Isachsen – An Artist’s Exploration of Isolation Through the Eyes of his Father at a Remote Arctic Weather Station
– An Interview with Doug Munson and aAron munson by Sarah Knight, CMOS Bulletin Editor –
In 1974 Doug Munson, just 19 years old and fresh off 8 months of surface weather and upper air courses, was posted to the remote Isachsen weather station in the Canadian Arctic for a full year. Isachsen was operated on Ellef Ringnes Island from 1948-1978, and for those living there contact with the “outside” world was minimal – via a monthly air supply and the nearest settlement 300 miles to the southeast. At nearly 79 degrees North, the winter brings a 3 ½ month long night, temperatures below -50 degrees C, and extreme winds.
As a weather observation technician with Environment Canada, Doug’s time at Isachsen would leave a lasting impression on him. Little did Doug realize that this extreme and snowy landscape would also make a big impression on his future son, and that 40 years later aAron munson would return to this place, camera in hand, to explore this piece of his father’s history.
aAron’s photographs made a strong public impression when they were recently displayed as part of an experiential multimedia exhibit at the dc3 Art Projects gallery in Edmonton, Alberta. I caught up with both aAron and Doug just as the exhibition was coming to a close, to ask them about their experiences, reflections, and the impact of the project.
How did you end up at Isachsen and what was it like?
Doug: “After I finished high school I took a 4 month surface weather course in Ottawa, and then a 4 month upper air course in Scarborough, Ontario. As part of the training I had to spend a year in service at a remote weather station, and I was sent to Isachsen. I was there for 12 months, from May 1974 to May 1975, along with nine other men. A supply plane would come once a month, and one or two people would change out.
“I went with an open mind and a sense of adventure! But flying in to the place it seemed so small, just a little ‘embattled outpost of technology’ – to quote Farley Mowat. And once there it was confining – unless there was a very good excuse you couldn’t leave. Really it was like a prison with no walls, with the nearest settlement 300 miles away! Distance defined the prison’s walls. But after a while I just accepted it. Apart from the work there were a few diversions. We had a ham radio, some movies and books, and plenty of hockey games, so I just had to survive the best I could on the life support system that was out there.”
How did it affect you?
Doug: “The isolation and the 3 ½ months of darkness was tough, psychologically and physically. And there were times when I did wonder if I would make it out. The darkness was the worst, and it felt like we were all just going through the motions waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel. We didn’t talk to each other about how we felt, so I wrote in my journal a lot.”
After you left, did you ever go back?
Doug: “They asked me to go back, I say ‘No!’. I moved on to Cape Parry, on the Dew Line, at 70 degrees North. But 17 years later when I was working as an Inspector I ended up in the nearby settlement of Paulatuk, and some of the local Inuit hunters recognized me! Together, we had had a run-in with a polar bear, back in the winter of 1975-76.”
aAron, what was it like to be up there? Were you prepared for it?
aAron: “I was greeted by the wind! I have been to some extreme places but that was the first time I thought I might be in over my head. It was just me, the guide, and a bunch of bags, dumped at the station for a week. The plan had been to sleep outside, but I wasn’t prepared for the wind.”
What prompted you to do it?
aAron: “As a child I was aware that my mother suffered from depression and I suspect that my father did too. He didn’t talk about Isachsen much, but when I read his diary I saw that he was one man before he went there, and that he came out a changed man. I wanted to know more about what my dad experienced there and how it affected him.”
How has this project affected the relationship with your father?
aAron: “At the exhibit the visitor would enter and first read a diary entry from my dad. So you walk in and imagine what it is like to be so isolated. On paper it might have sounded like an interesting experience, but in reality it carried a huge weight. He could hardly contact his family – even when I was there I could call anyone I wanted from my satellite phone. So it definitely gave me a big sense of empathy, as being up there the only thing that separated he and I was time. My dad only ever spoke about the experience superficially, but going through 3 months without sunlight and living in such isolation must have taken a toll.
“It warmed my heart at the exhibit to see my dad proud of his own experience, and also that the whole thing was received as well as it was and that people were interested in this part of his life. I think it allowed my dad to relive the experience and maybe see how it has shaped him. Some of his friends came, and it opened them up to talk about their experiences.”
What was it like for you to have aAron make the trip up there, and then to revisit the experience through the exhibit?
Doug: “My own dad passed away two years ago, and it was only in the last few years of his life that he talked about his life, so I learned more in those last couple of years than I had in all of the 40 previous years about him. So I was surprised that aAron would be interested, and it’s really nice that we can talk about my experiences now. Going to the exhibit didn’t really bring back the feelings of that time, so much as it revived the good memories of my time there. One tends to remember the positive happenings from the past moreso, don’t you think?”
What environmental, intellectual or emotional messages were you trying to get across with your work?
aAron: “The environmental part of the project is more of an aside, but it is there, you can’t ignore it. I think it makes people think about the geography of our country, what the Arctic represents, who lives there, and what happens there. The Arctic is the canary in the coalmine in regards to climate change and shining the light on places like Isachsen can help people think about, and talk about, the Arctic.
“But really this project was more about presenting an experience that makes people think about the impacts of isolation and depression, in experiences and in everyday life. I wanted to recreate Isachsen and the experience of it, as without the experience there can be no empathy. So I tried to put visitors in the headspace of what it was like there, and hopefully that will translate to helping people have more conversations about depression.”
What are the impacts of isolation and depression on individuals and society?
aAron: “We are so well connected through the internet and social media, the world is at our fingertips, but an entirely new form of isolation seems to be emerging from our immersion in this digital world. I think projects like this work against a stigma, and help us work towards having conversations about these issues. The response to the exhibit so far has been overwhelmingly positive.”
How did the experience affect your perspective on the relationship between nature and human endeavour?
aAron: “It was a reminder that no matter what we build, given enough time, nature will wipe the slate clean. I wanted to capture the snow taking over the space and creating incredible sculptures – as far as nature is concerned it has all the time in the world to do this. Being up there reminded me that for all our endeavours we won’t matter in the end, and I find this humbling.”
Doug: “After the Isachsen experience, it seems that we are so small, just a pinpoint, we aren’t very significant. Earth is beautiful on its own. We really are just so infinitesimally small. I am reminded of the 1957 movie ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’. The main character realized that we are ever so small. God still sees us where we are, and that’s a comfort!”
What is your own personal connection to art, people and nature?
aAron: “Everything that I do starts from a place of wanting to connect with people. Art creates the conversation for me. For me, words are often a shallow interpretation of what I really want to convey, and art can do so much more. I too often find that contemporary art is so self-serving, which is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen – art should be a means to communicate and connect with each other. You can take a concept that is extremely convoluted but if it is executed well you can make almost anything accessible.
“With the prevalence of social media in our society, I think that we are losing some ability to effectively communicate with each other, in words and in many unspoken ways. All of the complexities that happen in face to face interactions…what if we lose it? Can we still know how to be present in a moment, with so much constantly grabbing for our attention? The power of the gallery is its ability to force people to be present, and to open a channel of communication with them as you have their full attention.
“Up North, with my guide, it was so interesting to observe the way that he was experiencing the land. The way in which he could read the land could only be developed through many years of experience. I think that in some ways we are regressing as a species. We’re losing so much knowledge that we spent thousands of years developing – how we relate to nature and to each other. The rapid progression of technology is incredible but seems to be developing faster than our ability to adapt to it, often leaving us scatterbrained. Through art, I am interested in exploring the impacts of this new reality on us, and also how much we can absorb by simply being present.”