The Berlin-based American/Canadian artist Stephanie Imbeau is no stranger to artist residencies around the world.
But for even such an experienced artist and traveller as Imbeau, her latest one – the Arctic Circle – Artist & Science Residency Programme – proved to be out of the ordinary as it was held on the Antigua, a sailing ship travelling around the High Arctic Svalbard Archipelago with 30 artists and scientists on board.
One of the effects it had on Imbeau was a sense of
“Nearness to the rocks on which our earth is built, to the sky, the weather, the sea and the edges”.
Which brings us to her latest body of work – her wearable houses, now titled Procession, largely developed in preparation for the Arctic Circle Residency. Having tried on one of her wearable houses in her studio, I was stunned by the sensation of elevation but also of being a little out of balance. This duality is at the core of what Imbeau finds interesting in what it is to be human, something we speak to her about in this interview.
Plus we also reveal why Stephanie Imbeau terrified the Antigua’s armed ship guards (all women, by the way) once or twice when she was all “housed-up”.
The Arctic Circle Residency
Stephanie, you´ve recently returned from the Arctic Circle Residency, I know this is a lot to ask but can you draw a rough picture for our readers about your experience there?
Two weeks of a different life. Exploring and discovering set to the rhythm of regular onboard meals and sleeps that came entirely too easy. Living onboard a Barquentine tall ship sailing around Svalbard, being ferried to and from the shores of astonishingly varied landscapes of rock and ice, and meeting glaciers, icebergs, seals, walruses, belugas, and even polar bears, in a blur of never-ending wonder, discovery, and art-making.
Nearness is a word that has kept coming to mind as I think about this time. Nearness to the rocks on which our earth is built, to the sky, the weather, the sea and the edges. In Longyearbyen, our port of departure, I had the privilege of watching the slow crawl of snow clouds as they descended over mountain ridges and into the valley. The physical reaction to this phenomenon was tightness at the meeting point of my throat and chest, a precursor to tears and a follow-on from some instinctual fight or flight mechanism.
But to just let it exist and do neither, no fight, no flight, just witness; it was incredible.
That was the first of many such moments. In an attempt to hold onto the experience a little bit longer and share a broader summary of my time, every Saturday I share images on Instagram via the hashtag I created, #SvalbardSaturdays.
What is the Arctic Circle, why did you apply and what made it so special to you besides the obvious part, its being in the Arctic.
The Arctic Circle is a unique expeditionary residency, which brings artists and scientists together for two weeks to journey around the High Arctic Svalbard Archipelago onboard a specially fitted Barquentine tall ship.
I remember learning about The Arctic Circle a number of years ago in an article rounding up a list of the most interesting residencies for artists. I was very intrigued, and likened it in my mind to being as realistic as a trip to space. That parallel never went away for me completely, as I actually had a list of people to send postcards to that I labeled “postcards from space.”
But the foreign-ness of it, the exposure to a completely different reality to my own: I paid attention, but also for some reason knew I wasn’t ready.
I grew up a bit, became more focused and, pivotally, had the chance to realize Drift in 2017. Working with sailboats as armatures for a floating sculptural installation made me more intimately appreciative of the power of the elements and much more reflective about the relevance boats have in regards to my conceptual interests.
I felt it was finally time for me to seek out this unique chance to live, however briefly, onboard a ship, in this place where the balance between life and death, light and dark, land and sea, is so sharp.
I needed to understand through physical presence what this place, more of an idea than a reality to me before going, was.
And I wanted to know the challenges a changing climate placed on the landscape firsthand. Also, I was, and am, keenly interested in gaining insight to the human impulse to venture out and explore new places, while searching for where there might be a meeting place between the drive to explore/assert presence and the overwhelming need to protect/reduce footprint.
Living on board the Antigua & High Arctic activities
What happens when you put 30 artists, writers and scientists on one boat, can you tell us about this experience, the dynamics, and also the exchange in between in terms of new inspirations?
I was a bit nervous for this confluence of dozens of creatives and a confined space in which to coexist but it was honestly incredible. The ship’s 2nd Mate, Barbara, told me on one of our last evenings – when I was pressing her about interpersonal drama and why there wasn’t that much of it – that she suspects there is a subconscious understanding of all on-board that the choices you make in relation to how you behave towards your fellow shipmates has more weight.
So you pull yourself in and treat everyone as though you will have to see them all day every day for two weeks, which you will. This was a very insightful and deeply true sentiment, and is something I keep coming back to.
Treat your neighbor as yourself, really. Just in boat-speak.
There were so many moments of generosity, connection and understanding that felt both shocking because of the brevity of our shared experience and completely natural, also because of the brevity of our shared experience. The new inspirations will, I’m sure, come with time, but in terms of the dynamics of our group during the residency; everyone was always so open to jumping into something impromptu.
Sometimes rather literally, as most of us did a naked polar bear plunge.
Plunge isn’t quite the right word. Maybe polar bear descent. Imagine a smoothly sloping Mediterranean beach and the gentle process of going from shore to sea there. Like that, but freezing. And naked. Except for your socks. How to resist that completely ridiculous pull? We didn’t.
Wearable houses; let´s get into formation
You brought a new body of work to the arctic which was quite a risk, you call them your wearable houses. What are they and how challenging was it to apply the theoretical plans in an environment as the Arctic?
My wearable houses, now titled Procession, are five house-shaped sculptures designed to be worn and manipulated by volunteers or performers, but can also be displayed in a gallery setting. The houses were created by draping layers of white nylon and Tyvek embellished with gold appliques over engineered alloy frames, and lit from within using LED lights. All designed to fit inside a suitcase when disassembled.
I can say that testing parts in a freezer only goes so far. The lights worked, thankfully, but also were much less frequently used than I anticipated. Almost every joint broke at least once. Thank goodness for tape and glue. The wind venting, developed during a workshop with architecture students at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture, ended up being a hugely important element of the work.
I know I terrified the guards once or twice when I was housed-up and wandering a bit too close to a drop-off, playing chicken with the Arctic winds.
But it worked. And I think I owe the architecture students that helped me a rather large thank-you that I’m here and able to write this. The guards, too. As confident as I was in my security, as I mention later, I couldn’t see as clearly as they could, and their care for me – and every resident – was a true gift and literal lifesaver.
And what did you expect to achieve, both in terms of a feeling toward them and narrative wise?
Procession is a very new body of work that was developed over the course of this past year in large part as a response to preparations for this residency. I had an unavoidably strong impulse to see these flowing houses that need the wearer just as much as the wearer needs shelter, made real, and worn in the precious and rapidly-changing context of the Arctic.
An Arctic Procession
My main expectation was to see my illustrations and renderings finally realized. I will love the guards, crew and my fellow residents forever for helping me to achieve a number of these hoped-for wearing scenarios. In terms of the narrative, I wasn’t sure what to aim for, I just knew I needed to understand them further, and let them speak to me.
So, I brought five houses and a million questions.
I hoped, of course, that they would echo my intentions of celebrating worth, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure.
I think this is a good example of how I work. I am an impulse-first maker. I have intention, but the work is more a reflection and suggestion than a statement, and I try to make sure I give my art the space it needs to be a partner in the creation, not just a product.
When your houses did move on boats in the water, you talked about this meeting point of fragility and resilience?
Yes. I’m so taken by the conceptual ideas of life – which is inherently both fragile and resilient – that I see held in the form of a boat. I remember saying, when I gave my artist presentation onboard the Antigua,
“We are safe, because we are on a boat. We are at risk, because we are on a boat.”
I’m interested in the tightrope that boats balance on as structures of protection and vulnerability but also the choice we make as humans to take that risk.
We seek out in the same moment safety and instability. Adventure with a touch of the familiar. I’m also interested in the passive kinetic element that boats lend to a work.
The weather, the wind, the power of everything is much more visible, involved when the installation is using a boat as its armature. It becomes a partner with the water it’s floating on, dancing along with the waves, bowing in the wind, responding to the present in a way that I could never orchestrate on my own.
There’s a mix of fragility and resilience in this too. The boat is made to float, and so it keeps on floating. But it’s not invincible. I think watching a boat roll in the waves gives one a sense of that tension, a moment of seeing the two opposites held so close together. Like the feeling in my throat when the clouds move in.
A witness-bearing to the uncontrollable.
I tried on myself one of your houses and felt elevated, safe but also powerful, like an extended aura you can actually see and touch and therefore it makes it even more real, but in the same time it triggers so many questions on our awareness and perception of ourselves in the world?
This duality you picked up on in the good yet potentially dangerous feelings stirred up by wearing the work is so core to what I find interesting in what it is to be human.
I believe that it is very much human nature to be at once valuable and flawed.
While I was busy focusing on the value, Procession was making sure the duality was there too. I mentioned that I think of my art as a collaborator of sorts, and it often tells me more than I expected it would. In combining embellished fabrics suggestive of elevated ceremonial wearing, along with houses that don’t act as houses should (no physical protection, only a mental one) allows for what is ultimately a very evocative reflection of the balance we walk between security and fragility, and carries with is a level of unexpected (by me) chastisement.
At the same moment as it is a celebration of every person, place and moment, it contains an implied criticism of the very same man-made asserted prescence that I find so inspiring.
I am deeply grateful that the wearers of these houses feel uplifted, and will continue to think about how I can honor my impulses to assert the value of everything while working to leave space for the harder parts.
One clear reason why these houses are not true protective structures is to afford a balance between elevation and vulnerability. Another inherent equalizer is one I noticed through wearing the houses myself in Svalbard. I did feel more confident like you said, and so safe.
And I felt very aware of my body and it’s position in a way I wasn’t used to.
But this awareness was tempered by the draped fabric, which reduced my field of vision significantly. It forced me to be much more intentional with my movements. It slowed me down and made me really look at the ground I was walking on. This, to me, seems to be a way that the work is forcing care for, and respect towards, one’s environment.
Which of these elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) would you choose in relation to your practice and/or yourself, and why?
I am absolutely water. I follow my nose when I work, chasing after an idea headlong like a river running down a mountain in the springtime. And my art is the rocks I tumble around as I think I know where I’m going.
The work shows me otherwise, redirecting me, and always for the better.
The art world is the shore I keep crashing against, proposal after proposal, submission upon submission. Let me in. Let me in. Let this matter.
I needed to make these person-scale houses. They have so much to teach me and we have so much more to do together.
I needed to make these person-scale houses. They have so much to teach me and we have so much more to do together.
Do you think art especially in combination with action can foster real change in the heads of people, the world ultimately and if so how in your opinion
Yes. I very much believe in the power of soft diplomacy. Of slow change and the pull of culture. I think art communicates on a different level than, say, reason or debate. It’s more of a heart speak. I am not fond of strong statement-making, but I am fond of romantic ideals, so this is very much my take on a question that has so many valid answers.*
*Artist-activist I am not, but some people who I believe are boldly making real space for minds to change on some very important issues right now are, to name but a few: Hank Willis Thomas, Mary Mattingly, Igor Vidor, Simone Leigh, Rico Gatson, and curator Nicole Caruth, among many others.
Take, for example, this Arctic Circle residency experience. Carting a literal boat-load of artists around Svalbard: there isn’t necessarily a quantifiable global benefit in the eyes of productivity-as-king society, and even those with carbon footprint, high on their agenda could be (and should be) cautious with their approval, but… slowly and then rapidly more people care.
We all take part for different reasons but we all leave with a deeper desire to protect and preserve this special, fragile and magical place.
Artists are disseminators; we have a unique privilege of being able to communicate not only facts and data but also emotions. We can hopefully extend and reflect the feelings we had in the context of this precious and at-risk landscape to a wider audience, and gradually begin to effect change.**
** I feel I should make clear that I don’t believe that any human-led effort is ever going to lead to a perfect solution. We’re messy creatures and we can’t see exactly how our efforts will play out over time. But we’re very good at creative problem solving; so we must, and do, continue to try.
New elements, new stages
Please tell us what you are currently working on and what you are looking forward to, both regarding the development of the “Procession” series?
I’d say I’m in wave – crash mode right now, throwing myself onto the shores of numerous fellowships, residencies and grants, all for the sake of furthering Procession. I have much to do as I plan on incorporating a new element of symbolism to the work in response to my time in Svalbard (which means doing some drawings), I have a photographic series that I’ve settled on that I now need to explore printing and editioning options for, and I want to do a bit more experimenting with how the fabric drapes, and what threads I use for the embellishments, etc.
Basically, I’m in wave crash mode dreaming about my upcoming shift back into studio (or river) mode.
I also have an insane amount of video that I felt compelled to take of the
I have decided for the moment to divide the happenings and performance/installations that Procession makes into chapters. The work made during my time in residence with The Arctic Circle is the first portion of what I hope to be a continued chapter titled Procession (Arctic). I can’t say with any surety what the title of the next chapter is yet.
I am still running fast after this project and feel I’m only just at the beginning of understanding this work.
I’m so curious to see where it leads me next.
Photo Credit: The artist
Author: Esther Harrison