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Dr. Douglas Tewksbury spent three weeks in Svalbard, Norway, as part of a group of artists and educators doing projects on climate change. Photo courtesy of Cedric Bomford.

Music—and inspiration—can be found almost anywhere. Dr. Douglas Tewksbury, associate professor of communication and media studies, found both on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

Dr. Tewksbury, an electronic and experimental musician from Hamilton, Ontario, was one of 30 international artists and educators chosen to participate in a unique expeditionary residency program. He spent almost three weeks in October living and working on board a specially outfitted Barquentine sailing vessel while exploring the waters and glaciers of Svalbard, Norway, as a member of the Arctic Circle. The program was established in 2009 to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration among participants who are pursuing their personal projects on climate change.

“It was so remote that we never saw another boat or another human for 11 days,” Dr. Tewksbury said. “It was only us, and that’s a powerful experience, particularly as we’re thinking about environmental themes and climate and land.”

Svalbard is home to only about 3,000 residents, who share the glaciers, mountains, and frozen tundra with polar bears, reindeer, seals, walruses, Artic foxes, and the approximately 30 bird species that nest there. The rugged beauty of the area provided an unparalleled backdrop for the work Dr. Tewksbury and his colleagues were doing.

“It felt very much like the ends of the earth because we were just out there, independent, with no internet, no cell phone, experiencing these things and making art,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

The days began early. Several of the residents would do yoga on the ship’s deck at sunrise and then, after breakfast, the group would take small motorboats to the glacier they would spend the rest of the day exploring.

“We never knew what we were going to be doing, and there was no plan beyond 24 hours out, because it depended on the wind, the sea conditions, and the ice,” Dr. Tewksbury said. “Every day was a surprise, and every day the surprise was remarkable. You would wake up in the morning next to a glacier and a fjord, and then go and land on the ice and work. It was wild.”

Because of the dangers posed by the polar bears, Dr. Tewksbury and his group were restricted to defined perimeters that were guarded by armed guides. Although they never saw a polar bear, they did see tracks and dens.

As he explored and hiked, Dr. Tewksbury, the only musical artist on board, recorded the sounds of nature. He noted that the sound of glaciers calving (when the leading edge of a glacier breaks off into the ocean) “sounds like the loudest thunderclap you’ve ever heard.”

The experience of being at the top of the world was a sobering one, he said, recalling a hike on a mountain at the northernmost point on the northernmost island, and seeing nothing but water between him and the North Pole.

They were so far north, in fact, that they had to look to the south to see the Northern Lights. It was a remarkable experience, he said.

“All of us went on deck and listened to some music that’s coming off one of my forthcoming albums for an hour, looking at the Northern Lights and shooting stars and the Milky Way in silence.”

The stunning beauty of the area contrasted sharply with the tangible evidence of climate change—islands that had been discovered in the last 10 years because of glacial retreat juxtaposed with sheets of ice that have existed for thousands of years, and hundreds of pieces of plastic washed up on uninhabited shores.

“We found so much plastic that we filled two huge trash bags,” Dr. Tewksbury said. “I think it’s very concerning, because there’ll only be more from year to year.”

After they returned to the ship each evening, the artists would share the work they had done.

“It was joyous. Everybody celebrated each other’s work, and it was a very beautiful moment of lots of like-minded artists creating an uplifting community, which was lovely,” Dr. Tewksbury said. “These artists are remarkably important, creative folks doing valuable and cutting-edge work.

“I think that it's important for artists to create work on issues that matter, and that first-hand witnessing is an especially important part of representing and understanding environmental issues,” he continued. “To be able to see this climate, this area, that’s changing faster than anywhere else on the earth, just matters. Doing art about this just matters, and I think that artists and academics have a role in translating the ideas of any time into popular ideas.”

Their extraordinary shared experience in the Arctic forged deep connections among the residents. Dr. Tewksbury and several of his colleagues are already planning to partner on future projects.

“I think that good work comes from creative folks working together, and I’m very much looking forward to the surprises that will come from these collaborations,” he said.

He is also looking forward to sharing what he witnessed with the students in the environmental humanities course he teaches to help them better understand how environmental themes are represented in media. 

“It feels good to emerge with purpose from an experience like this,” he said. “I feel changed as an artist and I’m excited to use this experience as a launch pad to try to put some exciting things out there in my research and in my teaching.”

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