who really liked the integration of science, technology, and art in my work. These were the best messages, really. I had no expectations on reaching that audience, but I’ve always felt that self-expression and creativity were missing in science and technology education. It’s important to allow people access to these disciplines without restricting how they enter it so much.

The other reason I felt the campaign was very successful is that I feel now much more confident about approaching people to support the work I’m doing—both financially and intellectually. It’s not easy to get up every day and believe someone wants to financially support or exhibit your work, or give you that feedback and dialogue that says “yes, your work is important, keep going, the world is a better place because you’re doing this.” Of course all the feedback shouldn’t be a bunch of “yay for you” platitudes, and I don’t feel like they were, but more a sense of validation that comes with being part of a campaign like that, and the interaction you have with hundreds of people in just thirty days around your project.

In a lot of ways, Kickstarter is a mirror of campaign financing, isn’t it? It’s sort of the democratic model, where lots of people chip in a little to help an artist accomplish something instead of one wealthy donor or corporation bankrolling the whole thing. But is there any discomfort for you in the idea that you’re beholden in some way, perhaps, to the people who contributed?

That’s an interesting comparison, but Kickstarter is not just about pledging; Kickstarter projects offer something back in the form of art or some sort of take-away gifts. You stay in touch with your backers after it’s over. I’ve pledged on their projects and been in communication with quite a few. I think that’s important and distinguishes it as an art, publishing, design market, and incubator model. Many people would still back a project, but there is an exchange. It’s a relatively democratic model, and it’s true you are relying on the kindness and enthusiasm of many versus being backed by a large institution or a donor. But that’s just the point: you’re more in control and a little less at the same time. It’s really a community that you’re developing. On the one hand you, are accountable to all of these people, and the project has to appeal initially to a larger group, on the other it may alter your approach a little. However, if you are backed by a large donor or institution you may have greater limitations and influences over your entire project from start to finish. In that sense, as I mentioned before, this creates a great sense of validation, especially if you feel your project and approach stays relatively close to your initial vision, and considering only forty percent of projects are successful.

I feel totally comfortable with this model; I’m a collaborative person and I see it as having some collaborative elements in terms of approaching others, albeit it’s not really collaborative in the full sense, but there is that feeling at points. Not to mention the work your core supporters do in helping get the word out, in looking over your copy, and all of the things a person can’t do all by themselves. Of course there are a lot of downsides to it too: you do have to ask everyone you know to support. This can become a little intimidating. And there’s the not knowing if you’ll make it. The time you have to spend can be overwhelming; it kind of takes over your life for a while.

A lot of the audio/visual projects on your page are labeled as “works in progress.” What does that mean for you? Is it a struggle to bring a piece to completion? Is ths something that you stress over, or something happens organically, whenever it happens?

This is an interesting question. I think I need to correct or rewrite where it says that. Really, I can show any of that work today, and I have. What I mean by “works in progress” really should be on going or something like that. The reason is because I’m still collecting material for those series, or I feel I’m still working on them, it’s not over, so to speak. There are series or works that I feel are done, in the sense that I’m not still collecting sound or visuals, and still thinking about the form and altering it. I feel the Untitled Antarctica work, for example, has run its course. Many of my other projects I consider open ended still, and diary like, I want them to shift with the years. I don’t stress about it, maybe I should. I’ve shown the work, and to many people it looks ‘finished.’ The subtext of work in progress is more for me.

Tell me a bit about “After The Ice,” the project this trip will help develop.

“After The Ice” is initially my title for the Kickstarter campaign, and then it addresses my interest in combining my experiences on the Arctic expedition that I’ll be going on with interests, media, and methods from my past work as an artist, including natural history, data, and time. The project also includes experiences I had as a child growing up in Central and Western New York state, that being the weather and the glacial history of the region affects my current experiences and work.

The title is a little ubiquitous, and I like that. It’s often used in some way in research papers and there are books with the title, often about following the current melting of ice in the poles, as well the political and scientific speculations mainly dealing with access to the North Pole. I like the general or ubiquitous combined with the personal and ambiguous in my work, so that helped inform the title.

The project and title also communicate a sense of time. The primary data I use in my work traces the gouges, topography, and sub-topography created by glacial movements of the past. The data is created by sending sound to the bottom of the sea, river, and oceans, and the returning sound draws this landscape largely shaped by ice of past ice ages. This submarine topography also affects the current rate of ice melt. In Antarctica, for example, many of the gouges bring warm water up under the ice shelf in the west, so this cycle of past affecting the present, and the metamorphosis that can be found in the data can be presented in very interesting ways.

I’ve also used data from the Hudson River as well as from Antarctica. For me, this underlines a deep sense of time and also a sense of the past going into the future in a very immediate way, it not only highlights our present fascination with the current state of glaciers but adds to our experience of the current landscape in New York City and upstate New York today. I grew up with an awareness that much of the topography, the forms of the lakes and the rivers resulted from the last great period of the current Wisconsin ice age. Which brings us to other things “after the ice” might imply as a title and express in the future series–looking for the ice that once covered and shaped the American North East, where I grew up, remnants of that time can be found in arctic ice sheets, near where I’m going. This place I live that was once covered by the Laurentide Ice sheet will eventually dramatically change again, it is changing, much like the poles are now, albeit not as dramatically. And now we are going to Greenland at a time when unprecedented amounts of ice have melted this year. Studies show this can happen every 150 years, but still it’s quite an event we are heading into. So this also works into the title a little. It is not a nostalgic look at change, but it can be considered contemplative and in some ways a contemporary kind of sublime.

As far as the form “After the Ice” will take as an art series, I know I’ll make sound and video from data and field recordings, as well as photos I take on the trip. There will be a book, a CD, and a DVD. I’ll open up the kind of data I use to include ice and climate data, no longer just using seismic data, although I will still place a heavy emphasis on acoustic imaging and other forms of bathymetry and seismic data. I will make prints based on the video I create, using video stills transferred to silver-gelatin prints. This I really love because it’s really a contemporary and interdisciplinary take on the methods used in older landscape photography. The project may also yield an installation, performances, and other things I haven’t imagined yet. I want to be open to experiences on the trip that will inform the work aesthetically and content-wise. I know we will meet scientists and researches along the trip. We will have access to a lot of data. And in addition to a native from Greenland being aboard the boat, I’m sure we will meet people there that will affect the future outcomes of “After the Ice.”

The name for the expedition is largely titled “Chasing the Light.” And the boat is named Wanderbird; this is the title name for our voyage retracing the path of the American painter William Bradford. Our expedition was originally planned by, and is dedicated to the memory of Rena Bass Forman—an artist and expedition leader Zaria Forman’s mother—who dedicated her life to photographing remote regions of the earth, and who was inspired by Bradford’s journey. Zaria Forman and Milbry Polk, the co-leaders, are the ones who assembled the team of artists and scholars. Zaria invited me because of my past work and my integration of art, tech, and science works perfectly with the spirit of the expedition. Forman and Polk have been collaborating with the New Bedford Whaling Museum curator Michael Lapides on tracing the route we take and gathering background research on Bradford’s last Arctic voyage in 1869 up the west coast of Greenland. Accompanying Bradford on his final voyage to the Arctic was Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes. According to Michael Lapides, “Bradford’s voyage was made solely for purposes of art, Hayes’s for science. We will use the narratives of both men as a template for our voyage.”

That’s interesting—you’re retracing these steps for the “purpose of art,” so in a way you’re perpetuating Bradford’s voyage, it’s kind of neverending.

Yes. I like the idea that it is neverending, and that it’s changing too in this process. The artist’s role is to perpetuate, or address, the past and to bring the present into their work at the same time. It’s important that we, the team, will be documenting this place as it stands in 2012. I feel in the way I’m doing it, the media that I use, says as much about the present as the state of the melting ice and moving ice bergs that I’ll be photographing, videotaping, and sound recording.

Also, it’s nice that the other artists will be capturing the place much like the Bradford expedition; they will be painting and photographing the ice. Yet these artists I’m traveling with will also use digital media at some point in the trip, and they see the world in a different way than the artists of 1869; they’ve been affected by film, video, the internet, electronic sound, there are information and communication mediums all around them.

Growing up, did you travel widely?

Not really. However, because my parents were divorced, my mother lived in Syracuse and my father in Washington, D.C., and then suburban D.C. I went back and forth quite a bit between two states and fairly different cultural places. I did start flying on airplanes and going in and out of airports from a really young age. I didn’t start leaving the States—going to places like Europe, or Central and South America—until my early twenties. Before that, Canada was the extent of my leaving the country, and that’s really 45 minutes from my summer house.

How did you get your start in the audio/visual arts? Was there a single catalyst, or was it more a culmination of experiences and realizations?

When I moved to New York City, I made the largest jump in my work; that’s when I started exploring audio and video. Before that I’d been working with new media, but not temporal-based new media. I started working with data in 2008 and seismic data shortly after.

At the same time, I was recording video of the weather from my studio window. The idea of an ecosystem really came to me living in Brooklyn. So I started video-taping from my studio window the sky and the weather. I felt that looking up at the sky, or at the snow on another roof from my studio window, I had a feeling of being in a natural environment.

Eventually I met more artists that were really asking questions about where things were going in art and technology, especially in graduate school at New York University in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). This combination of experiences really connected me with a new understanding of my practice and brought me to this point in my work.

In a conventional tourist sense and in a sound recording sense, how does one pack for a sea-faring trip to Greenland?

This is not easy, since the weather is pretty unpredictable. With living on a boat, you have to pack for variations in temperature and prepare against getting wet. I have these monstrous muck boots and I’m surely going to need them. Sunglasses are key, as the sun will be out and can be visible most of the time.

Not only do you have to adjust to boat life and the temperature shift, but the midnight sun, or arctic nights with visible sunlight, will take some adjustment. Food is an issue, so you have to pack dried food and nuts, unless you want to be at the mercy of the boat supply. The gear aspect is also hard because there are weight limitations and there’s only so much you can bring.

In addition to bringing photo and video gear, I will bring a simple sound recording device for field recording. I’ll also bring handmade microphones, including a hydrophone. I’m also bringing a sensor kit I made that records light, temperature, heat, humidity, volatile organic compounds, and carbon. I plan to make sound from the data I record when I return and link that to still images I take at certain points along the way.

Do you ever feel like, given how vastly and irreversibly our environment has changed, we’re living in a sort of limbo zone between what might be described as a benign environmental past and an uncertain, tumultuous future?

In the context of contemporary human experience, the past may seem benign compared to the changes we are now experiencing. I don’t see a state of limbo, however. I feel like in many ways the global environment has always been tumultuous if we consider deep time. Now we are witnessing our place in it and how we are affecting the state of changes in the short time we’ve been around.

The earth is an insanely complicated environmental topic to cover, so it’s easier to look around in one’s own lifetime and make these kinds of observations. The future is always uncertain. I think the feeling many people have, rather, is a feeling of lost consistency, and then just a feeling of loss, that amplifies the tension of the unknown. The weather is changing and more often. Things are rapidly less the same around us in the so-called natural environment and in the context of human design and technological influence. Wildlife and animals are becoming extinct; species are flourishing in places far from their origins in short time periods. This is a combination we live through today. In contrast to a limbo zone, I feel like it’s a pretty intense zone, and many of us are in a state of hyperawareness.

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