Suiting up and waiting, and waiting….

Suiting up and waiting, and waiting….

 Yesterday was our day-before-flight (but not really) date with ASC Christchurch for check-in, laptop security scan, an orientation (3 videos), quick temperature check, ECW clothes issue and try on, trade in anything that did not fit or had a dodgy zipper, repack (again) and sort into checked bags, boomerang bag, carry on, weighing and rearranging everything.

Of course I got confused. I was mighty sick of toting all the stuff I have so I left most of it there, thinking (stupidly, blithely) all I needed was stuff for the night. I was thankfully careful with the medications and have a week supply on me, but no change of clothes. In part I was worried about time and did not wish to disrupt my careful packing to ferret out a shirt and pants, because I had to go find a MacBook Pro Ethernet cable (using buses, no car) because the computer guy kindly told me I would need one (this was news or I would have had one). Otherwise this blog would shut down a couple of months. It will certainly slow down, due to the limited bandwidth on base but also I intend to be busy.

But all the scurry was unnecessary, because my flight got moved 3 hours ahead and then 24 hours, and Vince’s an additional 48. Who knows why we were separated but we were, and apparently once a manifest is populated it’s nearly impossible to change.

After a day at the beach just learned that I am now moved to Vince’s flight which means another day here–good we are traveling together–but also I pretty much need to go buy a shirt. I did not really pack much for warm weather, and today it was lovely, sunny, and even hot for awhile.

ECW clothing is fussy. There is a lot of it. The “bunny” boots weigh 7 pounds each and it feels like a workout just walking across the carpeted changing room floor in them.  It’s crucial to one’s comfort for the next many weeks that the gear fits and is free of problems that may seem small now but could develop into profound discomfort later. One of my mittens though brand new had a gash in it, so back it went. The advice is to take everything if it’s your first time because everyone works out what and how they wear it in combination with their own stuff individually. But it’s mandatory to wear much of it on the flight and to have much of it with you when you are out and about.

   I will admit to feeling a little giddy trying on “big red.” The iconic red NSF parka. Some gals dream of wearing Chanel. I dreamt of wearing big red. And there it was, on me.

Later we went to the International Antarctic Center ( across the way from CDC. Lots of good info and fun interactive (inter-reenactive?) things to do here. We did not go into the simulated blizzard room (having already been splashed and shook and spat at by 3D seals in the “4D theatre”), but we watched a lot of people take part through the big viewing window. It may seem rather obvious, but people do tend to huddle together in the cold. As the temperature dropped in the room one could see this begin to happen, and when the wind hit and the room darkened it was really noticeable–the smaller clumps of family and friends began to meld into a large clump of everyone. I felt like I was watching a demonstration of  environmental effects on cultural proxemics. For me the best part of the Center was the giant HD film featuring a helicopter flight that included the Dry Valleys. Just, wow. And that, if luck holds, was a pre-enactment.

On the way out, I stopped for a chat with Scott. 


Antarctic Lingo (with some digressions)

Antarctic Lingo (with some digressions)

Photo: McMurdo Station (“Town”)  from Observation Hill (“Ob Hill”); photo by Gaelen Marsden

Antarctica may not have a long human history but it certainly has culture(s). And one way this is expressed, at least in my heretofore limited experience, is in the language–what Bakhtin called “speech genres.” As a citizen of a Communication Studies department, I am perhaps especially attuned to hearing these. Some of the patois I’ve encountered thus far comes from the American military and military subcontractors, no doubt via their maintenance of aspects of the bases.  That means a heck of a lot of acronyms–the NSF likes these, too.  For awhile whenever we had a conference call or a new document (and there is a lot of that in this process) I felt like I needed a decoder ring.  Here is a short list of some of my Antarctic vocabulary thus far. I may be using these terms incorrectly or awkwardly at this point. As Bakhtin says, one does not learn speech genres from a book; one learns on the street (or The Ice, in the present context). And I’m not there yet.

The Ice: term for Antarctica. As in, “Are you going to be on the ice this year?”  Yes! 

Pole: When you’re down there you don’t call it the South Pole. It would be ridiculous to be going to the North Pole from Antarctica.  Somehow the article seems to have fallen away as well, so it’s just Pole.

Deploy: clearly military in origin. One “deploys” to the Ice, unless one is a tourist. Then I guess one just goes.

PQ or PQed or PQing:  short for Physically Qualifying. Before you may deploy you must meet physical requirements, which vary according to when you are going (winter is way different), what you are doing, how old you are, and other factors I am sure. It’s a process. You get a lot of your hood looked under. Tests, pokes, prodding, and you have to pay for it yourself and fax the results in (which for me involved a trip to the hardware store, which, fax-wise, is how we roll in our little town). It made me incredibly anxious because it was pages and pages and lots of appointments, and because I am not the spring chicken I once was. But basically it makes good sense: they don’t want you to have a medical emergency on base, because care there is pretty basic and it’s a long way to a hospital. You need to have dentistry attended to as well to PQ. When I PQed I was so darn happy.

USAP: United States Antarctic Program. The US maintains 3 bases on the Ice:  Palmer Station on the peninsula side, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at Pole, and the largest, McMurdo Station, on Ross Island on the opposite side. 

Town:  McMurdo is the largest station by far. In the lingo it is also McTown or just Town. This reminds me of when I was with friends in the Outer Hebrides last year, on Lewis, and people talked about going to town. They meant Stornoway. It is the only town. McMurdo is not really a town–I guess that depends on one’s definition– but the closest thing to one. There are many more bases on the continent, maintained by upwards of 30 nations, but McMurdo is the largest. Here is Cool Antarctica’s list with data about years established, populations, etc.: There are also many impermanent field camps established for research mostly in the summers, of course–the research season.

ASA: Antarctic Support Associates, who are in my book some really great people.  You can string all  together the good folks who support us and you get alphabet soup: NSF USAP ASA. 

LTER: long term ecological research sponsored by NSF.  I assume there are other sites–OK, I just googled it and there are–but the one that concerns me is the one in the McMurdo Dry Valleys: “The McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER project is an interdisciplinary study of the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in a cold desert region of Antarctica.” Read more about it here: Ever since I read about the Dry Valleys, about Scott stumbling into them on his first Antarctic expedition, Discovery, and the subsequent exploration of them on other expeditions, I have wanted to go. And it’s on our itinerary. I hope it works out. Here’s a virtual tour from some good folks in the Geology Dept at Portland State University: LSU scientists have been doing research here, at (in? on? See, this is where I sound like a greenhorn) the Taylor glacier for some time, burrowing into the glacier to find ancient microbes.

Helo time:  one reaches the Dry Valleys, and some other places we are going, via helicopter. From what I can tell, helo trips are measured in time. 

CDC (no, not the one in Atlanta, the one in Christchurch, NZ) and ECW: we will get our loaned Extreme Cold Weather Gear, including the iconic red parka, at the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch the day before our flight to the ice. Other lingo bristles out of this experience, like the boomerang bag which sounded like fun until I learned it’s the bag you pack with stuff like your toothbrush and your jammies that you’d need if your flight was scrubbed due to weather or mechanical problems and you wound up back at your hotel in Cnristchurch. They don’t take off all the cargo, so you just get back your boomerang bag.

I could go on and on, but the USAP has kindly provided a glossary for the Participants Guide which has become my bible of sorts, here:

Deployment in 4 days!



The last few weeks seem to have been saturated with lists of stuff and anxiety about getting it all together and ready in time:  video equipment, audio equipment, data storage and processing equipment, cables to make everything talk to everything else, stuff that attaches to the main stuff, stuff to make the stuff work better in the cold.  And most of this is doubled, because if one of our gizmos won’t function we have backup, and because having 2 cameras on something can give us perspectives to cut or choose between, efficiency with trying different lenses or settings or whatnot simultaneously, etc.  And when you’re out in the cold and/or grabbing caught time with working scientists as subjects you want to be efficient.  But not all the gizmos are redundant, due to the economics and the weight, so we may be hedging some bets.  Then there are all the little and/or expendable things, some of them ordinary, like gaffers tape, some of them odd, like static control wrist-bands with grounding wires because the air is so dry in Antarctica I’m terrified of frying an SD card while handling it.  And then one of us suddenly remembers we need to get a Norwegian flag for the Pole video. Some of our main stuff has not yet arrived, namely the time-lapse slider and the external battery packs.  And a lot of the stuff that did arrive… arrived rather a short time ago.  Making sure it all works, and figuring out how to use it well–that time is horribly compressed now.

And then there’s the list of stuff one must have about one’s body:  2 different weights of long underwear, mountaineering socks, BYO towel, backup sunglasses, layers of clothing and toiletries and medications and hats and a gaiter (a gaiter! I am getting one for Christmas, along with a pair of “glomitts”) and personal electronic gear and the bags that will carry it all.  The lists are getting scary. The piles made from the lists have begun to assemble. I am trying to be meticulous, because one can’t exactly nip down to the McMurdo Walgreens or Best Buy.

I would like to get back to thinking about the aesthetic and critical choices.  That is so much more pleasurable than looking up specs on rechargeable batteries.  My hat is off, and my gaiter and glomitts, to folks who do logistical planning for a career.

And then I thought about the Terra Nova lists.  Here’s a link to a pdf file of a wonderful report of “Miscellaneous Data” from the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 -13 (I shall generally refer to it as the Terra Nova expedition in this blog):

After descriptions of the ship and special items like the finneskoe worn by the men, there is Birdie Bowers’ list of stores for the shore party that runs on and on and on and then Wilson’s list of medical stores that runs on and on and on …. and then one thinks of the dogs and ponies and motor sledges and the scientific equipment and the materials for the hut and on and on and on- the ship stuffed to the gills (in fact dangerously so).

So my 85 (hopefully) pounds… meh.  Still, it requires a lot of planning.

I will say that I love Birdie’s list; I love its specificity. I love knowing that the Terra Nova manifest included for instance 200 1-pound tins of haricots verts and 3 tmfreresons of dog biscuit and that the cigarette brand was Maspero Frères (an astounding 10,000 50-packs,sealed).

GoP(r)ole Reenactment

GoP(r)ole Reenactment

This photo is both one of the most iconic and most melancholy in the canon of heroic age photography.  Scott’s polar party has reached the pole only to discover Amundsen’s tent and flag.  From left to right as one faces the photo is Scott, Oates further away from the camera (the X of the ski pole and tent line Xing him out, as frostbite would, soon); Bill Wilson looking into the tent (curious about the contents, as he is curious about the world), and poor big Evans, who is already dehydrated and starving.  Birdie Bowers is not shown; he is the photographer.

We have a re-enactment of this and an Amundsen photo that precedes it planned.  It has been in some ways at the heart of our project, possibly because this image invites so much projection.  What they must have been thinking.  I’ve got a draft of an essay about this photo and other “failure” photographs from the heroic age, and I’ll get back to it after the more pressing project.  I’m writing about “scriptiveness,” inspired by Rebecca Schneider’s notion that cameras are “scriptive things.” What was the script for the photo Scott’s polar party planned to take?  Not this photo, not this script, though they knew it would be possible–but impossible to script this.  It’s such an informal composition compared to other “we made it, here we are” photos of this ilk.  It’s like they are looking for the script for making the photo.  This is what haunts me about it.

Anyway, in the long negotiations we had over the project, it became apparent at one point that Vince and I could not go to Pole.  It was a bitter pill, because I had imagined this reenactment in such detail.  Well meaning folks involved in our planning tried to help, suggesting we could re-enact this image on the Ross Ice Shelf.  No.  It has to be on site (otherwise I might as well be going to Iowa next month….). But then it struck me:  Herbert Ponting, the Terra Nova photographer, did not go to Pole.  He did, however, supply the polar party with smaller cameras and teach them how to make photos.  What if we did something similar?

And this is why, after some complex negotiations, we are sending a GoPro camera to Pole with some wonderful scientists engaged in research at IceCube Neutrino Laboratory.  We’ve figured out where the photographer needs to be, where each subject stands–but because this will be a video, we’ve also choreographed how the shots arrive-how the subjects move into them, between the images, and out of frame.  We had a rehearsal with some wonderful volunteers and a tape measure and our new GoPro Hero 4 black.  I learned a lot in this process.  For instance, it’s really hard to match compositions in the absence of a horizon line.  Depth cues are really, really important, and one has fewer than usual here–and from what I know, those that do exist in Antarctica can trick you. They are hard to understand because our bodies are used to lots and lots of human scale landmarks. Thank goodness for the tent.  We had to figure out a lot of settings, and no doubt the modern “polar party” will have to make adjustments.  But I’m excited about how this will turn out–and a little nervous about having little control over it once we hand over the camera and instructions.  As Ponting must have been.

Reenactment, as it turns out, isn’t confined to the visual text before one.  A photo or a video is an event, and my favorite ways to think about them are to think about their eventfulness.  In this case, the event includes reenacting modern versions of the backstage events that Ponting and the polar party arranged in order to have polar images.

Whatever happens, our polar party will be safe, and I hope our footage makes it back, too.

Here is part of the rehearsal


Preparing to deploy

Preparing to deploy

The photo above is of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (“Cherry”), whose fault all of this is, in a way.  He solidified my addiction to Antarctic literature with his account of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, The Worst Journey in the World.  Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley enhanced and extended this addiction into the realm of images.  So here is Cherry in the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans, working on his newspaper, The Polar Times–one of the many ancestors of this blog.  If all goes well, I will be standing right there where this photo was taken before too long.  Thank you, Cherry.

Welcome to my blog about a project called “Persistence of Vision: Antarctica” I am creating with my co-PI, colleague and friend Vince.  The first phase of making this work involves time in the field in Antarctica, a place that has preoccupied my imagination for decades.  And now to be actually, at last, going… I am humbled, thrilled, ecstatic, and a little terrified.

The project, about which I will have more to say in weeks to come, fits contemporary subjects into compositional frameworks, themes, and locations of Antarctic photography of the heroic age–our plan is to stage “reenactments” of these.  We’re putting some twists in these, mostly using HD video instead of still photographs to produce slow-motion “video portraits.”  We have been inspired by Bill Viola and Robert Wilson in this aesthetic, but we also hope it speaks to the vast strangeness of Antarctica, its non-human scale, and the “hail” of the 100 year old photos to our present moment.  We also hope that when the videos are eventually put together and installed as video installation art we can create the conditions for spectators to do their own “re-enactments” of traveling beyond the utmost bound.

Our work is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. I am honored to be among the amazing artists who have taken their own version of this journey and so inspired my own.  We’re also grateful for support from Louisiana State University, our Office of Research, our respective colleges and departments, and our colleagues and students who have been so supportive throughout the years-long process of landing this grant and jumping through many hoops.  My mantra the last year has been, “If it were easy, everyone would go.”  Having the support of all of the above has given us stamina and inspires us daily.  I am also deeply grateful to the thoughtful and warm folks who work for the US Antarctic Program, one or two in particular who may make an appearance in this blog later, with their permissions of course.

We deploy in less than 3 weeks and there is much to be done, to put it mildly. Yesterday some kind grad students volunteered their time to help us figure out staging for the one video we will not ourselves be shooting, at the South Pole.  I’ll have more to say about that below as well.

I hope to update this blog frequently, but we have been cautioned that internet connections and bandwidth are sometimes difficult to come by at McMurdo Station, where we will be based.  So I may not be able to pull off posting too many photos or videos.  I may take to writing in a notebook and transcribing later.  We’ll see how this goes.

It is also Tennyson’s fault, so he gets the end of this entry:
“…To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”