grieving / separated from Ayles Ice Shelf

By John D. Brannan

In the early 90’s, I attended a lecture at the University of Sydney on global warming given by an Australian who was at that time Greenpeace’s authority on climate change. The speaker painted a future scenario that was difficult to believe. Much of the predictions presented at that time were focused on ten to fifteen years in the future. The predicted detrimental effects would be felt globally, however, there were specific areas that would suffer initially more than others. Australia was one country that was stated to be one of the first to feel these effects and I remember trying to consider what this meant.

Sadly, much of what I remember at that lecture, now about fifteen years ago, is unfolding like the plot in a suspense drama. A drama where the script has been based on projections from a substantial body of scientific data gathered from years of studying changes in global temperature and weather patterns. However, it appears the scientific evidence alone is not what is most convincing. Many of us in recent times have noticed or had conversations regarding the increased frequency of milder winters and unusually hot and prolonged summers. This is combined with observations of extreme weather patterns both in our own environments as well as the environments of other regions around the globe that have for some produced catastrophic consequences.

One can be easily overcome with a feeling of helplessness, wanting to do more though not knowing where to begin; a familiar and common feeling. Similar feelings are evoked in regard to the many other significant problems that face our societies. A place to begin is a reflection on our personal contributions to these changes to our environment, both locally and globally. The performance grieving/separated from Ayles Ice Shelf, by Irene Loughlin at the You Me Gallery in Hamilton, Ontario, and presented at the 8th HTMlles festival in Montreal, QC, is a work that provokes such an inquiry.

An interdisciplinary performance art piece, the work is based on the August 2005 separation of the Ayles Ice Shelf from the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. What resulted was a giant ice island 37 metres thick and measuring around 14 kilometers by 5 kilometers in size. The event was so significant it registered on seismometers in northern Canada, and it was verified via satellite imagery. The speed of the breakup is also remarkable; it took less than an hour. This was one of the first major rapidly occurring visual images that provided further evidence of global warming. It was as if the world suddenly awoke to recognize its relevance and importance.

The urgency and haste with which the consequences of global warming are unfolding globally is embodied in Loughlin’s performance. Before our eyes, we witness the construction of an island of ice, however not formed naturally but rather courtesy of pre-packaged, man-made materials. Dressed in a plastic rain suit, Loughlin embodies the human inspired artificial nature of this global event as she prepares what is to become her cold and lifeless resting place during the performance; covered in a quilt- like plastic blanket created from the plastic bags that contained the ice.

As this construction using the ice proceeds, one can’t help recall the recent reports in the media from a recent Environment Canada study demonstrating the startling accumulation in polar bear fat of PBDE’s or polybrominated diphenyl ethers - a polymer that is used as a flame retardant. This provided further proof of the ongoing vulnerability of Arctic wildlife to the long-range transport or “biomagnification” of persistent toxic substances through our air and water. Many of these chemicals take many years to break down, and even longer in the colder climate.

Such examples that result from the viewers’ own reflections during this piece magnify the extent of our impact on our environment, not only from a perspective of distance, but also of time. Our contribution is highlighted as Loughlin encourages the assistance of members of the audience. The participant is asked to put on a winter coat and approach a nearby series of ice trays that are more commonly used to provide blocks of ice in the preparation of cool, inviting beverages or refreshments for consumption. Instead, Loughlin is anointed by these blocks of semi-melted ice, as they rain down upon her, courtesy of those in the audience who choose to take part.

This action leaves one with the impression that like death, the separation of the Ayles Ice Shelf is a process that is irreversible. Grieving is the only process one can engage in as an effort to fully grasp and acknowledge our collective contribution to this significant change. It was observed that those in the audience who contributed to this part of the performance were predominantly women. The need and desire to nurture and heal, which is a central theme to Loughlin’s piece, appears to resonate on levels with members of the audience that perhaps even the artist did not intend. The participatory action is a testament to the urgency of what the separation of the Ayles Ice Shelf means to those present at this experience.

Ayles was one of the oldest bodies of ice in the Arctic ice shelf and is believed to be over 3,000 years old. Now known as Ayles Ice Island, for two years it has drifted where it was thought it would eventually enter the Arctic Ocean. Ironically, it was of significant concern for oilrig operators in the Beaufort Sea north of Prudhoe Bay. Recently (and no doubt, to the oil rig operators delight) the island of ice became wedged into the Sverdrup Inlet of the Queen Elizabeth Islands, where scientists believe it is likely to remain.

Later in the piece, Loughlin returns to the artificial. Plastic roses - plastic beauty, a human adaptation of the naturally occurring, dipped in paint. The irony returns in that much of what is artificial has contributed to this significant environmental event - a result of our addictive use of oil. Oil contains the precursor source of carbon for the paints, plastics and other instruments to create our artificial landscape – in an effort to replace the natural with a human adaptation. One cannot expect the irony to stop there. Recently the countries that border the Arctic under careful watch of the United States are positioning themselves for the economic and geopolitical riches of the region – access to transport of products from cheap labor in China via new shipping channels, courtesy of the melted ice. Not to mention the accessibility to the untapped reserves of more oil under the Arctic.

As if the dire warnings of the environmental catastrophe that faces this region, and subsequently the globe, is not enough, the melting of this ice cap, to some, is an “opportunity”. An opportunity for corporate protected individuals who are in search of profits that were as significant as the profits they made in the “previous quarter”. These individuals can often be seen prospering from other catastrophic events, though commonly more immediately man-made, such as war. This scenario leaves one with even more questions of the economic system the world currently uses to operate – and the urgency to find a solution.

Why should every movement or journey I make and every act of consumption have such significant environmental impact? Why do I have little choice to do otherwise? Who truly benefits from such a system where the environment with which we are meant to thrive suffers, as we suffer? How can this be changed?

In the coming years we will all be forced to turn northward to the Arctic as we reflect on the other serious issues that we face as communities both locally and internationally; globalization and its impact on the widening of social inequality and poverty globally; the effects of human-made pollution on our own health as well as that of the planet and the other life forms that share this environment; the insatiable hunger for resources that are seen in more recent times - fuel for war for geopolitical advantage in the name of profit - enacted by obscene government corruption in countries who profess “democracy”. When considering where the environment is positioned within the hierarchy of global concerns, it is clear that these problems are interrelated.

In August 2007 the “arctic sea ice extent”, the area of ocean in the Arctic that is covered by at least 15% ice, had shrunk to 4.92 million square kilometers. This was 400,000 square kilometers less than the previous record set in September of 2005. To understand the urgency of this problem one needs to focus on the months before this record. The rate of melting for summer 2007 has been very rapid, declining up to an alarming rate of 210,000 square kilometers per day in June and July. Unusually clear sky conditions in June and July contributed a high amount of solar energy, accelerating the melting process.

Many scientists now believe Arctic sea ice will soon reach or has passed a “tipping point,” where the sea ice has entered a process of melting that will continue to accelerate until the sea ice will disappear completely. It has been predicted that 2030 is the date, sooner than projected by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which sets the date of disappearance at between 2050 and 2100.

Loughlin’s performance approaches its end, again encouraging audience participation. By now the audience is more comfortable in assisting the artist. Each participant dips a flower in paint while laying it on the ice. What results is a communal collaboration; an interdependence and interconnectedness that signifies the importance of unity in community in addressing the issue of our contribution to the damage we have made to our home, and to ourselves. As Loughlin suddenly departs, the audience is left to reflect collectively. It is clear; the answer to this problem requires coordination and cooperation on an unprecedented local and global scale.