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Reflections on Mortality From a Land of Ice and Snow | The Nation

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Reflections on Mortality From a Land of Ice and Snow

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About the Author

DJ Spooky
DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller), a hip-hop musician, turntablist, producer, author, professor, philosopher and artist, is...


As a composer and artist, I’m always searching for ways to open up new paths of looking at the world. For me, art reveals the imagination as an unruly, open text—one that embraces interpretation and revision. 

At this complex juncture of the twenty-first century, Antarctica evokes many things as a postmodern reflection of what ails humanity. It’s truly a place of ice. Antarctica begins at the edges with ice that has moved outward; its margins are shrouded with fragments of ice in the ocean, and is altogether nearly the size of the Australian continent. Between those extremes, it’s a place of concentric ice shells, with an outer rim of icebergs. I went to Antarctica to consider a new approach in creating art and music compositions; I left thinking about the way human mortality makes us such fragile reflections of the natural world, which we have the hubris to think we can change.

With some scientists speculating that we’ve entered what’s being called the anthropocene era, Antarctica is a distillation of almost every aspect of human activity. On the outskirts of the continent, plastic wrappers from far-off places like Canada end up entombed in ice. Empty beer bottles from Brazil lie next to the bones of sea animals that died onshore, frozen in place for eons. 

It’s a paradox of time and space to think that the ice can actually contain fragments of volcanic activity from millions of years ago. There is something eerily disquieting about a remote and deeply ancient place where humanity isn’t capable of enduring long. I was thinking about all of this and the idea that music can reframe the climate change “debate” (most  environmental scientists concur: climate change is happening) in a way that wouldn’t let right-wing ideologues shout down the facts with a cacophony of lies and distortions. By approaching the topic from the point of view of the arts, I wanted to show that it left open the idea of interpretation—and above all, of asking questions of the landscape that can never be answered.

When I looked at the incredible beauty of Antarctica’s ice landscapes, what struck me was how alien human beings seemed in this place. No animals were scared of us; they were surprised we were there at all. I recognized that this continent needs to be preserved. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 has kept the worst despoilers away and made Antarctica a place of true science. It was up to me to figure out the Sphinx-like landscape and see how to put it in compositional form. It’s a puzzle I’m still playing over in my mind.

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