Designers go North (travel notes)

Hello everybody,

Glad to be here again in order to share my impressions and reflections on a recent fieldtrip to Northern Lapland (the summer part can be found here: https://arcticanthropology.org/2012/09/07/arctic-design-field-thoughts-and-questions/). This time it was a month-long travel between Finland, Sweden and Norway (as my Sami friends nicely say – the United States of Sápmi).

This trip was full of ‘first time’ experiences, such as spotting Northern Lights and wandering in winter tundra, driving a snowmobile and testing Sámi funky-looking reindeer boots (now I have my own pair!), meeting reindeers ‘in person’ and watching traditional way of slaughtering (cruel? Not at all, very efficient)…

Now looking backwards, I can even say that this trip was my most insightful fieldwork so far: it was full of unique ‘breathtaking moments of discovery’!

In brief, I can divide those moments into three groups:

–       those related to nature;

–       technology-related; and even

–       spiritual.

For the first group, I should probably talk about incredible beauty of Aurora Borealis, how I stiffened in astonishment, in -20C outside, without a jacket and surprisingly didn’t feel cold at all…  But it was winter tundra that impressed me much more: not because of its attractiveness, but vice versa. In my first opinion, it was perhaps one of the most boring landscapes I’ve ever seen. That is why I was so confused by the question of my Sámi friend, whether I could find my way back from here (Sámi people have amazing and peculiar sense of humor, by the way): “Of course not, since everything looks similar, in any direction!”

It was a sincere fascination that came after a couple of days – fascination with people who can see the beauty of these surroundings, who do not just accept this environment, but also interact with it: by talking, reading the signs, getting relaxed, etc.

However, finally, we – the tundra and me – have found our common language and, I think, have understood each other:

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The second point in my ‘wow-list’ relates to technologies, both traditional and modern. For the first example, let’s have a look at traditional reindeer boots:

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This small piece of outfit contains a great variety of technologies that altogether facilitate a human performance in extreme environment. For now, let’s talk only about funny bent tips. They are well known as ski-hooks, but this one function is just a ‘tip of the iceberg’. In fact, this particular shape is incredibly perfect for keeping toes warm, because it constitutes an internal ‘extra-storage’ of warm air. Even though it might sound quite obvious, it can hardly be figured out and appreciated from looking at the shape, without trying it. When I did my spontaneous ‘field test’, the first impression was a deep astonishment: my feet were warm, and it was such an unusual feeling! It has never happened to me in winter before, I’m always freezing immediately after going out, in spite of any kind of fancy ‘hi-tech’ boots I have ever tried.

This example is just yet another confirmation that ‘traditional technologies’ are far from being simple, primitive, and so on; also their implications cannot be grasped ‘in a glance’. 

These are not boots, they’re my feet. This is not a knife, it’s my sixth finger… Every thing you carry onto your body is a part of your survival kit. (quotes from interviews)

The same about the hay filling: I tried myself several types of insoles and none of them worked as perfect as hay. Hey, Gore-tex and other hi-tech stuff, sorry to tell, but you failed! The real Arctic hi-tech has been born and developed ‘in situ’ thousands years ago, and our modern industry is still far away from this level.

Another example relates to ways of using modern technology. I found out that local appropriation of snowmobiles among Sámi is nowadays a product of ‘beyond design’ thinking: the owners literally separate form and function by detaching the original fancy surface (the engine hood, for example) and replacing it with a handmade cover. The reason for such actions is simply practical: plastic parts are easy to damage during intensive and ‘inappropriate’ usage for reindeer herding. When the one-year guarantee is expired, the owner puts the original cover back, so it is easy to sell the machine and buy a new one, with more advanced technical characteristics.

Generally, it is a kind of ‘x-ray look’ at machines:

I am neither happy with the existing form, nor need a new one. The technology itself is far from being perfect, so what’s the point to conceal it with different shapes? (quotes from interviews)

[Unfortunately I cannot show any pictures here at the moment]

But the most important thing I discovered was that special northern ‘boevoi dukh’ (a competitive spirit, which Florian Stammler mentions quite often when he talks about Nenets people): I found it in Kautokeino. Here the Sámi culture is so strong and lively, that one immediately gets inspired. It was the first time for me abroad, when this spirit was so unmistakable and explicit: while talking, spending time with locals I could easily recognize those adventurous people who went with Fridtjof Nansen to the Greenland Icecap, who spread reindeer herding to Alaska and Canada, who still follow their animals, as thousands of years ago, no matter what other things they do for living nowadays…

I do not mean, however, that in other places of Sápmi people are ‘less Sámi’: the  form of expression is just different. I could compare it to a water flow: at some point it might be a plains river, a quiet lake, but here it’s a waterfall or a fountain… It should be something in the air of Kautokeino!

Instead of conclusion, let me share a quick sketch of ‘peaceful reindeer life’…

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by Svetlana Usenyuk