Antarctic Artists and Writers Program

Willona M. Sloan

Photo credit: Homero Campos, NSF Artist: Scott Sternbach - photo courtesy National Science Foundation

Photo credit: Homero Campos, NSF Artist: Scott Sternbach - photo courtesy National Science Foundation

 “Antarctica, the continent of superlatives—driest, windiest, coldest on earth—is uniquely beautiful and awe-inspiring,” says Valentine Kass, who serves as program director of the Antarctic Artists and Writers (AAW) program.

Through the AAW program, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S.-based artists and writers can embed with scientific missions to experience the wonder of the one of the planet’s last frontiers.

Antarctica is roughly 5.4 million square miles and has an average elevation of more than 6,500 feet. The mysterious land mass is about 98 percent covered in ice. Surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the area is inhospitable and ripe for scientific discovery.

“Antarctica, with a rich history of explorations and discovery, now set aside for peace and science, is a living laboratory of international cooperation. The community of scientists and support staff who dedicate their life to work there is remarkable,” says Kass. “The science being conducted in Antarctica is critical to understanding the dynamics of our Earth, as well as important to our understanding of the universe.”

The U.S. has three stations on the continent: McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer, as well as numerous austral-summer research camps. In addition, the U.S. keeps research ships in the Southern Ocean.

Through an application process, artists and writers can propose residency projects that connect in a meaningful way to one of the current scientific expeditions. By creating collaborations among artists, writers and scientists, the program brings back images, ideas and discoveries to the rest of us.

Photo credit: Cynthia Spence - courtesy of National Science Foundation

Photo credit: Cynthia Spence - courtesy of National Science Foundation

“Applicants need to propose a work plan, which often means engaging with scientists in planning their project even before leaving home. Certainly while ‘on the ice,’ as we say, there is plenty of opportunity to interface with not only the scientists, but also support staff,” says Kass.

If an artist or writer wants to focus on a single research project, he or she can request to be made an embedded member of that project, with agreement from the leader of the scientific project, or he or she can request to work with several different research teams and sites, with agreement from those project leads. Program participants may also work independently within the confines of the station or field camp, for the most part.

“There is not a set time, number of participants or length of stay,” explains Kass. “The logistical constraints at each of the three NSF-run stations, and what the AAW program participants request to do, are the major determinants.”

Although the solitude, loneliness, quiet and blinding white landscape must get to people at times, the result can be the great stuff of art. Participant projects have resulted in exhibitions, books, films and sound recordings.

Four artists were selected to participate last year. For the coming program season—the 2018–2019 austral summer (December–February)—there will be another four participants selected. The average time on the ice is four to six weeks, but can be shorter or longer, depending upon the needs of the project.

The AAW program has been going for decades. Founded by Guy Guthridge, it began with a few artists and writers who were hosted in the late 1970s, became more developed in the 1980s and continues to thrive. There’s something special about the place.

“I first went to Antarctica in 1990, when I worked at the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago) and served as the EP of the Imax film “Antarctica.” That trip changed my understanding of planet Earth, and I was completely drawn to the place,” says Kass. “I joke to people that it changed my DNA. Since being at NSF, I have had three additional opportunities to visit the continent. It is hard to put into words—but as long as I am physically fit and have a reason to go, I embrace the opportunity. It is an honor and privilege.”

Learn more about past participants in the AAW program here

Photo credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF Artist: Lily Simonson - photo courtesy National Science Foundation

Photo credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF Artist: Lily Simonson - photo courtesy National Science Foundation

About the United States Antarctic Program

At McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica and 1,360 kilometers (850 miles) north of the South Pole, the mean annual temperature is -18°C (0°F). Temperatures may reach 8°C (46°F) in the austral summer and -50°C (-58°F) in the austral winter. The average wind is 12 knots, but winds have exceeded 100 knots.

At an elevation of 2,835 meters (9,300 feet), South Pole Station has an average monthly temperature in the austral summer of -28°C (-18°F) and -60°C (-76°F) in the austral winter. The average wind speed is 10.8 knots.

Palmer Station, on the peninsula side, is milder, with an average temperature range between 2°C (36°F) in the austral summer and -10°C (14°F) in the austral winter. The annual average wind is about 10 knots.  

Guidelines for the AAW Program

The Antarctic Artists and Writers Program supports writing and artistic projects specifically designed to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of the Antarctic and human endeavors on the southernmost continent. Priority will be given to projects that focus on interpreting and representing the scientific activities being conducted in or about the unique Antarctic region. Resulting projects must target audiences in the U.S. and be distributed or exhibited in the U.S. The program does not support site installations or performances in Antarctica.

Participants receive polar clothing for use in the field; round-trip economy air travel between a U.S. airport and a port of embarkation for the Antarctic (typically from New Zealand or Chile); travel between the embarkation point and the Antarctic; and room, board, travel and other logistical assistance while in the Antarctic or the Southern Ocean.

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Willona M. Sloan is a writer, editor and literary host.