The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, built from 1954-57, demonstrated strongly how technology became a dramatic part of how nations claim space in the North, at least ideologically.
At the Old Fire Hall until April 6, an intriguing sculpture and media installation called The DEW Project reveals one artist’s obsession with the ongoing relationship between technology, the North, and ideas of North.
Charles Stankievech, who teaches at the Yukon School of Visual Art and exhibits his multimedia art internationally on a regular basis, first created an outdoor version of The DEW Project at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers in April 2009.
The DEW Line ran along the 70th parallel through Canada and the United States, as a joint venture between the Royal Canadian Air Force and the US Air Force.
It depended on radio communication, using radar, to detect any airborne invasion that might be coming from the then-USSR. But within months of the DEW Line’s completion, the USSR launched Sputnik, which instantly displaced radio communication as the focus of high-tech defence equipment.
Stankievech’s geodesic dome, a nod to the shapes of the DEW Line’s tessellated stations, created a wind-proof space on the ice where people could walk out and spend time listening to the rivers.
Inside the dome, he bored holes in the ice and recorded sounds of the water rushing beneath, which were broadcast at the time on Dawson’s CFYT radio station and online.
Now those recordings, with field recordings from under the ice at the Beaufort Sea by the BAR-3 (a former DEW Line location near Tuktoyaktuk), can be heard through headphones when visitors enter the dome in its indoor version.
It’s a wash of sound that can lull or trance the listener over time. Instead of Cold War radar searching for blips that never came, these were peace-time sounds transmitting over radio waves.
The Yukon River flows through Alaska and into the ocean, which makes it an international waterway. So the sound is of water moving through boundaries without the need for treaties or defence structures.
“I also needed the darkness so I could back-light the translucent geodesic dome to have a glowing rainbow orb in the middle of this expansive white ‘gallery’ space of the frozen Yukon River,” he says.
The dome changes colours (pink, green, white) and the immersive soundscape offers viewers an alternate sense reality if they put on the headphones within the structure, which also blocks out other visual information.
Alongside politics, it’s tempting to say the “glowing orb” Stankievech reassembled indoors in the Old Fire Hall contains an element of psychedelia or science fiction.
The DEW Project sculpture, which toured Toronto, Montreal and Dortmund, Germany, during 2009-10, can be sense-altering. The white, stark landscapes of ecosystems further north than most of us are used to can also be disorienting. The lack of depth perception and human scale can be thrown into sharp focus when human-made technology suddenly appears.
In a conversation shortly after the dismantling of the dome’s initial showing, Stankievech explained:
“The DEW Project‘s initial field research started during one of my many solo snowshoe hikes in the Tombstone Mountains, where a string of microwave towers and antennae connect Inuvik to Whitehorse.
“The first recordings and videos I shot for The DEW Project were of these strange manmade structures standing alone in a vast wilderness connecting small communities across a sublime landscape.
“They also became interesting markers of territory that ended up being goals for me instead of the traditional summit climb or mountain lake.”
The installation is accompanied by David Neufeld’s and Joanne Jackson Johnson’s photographs of BAR-1, a DEW Line station at Komakuk Beach, Yukon that ceased radar operations in 1993.
Neufeld went to BAR-1 in 1993 specifically to begin recording changes to the station. The Yukon & Western Arctic Historian for Parks Canada took pictures on 35 mm film, then hired Whitehorse artist Johnson to take more images with her medium-format camera.
She went one week before the radar was shut down, and shot interiors as well as portraits of people who were there.
BAR-1 was a unique site architecturally, so one of Johnson’s main tasks was to take aerial shots.
On the first day of her week-long assignment, she flew to Inuvik from Whitehorse in a 6-seater plane, then by helicopter to Avvavik – to pick up a safety harness, as well as a few people.
Flying on to the BAR-1 station that same day, they took the door off the helicopter, strapped Johnson into the harness and took off to get the aerial images.
“It was a clear day, and you have to take advantage when you get that because it can change in an instant,” Johnson laughs.
“The camera I had, a Linhof, had only a 10-shot load, so we would go up and take 10 shots at one elevation, come down and load the camera, go up for 10 at another elevation.”
The results were scanned, and Neufeld created a CD-ROM with the images in 1996. Stankievech and Neufeld worked together in 2009 to create an online archive of the images, expanding the accessibility of the history dramatically.
The DEW Project explores how concepts of the extreme Canadian North, from the creative to the technological, shape personal and political understandings of that geography.
David Neufeld expands that discussion with his talk “The DEW Line and Modernism in the Arctic” on March 31.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.