Remediating the Arctic: N.E. Thing Co.’s Black Arctic Circle Project (1968)

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Editor’s Note: This is the second post in Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.


In the 1960s and 70s then-spouses Ingrid Baxter and Iain Baxter& advanced their artistic practice under the pseudo-corporate sounding moniker N.E. Thing Co. Conceptual Art, as it developed in this place now known as Canada, was somewhat less concerned with the aesthetic qualities or visual pleasure that could be afforded by works of art. Rather, as the name suggests, Conceptual Art was enmeshed with ideas that scaffold particular concerns and contemporary entanglements such as complications around what it means to author or produce a work of art, or the display of self-critical tendencies that erase the boundaries between the production of a work of art and everyday life.

Works of Conceptual Art from this era, especially those produced by N.E. Thing Co. (NETCO), often resembled banal artifacts that would have been more apparent within administrative, commercial, and bureaucratic environments or procedures. Collaboratively, NETCO deployed this mode of artmaking to investigate artistic, domestic, and corporate systems. N.E. Thing Co. perceived the everyday as a place from which the corporate state could be undermined, and its ongoing aesthetic of interrogating everyday concepts served as a critique of what we might now call settler systems.

Installation view, Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980, September 10-November 28, 2010. Art Museum, University of Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy of the Art Museum.

Informed in part by Henri Lefebvre’s three-volume The Critique of Everyday Life (first published in 1947) and The Production of Space (1974), one of the questions NETCO self-reflexively asked through its work was, why should the study of the everyday—itself—be banal. N.E. Thing Co. regarded everyday life as a site for revolutionary potential. By deploying reversals and using tactics of negation, inconsistencies, and contradictions apparent in contemporary life, were brought to the fore. N.E. Thing Co.’s works involved expanded landscapes that considered tropes of work and leisure, and urban and suburban spaces. N.E. Thing Co. made administration an art as part of its preoccupation with bureaucratic and administrative institutions both in the artworld and across the broader societal milieu. Art historian Benjamin Buchloh referred to this type of work as possessing an “aesthetic of administration,” and scholar Adam Lauder applies Buchloh’s terminology to N.E. Thing Co.1 Within this context, NETCO was particularly interested in documents, landscape, and mapping.

The circumpolar regions are deeply imbricated in settler practices of claiming unceded Indigenous lands, and mapping has been one of the violent mechanisms through which settlers have displaced Indigenous communities. Nation-states have used mapping and place naming to ignore Inuit cultural life in the Arctic and have enacted cultural erasure through a variety of multi-pronged processes. In the work Black Arctic Circle Project (1968) N.E. Thing Co. propose a speculative mapping sequence that takes place directly upon the land, in a work which suggests the futility of settler mapping in the Arctic and by extension, the arbitrary nature of mapping in general.

Unlike some depictions of the Arctic, NETCO was not interested in representing it as a hostile, unexplored territory of myth, mystery, solitude, or grandeur. Instead, N.E. Thing Co.’s landscapes, and in particular Black Arctic Circle, investigates how information technologies, corporate relations, and institutions might interact to redefine landscape as an element of subjectivity in such a way that charts a differential relationship to personal, corporate, and national identity formation. N.E. Thing Co.’s work reverses, reflects, maps, and measures and in engaging with those activities, NETCO parodied those endeavours as well. By using seemingly commonplace methods, Black Arctic Circle disrupts unidimensional, unidirectional hegemonic space. In mapping out a speculative, experimental Arctic landscape, Black Arctic Circle manifests a social topography by diagramming a coherent image of a fragmented realm, which was characteristic of contradictions N.E. Thing Co. regularly explored throughout its broader body of work. Through artistic interventions disguised as artifacts that would normally be germane to settler and consumer society, this work by N.E. Thing Co. revealed the involvement of capital in maintaining the separation between work and leisure, the political and the everyday.

An architectural diagram of a map of the Arctic with text that plans a speculative intervention on the left hand side.
N.E. Thing Co., Black Arctic Circle Project, 1968, mixed media, 45.5 x 63.5 cm. Courtesy of the artists and the CCCA.

Most maps function to identify a particular geographical terrain and facilitate travel by presenting an instrumental image of the land. Although N.E. Thing Co. mimicked the conventions of cartography in their work, their maps were composed of conceptual gestures and fictional impositions of navigational marks upon the landscape. N.E. Thing Co. documented the geographic space they traversed, and, through performative gestures, they explored directionality. In 1968 N.E. Thing Co. travelled with curator Lucy Lippard and conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, to make artwork for an exhibition that had been organized by the Edmonton Art Gallery (since renamed as the Art Gallery of Alberta). Black Arctic Circle presented a plan to transpose cartographic notations directly onto the physical landscape, mimicking the meridian line that delineates the (arbitrary) Arctic Circle, directly onto the land.2

The Arctic Circle is an imaginary boundary that would normally only be seen, or demarcated, on a map. To realize Black Arctic Circle—the work was only ever a propositionNETCO suggested to fly a plane around the intended topography while it released an amount of black dye, at every one-minute interval until it returned to its departure point, making up a complete black painted circle on the Arctic landscape. The resulting marks would have been evident directly on the land, identifying the boundaries of the Arctic Circle tangibly, and with marks appearing on the land that would have been like the ones appearing on a Mercator map. By transcribing systems of mapping onto the actual landscape, N.E. Thing Co. enacted a subversion which revealed the arbitrary, calculated, and absurd nature of cartographic practices.

Black Arctic Circle transformed official maps from generic representations of regulated space, into dynamic and contingent space. By inflecting cartography with the speculative gesture proposed in Black Arctic Circle, the objectivity of the over-rationalized, settler grid becomes disrupted. In proposing to re-inscribe a fictional meridian onto the land by re-articulating imagined boundaries (Black Arctic Circle was always a conceptual proposition, never intended as a project that could have actually taken place), Black Arctic Circle denies land as static space, resulting in a certain transcendence of the divisions that have been imposed on the Arctic landscape. The point of contention being settler encroachment on Indigenous lands and Inuit lifeways and the ways in which some of these concerns and inequities have been addressed in certain works of art such as this.


Notes

1. Adam Lauder, “The Artist as Drop-in,” Journal of Canadian Art History 3, no. 2 (2010): 43.

2. Nancy Shaw, “Siting the Banal: The Expanded Landscapes of N.E. Thing Co.,” Vancouver Art in the Sixties. http://www.vancouverartinthesixties.com/essays/siting-the-banal

Further Reading

Lauder, Adam. “N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. And the Institutional Politics of Information 1966-71,” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 29 (2013): 9-54.

Lauder, Adam and Marcia Salmon. “IAINBAXTER&raisonnE: A Media Ecology Perspective for Visual Resources,” Visual Resources 30, no 1. (March 2014): 57-81.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique de Ia vie quotidienne I: Introduction (Critique of Everyday Life, Vol I.) (Paris: L’Arche, 1947).

Lefebvre, Henri. La production de l’espace (The Production of Space) (Éditions Anthropos, 1974).

Lippard, Lucy. “Art Within the Arctic Circle,” The Hudson Review 22, no. 4 (Winter 1969-70): 665-674.

Lippard, Lucy. “Then and Now,” Canadian Art (Fall 2018): 68-69.

Wilson, Alexander. “On the Frontiers of Capital,” in The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), 282-289.


Feature image: N.E. Thing Co., Black Arctic Circle Project, 1968, mixed media, 45.5 x 63.5 cm. Courtesy of the artists and the CCCA.

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Carmen Victor

Carmen Victor (she/her) is contract academic faculty at York University, OCAD University and the University of Toronto Mississauga. Victor is Managing Editor of PUBLIC journal and from 2020-23 was a MITACS Postdoctoral Fellow in Cinema and Media Arts at York University. She is a member of the Jackman Humanities Institute working group on Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North and recently presented a Sunday Scene at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto on the exhibition Arctic / Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity.

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