Back in Pyramiden, Svalbard

Text and photos by Elin Andreassen and Hein B. Bjerck

In August 2011, Elin and Hein revisited Pyramiden, this time as “protagonists” for the German TV production “Moderne Ruinen”[i]. We also had an agenda of our own: to see what was going on, and check rumors about Trust Arcticugol’s efforts to conserve buildings and facilitate the increasing numbers of visitors to the former Soviet company town some 90 km from their present stronghold in Barentsburg.

In 2006, we had stayed here with Bjørnar, doing field studies in the mining town that was shut down in 1998. At the time, we could observe the accelerating decay, rivers running wild undermining buildings, water penetrating roofs and walls, broken windows and smashed doors, visitors robbing for souvenirs and making a mess, stinking seagulls nesting in window ledges, crumbling paint and varnish, gravitational forces bringing down wall paper and ceramic tiles.  Naturally, we envisioned a prolonging of the observed trends, and that the destructive forces would sooner, rather than later, succeed in bringing the town down. However, trends are for the past, not the future. Things happen, and even small things tend to enforce each other in redirecting the unforeseen trajectories of reality. In fact, “Persistent Memories”[ii], the book we made about our Pyramiden studies is one of them, contributing to the general interest of abandoned places and thereby increasing the number of visitors and necessary facilities at ruins.

It was a lonely week, our field work in Pyramiden back in 2006. Bjørnar, Elin and Hein were the sole “guests” at Hotel Tulip. Our suites in the 4th floor was the only inhabited rooms among the hundreds that once housed the more than 1,000 employees that had ran the Pyramiden coal mine at the peak of its 50 year long history. We had come to study the abandoned town and how this world of “over given” things revealed itself to their human companions. We were not disappointed. Abandonment mean that one may study without prying, going places without invitations, open doors without asking, looking inside closets, behind curtains and under carpets; a dissecting, almost endoscopic view that would never be possible in a living settlement. Things may be misinterpreted, but will never deceive, hide or lie. They are the indisputable exhibits. We could see for ourselves how the town was a meticulous construction of innumerous parts cooperating in a functional whole. The coal-fired power plant a steaming heart amidst the vast network of pipes and cables that connected all and everything. Without its people, the world of things came to light. It was like being on the inside of the overhead projector in Bruno Latour’s classical example[iii] of how malfunctions bring awareness to things, illuminates their role and function in their contexts, and make us see that most things are many things, parts that are carefully fitted, tuned in accordance with input and output, voltage and watts, gears and RPMs, HPs and BARs, all directed toward producing whatever outcome the thing is designed for, as well as safety precautions for their vulnerable, and not infallible, human companions. However, Bruno Latour had not prepared us for living in a world of malfunctions. After some days, it was painfully evident that there is more to the human touch than making things run. Without us, things fall apart. Living in houses that resemble urban normality but lack their function is something different. Houses that keep you out of the rain and wind, but still are more damp and colder than the outside. Sinks and faucets everywhere, we brought our own soaps, but there was no water; hundreds of toilets not only missing paper, but also water to flush and drain. Lamps without light; thousands of electrical switches that were “off” in all positions. No movement in the hundreds of kilometers of cables and pipes, roads and rails before our eyes.

Back in Pyramiden in July 2011 we could see that the town had developed differently than we had envisioned in 2006. Trust Arcticugol had established a staff of c. 30 workers to fight decay, to redirect and counterbalance natural forces, and also establish a down-scaled infrastructure for the new pyramideans: increasing numbers of tourists, of visitors with an agenda, and the staff to serve them.

Managing the 7th “best ghost town in the world”[iv] is a juggle with oppositions; and paradoxes are mounting. Visitors arrive many times a week to explore the abandoned town, only to experience that a town full of visitors is not as abandoned as they expected. In the wake of all the visitors is the need for facilities and services; new installations and infrastructure that are also in conflict with their visions of a ghost town. The Trust Arcticugol staff does their best to maintain the town. They have managed to control the melt water that during our visit in 2006 had invaded the streets and was threatening to undermine several of the principal buildings. Broken windows were mended to protect the building itself, and presumably, all things therein. Unfortunately, in the process all too many of the delicate and touching details we encountered in 2006 were torn down, displaced or destroyed. It is understandable, the urge to clean and tidy when visitors are expected. Unfortunately, the untidy chaos of things also harbors the intimate and delicate objects and constellations that are valuable encounters with the former citizens, with the living town. Making the settlement presentable, paradoxically, also means to insert a barrier between now and then, between the spectator and the attraction, a veil that blur the authentic integration of humans and things. On the other side, the recent displacements and destruction are likewise authentic and true, and reveal new episodes in the human-thing history of Pyramiden. Visitors to ghost towns are their own worst enemies, and their caretakers not far from it.

Another lesson from the ex-ghost town is the art of down-scaling, an increasingly relevant exercise in our world of expanding materiality. This is also a telling picture of how human-thing constellations are fine-tuned clockworks of interrelations, and that diminishment is as challenging as expansion. One may not simply reduce speed, turn down the heat, bring it down from “10 to 1” in accordance with reduced activity, volume and new functions. Cables and pipes that were made to serve a coal mine are not applicable for a dozen reading lights, a stove and a couple of TV-sets. The cost of maintaining the former waterworks is not in accordance with the new function of the settlement. The response to this challenge was to establish a new micro-waterworks inside the former, covering the few buildings that are in use. The Blue Lagoon reservoir, roughly 3km up the valley, is still the source, but now water have to be transported by tractor that fill up local tank in the former garage. The source of cheap fuel vanished with the shut down of the mine, and the big coal-fired power plant is by all means useless. The once almost independent, self-reliant organism-like Soviet Pyramiden we described in our book is beyond resurrection. The new Pyramiden is dependent for almost everything: all food (except for the two tiny tomatoes) must be shipped; likewise diesel to run the el-aggregate. The former symphony of concordant things cannot produce otherwise than it was designed for. It may be turned off, but not down to 5%. The 5% community is not possible.

The World Wide Web reveals an expanding variety of interests and relations to Pyramiden. Some seem to rely on information from late nights in the Longyearbyen pubs – dubious claims about set tables and plates with remains of the last supper of the pyramideans. These stories all elaborate the ghost town myths of Pyramiden:

“The decision to abandon the settlement was sudden, its implementation even more so. The inhabitants were given just hours to pack their bags and leave. Remnants of that hasty departure are visible everywhere” (http://www.sophiesworld.net/pyramiden-arctic-ghosttown-svalbard/).

Others are attracted to the spectacular surroundings, like “Powderwhore”, riding the steep slopes of Mt. Pyramiden, using the town center as an exotic base camp (http://www.noahhowell.com/2011/07/norway-part-3-pyramiden/). In addition to the musicians in Efterklang (that were also part of Reher’s film, see images) is Aggie Frost, profiled high-latitude artist and granddaughter of the famous Svalbard photographer Herta Grøndal (http://www.go-svalbard.no/grondalfoto/). Aggie is planning performances in Pyramiden this September, see http://frostpyramiden.net. “Dance for grown ups” (http://www.dansforvoksne.no/) is definitely among our favorites – their non-audience performance in the Cultural Palace of the abandoned town (March 13, 2009) even included putting up posters announcing the arrangement, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/dansforvoksne/page9/.

Figures

Hotel Tulip 2011. We encountered heated rooms with green plants, two tiny tomatoes, tidy tables, newly washed floors and tempting smells from the kitchen hinting the evening meal.

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Trust Arcticugol workers rebuilding the waterworks in the former garage. The bigger tank will replace the smaller tank in the 1st floor of Hotel Tulip, but still has to be filled by tractor transport from the Blue Lagoon water reservoir.

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We met Yuri, the sympathetic leader of the Trust Arcticugol staff in Pyramiden, who had stayed here alone for long stretches of time during the winter and spring. On his spare time (if one may use this expression when alone in the frozen barrens) he had created a full fledged gym in the wardrobe of the garage, put together by the best parts from the abundance of training equipment in the abandoned settlement – supplementing missing parts and pieces with those from the mechanical workshops, making an extension to upgrade a too short jumping rope. The greenish light oozing out from the two windows, tainting swirls of snow during Yuri’s lonely workouts must have made the hundreds of dark windows even darker. A heated nano-cell in the vast polar night, rhythmic sounds from interval exercises mixed in with melancholic songs from his cassette player … a bitter-sweet mixture of the alone-in-the-world dens of Pixar´s Wall-E and Will Smith´s “I am Legend”. 

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Scenes from the making of the TV series «Moderne Ruinen (2/5)», «Piramida – Ein sowjetischer Brückenkopf auf Spitzbergen» for the German/French ZDF / ARTE, directed by Marcus Reher. Reher´s series (transmitted by ARTE in February 2012) displays Pyramiden in parallel with «Fordlandia – Henry Fords Utopia in Amazonas», «Kolmannskuppe – Diamanten-Geisterstadt in Namibia», “Detroit – Hoffnung für die Motor-City», and «Lohberg – Neues Leben auf der Zeche». 

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We met Rasmus, Casper and Mats, members of the Danish band “Efterklang” (also part of Reher’s film) exploring the soundscapes of the abandoned town. Pounding the walls of the large emptied oil tanks, the sound of voices inside them. The hollow rhythm from running on the boards of pipeline cages. Click-clacks of smashing together the wooden floats in the eerie reverb of the all-dry swimming pool. Making groves from playing the five-step metal pool ladder. A bricolage of noises and voices, grooves and acoustics. Efterklang introduces their new CD “Piramida” in September 2012, and previews are already available at: http://efterklang.net/home/

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New places, things, and happenings. Photo of a man video filming another man, an ex-pyramidian visiting his old hometown; the former documenting the latter. Markus Reher at the new hot spot in town: a stick marking the place where someone miraculously has discovered faint telecommunication signals. Visitors crowding the ghost town, shopping traditional souvenirs. Workers from Trust Arcticugol looking at our Persistent Memories – we visited their quarters in Hotel Tulip, the same rooms as we stayed in during our fieldwork in 2006. The blue container hotel in Pyramiden´s harbor area, and a detail from Efterklang´s temporarily silent quarters. Facilities for visitors by the power plant and by Hotel Tulip. The healing scar from waters running wild in pair with the recent collapse of the covered walkway to the mine entrance. The cleaning of the ballerina studio in the Cultural Palace also included removing mirrors – presumably relocated to reflect muscles and movements in Yuri´s gym. Fixing windows in block 38 also meant dismantling and displacing delicate details documented in 2006, cf. Persistent Memories, pages 14 and 126.

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Notes

[i] ZDF/ARTE, http://www.arte.tv/de/Programm/244,broadcastingNum=1329371,day=4,week=7,year=2012.html

[ii] Elin Andreassen, Hein B. Bjerck and Bjørnar Olsen (2010). Persistent Memories. Pyramiden – a Soviet mining town in the High Arctic. Tapir Academic Press. Trondheim. Related articles and reviews in:

[iii] Bruno Latour (1999). Pandora’s hope: Essays on the reality of science studies. London. Harvard University Press (p. 183)

[iv] National Geographic has rated Pyramiden as no 7 in their list of “Top 10 ghost towns”, with the legendary Herculaneum as no.  8, http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2011/10/27/top-10-ghost-towns/.

2 Responses to “Back in Pyramiden, Svalbard”

  1. Lily Winter says:

    “Without its people, the world of things came to light.”

    As Ron Hynes says in his song, Dark River, “with everything gone, you could see everything”…

    Thank you for this web page. It is very touching… at least the place isn’t forgotten and not cared about, even if its integrity is being harmed.

    Sincerely, Lily Winter
    Northern Minnesota, USA

  2. Pyramiden | says:

    […] Elin Andreassen and Hein B. Bjerck write in a recommended reading on Pyramiden, “paradoxes are mounting. Visitors arrive many times a week to explore the abandoned town, […]

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