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Soniferous Aether



The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond is a 35mm film installation shot at the northernmost settlement on earth— ALERT Signals Intelligence Station— as part of a series of fieldworks looking at remote outpost architecture, military infrastructure and the embedded landscape. Shot using a computer controlled time‐lapse tracking camera during the winter months, the military spy outpost radiates within a shroud of continuous darkness under a star-pierced canopy harkening an abandoned space station.




Exhibition Catalogue with Text by Christopher Rohde and Interview between Charles Stankievech and Ola Wlusek.

Bilingual English/Français. Colour Images.

ISBN: 978-1-926967-26-4



Charles Stankievech interviewed by Ola Wlusek


Ola Wlusek: The landscape in contemporary art has become a charged subject matter; perhaps it always was. How does your practice fit within this discourse?

Charles Stankievech: Landscape painting is a long-standing tradition parallel to the development of landscape architecture, both providing a frame and intimately tied to our construct of "the natural". Within the Canadian canon of art, landscape is THE tradition – one in the 20th century infused with spiritualism in Emily Carr and the Group of Seven and which I'm trying to continue via the electromagnetic in The Soniferous Æther from the Land Beyond the Land Beyond. One of the things I'm interested in is something I would call the "embedded landscape": the landscape that shapes us as much as we shape it – something occurring at an unprecedented scale in the anthropocene age. A site like CFS ALERT is wrapped up with the geopolitics of sovereignty as much as the encoded electromagnetic.

OW: What is your fascination with the remote areas which are being utilized by the government and the military?

CS: Living in a remote location like the Yukon Territory has made me want to understand the place both historically and presently, locally and globally. By the very nature of the resources required for institutions to exist in severe and remote locations, the first colonizers are historically some form of the military – often in bed with private enterprise. What you call fascination is more the sustained research on the edges of our society that, paradoxically, by the extreme effort for such settlements to exist, articulates what values are core to the centre of a society. It's not so much the typical postcolonial binary of centre/margins but rather how outer borders map inner policy.

OW: Are you inspired by science-fiction films?

CS: Between my philosophy degree and becoming an artist, I worked in the camera department for Hollywood studios on sci-fi productions in Vancouver, and it's always been an influence. For me sci-fi is the perfect genre for filmmaking and it provides the language to look at what is in front of us with alien eyes. Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979) has always been an important benchmark for considering the landscape in the post-industrial age, and I was definitely thinking of the final sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): the pulse of the monolith communicating across deep space and the psychedelic flight that arrives in an empty techno outpost. The important twist however with The Soniferous Æther is that it is NOT science fiction, as all the elements within the work are documentary elements: the images are of real locations and buildings, the sounds of real military broadcasts, the astrophotography of a real starry sky, and so on. Most people don't realize how much art direction in sci-fi comes from contemporary military architecture and epic primary industry, e.g., polar outposts and the Tar Sands, respectively. Thus, The Soniferous Æther completes the journey and we see a real landscape on our contemporaneous earth as a sci-fi fantasy, unearthing the duality of such a site and our complex relation to it.

OW: I found the image of the two clocks significant. The time appears to be the same but the hands indicating the seconds are not aligned. What was your intention with regards to pointing to the passage of time?

CS: This seemingly banal scene is actually one of the most important for me even though it might appear unspectacular in a frozen sea of sublime images. What's interesting about this scene is something you can't directly see, which is essentially how the clocks run at a slightly different rate. If you look closely you see the two clocks are labeled differently, one AC and one DC, which means one is running off the power of the station and another off a battery. The two clocks provide an interesting visualization of two types of power and hence two types of time that exist at the station exists. The first sense of time is existential: when I was at the station working it was dark 24 hours a day – dead dark, disturbing any circadian rhythms. I'm used to living in the North and even if you don't see the sun for a few months, you at least see a glow on the horizon. One of the strangest feelings while at the station occuredin the short moment upon waking that if I didn't flip a light on, I realized I wouldn't see anything for a couple of months or until I left the station. The other sense of time is operational time; the station syncs with Ottawa as the intelligence operational headquarters for CFS Alert is at CFS Leitrim (neighbouring Ottawa and partnering with CSEC – Communications Security Establishment Canada, the Canadian equivalent to the American NSA).

OW: Are you concerned with stripping the northern landscape of its romanticized ideals as the untouched and unaltered place?

CS: Most of my work presents a bipolar view of a landscape: both society's fantasies and a brute reality. When one looks at the ideology of a society, both the imaginary and the real are necessary for a complex understanding. To do otherwise is at best rhetoric and at worst propaganda.

OW: Are we still obsessed with frontiers?

CS: It seems less and less so. Rather, we are obsessed with the resolution of maps. Today the terra incognita on maps is not a blank zone on the edge but rather the block pixel where we cannot zoom close enough, fast enough, cheap enough. However, probably the most important unknown frontier on the earth currently is the floor of the Arctic Ocean. For the last ten years the polar nations have been urgently mapping the sea floor for bids to the United Nations to justify territorial claims for resource extraction.

OW: In the past you have referred to your fascination with, and collection of, found organic objects, such as meteorites. Did you bring anything back with you from this journey?

CS: Actually, the inverse occurred. I buried a meteorite in the ice just outside the station. It’s a reference to Commander Peary's extraction of the famous Cape York arctic meteorite from Inuit territory in Greenland and transported to the American National History Museum in New York City.


Ola Wlusek is curator of contemporary art at the Ottawa Art Gallery.