Inter-Glacial Free Trade Agency.ca
Exhibition Essay
By Christabel Weibe

Wherever we turn, we are confronted with another nasty reminder of the effects of global warming. The Canadian winter is eerily balmy; polar bears are urbanizing in search of food, and according to last week's headlines, we are redrawing our map of the North: the Ayles ice shelf is officially disappearing. We are well aware of the collective role we have played in this environmental drama; we are concerned and somewhat shamed. But we're not doing much about it.

Even the Canadian Encyclopedia—the kind of resource from which one would expect reasonably unbiased, straight ahead facts—is ready to pounce on the unsuspecting reader. In an entry on Arctic sovereignty, we suffer the following smack-down: "Some of the strong emotions stirred by the issue result from a genuine concern for the fragile arctic environment, but they may also contain an element of guilt; Canadians, while promising to stand on guard for the "True North, strong and free," have been reluctant to display a real commitment to the region."

Ouch.

The truth of the matter is, we are kind of bored by "the North." There is a sense of cultural apathy among Canadians when it comes to the "northern" aspect of our identity (just remember the flak the former Governor General incurred by daring to undertake a cultural learning tour of other Nordic climes). For the most part, we are preoccupied with things southern (and with attempts to assimilate those things), and are uninterested in expending much energy or thought on what's happening in the North. Because it's kind of boring. It doesn't really have that much to do with those of us living well below the permafrost line (we can make artificial ice for hockey, and it's better anyway). Nothing much happens up there. It's not really what we're about.

This boredom resides within the populace, but not among the political elite: the Northwest Passage is of deep, deep interest to Ottawa. The more things heat up in the North, the more hearts palpitate and palms get sticky in the capital. Because there's a lot of money to be made when all that ice disappears. By the early 19th century, the British government was offering big dollars to the hero who could carve the Northwest Passage out of a landscape of ice. To this day, no one has succeeded; at the rate things are going, it may end up a collective honour bestowed on the citizens of humanity.

Ironically, while we've kept busy with our south-of-the-border fixations, "The North" has become a very hot topic in the contemporary art world. No less an international art star than British artist Isaac Julien has recently devoted multiple series in film and print photography to the subject of the North, with his attention to the subject the more intriguing considering his Afro-Caribbean heritage. Olafur Eliasson has developed a stellar art career out of a deep fascination with climate, environment, and a deeply intuitive sense of place: his home country, Iceland.

Artist Lynn Richardson also thinks a lot about deep freezes and slow thaws. In an ongoing series of installations, she explores the politics of climate change in a futuristic endgame, orchestrated and sustained by an organization called Inter-glacial Free Trade Agency (IGFTA). In its current incarnation, the installation involves a painstaking and rickety display of mile markers, counting down the theoretical 4,000 miles to be saved on shipping that a fully operational Northwest Passage would offer. Oilrigs (fashioned with an incongruous Victorian prettiness) are already at work, gently and methodically raping the newly accessible land. Further along the continuum, an official IGFTA canoe transports an endangered deer-like species (ironically, bedecked in glittering Arctic diamanté) to an unknown destination—presumably an artificial reserve—whilst the oilrigs continue unabated in their process of destroying the animals' natural habitat. At the end of this continuum of shame is the culprit (or perhaps, the scapegoat): a smug suburban bungalow, housing the consumer.

The quiet suggestiveness of this installation is the real thorn in the viewer's conscience. It's initially quite glowing and lovely, like aurora borealis on a cold night (one of the few truly appreciated gifts of our northern exposure). However, those lights are burning a little too bright, a little too hot beneath the watery ice. The army of mile markers, weathered like an old picket fence, betrays the effects of too much moisture and too much warmth: the bases are turning a mossy shade of green. Bathed in an anomalous shade of hot blue, the installation assumes a sort of otherworldly ambiance—like landing in a parallel universe, traversing the terrain of a different planet. And the unsettling part is, this "other" planet might one day become the one we call home.




Christabel Wiebe is an independent curator, writer and editor who lives and works in Winnipeg. She completed an MA in fine art administration and curating at Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK in 2002.