Magnetic North

Riddu Riddu maskdance
Riddu Riddu mask dance

If you say ‘Arctic’ to someone, the likelihood is that it will conjure images of a freezing, white, inhospitable wasteland – and perhaps the odd polar bear floating around on the ice. This couldn’t be further from the reality of this environment, a place rich in history, mythology, flora & fauna; the British Museum have chosen to celebrate and shed light on various aspects of the area with their current exhibition Arctic: Culture and Climate, a highlight of which has been their online event Magnetic North.

Whilst the past few months have presented significant challenges to performers of various kinds, with mass gatherings banned and then severely restricted, it actually works to the advantage of an event like this; given how little seems to be known about the vastness of the Arctic and its inhabitants, it seems fitting that they were able to broadcast on YouTube to the whole world for one evening. Indigenous people from various parts of the globe are suddenly being remembered, as the descendants of the humans who first called these places home – and, in the case of the Arctic, the individuals who are able to see the devastating effects of climate change first-hand.

With the pandemic rumbling on, and the spectre of Brexit continuing to make its presence felt, the passionate campaigning of recent years has been pushed to the sidelines. Early on in ‘lockdown’ it seemed as though the environment might be getting a bit of the assistance it needed, as people stayed at home, kept their cars in the garage, and stopped polluting the air so much – but a few months on it feels worse than ever, with roads clogged up by people commuting in private cars rather than using public transport, and the ruling in the UK that a 2013 death was partly caused by illegal levels of air pollution (which feels like it will be the first of many).

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory

The fragility of the environment is captured in sweeping shots that reveal cracks in the ice that once seemed so stable and permanent. This adds a certain poignancy to the various displays from indigenous performers, sharing music, stories & traditions from their culture against (what we know now is) a gradually disappearing backdrop – backed up by direct discussion between activist Mya-Rose Craig and policy advisor Caitlyn Baikie.

It was definitely an eye-opening broadcast for me. With such a range of performances on offer there was something for everyone, though equally not everything would be for everyone; Elisabeth Heilmann Blind’s mask dancing, for example, was an incredible spectacle, but I couldn’t quite engage with it in the way it was presented here. My focus in anything theatrical tends to be the storytelling element (be it through dialogue, movement, music, etc.), so what most appealed to me were the pieces of performance poetry from Taqralik Partridge, and Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory’s retelling of various myths & legends. The latter was particularly enthralling with her feminist takes, such as the story of an isolated father & daughter which ends up with the woman becoming a water goddess – the people “dare not call her by her name”, settling instead for “the woman down there”, out of respect for her and her power.

Throughout the entire evening, indigenous Sàmi band Vassvik provided a mixture of soundtrack & soundscape, with stretches of folk music and more atmospheric instrumental sections. Perfectly pitched according to what we were seeing on the screen at the time.

Magnetic North is available to view on YouTube, but at time of writing the British Museum has been closed due to coronavirus restrictions, though there are plenty of online resources if you would like to find out more about the exhibition and the relationship between the Arctic and the climate emergency. There are exhibition highlights on the main page (including a pair of snow goggles and a waterproof whaling suit), plus the British Museum blog has posts on ‘An introduction to the Arctic‘, ‘10 things you need to live in the Arctic‘, ‘How to conserve a fish skin bag‘, and ‘The Arctic experience of climate change‘. Further online events have been confirmed for next year: ‘Inheriting climate change‘ on 14 January, ‘What is effective climate justice?‘ on 28 January.

Magnetic North was broadcast on 3 December 2020. Arctic: Culture and Climate opened at the British Museum on 22 October 2020 and is due to run until 21 February 2021 – the museum is currently closed, but you can book tickets online for 2021 dates.

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