I Chilled With Penguins and an Ice-Preserving Bot on a Glacier in Antarctica

Frederick Bernas - Motherboard

From March 17 to 28, the first Antarctic Biennale set sail on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a hulking polar research ship owned by the Russian Institute of Oceanology.

On board, more than a dozen artists were joined by interdisciplinary thinkers including a space architect, a sitar-playing neuroscientist and a Russian oceanographer with years of experience living on Arctic ice.

For the first two days after departing from Ushuaia, Argentina, we braved heavy turbulence in the Drake Passage, a notoriously nasty stretch of water where giant waves crash together as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.

As well as crossing into parts unknown to many participants, and producing a new wave of Antarctic art, the Biennale’s mission statement is to explore the often porous border between art and science.

Argentine artist/engineer Joaquín Fargas designed the “Glaciator,” a robot that compacts snow into ice in order to create glaciers and preserve the Antarctic environment.

His countryman Tomás Saraceno, who lives in Berlin, presented “Aerocene”–a flying sculpture formed by two solar-powered kites.

The Ecuadorian artist Paul Rosero Contreras, who has a background in biology, created his “Arriba!” installation from a cocoa plant which he shipped from the Amazon rainforest, before placing it on the Antarctic snow in a special temperature-controlled container.

Works from the expedition will be exhibited in the Antarctic Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale and tour museums around the world.

The Akademik Sergey Vavilov is a polar research vessel built in 1988, with space for 92 passengers and 65 crew. It is used for scientific expeditions by the Russian Institute of Oceanology, which funds some of its work by leasing the ship to tour companies for part of the year.

Joaquín Fargas (left), an Argentine artist and engineer based in Buenos Aires, works on assembling one of his two “Glaciator” robots in a temporary workshop aboard the Vavilov.

Fargas worked with software engineers to design a proprietary operating system for the Glaciators, which use a mobile Wi-Fi network to link with a laptop that is connected to a PlayStation-style handheld controller.

Fargas took one of his Glaciators out onto the snow at Leith Island on March 24, the penultimate day of landings before the Biennale returned to Argentina. The robot runs on batteries that are charged by solar panels installed on the outer housing.

Huge formations of rock, snow and ice line the Antarctic landscape. This year, levels of sea ice in the region hit their lowest point in recorded history, a disturbing fact that Fargas and other Biennale artists strived to highlight with their work.

At the stunning Paradise Bay, the “Arriba!” installation by Paul Rosero Contreras was conceived as a kind of tropical time capsule, taking us back 50 million years to when Antarctica itself had a temperate climate. Fossils of tropical flora have been discovered in the area. “I was looking for a time clash between past, present and future, and I wanted the piece to have a sense of being lost in its context,” said Contreras.

Tomás Saraceno from Argentina installed his flying “Aerocene” sculpture at Paradise Bay. The solar-powered kite, which functions like a hot-air balloon, muses on the impact of air travel on climate change, presenting a futuristic sustainable solution that addresses the universal human desire to fly.

The Antarctic Biennale was founded by Russian artist Alexander Ponomarev (center), a former sailor who spent his youth working on submarines and ships. He has frequently worked with scientists and encouraged participants to seek new fields for collaboration.

Flags flew from the Akademik Sergey Vavilov to symbolize the international spirit of the Biennale, whose participants hailed from 20 countries. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty designates the region as a politically neutral territory dedicated to scientific research. Over 50 countries have signed.

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