Carolyn Kirschner

NO-POLE imagines the Arctic as an algorithmic territory, exploring the relationship between reality and its model.

The Arctic remains one of the least accessible and least studied regions in the world, a continuously shifting landscape of water and ice. For this reason, we’re increasingly outsourcing our understanding of the territory to algorithms. Piles of data and meta-data are autonomously harvested from the landscape and plugged into scientific models, which attempt to reconstruct the original territory. These models are inevitably an abstraction of the original: shaped by what is considered typical or atypical, important or peripheral. It is therefore dangerous to simply assume that more data equals more reality.

In spite of this, we rely on algorithms to navigate the Arctic and govern geopolitics; to establish shipping routes, map sovereign borders, chart untapped resources, monitor wildlife, and predict next year’s ice extent. In this largely autonomous process of outsourcing the unseen, beyond the reach of humans, territorial algorithms are granted a position of agency.

Might alternate models of reality emerge: non-Western and post-human? What if current representations of the Arctic are just one possibility among many?

NO-POLE imagines an algorithmic territory, an increasingly surreal alter ego of the real place which reconfigures Arctic borders and boundaries. The project is explored through various threads at various scales. It shakes up established hierarchies between the human, the territory and the algorithm, and questions how algorithms might expand our conception of reality.

The project is conceived as an off-shoot of the ongoing territorial dispute in the Arctic, where data is used to substantiate the Arctic nations’ conflicting territorial claims. This process is mediated by UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), between Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US.

The scramble to claim the 1.1 million square mile area surrounding the North Pole, which is currently international waters, is fueled by the promises of global warming — access to troves of untapped resources below the seabed and control over new shipping routes through the thawing sea ice. In order to substantiate their respective territorial claims within the framework set out by UNCLOS, each Arctic nation is using algorithms to collect and process an assortment of seismic, geologic and topographic data, in the hopes of proving that the portions of seabed in question are a natural continuation of their continental shelf and therefore rightfully theirs.

Situated within the reality forged by this dispute, NO-POLE emerges as an unintended consequence (rather than a resolution) of the conflict.