Alexander Lumans: Pushing into Unknown Territories

While in residence at VCCA, Alexander Lumans was working on a novel inspired by his recent experience at The Arctic Circle Residency. The three-week program takes place in the international territory of Svalbard, a mountainous Arctic archipelago just 10 degrees from the North Pole, on a traditionally rigged barquentine. The program brings together an international group of artists, scientists, architects and educators to experience this remote area of the world, fostering the creation and exhibition of new and pioneering work inspired by the engagement with this fascinating region. 

Alexander’s novel is set on a tall ship with an international crew who’ve been hired by a filmmaker working on climate change documentary. “Things begin to go south pretty quickly when the ship receives a distress signal from another ship in the area that’s lost. The captain decides to go after the lost one; after this stranger things begin to occur—they too become lost and end up having to save themselves.”

Rather than plot out the sequence of events, he’s left a lot of mystery as to where the second half of the book is going because that’s how he writes: letting the direction of the novel be discovered along the way.

There’s a level of adventure to the story, but there’s social commentary and ecological commentary built in to the subject. It’s also interesting to me that it takes place in contemporary times rather than being an historical narrative. There’s tons of whaling or exploration narratives out there and some are fantastic, but I can’t find a contemporary one. So I think that’s an untapped moment to say this still goes on. To relegate it to the past is to not treat it with the full spectrum of awareness. This is still a place that exists. It’s still a relevant area and a relevant mode of transportation.”

“I had an idea of what the tone and the language would be like and then I took a workshop in Denver with novelist Ben Lerner. He made this incredible point regarding the manuscript. He said, you’re entering into a conversation with all of these maritime narratives from the past and to ignore them is doing your book a disservice. It’s more interesting if you actually bring them to the foreground in the narration itself, explicitly alluding to them. You can make your captain an archetypal ship’s captain and actually play against this; it makes for more tension and more surprise and interest. He might have stereotypical tropes about him—maybe he has an anchor tattoo, but also you have him have asthma and need an inhaler. So you have this past and present connecting together. That, to me, opened up the book. It enabled me to talk about whatever, rather than feeling hemmed in by all the things that have come before. It has allowed me to read all those great books and incorporate their ideas into the narrative. This is how a contemporary voice emerges because you’re building off of what came before. What Ben told me has had such a big impact on this project; it’s changed it completely.”

The idea for his novel arose as Alexander researched the residency and did the application process. “The more I planned for the trip, the more I thought about my proposed project and started to formulate it more in terms of the plot, characters and setting, while also letting it be kind of distanced because I knew whatever I thought was going to change as a result of this trip. I let it be very loose going into the residency and I came out with a variety of experiences, atmospheres, feelings that I draw on every day now for this project.”

He knew that The Arctic Circle Residency experience would be key to writing his book. “I wanted to understand the area by interacting with it, as opposed to watching National Geographic videos, which are still amazing, but it’s not the same as being there. In the capacity we did it, it felt as if everyone was able to interact with the landscape in a very specific way. I couldn’t have predicted that either, but watching how everyone’s projects on the residency engaged, not only the landscape, but the culture around the landscape and the culture around the Arctic in general was really impressive and powerful and I came back from it, not completely changed, but a very changed person.”

Accompanied by 28 other artists from around the world, Alexander was on the residency during the last three weeks of June. Despite the 24-hour daylight, it was very cold. On deck, typical wear would be a long sleeved base layer, a sweater, down-filled jacket and then a windproof, rainproof jacket on top.

“Unlike VCCA where you have a lot of open time to really produce work and craft your project, there it was much more about the exposure and the experience. You did have some time to actually create every day, but it wasn’t open like this, where you’re left to your own devices and come together at meals, there you had a very strict schedule.”

On the days that the ship was under sail, the artists were encouraged to help out, raising the rigging and dropping the sails. “A ship like that with 14 sails raised is so unbelievable and helping out with that was very important to me because my novel is about sailing on a similar ship.“

When not being chartered by The Arctic Circle Residency for its twice-yearly residency programs, the ship takes passengers on tours of the area. “The crew told us the difference between the typical tourist and us artists is that when making a landing in front of a glacier, for instance, the tourist would get off the ship, go on land, take pictures of the glacier, turn around, take pictures of the boat, maybe take pictures of the landscape and then say, alright I’m ready to go back on board. Sure, we artists would take pictures, but we would also sit and look at things and be completely content doing just that. It was a small but fundamental difference in terms of the way we experienced it.”

Reflecting on The Arctic Circle Residency, Alexander says, “My personality is very interested in pushing into unknown territories and seeing what’s out there, especially with the Arctic. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of those three weeks and dream about going back.”


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