The North Escaping by Second Order
posted by Milla Millasnoore on 17 May 2024

Field_Notes is an art and science field laboratory organized biannually by the Bioart Society at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki in the Sápmi region in Northern Finland since 2011. During Field_Notes – The North Escaping, three groups of five worked in the subarctic for two weeks developing, testing and evaluating specific interdisciplinary approaches under the theme of The North Escaping. Second Order group has a different working model than rest of the Field_Notes – The North Escaping groups. It is composed of journalists, artists and anthropologists who will embedded themselves into the other groups with the aim to document their work, gain insight into their approaches and offer counter perspectives. The aim is to critically look at the groups methods and practises of the field, which might include the encouragement to step out of predefined schemes or even to violate traditional field norms in order to experiment with new ideas.

Second Order group members journalist Elsa Ferreira, researcher Jonathan Carruthers-Jones and Roger Norum and artist Teemu Lehmusruusu visited, observed and learned with the three groups during their daily field work activities on the first week of the camp with methods such as participant observation, sensory ethnography and walking methods.

We are now seeing a phase shift if not a full paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense where the environmental disciplines are beginning to embrace a broader church of academic scholars ranging all the way from biology to arts practice. Within geography there has long been recognition of the distinction between physical and human geography. In the 21st century though as we face the so called ‘wicked’ problems of the biodiversity crisis and accelerating climate change there is a drive to bring multiple disciplinary lenses to bear, bring the humanities and the arts in alongside the hard sciences to develop a broad multi-inter-trans disciplinary approach which can better understand the complex factors at play.

This is analogous in some ways to what happened with psychology in the 70-‘s as it moved away from a Skinnerian obsession with operant conditioning and simplistic feedback mechanisms, towards what are often dismissed as the ‘hand waving’ disciplines which try to engage with the more subtle and qualitative, subjective aspects of understanding human beings. Now we have everything from neuroscience to developmental psychology which recognises that human consciousness begins much earlier than was imagined by Piaget.

The importance of the humanities to addressing environmental challenges such as rapid biodiversity loss was widely recognised in the first part of the 20th century by prominent thinkers such as Henry Thoreau and Aldo Leopold. In 1949 Leopold presented conservation visions of a land ethic inspired by philosophy and ecology in his text “A Sand County Almanac”. Yet the importance to environmental research of placing the humanities alongside the social sciences and the natural sciences remained an unresolved challenge as we moved into the Anthropocene. This challenge remains unresolved for reasons which are linked to the challenges of bring people together whose daily practices and even language diverge so profoundly.

Sharing time out on the perimeter with Field_Notes groups from a second order perspective highlighted once more the potential of practice as the unifying factor that takes us beyond the conceptual challenges of working across disciplines. Artists working across diverse disciplines from ceramics to light to sound all have well developed methodological practices which closely parallel those of someone working in bioacoustics, fish biology or philosophy. While the conceptual language of how our different disciplinary practices are structured represents a challenging territory to walk through, observing the minutiae of practice and method anchors our differences in a tangible way, highlighting commonalities. This also can place the emphasis on the potential of collaboration.

Field_Notes takes us outside, disrupts the normal academic dialectic and as a collision of practitioners in the mountains makes us ‘lightheaded’ as Nan Shepherd puts it in The Living Mountain. Spending time, listening, understanding diverse practices we come to realise how much we share and how much we need each others insight.

It's interesting to see how each of the groups, while developing their own language to explore a variety of (albeit connected) themes, found echoes of each other in accidental ways. So, for example, each group practiced situated harmonization in its own way – or attunement – a kind of meditation to sense and capture the vibrations of the territory in which they had to immerse themselves. Each had his own method – texts, exercises, silence, immobility – but all were seeking the same thing: to put themselves in resonance with nature. Probably a prerequisite for working in these northern landscapes.

Another thing these groups share is the need to understand the history of the place, beyond what is visible. Arid weather conditions and a culture that doesn't carry too much importance about leaving a trace in nature, make the landscape difficult to read. Leena Valkeapää, the local mentor for the Ars Bioarctica residency, for example, was amused to see how Western hikers build their fires, with lots of branches and stones, as if in a performative search for what a fire should be, whereas the Sami use only the bare essentials and manage to make the fire that suits their needs: cooking food or keeping warm, for example. No doubt that, in addition to an attraction to performance, we have in the West a crying lack of competence about the different forms of fire and how to make them efficient. It was striking when, as she showed on the same tree and through the vegetation the traces of two essential Sami cultural elements – snow and reindeers – Leena said: "Sami culture is somehow invisible. It's very easy to forget it if you want to." I think this warning stayed with us throughout our walk and stay, and that the artists were even more keen to be cautious of what was there before them. There was a real respect in the approach to this landscape and culture.

Finally, after spending time with all three groups, the biggest thing they had in common was their goal. Wheather it was stated or if it was thought out that way, but that's how it's possible to read their practices: to recalibrate, to accept changing frames of reference, to find new measuring tools. There was a kind of humility in wanting to zoom out of ourselves and our animal species of humans, but also a scientific quest to provide real measurement tools for a perception that is no longer anthropomorphic. It's a vast and noble challenge, and future residencies will surely help us to delve even deeper into these new approaches and readings.


Photos 1-6: Teemu Lehmusruusu

Photos 7-11: Jonathan Carruthers-Jones