(Image: from our trip to the Dry Valleys, the helo cresting a glacier)
Much earlier in our adventure the generous and thoughtful James Madsen from the University of Wisconsin and member of AMANDA (here we go: Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array) and Ice Cube projects returned from Pole and gave us his (for us) precious cargo: the shots he supervised in our GoPro re-enactments of the Amundsen and Scott South Pole photographs. I was so impressed not only with his ready and interested agreement even to do the videos in the first place, but also with the footage itself. He led no fewer than seven groups through the portraits and accompanying audio recordings. I’m not going to spoil the unveiling of these in our project by previewing anything here, gentle readers. That must wait for the opening of the installation in the HopKins Black Box theatre in about a year’s time.
But I want to say now that the reenactments at Pole were a great success in their doing. Let me explain. I nearly leapt off my barstool in the Coffee House when over a glass of wine Dr. Madsen described his pleased and surprised reaction to how expressive the movements and positions of the re-enacting bodies were, even under all the layers of clothing and the various levels of attachment/detachment of the actors to the images and stories they were re-enacting, all of which might have muffled the effect. Please understand, this is the kind of realization a performance studies person lives for. This is also the overlap of what Diana Taylor has so famously and so well described as the archive and the repertoire that together dance our knowledge of history. The archive in this case would be represented by the original photos, and the repertoire the body’s memory and experience of how it is to move in a very cold climate, vulnerable and suffering despite the bundling up, small spots in a vast whiteness, aware of the need to minimize exposure and maintain the thin lines of attachment to one another, to one’s base and comrades, in order to survive. But one goal of our project’s use of video portraiture is to fuzzy the line between archive and repertoire, to recover the one in the other. The bodies that saluted their Norwegian flag proudly; the British bodies that a few weeks later struggled to find a way to pose for a photo with that same flag–those movements are in the photos, too. Because they seem to us frozen and fixed, we sometimes forget how photos are like texts the way Bakhtin understands them: events, eventful.
Back in our evening at the Coffee House, our conversation had drifted to how Antarctica worked on one’s mind and body, and Madsen spoke about how the constant daylight or something made people’s minds function more slowly or–this is not his word, but my impression–mushily. One forgets simple nouns. For me it’s been proper names (which is a very bad thing when one is meeting so many wonderful new people) and making alphabet soup hash of acronyms (is it LDB or LBD? I have been suffering from a weird pseudo-dyslexic acronym thing ever since I got here–also a very bad thing when one is exposed continually to them in conversations and bulletins and presentations and signage here). One of my coping mechanisms for this had been to write down names and acronyms in my “brain”–a small notebook Katy presented each of us with at our orientation. I’ve seen others carrying them around. Part of their utility is to replace the electronic or cloud-based devices we are dependent on at home, but I think it’s also at least a tacit recognition of Antarctica mush-brain syndrome. But I couldn’t even manage my paper brain. Nothing like greeting someone one has already met with a big, “Hi–hang on…” and searching through the 11 pockets of one’s Big Red (another mush-brain thing for me–which pocket is my brain in today?) then flipping through the notebook to try to find the page with the person’s name on it. So I gave up, in a way, or at least gave over to trying to construct little rhymes or silly private acronyms for people in order to remember names. It’s not all my mushy brain fault: I have met and interacted somewhat regularly with no fewer than four women named Liz here, each very different and lovely and singular, including my new roommate who just arrived.
Flashing forward to yesterday: we had visitors in Town from the Italian base. I rode over to Scott Base on a shuttle with some of them (Vince with others just ahead of me). We were going to visit one last time with Anthony Powell to conclude his portrait with an audio interview; the Italians were sightseeing and shopping (Scott Base has a much higher-end store for souvenirs and warm socks–and yes, I went shopping too: got myself an autographed blu-ray of Antarctica: A Year on Ice). I used to have a smattering of tourist Italian, but it was lost in my mush brain, and all I could fish out was to point to the seals lolling around the pressure ridges near Scott and ask, “Come si dice seal in Italiano?” which was just making conversation, but the guy I asked kept saying Mare, mare–so he thought I said sea, and then it just went downhill from there because apparently those spots of loll didn’t register as real animals to the Italians’ eyes until that point.
Back at McMurdo, one of the Lizzes–the wonderful one who organizes our travel and manages the Hut Point volunteers as well as volunteers for many tasks herself (like driving the Sunday shuttle) organized a musical evening with two of the Italians, on guitar and keyboard. After they played crowd-pleasing favorites in Italian like O Sole Mio they began to play some American popular music, and the strangest thing happened. They could be excused for not quite knowing the lyrics, but most of us in fact had heard these songs 8 million times on the radio and stateside could sing them full out in the car or the shower. And we just could not produce the song lyrics. To me it seemed an extraordinary demonstration of the collective effects of Antarctica mush brain. It produced some hilarious improvisations, especially one in which a woman in the back seemed to know lyrcis for something they were playing, and the keyboardist started singing about how he really wanted the woman to come up and sing, he needed her, he had spent all these months at the Italian base without seeing a woman, and so on–and she was singing back that she didn’t know the lyrics, etc.–. The concert went on despite this kind of thing for some time. The guitarist was actually really good, and he went into a stretch where he was playing Neil Young and a lot of things I listen to frequently, and my mush brain dialed in a non-mush part and I came up with Hey hey, my my; Rock and roll will never die/More to the picture, than meets the eye/My my, hey hey–etc. in some semblance of the proper order. I have a terrible singing voice so I didn’t even try, but it was good to sing along mentally and quietly, to organize some of the mush. Later I took a good long walk down by the sound and coaxed the whole song out of the cold and the bright sunlit night: a beautiful night, balmy in the teens, which (amazingly) no longer feels that cold to me.
This morning I woke up with the opening chords in my head, and so this is for you, Italians, Lizzes, Dr. Madsen, Pole reenactors, good townfolk whose names I’ve repeatedly butchered, fussy acronyms I’ve screwed up over and over. My my, hey hey.