21 October 2010 – Advent City

Stranded on the shore opposite Longyearbyen lie a ruined few huts and an ark-like wooden boat, at ‘Advent City’ – our final landing. Another windblown stretch where perhaps the curve of the mountain to the sea is simply another convex arc defined by snow…filling in furrows, smoothing out cracks and irregularities to form the perfect arc. Sticking out from the white blur are rusted posts and bits of wood, a green, unlettered sign, and the bulky boat that looks not so much wrecked as never-floated, sitting heavily on the shore, all timber, undrifting driftwood. The spot where Rebeca decides to shoot is adjacent to a bank of deep snow: there is a clearly defined ridge above, and then the rising bank of mountains, their speckled monochrome so absolute and so familiar now.

She straps me into a leather flag-harness and hands me a large, Mexican flag on a pole, and I march up to take my place on the ridge. But the ridge, as I approach it, becomes a confusing blank: it is snow against snow and the mountains and their black occasional rocks no longer create a distinguising background. My brief is to walk along the ridge while she films, but when I step towards what I think might be the right place, I find myself thigh-deep in snow; and I’m not sure whether, if I walk along the line we see from below, there may be only snow to stand on. So I step back, and navigate by the careful plod of my weighted foot, watching for yellow grassheads poking through the snow. Nothing exists but my footfall. Rebeca whistles loudly against the wind when I enter her frame, when I reach the centre point, and when I leave the frame, stage left. I gouge deep scores in the snow with the flagpole, to mark each spot.

On the cry of ‘action’ I walk towards the centre of frame, with a look of patriotic purpose, not on my face as it’s hidden, but in the bearing of my entire, trudging body. Upright but not military, determined but not posturing – as Rebeca says, “claiming polar territory for Mexico”. The flagpole is almost torn from my hands by the wind, despite the harness. I’m breathless and aware of little else, but with one ear always turned towards R’s voice, waiting for a command.

Along the shore, Chao-Ming is pacing out a measured area and placing long red marker poles in the snow, to match the dimensions of his family’s apartment in Taiwan; Saul is trying to build an igloo from large blocks of snow; Wendy and Laurie are rolling balls of snow down the hillside, and Barbara is keeping watch with her rifle. Janet has been photographing but is now doing nothing, just absorbing the place for one last time before the ship returns. When Rebeca has finished test-filming me she takes control of the harness and flag, and I operate the camera while she performs the final take.

And when we do return, the dusk is thick like smoke and the Longyearbyen lights are blinking yellow across the fjord, below the old mining structures. As the Zodiac climbs sideways across crumpled waves a big helicopter comes out, grey on grey, to surveille the ship, our landing place, and the scatter of bodies still on shore. It blinks its lights, ominous, circling, and tilts away again into the gathering dark.

Rebeca Méndez, El Norte, 2011. Single Channel Video, 3 mins. 40 secs. Captured in high definition video at Advent City, Spitsbergen, Svalbard.