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Field Notes explores “The Heavens” in sub-Arctic Lapland (3/3)

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Field Notes was an art&science field laboratory organised from September 15-22 by the Bioart Society at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Lapland/Finland. Five groups worked for one week on questions located “above the ground”. Here are Friday’s and Saturday’s logs from the Second Order group.

“Field Notes – The Heavens” by Bioart Society turned its attention and experiments to the sky and looks at the role the unique sub-Arctic setting of the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and its surroundings – at the Finland-Sweden-Norway border – can play in helping the 40 participants to learn more about what is above ground: life in high altitudes, the ongoing material exchange between earth and space, the atmosphere as a hyperobject, the politics of air and space, Sámi stories and life related to the sky and more. A week with the Second Order group hosted by Ewen Chardronnet from Makery.

Friday, September 20

At the EISCAT with the AIR group, by Ewen Chardronnet

Friday was a major day for the AIR group, as hosts Hanna Husberg & Agata Marzec organized a visit to the EISCAT facility in Ramfjordmoen, near Tromsø, Norway, located about a 2h30 drive from Kilpisjärvi.

EISCAT stands for “European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association” and is an international association with member institutes in several countries (the three Scandinavian states, China and Japan, UK and other cooperators). EISCAT conducts ionospheric and atmospheric measurements with radars and operate from facilities located north of the Arctic circle in Kiruna, Sweden; Sodankylä, Finland; Longyearbyen, Svalbard; and with Ramfjordmoen being the main facility. In Ramfjordmoen, EISCAT operate a parabolic UHF 32m steerable antenna (in the 930 MHz band), a 120m long rectangular VHF antenna (in the 224 MHz band), as well as an ionospheric heating facility.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the group was excited to visit such unique facility, as there are only 10 Incoherent Scattering radars and 3 ionospheric heaters (EISCAT and the famous HAARP in Alaska/USA and Sura in Russia) in the world. EISCAT was created in 1975 and is the only site of its kind in Europe.

The group was welcomed at EISCAT Ramfjordmoen by senior scientist Michael Rietveld from the scientific association. The morning was dedicated to the understanding of EISCAT radars and heater history, science, and usages in different types of studies and phenomena, such as plasma physics, trends in atmospheric and ionospheric conditions, properties and dynamics of the interplanetary environment, space weather, space debris, and the aurora.

Its scientific strategy is defined on its website as, “To understand the various forms of coupling between the Sun, the interplanetary medium, the terrestrial magnetosphere, ionosphere, and atmosphere of the high-latitude regions, natural and anthropogenic forcing, and related plasma physics and dynamics, and to achieve the necessary knowledge, understanding, principals, and techniques which would allow mankind to monitor, predict, and mitigate such processes within the next 30 years.”

Michael Rietveld described to Field Notes’ AIR group various EISCAT experiments from the past decades. Two peculiar experiments intrigued the visitors. The first one was the January 2007 Chinese ASAT missile test (ASAT stands for Anti-Satellite weapon). A Dongfeng 21 missile was sent to destroy a defunct Chinese weather satellite FY-1C of the Fengyun series located at 860km altitude, a way for the People’s Republic of China to show that “they can also do it” (be able to destroy an orbiting satellite from the ground) like the USA and Russia. EISCAT was then called to study the debris of the Chinese ASAT fragmentation event. This research was coincidental with the 2007-2009 International Polar Year research activities. In a similar vein, Michael Rietveld also mentioned that EISCAT was similarly solicited in March 2019, this time for an India ASAT test.

The second experiment presented an astonishing video of a successful artificial aurora that was conducted about two decades ago by the ionospheric heater. The basic science principle is that the powerful radio wave transmitter of the ionospheric heater array of antenna sends radio waves to the ionosphere in a range that can literally “heat” it up. A range of plasma turbulence phenomena can thus be excited in a semi-controlled fashion from the ground. Michael Rietveld explained to the group that this stimulus-response type of ionospheric heating research done at EISCAT complements passive observations of naturally excited phenomena as a means of exploring the ionosphere and upper atmosphere. As this process is the same as for the aurora excited by the sun, the optical emission excited by HF waves from earth are referred to as artificial aurora.

To conclude the morning presentation Michael Rietveld explained to the group that the HF and UHF radars, but not the ionospheric heater, are planned to be decommissioned in 2021, with the set objective to replace them by the EISCAT3D system, a facility with a core site to be built this year in Skibotn, a village the group passed by on its way from Kilpisjärvi. The Ramfjordmoen site currently hosts a small test array of the future EISCAT3D, but for various reasons, including the increase of population near Ramfjordmoen and the expansion of Tromsø city, the more remote area of Skibotn was chosen.

As EISCAT website explains: “The EISCAT3D system will consist of five phased-array antenna fields located in the northernmost areas of Finland, Norway and Sweden. Each field will consist of around 10,000 crossed dipole antenna elements arranged in 109 hexagons in a honeycomb-structure.  One of these sites (the core site) will transmit radio waves at 233 MHz, and all five sites will have sensitive receivers to measure the returned radio signals. The central array of each site will be of a size of about 70 m from side to side, and the sites will be located from 90 km to 250 km from the core site in order to be able to maximise the coverage by the system.

“EISCAT3D is designed to use several different measurement techniques which, although they have individually been used elsewhere, have never been combined together in a single radar system. The design of EISCAT3D allows large numbers of antennas to be combined together to make either a single radar beam, or a number of simultaneous beams, via beam-forming. While traditional radar systems with a single slow-moving antenna, and thus a single beam, can only show us what is happening along a single line in the upper atmosphere, volumetric imaging allows us to see geophysical events in their full spatial context, and to distinguish between processes which vary spatially and those which vary over time.”

A short documentary explaining EISCAT3D future missions:

After the lunch break, 2 hours were dedicated to visit the various facilities. The group could visit various control rooms, as well as walk along the large VHF antenna.

Later, and as a closing insight, Michael Rietveld took the group to the ionospheric heater field and its control room.

The group was astonished to be able to freely visit and photograph such facilities, discussing the change of era with the decommissioned radars and EISCAT3D development, but also considering that these facilities were developed in a Cold War context, a past very different from today. Rietveld also openly discussed the primary military fundings for the HAARP facility in the USA, which had inadvertently stimulated various speculations and conspiracy theories regarding ionospheric heaters. Science versus military purposes of radars and the Cold War were discussed by group members, such as the importance of early-warning systems and over-the-horizon radars, compared to the situation now where there’s a military arms race focusing on hypersonic weapons and the consequent need to upgrade detection systems.

Rietveld, who worked at EISCAT for about three decades and will soon retire, also considered changing research management strategies, and remarked that scientists are less and less on-site looking at the sky, and more often managing research and data from remote places via the Internet – something one could illustrate with the recent DIRAC Web Portal for EISCAT data.

On the way back, discussions among Field Notes artists, historians, theorists, and scientists suggested the interest of documenting the cultural and historical change of era through the transition period to come from EISCAT to EISCAT-3D. Further discussions turned to envision sound art experiments and also the rather utopian possibility of creating an artificial aurora for artistic purposes. What would that mean? Researching the EISCAT archives indicates that “best periods for conducting artificial aurora experiments are the twilight hours in the evening and morning in the fall, winter, and spring seasons during the solar maximum. And the next solar maximum, i.e., the maximum of cycle 25, would be 2022–2023 according to solar cycle predictions”. A project for future Field Notes?

Strange Weather morning, by Anu Pasanen and Johanna Salmela

On Friday morning the Strange Weather group gathers around a table in the Wallgren house of Bio station. It is time to reflect on the past week’s activities. Texts, images and videos are being edited and discussed. The atmosphere shifts back and forth between serious ponderings and relieving laughs. The group discussed how to go through their footage inspired by one of the Seasámi myths, as well as ethics of documenting and climate change, among other things. One question filled the air: How to engage Sámi culture, this land and environment with sensitivity and respect? How and what do we tell, especially when quoting someone else’s words? How and what to call things? How does nature adapt, balance and struggle in the era of climate crisis? Whose crisis is it?

Strange Weather afternoon, by Adriana Knouf and Johanna Salmela (photos)

Entering into the last afternoon together as a group, Strange Weather met with Erich Berger (read our interview) for a short geological history of Saana Fell and its environs that covered times beyond comprehension, going back hundreds of millions and billions of years.

With Erich as a guide, we again traversed the long outgrowth of the fell, this time from the south side. Our focus for the day: a sliver of time exposed as shale and slate reaching into the recent past of around 500 millions years ago. There, traces of life: not fossilized remnants of bodies or flesh or bone, but rather the traces of movement, of activity in water. Wriggling, curvy shapes that happened at exactly the right moment to be solidified. Times needing to align: the time of the creature’s movement, the time of fossilized preservation, the time of upheaval that exposes this particular agglomeration of shale and slate, the time of our hike there that Friday afternoon. A few promising candidates expose themselves after a bit of chipping away. Questions of scientific validity come to the fore: is this really a trace, or is it just a chance arrangement of minerals masquerading as something “meaningful”? Without an expert onsite, and perhaps not wanting to infect the moment by tapping into the wireless data flowing through our bodies right then, we instead speculate, we ask questions, we share thoughts and ideas with each other.

As we retrace our steps, a reindeer meets us, curiously considering us, his bell ringing evermore quietly as he grazes up the fell, a fitting send-off for a group that explored the mixings of time and space as a way to question the hierarchy of knowledge perspectives.

Final day with the High Altitude Bio-prospecting group, by Sophie Dulau & Adrien Rigobello

On this last morning the High Altitude Bio-prospecting (HAB) group embarked for the final balloon flight at their favorite site.The feeling was that it created a ritual by going to the same place every day, a last morning that was not so much about talking in the group but a lot about doing, everyone seemed in synch.

Different kinds of samples were captured from the same vessel floating in the air: microbes, sounds, video, drawings… Then it was time to deflate the balloon… They all laid down in the grass and looked at the sky and the different kinds of clouds, listening to the sound of the wind. Then the group walked down the hill with all the equipment and got together in the lab for final feedback.

From their few days of field research, Melissa Grant, co-host of the HAB group, was “very pleased to see that there were no microbial colonies on their control plates, i.e., from the wind socks that were not launched in to the troposphere above Saana fell; we found that the wind sock that crashed into the ground on the day it snowed showed quite a few colonies after three days but not the ones that didn’t hit the ground. We saw both bacterial and fungal colonies as was expected. So promising glimpses.” Hopefully in the coming days and weeks, the HAB group will have more information.

Saturday, 21 September

Wrap ups by Second Order and Space-Earth-Space groups, by Adrien Rigobello

It was not an easy job. All throughout the week, the mission of the Second Order group was to both document and challenge perspectivism within the other Field Notes groups. Basically, each of the Second Order group members (all the reporters of these Makery articles) has spent a maximum of two days with groups. Maybe I shall outline the weirdness of the setup by the intervention of a participant on the very first day who needed to clarify our position; there was an obvious doubt of our capability to honestly transcribe the week’s events without being embedded for a longer term with the groups we would report on. Carrying on our mission along the week, it felt like we had a special treatments: sometimes marginalized, refused participation, or even praised for our ephemeral acts of participation, we seasoned and became the pepper of all groups. Most of us share the same philosophies; after all, aren’t we all in the search for the same discussions? How weird it was to be put on the front line and observed, when we were supposed to be the discreet and humble reporters of passionate discussions. That was a lot of fun, I can’t deny.

Now, when time came to gather and collectively design an activity for Saturday that would reflect on our pseudo-anthropological observations, we were filled with a million ideas, some humorous, ludical, or even journalistic. But it felt weird to endorse this mediation role. And actually, it was clear that the groups did not share the same space and time during the week. Absorbed by their own investigations and in their rituals, only the dinners turned to be mingling times.

We wanted to share our experience – the peculiar experience of having had the chance to meet every participant. After some negotiations, and trading of all sorts – after all we were also chosen to form a group that is eclectic – we proposed to offer both some perspective and a larger social experiment. A derivative of the “privileges walk” was specifically conceived by Vishnu Vardhani Rajan as the opening, both as a humorous performance and acknowledging and decentering the position of our group as privileged observers. The main event consisted of a thorough mixing of all the groups, with familiar allegiances divided along new lines, and items gathered on tables containing intriguing images, materials, and concepts that we noticed being discussed in various forms through the week. The cherry on top was definitely offered in form of a speed-dating, thus allowing for some privileged one-on-one time with Second Order members, along with Erich Berger, and Leena and Oula Valkeapää.

The Second Order wrap up was followed by a group photo.

Group photo to close the week © Till Bovermann,

Dreamy Space-Earth-Space group members had to organize their own activity on Friday. Overwhelmed with care for a member of the group who was injured in a bicycle accident that day, they took an extension. Even after our second-order wrap-up activity, everyone was still hungry for some further Field Notes. And Space-Earth-Space didn’t disappoint: they came with dessert.

After gathering in the dining room, forty persons forming a large seated circle, the Space-Earth-Space host, Andy Gracie, opened the performance by putting a Saana Fell stratified rock with an iron meteorite (ataxite) in the middle of our circle. The ritual starts. Kira O’Reilly grabs the meteorite and the sound of an iron grinding on metal resonates through the circle. The ambiance is built up as Andy starts recounting a meteorite story from the several collected by the group, over the continuous and very physical grinding of the cold little meteorite. Flis Holland, Melanie Kathryn King, Minna Långström, Sushant Passi–the meteorite passes on through the members dispersed in the circle, just as the stories, anecdotes and poetry do. I have to admit that I did not notice how the group members had been seated as I entered the room, but such positioning definitely built a transcendental feeling.

Andy closes the ritual by telling us that there were only three recorded cases of a particular kind of geophagy – or meteoritic ingestion – throughout history. And today will be the fourth. Minna and Sushant are already at work with a traditional recipe for a blueberry “cosmic” rahka, an adaptation of a Finnish recipe involving quark.

There is a strange feeling in the room as we consider making the heavens a part of our bodies. Dessert is served: we take and eat and are one with the heavens. Are we all going to be stuck at the security check tomorrow at the airport? Earlier in the week we had noted that for all our scientifically and artistically informed discussions of the heavens, we had yet to proper consider spirituality. Now, with this ritual, and in this circle, we are all honored to be part of Field Notes.

Chasing the firefox, closing words by Luis Campos

On my way north to Kilpisjärvi a week ago, I had an afternoon to burn in Rovaniemi, and so I stopped at the Arktikum, the polar museum, where I first encountered the aurora borealis: “The Finnish word ‘revontulet’ refers to a fox’s fire,” described one exhibit. “According to one belief, the fire-fox running in the distant north rubs his ribs along the fells and sparks hurl upwards into the sky to make the fox’s fire.” Another sign told a similar tale: “The name revontuli comes from a fire fox (repo = fox; tuli = fire) which, while running in the farthest north, whisks with its tail snow crystals to shine as lights up in the sky. Another explanation is related to the Forest Finn’s word repo, which meant a spell. So, the Northern lights would be spell lights, which tell about a heavenly struggle between the dark and the power of light.”  My own efforts to see the aurora borealis this week would reflect these cosmic struggles between darkness and light: between clouds and light pollution and the glowing wraiths and wisps of the night sky above Saana.

“Space, Satellites, Saana”, by Antti Tenetz, raw video shot during the Space Earth Space group’s night hike:

Here, in one of the best places on earth to witness the aurora (“According to statistics on the Northern Lights, three nights out of four are Northern Lights nights in Kilpisjärvi,” a museum sign had noted), I spent most cloudy nights awaiting this remarkable phenomenon of nature—one that I hoped to encounter here for the first time. I took hope in the somewhat clear sky at dusk most days, and compared the clarity overhead with internet forecasts with shades of green calling for somewhat elevated probabilities later on some evenings. I would marvel at the night constellations, I imagined, in wait of some kind of celestial revelation—if not choirs of angels, then arcs, bands, patches, veils, and rays, the five prominent letters in green and red with which auroras write their spectral illuminations. While the auroras were allegedly located in the ionosphere from 60 to 1000 km overhead, the clouds streaming in a thick blanket overhead for hour after hour on evening after evening meant they might as well have been a million kilometers away. I was envious of others who had had clearer windows of opportunity to see the aurora: in my envy, I saw new and unwelcome shades of green.

On the fourth night, as some sort of earthly interference had managed to shut down the wifi, I traded Firefox for chasing firefoxes and headed outside. But even so far away from the internet and the media-saturated digital environments further south, I still couldn’t help but think of the web of ancestral hyperlinks making sense of it all. I failed in my attempts at observation again, and fell asleep to imagined aurorae.

On the fifth night, with only partly cloudy heavens, I tried again. I left the kota and walked outside, letting my eyes adjust to the night sky. The northern horizon seemed bright—as if it were a northern dawn—but in my ignorance I still wasn’t sure what to credit to a long sunset or to an aurora. Leena Valkeapää came walking out of the kota a few minutes later, and watched with me for some time. She told a story of her husband Oula Valkeapää’s grandmother who, a century ago, relied upon auroras in the depths of winter—the heavens aglow and the snowy earth reflecting in kind, provided a kind of “day,” she said, to accomplish necessary work with the reindeer. As Leena described what to look for overhead, she inspected the sky herself. Auroras were like watercolors, she noted, with too much water—then some lines emerge, and then there is too much water again, washing any focus away. This goes on time and again, over the space of minutes, she said: one must look, look away, and look again to see what has changed. In this way, the inconspicuous becomes identifiable as the aurora. “You have to follow the sky,” she concluded. Leena concluded that the minor wisps we were seeing and the dull glow behind the clouds above Saana was auroral light, and that–if nothing else–I could say I had experienced it. But I was still unsure and unsatisfied: if there was an aurora that night, it had again escaped my ability to sense its majesty.

On Friday, I joined the AIR group and drove up what in Norway became the dubiously named Nordlysvegen (“Northern Lights Route”) to visit the EISCAT observatory near Tromsø, a radar facility which was built to study the properties of the ionosphere with UHF and VHF radars (and the sister site to an installation in Svalbard where in 2008 a humorous Doritos ad was beamed to a star 42 light-years away. As Ewen has described, Michael Rietveld of EISCAT generously gave us hours of his time, explaining the work of the facilities and touring us around, and described how by sending an electromagnetic pulse into the heavens and ionizing the heavens, EISCAT scientists can use the 10,000 antennas of their ionospheric heating facility to study atmospheric plasma physics. And by accelerating electrons by a thousand degrees Kelvin as they stream along the magnetic field lines, EISCAT scientists can even produce an artificial auroral light for as long as a minute, and the time it takes for such artificial aurora to grow and appear tells scientists about the nature of the ionosphere itself. He shared videos with us recording the artificial red circle created in the heavens by these efforts—some 30-40km in diameter, but due to its altitude (200km) appearing as only a small dot in the heavens. In comparison to natural auroras, the scientists’ efforts are minute: “the power deposited worldwide in a good aurora exceeds the entire power-generating capacity of all countries of the world combined,” wrote one authority. What’s more, EISCAT’s ability to enhance and study the night sky is constrained by very real earthly electrical bills running into the hundreds of thousands of euros. Nevertheless, I felt a sense of gratitude for seeing a few fleeting pixels of red on a fuzzy time-lapse digital video. Although I had yet to see a natural aurora, I could at least now say I had seen an artificial one—which I did not even know was possible just a few minutes before.

During our lunch break at EISCAT came an equally revelatory and serendipitous moment: I found on the shelves a well-worn and remarkable cultural history of the aurora borealis, entitled, Majestic Lights: The Aurora in Science, History, and the Arts and by Robert Eather. “The aurora has always been associated with the cold bleakness of the polar regions,” Eather wrote. “On rare and memorable occasions she ventures forth to an admiring world. It would seem a pity if we were to ever change that.” While his pity did not match my momentary excitement at having witnessed a recording of an artificial aurora, I found his survey of auroral culture to be fascinating, indeed.

While Galileo was probably the first in 1619 to have termed the lights “this northern dawn” (“questa boreale aurora”), and the “aurora borealis” by 1622, it was clear from Eather’s study that various cultures had identified and described such phenomena for centuries. In China, the oldest known description of the Northern Lights came from the Bamboo Album of Chronology (Chu-Shu-Chi-Nien, 2600BCE): “Fu-Pao, the mother of the yellow Emperor Shuan-Yuan, saw a powerful lightening go around the star Su in the constellation of Bei-Dou and light illuminated the whole field.” I learned that the Bible appears to record the aurora with other language: “Behold a smoking furnace (oven), and a burning lamp (Fiery torch) that passed between those pieces” (Genesis 15:17). The Book of Ezekiel opens with the line: “the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” and continues on to describe what appear to match auroral visions. The Book of Jeremiah similarly asks: “What seest thou? And I said, I see a seething pot; and the face thereof is toward the north.”

And just as fascinating were the visual depictions of the aurora, captured over centuries. The first drawings of the aurora in Norway may have been made by Absalen Pederssön Beyer (1528-1575). But others were equally compelling efforts to capture the evanescent, the fleeting, the spectral illumination of the heavens.

Shakespeare’s words from centuries ago seemed presciently relevant to understanding artists’ and poets’ efforts to capture these airy nothings in ink:

“And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1600)

Or as Eather himself put it, “The aurora is perhaps the most spectacular of nature’s contrivances to preserve the soul of the scientist.” My soul needed saving at that late hour: I needed to see an aurora first-hand.
The wind is poetry, Oula had told us some days ago, and finally, on our last night, the wind finally blew the clouds away.

As my computer screen glowed green with the forecast of that evening’s probabilities, I closed my Firefox browser to once again chase the firefox outside and overhead. And so it was, there just outside our local habitation, the kota, where we ate tortilla chips (if not quite Doritos) and with reindeer meat cooking in the flames, and to the sounds of music accompanied by foxy dancing around the fire, that the heavens finally danced with us, and bands of green undulated across the sky above Saana. The chase, and our time together, was over.

Ewen Chardronnet would like to thank all the Second Order group members for their contributions: Vishnu Vardhani Rajan, Sophie Dulau, Luis A. Campos, Anu Pasanen, N. Adriana Knouf, Adrien Rigobello, Johanna Salmela.

Read the Second Order first log and second log at “Field_Notes – The Heavens”.

Field_Notes is a program organised by Bioart Society as part of the Feral Labs Network series. 

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