Pyramiden Arctic Ruins

In 1998 the Russian arctic mining company decided to end its activity in Pyramiden, Svalbard (79oN). A remarkably abrupt abandonment left behind a site devoid of humans but still filled with all stuff constituting a modern city. Rapid development during the 1960s and 1970s had transformed Pyramiden into a modern town hosting 1100 inhabitants and equipped with most urban facilities (Gnilorybov 1979, Fløgstad 2006). This development also imbued it with the familiar signatures of sovietness: concrete architecture, iron installations and socialist iconology, all framed within a rigid spatial grammar. Increasingly alienated from its natural surroundings, Pyramiden ended up as a peculiar Soviet version of the “non-place”, conspicuous in its own geopolitical setting but literally indistinguishable from the thousands of other industrial towns dotting the vast Soviet north. Today the ghost town of Pyramiden survives as a petrified image of Soviet ambitions in the high arctic.

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The aims of this study are twofold. The first is to explore the significance of things as a source to how people lived and coped in Pyramiden. Written accounts are abundant, of course, but narrowly concerned with production rates, cargo and shipment details, geo- morphological data, logistic challenges, etc.; beyond political rhetoric hardly anything is said about everyday life and social struggles. Initial fieldwork conducted in 2006 revealed a wealth of material memories that testify to a far more diverse and contested Pyramiden. One crucial aspect is the astonishing contrast between the creative bricolage, individuality, and political irony characterizing the material expressions of the workers’ apartments and the disciplined Soviet utterances and iconology dominating the materiality of public spaces and official living (Andreassen 2009). The semantic of this opposition is undoubtedly layered, e.g. reflecting strategies of material resistance, individual skills, and the creation of homes in a potentially alienating materiality. However, embedded in these utterances are also dreams, they literally contain “dream kitsch” and wish images, reflecting utopias very distinct from those grounding the town’s rigid physiognomy. Our research will concentrate on exploring these aspects of Pyramiden’s immensely rich archaeology through detailed recordings of interiors, work spaces, iconology and architecture and we will also match these data sets against oral information from interviews to be conducted with former residents in Russia and Ukraina.(5) The second aim is to explore the post-human biography of Pyramiden and the way it provokes reflections on heritage and cultural values. How does a site like Pyramiden, a decaying Soviet industrial ruin fit into conceptions of heritage and the current political economy of the past? How does its conspicuous location in so-called pristine Arctic nature, a setting infused with its own aesthetic tropes, impact on the way we assign cultural value to it? To what extent is this valuing affected by the simple fact that it is Soviet?6 We aim at addressing these questions not just through conventional scholarship and analysis but also in ways that create reflections on the very distinctions we make between heritage and waste, culture and rubbish. Extending the scope of fieldwork to include explorative photographic work at other deserted and semi-deserted industrial sites in the Russian north (primarily the Kola Peninsula), as well as to classic heritage sites, we want to call attention to the contingent and contested nature of these categories. Included in our research team is a photo artist and we wish to conduct and disseminate this research in ways that transcends boundaries between scholarship and art, using exhibitions and alternative publications to create reflections – by, for example, juxtaposing images and descriptive data of otherwise – conceptually, chronologically and culturally – distant ruins.

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