the last arctic

The Mackenzie River, the second largest river in North America and fifth largest in the world, flows north through the western Canadian arctic, and spills into the Beaufort Sea. The Mackenzie Delta, which contains nearly 25,000 lakes, has been a center of gas exploration for the past half century. After decades of negotiations, the energy industry's dream of building a pipeline that would link the arctic oil reserves to southern markets is close to becoming a reality. The proposal, as of now, is pending approval. In the meantime, the continental shelf offshore in the Beaufort Sea is slowly being leased off to various oil and gas companies.

The last arctic grew out of Louisa Conrad's desire to present the confusing multiplicity of voices and opinions on the issue of gas exploration that she encountered in the arctic. "When you're dealing with mystery," said Jean Cocteau, "stay as close to reality as possible." The reality on the ground, she discovered, concealed itself in a tangle of social issues. Contradictions prevailed. Lines of communication were flooded with information. Propaganda put out by both industry and environmentalist groups hovered around opposing poles.

After six weeks in the Arctic, Conrad found herself on a 120-mile boat ride through the Mackenzie Delta to the mouth of the Arctic Ocean, within view of the Kendall Island Bird Sanctuary: the proposed beginning of the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline. The boat, however, was stuck in miles of silt. Despite the navigational knowledge of her Inuvialuit guide, they were forced to push the boat north for over 8 hours, in search of a channel deep enough to carry them further towards the source of all the controversy. Meanwhile, the sky shifted with unsettling constancy, slowly enveloping them in every possible shade of gray. In those moments, everything confused: the lack of access; the wild labyrinth of currents; the conflicting directions of the wind; the ever-present shifting and shading of summer light. What was left was the essential irresolvability of it all. A quiet tumult of voices. White noise. Gray.

After returning from the Arctic, Conrad spent the year sifting through eclectic piles of information: industry maps, species migration routes, pipeline infrastructure, geological surveys of permafrost. The last arctic is a selection of images drawn from this archive, carefully articulated and manipulated with a direct concern for the potential for process to dictate its form; and for a quiet, poetic stance to discern more acutely amid this age of overwhelm. Perhaps the more exacting map is the one that captures the fleeting nature of truth as confined to a moment in time. A map that upon referencing, leaves one even further lost, even further confounded, and thus more actively engaged in search of.

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