Aesthetics of Wilderness and Sovereignty: The Arctic Ocean between artistic representation and political performance

…or, on writing a failed PhD Proposal…

Following on from my MA in international relations (IR), I recently applied for funding to do a PhD at the department of Geography at Durham University. For some, geography may seem a stretch from IR, but it isn’t really: these days geography is split into physical geography and human (or political) geography, and the latter is very similar to certain strands of IR.

The long and the short of it is that I did not get offered funding by the ESRC, which seems to be largely due to the research not being sufficiently empirical (read essentialist) nor sufficiently social science… It’s really rather frustrating as I spent a huge amount of time on the proposal – with the generous assistance of Prof. Phil Steinberg – and feel there is a lot in it that is worth researching. Perhaps a case of the wrong research council – that had been a concern throughout – but it didn’t really seem to fit the other alternative, the AHRC, either.

Bad luck, but perhaps not doing a PhD will mean I finally – after about 5 years – write my opera about Roger Casement. Anyway, here’s the proposal, why not?

 1. Research Question

Over the past number of years the Arctic Ocean has become increasingly situated in a complex field of geographic and political contestations centred on notions of territoriality and sovereignty. There appear to be conflicting social constructions of the Arctic, variously representing the region as a space of resources (Howard 2009), a space of mobility/immobility (Arctic Council 2009), a space of potential conflict and militarism (Fairhall 2010), and a fragile ecological space (Banerjee 2012). Bound up with these varying constructions are aesthetic understandings of the Arctic that range from those in which the region is seen as amenable to state territorialisation to those that construct the Arctic as a remote wilderness beyond the reach of modern political institutions.

This research will seek to identify and critically engage with these varying constructions of Arctic space, particularly ocean space, considering acts of bordering and territorialising as a means of implicating a non-territorial space into a discourse of sovereignty. Recognising the linkages between, on the one hand, exertions of ‘soft power’ in which it is recognised that political discourse is steeped in aesthetics and, on the other hand, exertions of ‘hard power’ that reference an ideal of state authority that transcends aesthetics and culture, this thesis will draw on a varied set of ‘performances’ wherein political imaginaries of the Arctic are formulated and articulated.

By drawing on both political discourses/performances and artistic representations as a means of critiquing notions of territory and non-territoriality, of ‘tamed’ sovereign space and ‘untameable’ wilderness, I will also ask if the aesthetics of both art and politics are constructed through strikingly similar processes. This question is intended to critique the positivist notion that politics can be represented realistically and authentically. This research will argue for an aesthetic approach to geography and politics, one that assumes, ‘there is always a gap between a form of representation and what is represented therewith’ (Bleiker 2001: 510).

2. Research Context

Much of the recent research about questions of sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean has been founded on what Roland Bleiker has called a ‘mimetic’ approach to politics, one that, ‘equates knowledge with the mimetic recognition of external appearances’ (Bleiker 2001: 511). Titles such as Cold Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters (Fairhall 2010), The Arctic Gold Rush (Howard 2009), and The Scramble for the Arctic (Sale and Potapov 2010) are founded on shallow essentialist notions of the political, and construct Arctic space as a state-competitive arena of potential violence. In addressing issues about the construction of space in the Arctic, I intend to employ an aesthetic approach, one that questions the processes through which spaces are produced, both through material human interaction and through artistic representations of the region. As an example, ‘Operation Nanook 10’, a Canadian naval operation held in the Canadian far north in 2010, could be theorised not simply as an exercise in military capabilities, but as a political performance of sovereign power, as an ‘affective labour’ which secures feelings of sovereignty for Canadians (Dodds 2012: 991). An example of artistic performances which seeks to secure notions of Arctic sovereignty/territoriality might be the ‘Accessible Arctic’ exhibition which has toured Canadian embassies across the world (Government of Canada). The exhibition of photographic images of the Canadian Arctic, I will argue, is performing sovereign claims as much as military exercises are (Dittmer et al. 2011: 204), and the aesthetics of each performance can be theorised under the same lens.

My research will draw heavily on research into the political imagination and construction of non-territorial spaces, particularly the sea and the Arctic (e.g. Steinberg 2001; 2010; 2013). It will also draw on recent work in the field of international politics and aesthetics, such as Roland Bleiker’s notions of an aesthetic turn in international relations (Bleiker 2001), Debbie Lisle’s research into art and geopolitics (Lisle 2007; Danchev and Lisle 2009) and research into the aesthetics of international politics and performance (Edkins and Kear 2013). Such advances in the field of aesthetics and politics can help to show us that political performances such as ‘Operation Nanook’ can be viewed as an act that very much affects political realities, perhaps even more so than any law can do.

3. Contribution that will be made

I believe that this research will make significant contributions to a number of theoretical issues within the fields of human geography and international relations, as well as generate further theoretical insight into the ontological connections between artistic expression and political performance. I also hope to create space for further developments toward what Bleiker has called the ‘aesthetic turn’ in international relations, arguing that ‘aesthetic insight recognises that the inevitable difference between the represented and its representation is the very location of politics’ (Bleiker 2001: 510). Bringing such an approach to the study of the Arctic will, I hope, provide new theoretical insight to this contested region.

It is also my intention to critique the notion of (statist) territoriality by theorising the notion of wilderness and revealing a relationship of alterity in the territory/wilderness dichotomy. William Cronon’s innovative work on wilderness will be of interest here (Cronon 1995). Drawing on Cronon, I will suggest that, “far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation” (Cronon 1995: 69). That is to say, that through a process of alterity, wilderness is a social construction derived from the experience of modernity and civilisation. I will argue that political and artistic performances both naturalise and exoticise notions of ‘wilderness,’ suggesting, along Susan Kollin’s lines, that far northern frontiers are not marginal spaces, but spaces which are deeply constitutive to ideas of territory, nation and identity (Kollin 2001).

Another significant contribution can be made through an engagement with the emerging field of international politics and performance (e.g. Edkins and Kear 2013), drawing on a critical aesthetics of politics and art and developing these notions in the area of human geography. In so doing I will draw on Harriet Hawkins’ belief that, ‘Art, as well as being an empirical focus for geographical research on the body, enables us to think about the body as a tool through which research is done’ (Hawkins 2013: 62). Along Hawkins’ line of thinking, I wish to draw a close link between how we understand geographical/political ontologies and how we respond to aesthetics in artistic works, suggesting that equivalent practices of aesthetic construction are occurring in both.


While I cannot yet comprehensively delineate the extent of the data that I will use in my research, I can say that the data will inhabit two major categories: self-evidently political performances (in which I include discourses) and seemingly ‘apolitical’ artistic performances and representations. To explore this further, let me once more take the examples of ‘Operation Nanook’ and the ‘Accessible Arctic’ exhibition. I will work on the principle that the image of ‘Operation Nanook’ – both how it is curated and how it is represented in discourses – constructs a political imagination of ‘how the world is’. Such political performances bound and define the world, making the materiality of Artic space – i.e. land, ice, water etc. – make sense within a sovereign ontology. This construction of and defining of space as being political is much the same, I will argue, as the construction of a space in a work of art. An Arctic landscape represented in a photograph in the ‘Accessible Arctic’ exhibition similarly bounds a material space into a frame – in this case, literally – which operates within an artistic ontology, for example as a material Arctic landscape being represented as an empty space of wilderness.

A substantial part of the methodology will consist of discourse analysis, a critical form of theorising which broadly fits into a social constructivist frame (Fairclough 1992). As an analytical approach, discourse analysis will allow me to create a theoretical lens through which to understand political discourses and artistic (e.g. literary) works, both of which construct aesthetics of Arctic space through language. This fits well with my concern for theorising the construction of aesthetics, as discourse analysis is concerned primarily with the politics of representation; it aims to, ‘illustrate and describe the relationship between textual and social and political process’, enabling insights into how language produces meaning (Jackson 2008: 378).

To interpret visual images of sovereignty and wilderness, such as media images of military exercises or photographs of Arctic wilderness, I will draw on David Campbell’s work into the politics of photography and pictorial representation (Campbell 2003; 2004). I will seek a framework through which I can engage in understanding how visual imagery functions as a form of ‘cultural governance’ by the state – or against the state. Cultural governance, Campbell has stated, ‘is a set of historical practices of representation […] in which the struggle for the state’s identity is located’ (Campbell 2003: 57). Another significant methodological resource will be Michael Shapiro’s Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method (2013), which draws on, ‘an aesthetic mode of apprehension,’ in order to challenge the condition of possibility under which we understand familiar concepts of the world and of politics (Shapiro 2013: 8-9). Shapiro’s radical methodological approach will, I hope, open possibilities for my research to approach works of art as a source of understanding both the geographical and the political.

5. Bibliography

Arctic Council. 2009. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. TQ/AMSA2009Report.pdf (Accessed 27/01/2014).

Banerjee, Subhankar (ed.) 2012. Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Bleiker, Roland 2001. ‘The aesthetic turn in international political theory,’ Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 30: 509-533.

Campbell, David 2003. ‘Cultural governance and pictorial resistance: reflections on the imaging of war,’ Review of International Studies, 29(1): 57-73.

Campbell, David 2004. ‘Horrific blindness: images of death in contemporary media,’ Journal of Cultural Research, 8(1): 55-74.

Cronon, William 1995. ‘The trouble with wilderness; or getting back to the wrong nature,’ in William Cronon (ed.) Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.: 69-90

Danchev, Alex and Debbie Lisle 2009. ‘Introduction: art, politics, purpose,’ Review of International Studies, 35(4):775-779.

Dodds, Klaus 2012. ‘Graduated and paternal sovereignty: Stephen Harper, Operation Nanook 10, and the Canadian Arctic,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30: 989-1010.

Edkins, Jenny and Adrian Kear (eds.) 2013. International Politics and Performance: Critical Aesthetics and Creative Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Fairclough, Norman 1992. ‘Discourse and text: linguistic and intertextual analysis within discourse analysis,’ Discourse Society, 3(2):193-217.

Fairhall, David 2010. Cold Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters. London and New York: I.B. Taurus.

Government of Canada. ‘The Accessible Arctic Eighty years of Arctic photography from Canadian Geographic.’ Art Exhibition. (Accessed: 21/01/2014).

Hawkins, Harriet 2013. ‘Geography and art. An expanding field: site, the body and practice,’ Progress in Human Geography, 37: 52-71.

Howard, Roger 2009. The Arctic Gold Rush: The New Race for Tomorrow’s Natural Resources. London and New York: Continuum Books.

Kollin, Susan 2001. Nature’s State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Lisle, Debbie 2007. ‘Benevolent patriotism: art, dissent and the American effect,’ Security Dialogue, 38: 233-250.

Sale, Richard and Eugene Potapov 2010. The Scramble for the Arctic: Ownership, Exploitation and Conflict in the Far North. London: Frances Lincoln.

Shapiro, Michael 2013. Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Steinberg, Philip E. 2001. The Social Construction of the Ocean. Cambridge University Press.

Steinberg, Philip E. 2010. ‘You are (not) here: on the ambiguity of flag planting and finger pointing in the Arctic,’ Political Geography, 29: 81-84.

Steinberg, Philip E. 2013. ‘Aquatopia Walkthrough with Philip Steinberg.’ Video produced by Nottingham Contemporary. (Accessed: 21/01/2014).

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