A hill of beans

A hill of beans

Yesterday afternoon we staged the most comic of our portraits, based on Ponting’s product-placement shot of a crew member perched on a crate labeled “Heinz Baked Beans” and doing a bite-and-smile with a spoon and a can of the same.  When I was in Cambridge last year at the wonderful Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Ponting’s papers I turned up a long letter to Scott–never delivered, since it was written when Scott was already dead, unbeknownst to Ponting and the world–that contained a reference to photos like this that implied Ponting hadn’t been informed in advance of the expedition that he would be required to take such crassly commercial photos; he clearly felt they were beneath his dignity.  So why would we re-enact such a photo?

For me, 3 reasons: 1) Antarctic exploration and science ain’t cheap, and someone has to foot the bill, even and perhaps especially for items as banal as beans to feed the troops, be it Heinz or the American taxpayer, and there are all kinds of ways those pressures surfaced for Scott et al and for McMurdo now. See also Cherry-Garrard on shopkeeping.  We had a long and twisting conversation about what our contemporary portrait should have emblazoned on the crate.  NSF?  NO–we didn’t want anyone to make the equation Beans = NSF. What then?  We liked the challenge of figuring it out.

2) A wonderful guy called Max, a contract worker in Supply, turned up out of the blue wanting to get involved with our project in any way, and he reminded us of the young guy in the Ponting photo–both project so much likability through the lens.  Max was perfect, disarming and forthcoming.  We loved his enthusiasm.  He helped us set up another portrait too.  Max is setting out from McMurdo in April to travel the world–an adventurous young person, like others we have met here.  I wish him all the best.  The world should be his oyster.

3)  It drew us into an area of McMurdo a bit off the beaten path of central town, uphill into the outdoor warehouse storage racks and rows known as “Mustache” since to keep track of the inventory the rows are organized according to mustache types:  Handlebar, Imperial, etc.  There are witty signs for these.  It was Vince’s idea to shoot Max’s portrait up there.

Instead of just one crate of beans, Max perched on a 3-4 tier multicolored stack at the end of one mustache row.  Stretched our behind and to either side of him were rows upon rows of crates of various shapes, sizes, and hues.  In the background of the shot, since Mustache is up on a hill, you can see McMurdo Sound, and it just so happened that the British ship Protector was in the sound and a helicopter was ferrying freight around the sound to the heliport below us.  So there was an opportunity to open up the image beyond the full shot of Max and show how the cargo and thus the materiality of Antarctic exploration had expanded.  It now takes a lot more beans.  We replaced the beans with a sandwich.  We brought 2 so we could do multiple takes.

We also approached the shot differently than most of our portraits.  We traded slow motion for stop action, opening the shot on Max taking his first bite of sandwich similarly framed as in Ponting’s image, then using the continuous burst mode to travel from him, handheld and purposefully herky-jerky, around the rows of cargo, returning full circle to Max finishing the sandwich.  We were so happy when we thought it up.  The reality was that it was really hard to do because it was a very cold day and the wind whips through the Mustaches dreadfully, and there were gusts of up to 40 mph that day with wind chills down to -17 F.  And to hold the continuous burst, you have to keep pressure on the shutter button which pretty much requires either a thin glove or no glove or a fingerless one (I experiment with a lot of gloves, and have never been satisfied with any of them).  Running along the racks increased the wind chill, and the wind decided to grab my hood at one corner and pull it off my head, reducing my headgear down to one hat, and my gaiter also slipped down so my face was exposed.  I only did one run of this shot.  Vince did 2, and I think he had even less luck with clothes.  When I got to the end of the shot my face was so frozen I couldn’t speak, and my hand was so cramped around the camera I had to pry the exposed hand off with the other.  And Max was out of sandwich but Vince said, “Just stuff the crumbs in your mouth, no one will notice” (the wind was also whipping sandwiches apart) and poor Max was stuffing sandwich shreds in his mouth and turning blue up there on top of the crates–we at least were able to run around to try to stay warm.  Every time I tell this story now when I get to Vince’s line about the crumbs I crack up and can’t finish telling it.

I still don’t know what this shot looks like, because we can’t immediately take cameras out of bags when we get back inside lest we get condensation, so we left everything in our lab in its insulated bags and went our separate ways. Somewhere up there in Mustache land I lost one of the most successful of my inadequate gloves (a dress glove, of all things, from Madova in Florence), and I was otherwise fond of these gloves so I bit the bullet and hiked back up the hill to look for it.  By then it was blowing so hard and I was having so little success that I decided to use the old method of having the remaining glove do some work.  I dropped it on the ground and instructed it to “Go find your brother.”  Whereupon it sailed off down toward the sound and it took me a vigorous chase to get it back.  I think it was trying to tell me to give up, its brother was long gone.

Time to go look at the shot.  Wish me luck.  We are all out of sandwich and down to one glove.  Each  reenactment presents its own set of challenges.  I’m quite sure Ponting had wind chill and glove issues too.

This one was a lot of fun.



Out of the blue, into the black

Out of the blue, into the black

(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.


You say you want an Evolution

You say you want an Evolution

I don’t have any photos for this entry.  Actually I have 8 gazillion photos for this entry, but I am in my snug dorm room and they are stashed on hard drives in our lab or still waiting on the SD cards in the cameras in same lab because we brought the bags inside in the cold and one does not open the bags immediately lest everything fog up and one’s camera has to deal with a very bad thing called condensation.

(Later: added a few photos; above, Artists on the Ice Pier)

This will be a miscellaneous entry before I get to the next Big Thing, which was our helo trip to the McMurdo Dry Valleys (and yeah I cried again on the helicopter because of the absolutely insane beauty of this place, and valleys, a place I had fantasized about seeing and thought, no–so few people get to go there I will never–but it happened).  What was this planet like before we crawled all over it and built big belching things and sucked rock oil out of its guts and dug giant scars out of its flesh to run the big belching things and slaughtered so many of its beasts to maintain our insatiable selves?  Depends on where and when you ask that question.  I am torn here because the human culture of McMurdo and its satellites is so fascinating, and the people so good, so full of life, so wonderfully strange, and all humans are culpable in the brutal beating of our earth, and yet Antarctica could get along just fine without us, thank you.  We really don’t matter here, and that somehow makes the human bonds matter even more here. But one is daily humbled by the non-human scale of things, by the clear pure air (my god, the air here, it is cold but I want to eat great gulpfuls of it), by the play of light on the mountains and the movements of the ice.  A big chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf apparently broke off a couple of days ago and opened up a 3-mile gash.  I’m not sure if this qualifies as what Dr. Ainley told us were “polynyas,” a word of Russian origin that refers to openings in the sea ice that penguins prefer as a habitat. But my point here is the scale.  Thunk, just like that a 3-mile gap opens up.

Back to the title:  the Evolution.  The Evolution is when the resupply ship, followed by the fuel ship, comes, its way broken by the Polar Star.  The resupply ship been anchored at the ice pier for several days now, and the Evolution is the process of off-loading a year’s worth of supplies for McMurdo as well as Pole and some special goodies like new vehicles and scientific gizmos (everything here is in a way a scientific gizmo). The Evolution includes the re-loading of the ship, this year the Ocean Giant, with McMurdo’s trash and scientific stuff–specimens and the like–for shipping back to the US.  During the Evolution special rules obtain.  Overnight lots of bright orange net fences went up and pedestrians and “taxis” are not allowed in those, and this is because heavy equipment is moving lets of containers in and out, 24/7.  Town is dry for a spell: the bars are closed and the store stops selling alcohol.  Everyone attends one of 2 Evolution safety briefings before it all happens.  We must all be On Our Toes.  Now, you think you would notice a giant forklift bearing forth a giant shipping container coming down your street when you were trying to cross, but when there is so much of it and the wind is whipping and you are wearing a hat covered by a hood and dark glasses and the sun is trained right in your face, and you are in a hurry to get across to your lab or to dinner, well…. Ergo the orange nets. And we all Evolve.

I can look out my window and see the ship.  2 hills run down to it (and these roads are absolutely closed to pedestrians during Evolution).  Flatbed trucks go up and down all day, ferrying stuff in and out.  The trucks have names.  Our favorite is “Shag Nasty.” We first heard it on our radio which we got to listen and talk to the Tower of Power (command central for the Evolution) so that we could be taken (never walk, not allowed) down the road to the wharf and shoot video of the off and on-loading and one special scene with the boss of the whole process.  Two times, including yesterday, we have been permitted to walk over the bridge from the wharf to the pier and film.  On radio and at Tower, we are known as “Artists.”  A radio dialogue goes like this:  “Tower, Tower, this is Artists.”  “Go ahead Artists.”  “Request permission to cross the bridge.” “Go ahead Artists.” (We skedaddle, two puffy red jacketed hard-hatted ants laden with photographic gear). On our last bridge crossing it was “Go ahead Artists, we are stopping traffic for you.”  When does that ever happen anywhere else?  Stopping traffic for the artists.  We did our best not to get in the way of anything or be annoying, and I think we must have succeeded.

Yesterday we celebrated what I hope is our last shoot down at the wharf.  It’s interesting to watch, and the people are lovely, and there is a warming hut supplied with all kind of hot beverages and snacks (and even a barbecue where one day, bizarrely, a worker was standing there flipping bratwurst like we were having a backyard party).  But it’s cold down there and things happen very slowly of necessity–there are very heavy and very dangerous doings involved in loading and unloading via the ships’ 3 cranes–and I’ve had enough of that scene for now.

What really exhausted me down there was the wait for Delta Liz.  The Deltas are personnel transport vehicles with the biggest darn tires I have ever seen.  I’ll add a photo later. McMurdo has an aging fleet of these, and Ocean Giant was bringing a brand new one, a source of much excitement particularly among the “fuelies.” Ponting’s film includes footage of the offloading of the Terra nova including a shot of a pony being craned out and onto the ice, and we wanted the analogous shot of Delta Liz.

Ponting’s 90° South on YouTube.  If I’ve done this right it should be cued to the scene of the ship offloading. If not, it starts at about 20:43: 

And yes, lest we glamorize Terra Nova overly, they did name their cat that.  There are other things that are a bit hard to take in this film, but if you watch it all (and we screened it in the McMurdo galley the other night) you won’t need me to point them out.  Those frisky cute rolling ponies?  Eventually worked to death and shot.

Katy kept track of when the Delta was due to be unloaded (she knows everyone and knows how to access information–she’s just a darn miracle) so we knew that it would be about 4 PM a couple of days ago.  With her help we got our radio and introductions to the Tower of Power and permission to stand where we needed to stand and got our ride down there at 2 PM so we’d be sure to be set up in time (it takes a lot longer to do anything down here).  And stand, and stand, and stand, and stand.  Delta Liz could not be craned out because while it was OK to have a slight angle that meant banging a container a bit into another on the way out, banging the Delta into something would not do.  So more things had to be taken out first.  More cans, more tanks of helium, more cans, more tanks, and then there was a mandatory meal break and then a shift change, and more standing and standing, and even Liz for whom the Delta was named went back up to camp because this was clearly going to take a very long time.

The other (and “real”) film crew gave up (more about them later) and somewhere in there Vince and I went back up to camp and he had a nap while I stared into space in our lab for an hour, and finally around 3 AM I was sweeping the warming hut to stay awake and suddenly we needed to vault out and into position because out she was coming.  So when the sun was in exactly the wrong position Delta Liz was plucked by a crane from the bowels of the ship, set down on the ice pier, and driven off proudly by the fuels manager.  And we got our shot–such as it was.  My camera froze up, and I was working with a fixed lens that fell out of focus when we moved, and the light moved at just the right moment to make my shot crap, but Vince’s is much better.


Delta Liz at last!

Through all of this we are ourselves evolving. The staccato rhythms of camp life feel more familiar. Our camera settings are settling down.  We’ve gotten enough good footage to be confident we can get more and get this project on its legs when we get back.  Our roommates have left, and even though I quite liked mine, her hours were a poor mesh with mine and I am enjoying having control over the window now (which she kept tightly covered all the time, so it felt like living in a cave). I fished an electric kettle out of Skua and can now have a cuppa in my jammies in the morning while looking out over the sound to the mountains (and it looks different by the hour). This means also time to reflect, alone time to think and write, and I seem to need that almost as much as I need to breathe. I’ve evolved that into my days, somehow–though not all of them, and that’s probably good for me. Antarctica will never feel like “home,” but our relationship with it is evolving.

Next up:  Dry Valleys

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