Northern Media Environments

Telegraph Chart of the World, Sheet 1, Source: British Postal Museum and Archives, London, England

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by Rafico Ruiz

Just a few weeks ago, an outstanding group of graduate students as well as junior and senior scholars from across Scandinavia, Russia, the United States and Canada convened to think through questions of Arctic concern at the “Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop, hosted by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and sponsored in part by the Network in Canadian History & Environment. The participants were brought together by Tina Adcock (University of Maine) and Peder Roberts (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) to collectively devise new historiographical boundaries that could work through expansive and emergent strategies to foster transnational and comparative approaches to Arctic environments.

Over two and a half days of intense and enlightening discussion, which ranged across the possible post-disciplinary turn in northern studies to reconceptualizations of indigeneity in a modernizing and urbanizing Greenland to the new valences of an increasingly manufactured technical, social, and economic “nordicity,” the multiple dimensions and implications of the formation of a collaborative northern environmental history began to emerge.

From my own perspective, as a sixth year PhD candidate in Communication Studies and the History & Theory of Architecture at McGill University working across northern environmental and historical registers, it was a welcome glimpse into a truly open field of inquiry that could let the important questions at hand take precedence over the policing of disciplinary boundaries.

At the workshop I examined the relationship between media historical and theoretical scholarship and environmental history. This examination, of course, partly relies on the consensus that we can essentialize such diverse forms of inquiry for the purposes of comparison and mutual engagement. When two disciplines “meet,” are brought together to address un- or under-acknowledged issues in one or the other, the question that is often raised is that of “why?” What can media studies contribute to and learn from environmental history, and vice versa? It is these sorts of questions that allow interdisciplinary scholarship to emerge. Both fields, a term I prefer to “disciplines,” are relatively young in the academic landscape, having taken institutional shape in the 1960s and 70s, and both within broader and more established disciplinary fields. Yet, arguably, they share many commonalities: expanded understandings of agency that don’t necessarily privilege human actors; taking “ecologies” as both modes of analysis and subjects of study; a gradual acknowledgment of the importance of “relations” over “objects”; and, finally, though there is plenty more common ground, the study of interactions between human made technical systems and their broad environmental (political, cultural, and economic) contexts of reception and production.

St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz
St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz

The short paper I delivered touched on a recent project of mine that seeks to gain a more precise understanding of the history of the encounter between icebergs and human actors in the geographical region known as “Iceberg Alley”—an area that extends from the glaciers of the western coast of Greenland to Baffin Island and south past the Grand Banks of Newfoundland—from roughly the middle of the nineteenth century to today. The project will raise questions related to the changing human and natural ecologies of climate change, the evolution of so-called “ice technologies” and their links to communication technologies such as radar, and the future characterizations and challenges of Arctic and Subarctic mobility in North Atlantic waters. My goal is to critically examine the manner in which icebergs have been a central node in an historical assemblage of knowledge, science, technology, ecology, economy, and culture.

The project continues an approach that I developed in my dissertation in order to examine the history behind a Subarctic industry that is taking shape in the town of St. Anthony on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. Today, St. Anthony stands as a monument to what could be thought of as a processual materialism. The town lies at one of the northernmost dead ends of a very long road that

Harbour sign, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz
Harbour sign, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz

runs the length of Newfoundland. Located on the island’s eastern coast, beyond the turnoff for the St. Barbe to Blanc Sablon ferry, it has a deep harbour with a long relationship to the Atlantic at its mouth. It has a fifty thousand square foot cold storage facility, factory-freezer trawlers that sit at its edge, and an impressive communications antenna atop the rise that marks its North Atlantic entrance. It has a shrimp processing facility, jointly owned with Clearwater Seafoods, that processes roughly five and a half million pounds of cold-water shrimp per year. It has a tourist trade built up around the Grenfell Interpretation Centre and the whales, icebergs and majestic scenery that are a short boat ride away. It has the Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital, an institution that serves the Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador for a range of specialized medical services. It has the Viking Mall, St. Anthony Elementary School, Harriot Curtis Collegiate, and the soon to be completed Polar Centre, with hockey arena, conference centre and indoor walking track. It has roads, street lamps, a traffic light, a basic sewer system. Within the province’s history of “remote” outport communities, St. Anthony would seem to have it all. Yet, what it lacks is an open-ended and secure sense of a future. As with many industries in the province, St. Anthony’s future is seasonal. A looming threat is the onset of a prolonged economic “winter.”

At present, there are two iceberg bottling companies that harvest icebergs off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador for sale in the premium water market. GLACE, based in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, and Berg, based in Mount-Pearl, Newfoundland. Up until January of 2012, there were three bottling companies in the province. In that month, Canada Ice Enterprises, also known as 80 Degrees North Iceberg Water, based in St. Anthony, declared bankruptcy. Canada Ice Enterprises operated from 2005 to 2012 and was a major distributor of iceberg water across Canada’s Atlantic provinces. All three companies share many commonalities: they vaunt the scientifically tested purity of the water, emphasize its rarity, and this largely through the dangerous labour involved in harvesting, also referred to as “wrangling,” the icebergs, and write a creation myth of sorts for the origins of a water that can be traced to an age before the dawn of impure human time.

This phenomenon presents a few questions for consideration. These revolve around the ownership of circulating natural resources, the commodification of a product that is a tangential result of global warming, and the ways in which a staple such as water can begin to influence the formation of a changing social infrastructure in a very particular time and space—in this case, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, in the year 2013. The legacy of the political economist and communication theorist Harold Innis has shown how worthwhile it is to think at length on what can constitute an unconventional medium, especially in increasingly and supposedly “marginal” rural settings that support larger systems of economic power, resource exploitation and monopolies of centralized information. Icebergs, as experiments in form, tourist commodities, circulating natural resources, and the harbingers of a potential local economic sustainability, are precisely a contemporary instance of a “new media.” They constitute a contested relational object as they are at once a process that draws attention to the temporal, spatial and relational mediations that the fight over natural resources can reveal. Taken in a broader lens, icebergs are also, and perhaps also more profitably, tourist commodities, objects to be tracked and avoided through government sponsored agencies, and threats to offshore oil and gas installations, as well as the international shipping industry.

The “Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop was an ideal setting within which to collectively think through and question the premise that icebergs can be taken as relational objects of inquiry—open both to media theorists and environmental historians. “It is worth considering how our stories might be different if human beings appeared not as the motor of history,” as Linda Nash writes, “but as partners in a conversation with a larger world, both animate and inanimate, about the possibilities of existence.”[1] The workshop helped me arrive at two assertions. Firstly, that icebergs are both natural resources and communicative media that are constituted through contested processes of both material and immaterial meaning-making throughout the ways in which they are extracted, transported, transformed, circulated, and communicated in various localizable sites of resource engagement. Secondly, that northern media environments can allow us to rethink what techniques, technologies and natural phenomena constitute “media of communication” and for whom they matter in the pursuit of more equitable relationships of information exchange, commercial trade, and transportation and communications infrastructures. As the workshop’s transnational, post-disciplinary framework made clear, emergent Arctic environmental histories need both new agencies and new media through which to be told and questioned.

[1] Linda Nash, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?” in Environmental History Vol. 10, No. 1 (January 2005): 69.

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Rafico Ruiz

Rafico Ruiz is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication Studies and the History & Theory of Architecture at McGill University. He studies the relationships between mediation and social space, particularly in the Arctic and Subarctic; the cultural geographies of natural resource engagements; and the philosophical and political stakes of infrastructural and ecological systems. He is the co-editor and co-founder of Seachange, a journal of Art, Communication, and Technology ( In 2013-2014, he is a Wolfe Fellow in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University.

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