Caro Meets Spoken Word Interview Theatre Interview

Chris Dobrowolski: Antarctica

By | Published on Thursday 28 April 2016


If you are looking for some entertainment that’s a little bit different this coming week, then I would recommend heading over to Shoreditch Town Hall to see Chris Dobrowolski. His latest piece, ‘Antarctica’, in which he talks to audiences about his work as an artist in residence down at the southern pole (I know!), promises to be a funny, informative experience.

After coming across his impressive stuff up at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago, I wanted to find out more about this new show, how Dobrowolski ended up at the bottom of the world, and what sort of things happened when he got there.

CM: Tell us about ‘Antarctica’ – what would you describe it as? Is it a performance? A lecture? Story-telling?
CD: The technical definition is ‘a performance lecture’. which always sounds a bit naff but it is ‘story-telling’ too. My favourite way of describing it (..and I’ve been told ‘not’ to describe like this by promoters because it makes it sound really rubbish) is: ‘pointing at pictures with a stick’!

I do point at pictures with a stick, but I’m very good at it.

CM: What sort of content should we expect?
CD: I explore the ‘other worldliness’ of the Antarctic and use it as a vehicle to question notions of real and unreal.

CM: How did you end up going to Antarctica? What made you want to go?
CD: I work with a college lecturer who does personnel development workshops in business. He often brings unexpected people into businesses on their training/ personnel development days to instigate challenging ideas. Sometimes he brings actors to do role play, sometimes he brings a samba drumming instructor to teach them about energy and excitement. Sometimes he turns up with me.

I’m part of a workshop called ‘re-evaluating success’. His intro goes like this. “This is Chris, he’s an artist, but he’s also the case study for today’s workshop, ‘re-evaluating success’, because as well as being an artist he’s also a failure”.

I carved out a small career as a professional failure, and when I saw the advert for artists and writers in Antarctica I thought it was perfect. Captain Scott had a disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole first, Shackleton’s Antarctic crossing was a heroic fiasco. We have been warned for decades that unless we do something about the environment the place will melt and flood most of the planet. It is an entire continent synonymous with losers and failure and I thought …”YES! I’m your man”!

CM: You took some interesting photo-props with you. Why the plastic penguins and action men?
CD: The Antarctic has a way of authenticating the most banal of objects. Someone told me that when you come back you have to give back all the clothes you get issued with at British Antarctic Survey but they let you keep your government issue underpants. Sometimes these find their way onto eBay because they are ‘Genuine been to the Antarctic pants’. Suddenly they have a sort of super real quality.

Part of project involved taking ‘pretend’ Antarctic objects – Like toy plastic penguins to the ‘real’ Antarctic. I photographed them there, then brought them back, so that they became ‘real’ pretend Antarctic objects.

The photographs and objects were later used in a series of art works.

CM: What was it like living with a small group of people in such an isolated place?
CD: The Antarctic is full of contradictions. One of them is that although it is probably one of the most isolated places on the planet you are never alone. This is mainly for practical and safety reasons but does lead to some challenging situations. Artists are naturally, by definition, egocentric, and often voyeurs looking in on the world. In the Antarctic ‘team work’ is essential and the norm. I found myself living an almost consciously schizophrenic existence. As everyone is there for their clearly defined role and skill set e.g.- the doctor; the mechanic; the base commander- you know you are the only arty person for thousands of miles.

CM: Did the cold get to you?
CD: Sometimes but not often. Rothera- the main British Base in Antarctica at a latitude of 67 degrees is surprisingly far North. To give you a comparison the Shetland islands are 60 degree latitude but obviously in the Northern hemisphere. It was also the Antarctic summer with 24 hour sunlight.

It did get colder the further south I went, and coldest temperature I experienced was -27, which does seem very cold, but you can experience that in certain parts of Europe. I was, however, in a tent…

CM: Did anything scary happen?
CD: I had to help push over 50 oil drums down a jetty that was full of angry male fur seals. Their bite won’t kill you, but it will go septic. They wouldn’t move so we had to slalom our way down the jetty sometimes hiding behind the barrel so as not be bitten. When they rear up they are crotch height. It is advisable to wear your pants and trousers as low as possible so that if the worst happens they bite cloth.

CM: What was the best thing about your experiences out there, and the worst?
CD: I spent many weeks on the way there in my cabin being seasick. It was not only uncomfortable, it was also demoralising because you feel isolated and a failure. Consequently the success of my project was the best thing for me.

I had to make a sledge out of gold picture frames and take it on a journey. It wasn’t straightforward, but with some help it was finished and it worked.

It’s difficult to do art in some else’s work place, especially when in essence everyone else is trying to save the planet. I’m not sure if the benefits of an artist in residence in the Antarctic had been discussed or agreed upon before my arrival, and I’m not entirely sure I know what they are myself.

When it came time try out the sledge, I was taken to a more remote base further south. Whilst there, I was briefly cut off before coming back late and missing my flight back to the Falklands and the UK. Being cut off like that was quite common, so in a sense it was to be expected, but they still let me go. I think they were as curious as I was as to whether it would work or not. Someone had decided it was worth the risk knowing I might miss my flight and I was allowed to stay another two weeks. It was intended as a gift and I felt as if I had been accepted.

CM: What adventure do you have planned next?
CD: I’m doing a short residency in a transport museum in Coventry and I’ve been invited back to Hull where I did my art degree to do something for the city of culture year. I didn’t know what I will do for either project as yet.

See just how good Chris Dobrowolski is at pointing at pictures with a stick when he performs Antarctica at Shoreditch Town Hall from 4-6 May. See the venue website here to book your tickets.

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Photo: Helen Murray