Nowhereisland – nowhere to be seen?

Nowhereisland at Torquay

If you were in Weymouth at the start of the Olympic sailing you may have been surprised to see a mysterious new island appear off the Dorset coast.  This was Nowhereisland, part of a public arts project realised by the Devon-based artist Alex Hartley. The island and its Embassy are to travel round the South West over the next few weeks.  I went to see it at Exmouth but, although the Embassy was there, ironically the island was nowhere to be seen.  Apparently, the weather got the better of it; it couldn’t travel and this ephemeral new nation had to be protected by the motherland in Portland harbour.  Since then, it has sailed on to Torquay, Plymouth and Cornwall  and it has been “occupied” by members of the Devon and Cornwall wild swimmers who staged a coup d’état, unfurled a banner and populated the island with a plastic duck and rabbit.

The Nowhereisland project began when Hartley visited the High Arctic in 2004 under the auspices of Cape Farewell, a group who instigate cultural responses to climate change.  On that visit he discovered a previously-uncharted island that had been revealed by a glacier melting in response to global warming.  Hartley originally called the island Nymark (Norwegian for “new ground”) but it was given the official name of Nyskjæret.  Based on his experience he produced a large wall display, “Nymark (undiscovered island)”, containing framed rock samples, letters, maps, photos and other documentation on his discovery.  This was exhibited as part of the exhibition, Cape Farewell – Art and Climate Change, at the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool in 2006 and as part of the cross cultural arts/science project, Exploratory Laboratory, at the Bridport Arts Centre in 2010.

The project (now called Nowhereisland) acquired a much greater significance when Hartley was chosen as the artist for the South West in the “Artists Taking the Lead” section of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.  The first phase of Nowhereisland involved an expedition to the Arctic with a group of sixteen “thinkers” – artists, writers, students and academics.  The group collected six tonnes of material from Nyskjæret and brought it back to the UK where it was fashioned into a floating replica of the island.  Nowhereisland was declared a new nation on September 20th 2011 after which it was possible to become a “citizen”.

The second phase of the project involves not only the current tour of the replica island, Nowhereisland, around South West seaside towns but also the Embassy which accompanies the island.  This is a converted horse box containing a display of artefacts and memorabilia associated directly or indirectly with the project.   Three “ambassadors” are present to discuss and explain Nowhereisland.   There has also been a programme of workshops in schools and local communities to disseminate and debate the issues behind the project.

The Embassy at Exmouth

So, what are the aims of Nowhereisland?  On Hartley’s web site these are stated clearly as:  “to expand people’s view of what art is; to explore sense of place; to address the most significant global issue of our time:  namely how can we respond to the urgent issue of climate change together”.   On the project web site, the aims are more focussed on exploring the idea of a nation state.

The debate about the issues behind the project began on the expedition when the sixteen “thinkers” were asked to contribute to discussions about the implications of forming a new nation.  In particular they were asked to consider how they would begin if they started a new nation from first principles given the current failure of nation states to address important global issues.  They also experienced the effects of global warming first hand.  The debate continues on the project web site where propositions for the Constitution can be posted.

Nowhereisland has attracted criticism, achieving the unusual feat of uniting the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Taxpayer’s Alliance in common condemnation.  Some objected to the cost (£500,000) but actually this is quite low compared to the overall cost of the Olympics.   I am, however, uneasy about some aspects of Nowhereisland.  For a project concerned about the environment, was it necessary to ferry the “thinkers” to the Arctic, was it necessary to take material from the virgin island?  I feel disappointment that climate change is not at the core of the project; this is a lost opportunity to debate this crucial issue.

Having seen the project develop, however, I have warmed to it.  This is partly due to discussions with my family and discussions with the ambassadors and partly because of the public reaction.  Communities have embraced the visiting island, many people have visited the embassy and there are now about 19,000 “citizens”.  The Embassy is interesting and the ambassadors maintain enthusiasm even when the rain beats down. I have particularly enjoyed the quirky responses to the island, the occupation by the wild swimmers.

The project has brought art to the South West and has probably engaged more people than any conventional gallery-based exhibition would. As a public arts engagement project it must be seen as successful and this is summed up well by Pauline Barker, one of the wild swimmers:  “It’s designed to be an arts project to get art closer to the people, and we are the people so we decided to get as close as we possibly could”.

For more on Nowhereisland see this article.

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