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Twice during my walk from Barrow to Freshwater Lake, I was warned by passing vehicles of the heightened risk of walking un-armed away from town. But it was such a vast, open tundra under a clear, dark blue sky that I didn’t feel any risk of being surprised – I didn’t get a sense that anything was rushing me. But this was my desire for a mysterious journey trumping logic – polar bears would most likely see me before I saw them. Don’t do what I did.


Judging how far of a walk it was to the lake was impossible without map, and even if I had one, it wouldn’t have really served any purpose other than to describe the general relationship between places, rather than the lake and I. It seemed close for much of the walk – like a mirage – shimmering – I lost any sense of scale miles before, just past the radio antenna array south of town. A repellant wind blew against me as I approached, which grew to a roar by the time I reached the water. There were Arctic Turns walking, feeding and gazing out upon the lake along its thin, shore-less periphery, as whale hunters do during whaling season out upon the Arctic Ocean, gazing for signs of Bowhead whales. There was something in nothing – what I came to this lake to see. I actually departed for the lake with hopes of recording video of birds feeding, for another project involving boundaries, and that was exactly what the birds allowed me to watch them do, for well over an hour, and at times quite close. The surrounding landscape reminded me of the Texas Panhandle, though with short grass rather than long, and saturated with water everywhere. But appearance was the limit of similarity between Arctic tundra and the farmland east of Amarillo. What partly defines the boundary to the “Polar Eternities” that I often refer to is the temperature-driven, geographical limit of crop growth towards the poles (North, primarily – Antarctica, while polar, doesn’t share a border with any land capable of hosting crops.), and the predominance of permafrost.

The driver that stopped to warn me of bears as I was returning to Barrow works at the National Weather Service office near the antenna array that I had passed, and after learning more about the individual he feared might soon be eaten, disclosed frustration in his attempt to earn his meteorology degree via an online program run by Mississippi State. Like everyone else that I had met in Barrow, he stopped to ask what I was doing first before warning me about walking around without a gun. Later that evening, I found fresh bear tracks where I had been working the day before, and the video session the next morning was enveloped in nervousness, and having to continually scan up and down the coast for bears swimming, exiting the ocean, and walking around. This is why some of the video of birds feeding at the Arctic Ocean was recorded from some distance – so that I could stay close to town and quickly exit the beach.

I owe much gratitude to Lillie Paquette, who loaned me her HD video camera without hesitation, when it was apparent that the one I bought in 2006 wasn’t quite up to the trask.

One of the things on my to-do list for Barrow was coastal photography involving the glass replicas of Arctic sea ice from Svalbard. My initial inclination was to work further down the coast away from the town, but that would have been a mistake for two reasons. The first, and most important, was that I was warned about the high frequency of polar bears spotted strolling the coast, and the further I was from civilization, the fewer exit points from shore there were, and the more likely it would be for an encounter. The other reason was that, despite my working alone a lot, this project was a sociological study, and I wanted encounters with beings lacking large teeth and capable of being reasoned with.


While setting-up for a photo, I met two Belgian artists named Tom and Leonard. They were visiting Barrow for nine days to begin work on a documentary, and we talked mostly about the sociological dynamics of this unusual community, and why Barrow is so interesting as a focal point for climate change study – answering each other’s internal question of why we were drawn to such a place in the process. Perhaps we were all interested in places involving flux and transition. Barrow is in two related states of this sort, of atmospheric warming altering its environment in noticeable ways, and of people involved in one of the mechanism driving it, which I often refer to as “Tahitians”. Unfortunately, a couple of Tom’s bags, containing lenses and some sort of converter, were remained in a state of transition, and I really hope they found their way there from Anchorage before he had to leave. The right kind of lens can really come in handy in places like this.

The Arctic Ocean actually did claim of my glass ice pieces as a gift, despite my attempt at de-gifting. As I was photographing all five just within the “wave zone”, a larger-than-expected wave came along and swept them out into the surf. I was lucky to retrieve four, otherwise Brian, Dylan, Aaron, or Simeon, ages 9-10, wouldn’t have been nearly as photogenic. They were playing soccer on the coast not far away, and wandered over to see what I was up to.

“Are you a scientist?” “Sorta. I’ve studied science and work a little in it, and I’m also an artist.”
“Where are you from?” “Do you know where Massachusetts is?” “Yeah!” “I’m from Boston, Massachusetts.”
“Do you know about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?” “Yeah!” “That’s where I work.”

Left-over from my experience working with the ELMO Project at Northeastern University was the habit of handing people things to motivate conversation, so showed them the glass sea ice. When asked if they knew where Norway was, half of them responded in the affirmative. Who knows if they actually do know, but by asking, at least they get exposed to the terms and place names. I always enjoy asking little kids geographical questions, especially those in little towns. I told them that I went to the Arctic near Norway last year and scanned Arctic sea ice, and that they were holding the glass replicas, which explained why they were holding what looked just like ice, but which refused to melt in the above-freezing Autumn air. Normally the daytime highs in Barrow are below freezing by this time, so global warming worked to my advantage in this case. But despite the fact that it was clearly above freezing, and the mutual agreement that what they were holding was NOT ice, the youngest of the group still decided to probe the unusual objects by putting one in his mouth.

I’m lead to believe that these guys knew exactly where Boston, Massachusetts is, due to the fact that they brought up Thomas Edison shortly after my mentioning where I work, followed by lightbulbs, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, mentioning dates for each when they knew them.

“Have you seen bears?” “Not yet”, I replied. “There was one around here earlier today.”

Eventually, the age thing came-up, and asking them to guess my age was a mistake. “52” they said. Colleagues at the Sea Grant conference just a week earlier couldn’t believe I was a day older than 32. But I have noticed that I do look more wrinkly and older in photos where I’m working on an Arctic coast. Who knows what it is – the increased coffee intake, the reduction in sweat passing through my pores, or maybe this is simply what happens when I work in the Arctic.

I left a half-piece of glass sea ice with them, under the promise that they’ll share it (you gotta give them chances to do so). Now I need to contact their teacher so that she’ll believe them when they explain their new possession for show-and-tell (Do kids still do this with physical objects, or is everything done on Facebook?).

On Sept 22, one day short of a year since departing for Svalbard, I’ll return to the Arctic (Barrow, AK) to celebrate a milestone in one of my current projects, “Arctic Sea Ice in Glass”, and begin a project relating the Arctic coasts and tropical environments.

This project began in the context of boundaries, and the edges of existence. By the Fall of 2010, after reading a few books involving exploration of unknown environments, watching hours of footage from lunar exploration missions, and venturing to the New England coast at night in the depths of winter, I had acknowledged an affinity for being at boundaries that may be considered primordial, null, or serving spaces so vast and different that we’re overwhelmed by the sense of being there, where winds blow across a nearly discontinuous gradient. When I was invited to participate in the 2011 Arctic Circle Residency, the chance to continue a polar trajectory to the boundary between tropical culture and the Polar Eternities presented itself.

I brought along few expectations other than to observe, and to enjoy the liberties inherent in doing so with whatever tools I found even remotely useful, such as 3D scanning. It’s used primarily as a means to an end, and in this case, documentation and cloning of what would be considered fossils. Scanning Arctic ice was considered part of the observation process, and a way of translating ephemeral matter into a relatively permanent context, or simply replicating it in its own ephemeral material.

The scanning system I built was very simple, using DAVID laser scanning software that connected to a camera and laser mounted on a tripod. In testing the system at various scales and levels of crudeness, errors revealed the interesting and peculiar nature of how the system saw the world presented to it. An obvious analogy is slit-scan photography of dimensions Y (or X) and time, with 3D scanning simply adding the depth dimension. One can, of course, scan motionless objects and record a realistic 3D surface or object, like I did with Arctic sea ice.

Despite numerous unexpected technical obstacles, I was able to scan palm-sized pieces of Arctic sea ice retrieved from two locations around Svalbard. These scans were used in “Shunyatan Flow” (2011), a 3D animation describing a wind driven by temperature and ego. Body scans were also rendered as ice, as symbols of ego undergoing simultaneous transformation and wind-driven erosion at boundary.

Doing anything for the first time involves at least one degree of freedom that’s not fully understood, and this project had about two dozen. Fortunately, and quite possibly miraculously, each was manageable, and consecutive critical deadlines were met that allowed me to finish the project with the least possible expense. Three weeks ago, I was able to 3D-print an ice tray of the Arctic sea ice forms scanned last year, from which I made wax positives for feeding the casting process, and ice replicas of the original forms. And over the last two weeks, six beautiful glass replicas were produced. Despite being about half the size of the originals (due to 3D printer limitations), they otherwise look and feel just like the originals. While photographing them outside on the sidewalk, a woman with her toddler passed by and asked if they were ice, to which I replied that they indeed were, before handing a piece to her daughter.

When I bring these glass Arctic sea ice replicas to Barrow, AK on Sept. 22nd, an idea will be realized.  But in the context of reliability and scale, this project is still in its infancy. Scanning objects even in tropical conditions requires significant control and supporting materials, and Arctic scanning adds the known obstacle of temperature, along with the unknowns inherent in a place that remains beyond the boundary of permanent expansion of tropical culture.

Special thanks to: The Arctic Circle Residency, Mike Soroka, Chris Watts, Nancy Adams, and MIT

I’m fascinated by what’s involved in this –  drought, temperature, population, investment, glaciers and polar ice caps, etc.

The distribution of water throughout the state is a function of demand, political influence, and supply, and the complexities of its sociological dynamics further complicate matters and re-shape formal infrastructure.


I walked up and down that street over four days, either to meet a few colleagues who were performing in the 2011 Insomnia Festival, or to wander and enjoy my last days in the Arctic. I had arrived in Norway in late-September, met a few people in Oslo, and then the main contingent of 20 in Longyearbyen. For two weeks, we sailed up and down the west and north coasts of the Svalbard archipelago, as artists-in-residence exploring the hyperboreal land and ocean. When we returned to Longyearbyen, we dispersed over several days, and it was eventually in Tromsø that I was alone again.

Had I exhaled too much over the past month, left without enough oxygen to remember those resonant spaces in the past that I used be nostalgic for? As I walked down the cold, dark, damp street towards the bridge leading to the Arctic Cathedral, I wasn’t holding on to anything, having crossed a boundary, and beyond the grasp of any conclusions I had methodically composed before this vacation in Norway. Perhaps this boundary was crossed earlier, in Oslo, or during the voyage. I remember looking ahead, down the street and seeing no one. Sometimes, I would see someone in an illuminating store (e.g. the apoteks). Tromsø is known for its nightlife, but that’s not the nightlife I’m referring to.

Tromsø Bridge was the longest cantilever bridge I had ever crossed at night. There wasn’t room on either side for more than two people to pass, and the outer railing was high enough to prevent people from accidentally falling off. I passed at least two people going the opposite direction during each crossing. On the return trip back to my hotel, looking off towards what seemed to be the south, I witnessed the twinkling tips of planes descending through the clear night. I couldn’t see the lights of the airport, however, since it was situated on the opposite side of a mountain.

New works exhibited in Mediating Place are now available online, along with a gallery of photos taken during my residency in the Arctic Circle :

“Arctic Water Column” (2011)

“Three Tahitians at the Boundary to the Polar Eternities” (2011)

Photo Gallery – Arctic Circle Residency

New works resulting from my Arctic Circle residency are now on display at the Harbor Art Gallery at UMass-Boston, through Oct. 25, as part of the group exhibition “Mediating Place”.

Other exhibiting artists include:  John Craig Freeman, Dyllan Nguyen, Ann Torke, Jane Prophet, Miriam Dym, EcoArtTech, and Richard Bertman


Harbor Art Gallery address and hours:
Monday – Thursday: 12:00 – 7:00 P.M.Friday: 12:00 – 4:00 P.M.
Harbor Art Gallery, c/o Meredith Hoy or Kevin Benisvy
McCormack Building
University of Massachusetts, Boston
100 Morrissey Blvd. Boston, MA 02125


New work created during and after my Arctic Circle Residency will appear alongside “Expanding Tahiti” at the Harbor Art Gallery at UMass-Boston.  The exhibit, entitled “Mediating Place”, will run Oct 5 – 25, and starting around the 17th, I’ll augment maps and notes already posted with digital projected work composed from Longyearbyen and Norway.

Other exhibiting artists include:  John Craig Freeman, Dyllan Nguyen, Ann Torke, Jane Prophet, Miriam Dym, EcoArtTech, and Richard Bertman


Harbor Art Gallery address and hours:
Monday – Thursday: 12:00 – 7:00 P.M.Friday: 12:00 – 4:00 P.M.
Harbor Art Gallery, c/o Meredith Hoy or Kevin Benisvy
McCormack Building
University of Massachusetts, Boston
100 Morrissey Blvd.Boston, MA 02125



Greetings friends,

The Arctic Circle Residency will begin in roughly two weeks. I would like to sincerely thank all of my current supporters (see below), and provide a final update before I leave.

My trip will begin Sept 26, and include a week of traveling to Longyearbyen and prep work, two weeks of sailing and exploring, and then about a week of compiling observations and wandering around southern Norway, before returning to the US on Oct 26. Our cruise will consist of 1-2 days of onshore work for each 1-2 days of sailing around the western and northern regions of the Svalbard archipelago. Since September is actually the month of minimum sea ice in the Arctic, sailing conditions should be ideal and allow for maximum flexibility in our itinerary.

To summarize my current artist statement regarding the expedition, I’ll collect 3D scans of ice chunks and surfaces, record sounds of electrical waves propagating through the atmosphere from the tropics, talk with other members of the expedition about why they are exploring the archipelago, study the geopolitical forces affecting the Svalbard region, and take photographs. We will not have internet access during the cruise, so I won’t be blogging, unfortunately.

To donate in exchange for “rewards”, visit:  http://www.benbray.com/payment.php . The underwater ROV I had mentioned previously will not be making the trip, so I’ll have to substitute some other interesting artifact for underwater video as part of the reward set.  If you have any suggestions, please send me an email, or include a note in the process of making a donation.

Special thanks to:
Aimee Ash

Andreas Randow
Dan Nissenbaum
David Bryant
Don Bray
Georgina Lewis
John Pound
Kitt Hodsden
Marcela Rodriguez
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Michael Soroka
Nancy Adams
Yuka Otani

Go to portfolio…


stored in: Expanding Tahiti and tagged:

The Ice Farm

Worrying about the little block melting too fast…

Worrying about the big block becoming unstable, breaking stuff, flooding my apartment or the gallery, or injuring a gallery visitor…

Being driven insane by the drip, but sad to hear it silenced.  We want the Polar Eternities to die quietly…

Being sad about all of the EPS I’ve used, sad when some of it fell into the melt….

I was going to need large (32″ x 15″ x 7″), translucent ice slabs to project imagery onto. So, I set-up a table in the backyard, amidst the coldest Boston winter I had ever experienced, and lined a strong cardboard box w/ plastic to hold the water.  I tried a few powders to make it cloudy (incl. baking soda and powdered milk), before simply letting plain water freeze.  Eventually, what was left of the milky concoction froze-up whatever cracks existed in the box, and I had a working ice farm. Over the many days that I grew slabs, I covered the box with a tarp to prevent weekly nor’easters from smothering it. I eventually figured-out that cloudy ice is made by rapidly freezing several thin layers, and occasional cracking created beautiful bubble patterns.