Living Land – Below as Above / In dialogue with Britt Kramvig and Margrethe Pettersen
Living Land – Below as above, is a commissioned piece by Margrethe Pettersen for Dark Ecology and co-commissioned by Arctic Encounters. The soundwalk was performed outside Kirkenes, Norway, during the second journey of Dark Ecology in November, 2015.
The environment is full of free and non-teleological energies – trade winds and storms, ocean currents flowing across the planet, drifting continental plates and glaciers that flow and break off as blocks of ice fall into the Arctic Ocean. How can the passions of whales, cod, reindeer and humans not lift their eyes beyond the nests and the lairs and the horizon? How can what Marisol de la Cadena calls the anthropo-not-seen become known? The anthropo-not-seen is the world-making process through which heterogeneous worlds that do not make themselves through the division between humans and non-humans (nor ones that necessarily conceive the different entities in their assemblages through such a division) both become obliged into that distinction while also exceeding it.
The artwork of Margrethe Pettersen departs from this (im)possible position of entering into life and communication underneath the snow and ice during the Arctic’s dark period. This is a time when a silent carpet covers everything and most species exist in different shapes or states of hibernation. Which sounds are they making, and can the ice be heard? This was Margrethe’s starting point, and it made up part of her process of creating and recalling the sound-landscape. Becoming familiar with the site was very much linked to this process; the work itself is still in a kind of process.
During the soundwalk, one hears voices tell us many stories, some in English and some in Sami. Multiple voices from different positions: “I am snow”; “I am a waterplant”. The voices do not necessary speak for these agents, but rather show the importance of listening, and of letting them speak. Perhaps in this way it makes people think differently about things they do not think about or see in their surroundings. “This is also connected to my childhood,” Margrethe emphasizes, “where I, for hours, would lay down flat in the snow, spacing out or just be, connected to something bigger without words.”
“I am a water plant – Blærerot – Utricularia vulgaris – I am rootless and floating around. During the cold and dark days I leave the surface shaped like a ball and sink to the bottom of the lake – I call it my home. It is nice to save energy, you should try it – at least slow down”.
We live in a world of difference, and this need to be recognized in order to be able to listen to the land: or to quiet one of many voices in the sound-landscape: Only if the land decides to stop speaking will we enter the world of dislocation. We walked one November night on a frozen lake. We were warned that the ice was not very safe, so many of us took it step by careful step onto the ice, listening to the crack of the ice that comes before it breaks. Others who do not know ice need only to trust the storyteller, the water plant, the frozen flowers – the háldi and the other spices – and encounters with other (non-)humans when they walk the trails and sound-scape which the work “Living Land – Below as Above” offers.
Living land includes stories told in Sami, to remind us that we also need to connect to this place as a border zone and as Sami territory. These Sami stories do not come with a translation in the sound-walk. For Margrethe, it was important to give people who do the walk access to the language of indigenous people and to allow them to walk in darkness on the ice and listen to the rhythms of the language as sounds in and of themselves. Can we become aware of the existence of radical differences through land/language/story/rhythm assemblages?
Another consideration is to keep the originality of these stories out of respect for the old oral tradition and the ancient mother tongue of the North. These have a specific logic, storytelling structure and words that are not easily translated without a loss of meaning. Margrethe also wanted people to feel connected to the site and the history while not understanding it all, because we can’t control and understand everything. We all need to be reminded of the anthropo-not-so-obviously-seen, but it is still possible to be sensitive too.
One of the stories recounts the Maddo, a term used for a spirit animal, an enormous version of an animal. For instance, if you mistreat a frog, at first, many frogs will appear and in the end, the Maddo. This huge frog will suck your blood and you will die. To learn about life is to learn about death. To be able to live in the Arctic, with its (near) unpredictable changes in weather conditions, one needs to respect nature, and be sensitive as well as respectful toward others who live on the same land needs to be learned. There are anthropo-not-seen aspects to the Sami concepts of the land. Saíva is the sacred water with a double ground, like two lakes on top of each other, with an opening in between. The gate opens up into the underworld – a different realm. There, distinctions between life and death are blurred and transitional. It presents an opening –a passage – in the landscape, a land where borders are done differently. Other figures in the landscape are Gofitar and Háldi’s, these are unknown entities that live with the Sami people as well as others that learn to know the, on, not Gaia – but Ednam – the planet as known in the Sami ontology.