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Murmur: Arctic Realities

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 Murmur: Arctic Realities
January 20, 2018-April 22, 2018
Collins Gallery

Murmur: Arctic Realities explores Arctic land forms called pingos – ice hills rising from permafrost soil, covered by a thin layer of earth. These hills grow over centuries and then collapse, pockmarking the landscape in the Circumpolar North.

Seattle artist John Grade (pronounced GRAH-de) first encountered pingos while rafting down the Noatak River in Alaska’s Arctic. He selected one pingo among dozens rising from otherwise flat tundra as the basis for this work. Using a camera-equipped drone, Grade created a precise 3-D map through photogrammetry, then combined it with a hand-built model created from his memory of hiking the pingo. These two recording methods merged in the creation of this sculpture, at just under half the size of the original landform. Murmur is crafted from Alaskan yellow cedar salvaged from stands of long-dead trees on southeastern Alaska’s Mitkof Island.

Grade and new media artist Reilly Donovan have partnered to present an immersive technological component for Murmur using a new platform by Microsoft called Hololens. Through Hololens, Grade and Donovan have created a holographic patchwork of tundra, complete with water, living organisms, and the sound of Arctic birds. This technology is called “mixed reality” because it allows viewers to experience real and digital environments at the same time and with others. As you move about the gallery, you will notice some aspects of the experience respond to your presence. (Please note: HoloLens users must be 13 or older.)

Murmur’s title evokes both the Arctic wind and the sound made by flocks of Arctic birds in flight. More than 150 species of songbirds migrate through Alaska on their way to other parts of the globe, making their sound and presence ubiquitous during the endless Arctic summer days. Grade once spotted a formation of birds in flight closely resembling the shape of a pingo, inspiring him to pull together these features of the Northern environment into a single artwork.

Murmur: Arctic Realities is organized with the Anchorage Museum in Alaska.

What’s a Pingo?

The pingo recorded for this installation stands among many others next to the Noatak River in Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve – the largest undisturbed watershed in the United States. The original is 100 feet across by 30 feet tall.

Pingos can occur where the ground remains frozen for years at a time, in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. An open-system pingo occurs when artesian water pushes up near the surface and freezes into an ice lens that forces the topsoil upward as it continues to grow. A closed-system pingo occurs when a former lakebed or dry river channel refreezes and develops a pressurized ice lens that pushes on the tundra. Most pingos along the lower Noatak River are closed-system pingos. Over centuries, pingos may grow as large as 2,000 feet across and 180 feet tall.

Because they are the highest topographical feature on the tundra, pingos have historically served as landmarks and vantages for Inuit hunters (pingo means “small hill” in Inuvialuktun), as well as predators like wolves and polar bears, and as a refuge for small mammals to burrow and for caribou to escape mosquitos. The first Westerner to record sighting a pingo was Sir John Franklin, while sailing down Canada’s Mackenzie River in 1825. Scientists study pingos using ground-penetrating radar and ice-coring, but understanding of the phenomenon remains limited.

Because they are made of ice, pingos are inherently prone to changes in temperature and will collapse as they thaw. As the Arctic rapidly warms, they may serve as a bellwether for the future of the Circumpolar North.