Researchers of different ages and academic positions (master and PhD students, post-docs, professors) representing four circumpolar countries joined forces in assessing the natural, social and artistic significance of place and environment. The results disseminated in several international exhibitions and publications show only the tip of the iceberg, a small portion of the fascinating work that has been going on for several years.
t was just six years ago that a team of professors and students from four Finnish universities stepped on the platform of the Syktyvkar Central Railway Station for the first time. It took very little time to overcome the language barrier and start studying and visualizing the traditional and modern culture of Syktyvkar and the surrounding territories. Next came joint work, meetings in the framework of annual forums and conferences of the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Sustainable Arts and Design (ASAD), exchange of findings, practices, techniques and technologies in art, as well as teaching art to students.
Now the time has come to assess the results of this six-year-long marathon.
Our communication with colleagues from the art and design departments of circumpolar universities revealed that we had a lot in common, and our opinion on many important questions related to modern art was similar. However, as far as the understanding of the role of art in sustainable development of the Arctic was concerned, the position of Russian and Nordic universities was initially very different. We have to admit that it was only a couple of years ago that the special role of art in the development of local communities was appreciated and became a significant topic of discussion in our university. This happened mostly thanks to the exchange of ideas with our Nordic colleagues.
Art and design studies are permanently underfinanced in Russian universities. The largest part of the rather limited research funds goes to the so-called exact sciences such as ecology or computer modelling. Therefore, although we have found a number of areas of common interest with our colleagues from other ASAD universities, we could only rarely engage in joint activities with them due to the lack of finances on our side. The Living in the Landscape (LiLa) summer school has provided us a unique chance to engage in such an activity.
In the modern world, art and design studies can find and adopt new ideas from various scientific disciplines which sometimes seem quite far away from the sphere of visual art. Our joint work with anthropologists from the Komi Science Centre on the ethnographic regions project allowed us to take a new look at the traditional arts and crafts of Komi people. For example, up until 2016 there had been no studies on interior painting in Komi houses despite huge collections of interior paintings accumulated in central and regional museums. During our joint fieldwork with anthropologists, we obtained unique pieces of folk art, which, after appropriate renovation, were made available for scientific study. Interestingly, traditional Komi art used techniques of wood carving and brush painting, which were very similar to those traditionally used in Nordic countries and in the Russian North. Until recently it was assumed that Komi lacked traditional painting; this had been stated in ethnographies in no uncertain terms. Our work has proven that this statement was a mistake. Having such an experience, we looked forward to the new opportunity of interdisciplinary work provided by the LiLa school.
Any school starts with classes. All participants were first asked to write an essay, and professors were asked to prepare lectures on topics of their experience. However, the central point was joint fieldwork, which in the end gave the most significant results.
The fieldwork took place in a remote Komi village where only seven permanent inhabitants remain from the once big population of 60 persons; a village without internet, centralized water supply or central heating, and the nearest shop, pharmacy and hospital 140 kilometres away. Although these conditions look harsh, living in 120-year-old traditional wooden houses, cooking together, walking excursions through the forest, taking part in the life of the local community (including religious services), visiting old wooden and stone-made churches, meeting locals and talking with them allowed participants to better understand the modern life of a small northern village, which can serve as a model of a small traditional human settlement in the Arctic. Everyone could learn something important for understanding both Komi and their own culture. Also, the joint research results by anthropologists and artists showed that a look on one's native culture in the context of another northern culture can lead to a better understanding of both.
The participants who came from fields like biology and ecology initially had difficulties with understanding their role in this project. As experts in ecology, they could tell a lot about the surrounding landscape and the ecological problems that exist in it, but they did not see how this could possibly be related to art. However, it soon turned out that their expertise could be used in creating art objects. Take our unique experiment with coloring: biologists knew the coloring properties of plants, while artists could use this knowledge for dyeing textiles. By the second half of the fieldwork, ecologists and anthropologists gave in to the surrounding creative spirit and took part in the art performance that addressed the problems of sustainable material processing and environmental protection. Furthermore, they discovered for themselves the technique of making prints of plants and leaves on pieces of clay. They discovered that tree rings are easier to count when they are printed in clay, and some parts of plant look very different if they are printed in comparison to herbarium collections.
As planned, the fieldwork material was analyzed during the summer, and results published as essays and articles. Visual images and art objects created by the project participants made up the first international exhibition. Initially we planned to open the final exhibition of the project in autumn, but by the time the group returned to Syktyvkar from their fieldwork, everyone was so excited and full of new experiences that we decided to arrange the exhibition in two days. People were tired, but all the preparations were finished and the exhibition opened on time.
The very idea of such an exhibition was new for the local population. Many visitors were excited to find familiar items and symbols presented and interpreted in ways that were unusual for them. They discovered a lot of novelty in otherwise common items and also learned a lot about how differently nature is perceived in various sciences. The way the exhibition items (photos, natural materials, ceramics, artworks, textiles) were presented was also surprising for many.
The exhibition gained popularity, and it was actively visited and discussed by the local scientific and artistic community. The exhibition was particularly useful for university professors and students. Many students took part in preparing it, as well as assisted in the exhibition process, and a visit to the exhibition was included in courses in design, folk art, and art and crafts. This way, it also served in teaching modern methods of exhibition organization to students. For the scientific community, the exhibition became an example of how different scientific schools, disciplines and even branches can cooperate and enrich each other. For us, it was the first time that arts, anthropology and ecology cooperated in research and teaching.
We learned a lot about the cultures and traditions of other countries and acquired a new, enriched idea of the circumpolar world. It was indeed very important for us to see and feel that we are all living in a single region. Our environment, our birds and animals, and our seasons are similar, and our traditional cultures have a lot in common. We continued learning this when we presented a part of the exhibition in the Nesna Campus of Nord University, Norway during the Relate North 2018 conference and invited all participants to our master classes.
The interaction between our universities makes us closer to each other and gives us strong stimuli for further joint activity. The future image of the Arctic region will be created by the universities. Therefore, it is important for us to continue our work in the same format, that is, as a joint interdisciplinary project in which researchers from different disciplines unite their forces to create new knowledge and outlooks for sustainable development.