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FeaturesIsland Life

Island Life

East Devon artist Alex Hartley started out with an idea for a sculpture but ended up with more than anyone could have imagined. He talked to Fergus Byrne about an island on the move.

The day I meet artist Alex Hartley at his studio in Dunkeswell in East Devon the sun is blazing through a bright blue sky and most of England is already complaining about the ‘unseasonal’ heat. It is moving towards the end of May and while locals potter in the garden in shorts and t-shirts to a backdrop of pre Jubilee patriotic bunting and effigies of the Queen, Alex Hartley is working on a project that began in a totally different climate. He is putting the final touches to the embassy for Nowhereisland, one of twelve projects commissioned by the Arts Council as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It is a project that, though initially courting its own fair share of controversy, has now developed a level of ambition and scale that has taken on a life of its own and transcended the arguments of many of its original critics. On the surface, it is an island sculpted from Arctic earth.
Nowhereisland began in the sub-zero temperatures of the Norwegian archipelago of Svlabard after Hartley made an expedition there with the organisation Cape Farewell in 2004. Cape Farewell had been started by artist David Buckland in 2001 to instigate a cultural response to climate change. Although he hadn’t set out to find a new island, it wasn’t long before Alex Hartley was scanning the horizon for new land. “You could see that what we were looking at was so different to what was on the maps” he says. “Because there were no Inuit in this place, it used to be a no-man’s land, and then it was lent to the Norwegians. So it was very poorly mapped and hadn’t been done properly for twenty years. The glacier ridges were enormous. I thought I could find a little rock and stand pathetically on it, but what I found was about the size of a football pitch.” He remembers being “super high” with the genuine thrill of standing on a piece of land that no human had ever stood on before and was soon dreaming up creative ways of using it. The end result is a sculpted island that, having travelled from the Arctic, will visit eight ports around the south west of England starting with Weymouth on July 25th. It also has a travelling embassy, a growing citizenship and is already propelling a powerful debate about a range of challenges facing our world—a debate that is likely to continue for many years after its inception.
Once the six tons of earth from the Arctic island were towed into international waters it was declared a new nation and at the time of writing  over 7,000 people have signed up to become citizens of Nowhereisland. The mobile embassy, a converted livestock truck, made its first appearance in Bristol recently and as it travels around the south west, the population, already more than twice that of the Falkland Islands, is set to grow. After the Olympics it is scheduled to tour Norway and with citizens signed up from over 100 countries the possibilities created for carrying its message are endless.
At each of the ports on its journey around the south west, thousands of school children as well as community groups are preparing harbour-side welcomes and are getting ready to explore and learn from the project. That is one of the things that excites Alex Hartley. “The producer and I were very much about putting work in the public realm and helping people engage with it”, he explains. A lot of the money raised for the project has gone into ensuring that communities along the journey gain from the awareness of the wider implications of our rapidly changing world. “I suppose most of all it’s the otherness that we’ve brought” he says. “You can imagine some of the journey within its depths. It’s so different from the landscape of the south west, it’s like the alien that’s within our shore-line. I think that that’s important because it leads so clearly onto the questions that I’m more interested in raising, which are to do with citizenship and belonging. Obviously some of those are harder concepts to grasp and that’s why the education interface, the engagement bit, has been targeted to help people into that.”
A website, (www.nowhereisland.com), offers many levels of information on the project including the thoughts of 52 different ‘resident thinkers’, a group of individuals who have offered support and comment on how Nowhereisland and its developing ethos may affect or increase awareness about issues today. They include Yoko One, Tim Smit and Peter Thatchell as well as artists, poets, lecturers, writers and designers.
Simon Anholt for example, an advisor on nation branding, highlighted some of the challenges that a borderless project like Nowhereisland brought to mind. The obvious challenge, he says is climate change but it also brings to mind environmental degradation, cultural and religious intolerance, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, economic and financial crises, poverty, human rights, education, water and of course  Arctic territorial and mineral rights. He points to three things that all of these problems have in common: one they are borderless, two they are all getting worse and three, multilateral institutions, national governments and even rock stars have been unable to find ways to fix them. His belief that we need to completely rethink how we run the world echoes the thoughts of many.
Alex Hartley is quick to point out that artists are not necessarily good at answering questions, however they are often the ones that spark debate, thus creating a forum where new ideas can help us to see problems with more clarity and allow discussion on more far reaching solutions.
Nowhereisland citizens have been asked one simple question by the artist: if we were to create a new nation, how might we begin? As citizens submit their thoughts as well as ideas for Nowhereisland’s constitution, it becomes clear that the impact of this particular arts project is not only far reaching but also multi-layered and multi-cultural and that it is being followed closely by many of those that are keen to shape a better world. Tamsin Ormond, director of Climate Rush, points out that ‘there are 9 billion citizens, one planet and a model of growth that tells everyone to want more and to consume more’ and asks, what will evolution look like if we keep to this trajectory?
Tim Smit, co-founder of the Eden Project calls for a world that is ruled by ‘pragmatists with hearts of gold’ and says that ‘those imbued with certainty about how others should lead their lives are responsible for almost all the pain and suffering visited upon humankind.’ The late Vidal Sassoon, a resident thinker shortly before his death, had a lesson on social structure and pointed out that capitalism in its worst form creates communism and fascism, both of which he believed to be monstrous. Stephen Pax Leonard, a research associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute points out that whilst Nowehereisland might appear to an outsider in the form of a floating art exhibit, it’s special community of citizens have the opportunity to be open to the world, and to share knowledge and help deal with key issues such as sustainability and environmental exploitation.
In his own statement as resident thinker, Alex Hartley says that the island nation that will have journeyed south is to be only the symbol of Nowhereisland and that the real heart of the project is spread across the globe within its citizenship.
What began as an idea presented on a sheet of A4 paper is now a project where people from over 100 countries are speaking as one. The travelling sculpture and its embassy are merely the outward symbol of a much bigger work of art and if a work of art can ever be seen as collaborative then this is it. It now comprises the thoughts of many thousands of people and emits a gentle buzz like a beehive slowly taking form. Nowhereisland may have begun with the hope that people would engage with it as a work of art but it has now become a forum where people from many cultures and backgrounds are engaging with each other. It is perhaps that rare piece of art that does more than ask questions—it allows its living core to offer answers.

Nowhereisland will arrive in Weymouth on July 25th. For more information about the project and where to see it in the south west, visit www.nowhereisland.com.

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