The centerpiece of Charles Stankievech’s solo exhibition at the Prefix ICA was The Soniferous Æther of the Land Beyond the Land Beyond (2013), a 35mm film installation featuring black-and-white footage shot digitally over two days on Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island at the Canadian Forces Station (CFS) in Alert, the northernmost place on earth where people live year-round. Curated by Scott McLeod, the show also included artifacts Stankievech collected from the site during his 2011 visit and other objects that refer to the isolated world depicted in the film. Once used to monitor Soviet activity, CFS Alert continues to play a role in Canada’s territorial claims in the Arctic, which made it a source of fascination for the Alberta-born artist, who has longstanding interests in military architecture, spy outposts and extreme environments.
With his roughly 10-minute film, screened in a darkened gallery, Stankievech brought a cinematic sensibility to the remote site, combining time-lapse imagery of the station’s environs with traveling shots of seemingly empty interiors. Composed by the artist, the film’s eerie score samples military transmissions and fragments of pianist Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The film opens with a light flashing in total darkness, synchronized with a sonic pulse; the scene calls to mind the moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when a Jupiter-bound signal is emitted by an alien monolith. Parts of Stankievech’s film, particularly an aerial view of a rocky landscape streaked with reflective ice, resemble scenes from other classic science fiction films that the artist cites as influences: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979). Yet traces of real-world military activity intrude on the dreamlike setting. In one striking time-lapse, the camera alights on the wreckage of an aircraft, its gaping fuselage and crushed landing gear now fixtures of the frozen terrain.
The film’s noisy projection and looping apparatus was installed outside the screening room in Prefix’s main gallery. Also on view were an IBM punch card, a military luggage tag and other objects Stankievech collected at the arctic base, which dates to the 1950s. Nearby were two film stills and two not-quite-synchronized clocks. Titled AC/DC (2013), the clocks resembled similar ones that appear in The Soniferous Æther. The left-hand clock was plugged into an electrical socket and the right-hand one was powered by a battery, the variations in electrical current producing the discrepancy in the recorded time. One can imagine such minute differences becoming a potential source of obsession at the station, where tours of duty last six months and outside temperatures can drop to -58 degrees Fahrenheit. In the foyer of the Prefix space were four photographs of Stankievech burying a small meteorite near the station. The act, which Stankievech considers an anti-colonial gesture, is a reference to and reversal of American naval explorer Robert E. Peary’s 1894 extraction of an enormous Greenland meteorite centuries after it was discovered by the Inuit.
The imagery in Stankievech’s installation evokes English writer J.G. Ballard’s allegories of Cold War paranoia and doomed technological rivalry set everywhere from overpopulated high-rises to abandoned military bases. Ballard’s writing has long been a touchstone for artists interested in the psychological effects of inhabiting environments that are inhospitable to human existence. Stankievech reveals the hidden atavisms behind every attempt to conquer a geographic or technological frontier. At a time when the consequences of global warming are becoming more visible than ever, he remembers what the Inuit called this patch of Arctic, now a final frontier for oil extraction: “the land beyond the land of the people.”