Scientists, historians and artists who have traveled to Antarctica agree that the remote continent may be the final frontier for global cooperation.
“Antarctica — Imagined Geographies,” an interdisciplinary multimedia presentation at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, brings the frozen continent at the bottom of the earth to viewers’ doorsteps.
The centerpiece of the initiative is a large-scale digital print and sound collaboration by Gary Kolb, the dean of the College of Mass Communications and Media Arts, and Jay Needham, an associate professor in Radio-Television. The exhibit is on display in the Morris Library Rotunda, until May 4.
“Antarctica — Views from Southern Illinois,” the first of several panel discussions, begins at 6 p.m. today in John C. Guyon Auditorium at Morris Library. Five university faculty members who have visited the continent will participate, said Peter Lemish, the project’s coordinator and visiting assistant professor for the Global Media Research Center.
Joining Kolb and Needham in Friday’s panel are Laurie Achenbach, professor of microbiology and associate dean in the College of Science, Michael Madigan, professor emeritus of microbiology, and Scott Ishman, associate professor of geology.
Lemish said the panelists will discuss his or her own research, but will also talk about the implications for the planet based on scientific discoveries made in Antarctica.
On Saturday, keynote speaker Andrea Polli, a University of New Mexico professor of art and ecology who holds the Mesa del Sol Endowed Chair of Digital Media, will present “It’s a Question of Risk: Climate, Data, Art and Science Collaborations in Extreme Environments” in Guyon Auditorium.
“She’s an artist who has a long history and commitment to creating works that unite technology-based works that address issues of ecology and climate change,” Needham said. “The strong theme in Andrea’s work is that climate data is used as a form of score for the creation of the work, and also serves as a kind of document that relates to the science, as well.”
He said she will be available to sign her new book, “Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change and the Poles,” after her presentation.
More than two dozen public events and exhibits will be featured, Lemish said. There will be speakers on a variety of topics, including the effects of climate change on Antarctica’s ice sheet, the politics of governing the continent and survival techniques for Antarctic tourists.
Lemish said events will be held both on campus and at the public libraries in Harrisburg, Marion and Carbondale, as well as at the Varsity Center for the Arts.
“We in southern Illinois need to be concerned about Antarctica,” Lemish said.
Lemish said the continent, unlike its polar opposite, the Arctic, is a politically neutral country whose status is regulated by an international treaty. The type of cooperation among the countries that maintain bases and conduct research there could be a prototype for future space exploration, he said.
Kolb said he visited Antarctica in December 2008 when, as a landscape photographer, he wanted to expand his scope to include a completely different kind of environment.
When the opportunity arose, he and his colleague, Needham, made the journey to Antarctica by ship. After departing from Ushuaia, a small seaport town on the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, they made the 400-mile trip across the Drake Passage, then sailed up and down the Antarctic peninsula for seven days, using a Zodiac raft to go on shore for two to four hours at a time.
“It was like being inside of a National Geographic article,” Kolb said.
Achenbach made two trips to Antarctica — one in 1998 and one in 2000. She said she studied the microbial bacteria found in the water columns in lakes that had permanent ice on their surfaces.
She said when she first saw Antarctica from the air in 1998, she was surprised by its beauty.
“My first reaction, one that was actually unexpected for me, was how beautiful it is. Antarctica is harsh and raw, but utterly beautiful,” she said.
Madigan said he journeyed to Antarctica for the eighth time last winter with researchers from the University of Georgia. He said he also studies the microbial organisms that populate the permanently frozen lakes, and found the stable conditions of the Antarctic ideal for his research.
“These lakes have no higher organisms — no fish or anything like that in there. It’s a strictly microbial ecosystem,” he said. “Where can you go and find a large environmental area that’s strictly microbial?”
Needham, who recorded sounds of the Antarctic as part of his ongoing research on sound in public spaces, said he enjoyed the challenge of setting up his sound sculpture in the Morris Library rotunda.
“The Morris Library rotunda offers a unique opportunity,” he said. “I was very intrigued by the acoustics of the rotunda space.”
Kolb said the idea for the Antarctica project started in December 2010 as a display of his photography in the Morris Library rotunda, coupled with Needham’s recordings, but evolved into a whole list of ideas as other individuals from the university became involved.
“We talked about ways in which the project could become a very interdisciplinary experience on campus,” Kolb said.
He said Lemish was appointed as the project coordinator and spent hours researching sources and contacting people from other parts of the country who had an Antarctic connection.
“It’s just wonderful how it kind of mushroomed,” Kolb said.
He said the project has attracted people interested in climate change, sustainability, biology, geology, art and politics.
Kolb said Antarctica remains one of the least explored and most romanticized continents.
He said the title for the series originated with the idea that most people only know Antarctica through their imaginations, but said imagination is what spurs people to explore unknown places.
“It’s those imagined geographies that are the most important ones for us in terms of motivation and in keeping that spirit of discovery and adventure alive, which is part of what this is about, too,” he said.