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Immersive art installation brings Arctic Alaska to Williamsburg

BY CHARLES INNIS

WILLIAMSBURG — The largest arctic wildlife refuge in the country is coming to Williamsburg this weekend.

Brooklyn is the first pit-stop on a bi-coastal tour across the United States for The Arctic Refuge Experience. Step in. Step up, an immersive, multi-sensory art installation evoking the northeastern Alaskan wilderness.

The aim of the pop-up is to show people the splendor of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for over 270 animal species’ and homeland for the indeginous Gwich’in people, and to compel people to act to save the land from Big Oil drilling.

“The Arctic Refuge has been a place that’s been contested for over 50 years,” said Edit Ruano, director of regional communications strategy for the Wilderness Society, which presents the pop-up.

“It’s often been referred to as America’s Serengeti. It’s really kind of the place where life begins,” she said.

ebrooklyn media/Photos by Charlie Innis
The indigenous Gwich’in people speak at the end of the installation.

The refuge was previously under the protection of the Wilderness Act, a statute signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Congress voted in 2017 to open the 19 million acres of land to oil drilling, and the Trump administration has since sped up the process, outlining a plan in September to sell a 1.9 million-acre chunk to oil and gas companies.  

Nearly 85 percent of Alaska’s state budget depends on oil revenue, according to Alaska.gov.

Ruano said the pop-up is one of the Wilderness Society’s final pushes to urge people to speak out against drilling before December, when lease sales are expected to begin.

“Our goal of this immersive experience is to really highlight the fallacy of the idea that the Arctic Refuge is this barren land with no value,” said Ruano, “and also to hopefully engage people who care about social justice and the environment, but because the Arctic Refuge is so far-removed from their everyday lives, they don’t feel that sense of connection.”

ebrooklyn media/Photos by Charlie Innis
Mounted telephones for visitors to record messages for Big Oil CEOs.

To accomplish this, the Wilderness Society partnered with Future Colossal, a New York-based design lab, and social impact consulting firm DoSomething Strategic, to create a walk-in installation that could inspire empathy for the cause and motivate visitors to act on it.

Future Colossal’s designers brought Gwich’in people to the forefront of the pop-up’s seven-minute-long experience.

“It’s such a personal issue for them. It makes sense for them to be the ones representing this cause to everyone else,” said Jake Lee-High, CEO and creative director of Future Colossal, who used 66 million pixels of content, 40 controllable lights and 25 channels of sound to craft the installation.

Gwich’in people’s voices narrate the journey, which starts in an entrance chamber with a motion-detecting simulation of the aurora borealis.

After leaving the first chamber, you enter an open space surrounded by seven, floor-length video projections and a few mirrors. A fog machine spills mist into the room and gray clouds blanket the floor, which is strewn with clumps of greenish, mossy fibers resembling tumbleweed. 

ebrooklyn media/Photos by Charlie Innis
Fog begins to clear during the “spring” scenes.

Suddenly, it smells like the air after rainfall. Ambient music and wildlife sounds drift across the room, and clips of polar bears and snowy fields play from screens. “Winter” then transitions to “spring” and “summer” as fog dissipates and scenes of hills with grazing animals surround the space.

Then everything turns black. The screens cut to newsreels about oil drilling, and voices of Gwich’in people return to implore you to stop their land’s destruction. 

When the clips end, the installation leads you into an “action” room, which includes wall-mounted telephones for visitors to leave voice recordings for different CEOs of Big Oil companies.

“A lot of the ways I picture people perceiving memories and experiences is through fragments of moments,” said Lee-High, on his design thinking. “You’ll remember a snapshot of a moment or a view, you’ll remember a smell that hit you at a certain point and the feeling you had at the time.”
“What we wanted to do is essentially recreate these memories through the fragments in this piece and reconstruct what a memory of being in the Arctic Refuge would be like.”

Pulling it off required over 100 hours of raw footage and hundreds of pounds of dry ice.

Sam Gregory, founder of the Brooklyn to Alaska Project, which brings teenagers from Bed-Stuy, Brownsville and East Flatbush to the Alaskan wilderness every year, said it’s important for young people to see a different part of the world.

He thinks drilling in the arctic refuge is a retrograde idea.

“It’s going backwards. It’s going the wrong way. Those are one of the last preserves, the last of the big, open spaces that haven’t been developed,” said Gregory.

Tickets for The Arctic Refuge Experience. Step in. Step up are $10, and all proceeds go to the Gwich’in Steering Committee and Gwich’in Youth Council.

Members of the Gwich’in Steering Committee visited the pop-up on Monday, Lee-High said.

“It was really nice to hear them say that going through the experience, even though they were in New York, they really felt like they were back home,” he said.

The pop-up is open Thursday, Oct. 24 through Sunday, Oct. 27 at 25 Kent Ave.

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