Telling tales of pyramids and taxicabs

People | How will we look back on ourselves in 15 years? Artist Eva la Cour thinks the answer to that question can be found in a ghost town in Svalbard

A town of future passed

Elías Thórsson

Eva la Cour was born in Denmark, but it is Svalbard’s story she wants to tell. After making her first trip to the Arctic archipelago in 2010, la Cour, a visual artist, has spent much of the past four years in Longyerabyen, Svalbard’s main settlement. Her time there has resulted in several works focusing on the region.

“My work with the Arctic started with the Arctic Circle programme. We were 15 people from all sorts of professional backgrounds sailing around in the region and we spent our time discussing how to work with art and the Arctic,” she says. “Although we discussed it at length, it took us a really long time to get any projects going together. It wasn’t until this year that we were able to proposing setting something up.”

La Cour also studied visual anthropology at the Freie Universität in Berlin. The field’s focus on producing a visual record of human behaviour provides her with a unique method of approaching the region and its people. She has travelled to Svalbard nine times in her effort to learn more about how society there functions.

“I think basically I am just really fascinated with the role that the artist has in representing and reproducing the Arctic. Today we can all easily find pictures from the Arctic, but how do they influence the way we see the area and what it is? The other thing about the Arctic is that it is the best example of how humans impact nature. Climate change means the region is no longer a place where nature stands in isolation, untouched by human activity.”

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Among the works la Cour has created in Svalbard was The Tour, a video piece that shows life in Logyerabyen from the eyes of local taxi drivers from Norway, Denmark and Russia. The project came about after she took up a job driving people around herself.

“I took the job because I was very interested in how infrastructure in places like Logyearbyen works. The other reason, which is kind of a cliché, was that being a cab driver is an excellent way to meet people. Through my work I did get to know everyone in town, from young teenagers working at the local bars to politicians.”

In recent years Longyerabyen has become known around the world as a dynamic town, where educated professionals come to live temporarily while they work in high-tech jobs. La Cour felt that narrative was missing some important voices, however.

“The usual story is that if you live there then you have made a decision to take a really good job, but there are also people who work in the service industry, and they are rarely heard. That is why I wanted to focus on taxi drivers, because it is one of those professions that get forgotten.”

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La Cour readily admits that she has completely fallen for Longyearbyen, with its pitch-black winters and never ending summer sun. But there is another place in Svalbard that has also fascinated her: the ghost town of Pyramiden.

Pyramiden was a founded as a coal-mining town by Sweden in 1910. In 1927 it was sold to the Soviet Union, which ran the mines in the region. In 1998, however, the last coal was extracted, and the population, estimated to be about 1,000, left in a hurry, leaving coffee cups on dining-room tables and toys in bedrooms.

The town is the inspiration for her most recent work, Anticipating the Past, a performance piece that tries to imagine looking back at 2014 from the perspective of someone living in 2029.

“I was very interested in the history of the Soviet Union in the Arctic, and I worked on the project with the local Russian guides that live there,” she says. “One of the reasons why I decided to approach this form the point of view of the future was that when people talk about Svalbard then it becomes clear that this is a place with a vision, a place that still believes in a future.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

The Rasmussen’s People articles are interviews or profiles of the individuals who shape – and are shaped by – the region.

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