Dr William Clark Souter, an ophthalmic surgeon at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, served as ship’s surgeon on the whaling vessel Terra Nova at the start of the last century. The Terra Nova was sent south in 1903 to rescue the stranded Captain Scott, ice bound in his ship Discovery off the coast of Antarctica. Souter took a series of amateur photographs of the rescue, but these were to lie undiscovered among his personal papers for a hundred years. These photographs, and the hundred year span of time that they reach back across, were the starting point for FOUND’s latest installation, at the Suttie Arts Space in Aberdeen.
The 100 years between Souter’s photographs being taken and them being uncovered have seen a remarkable change in the way we think about exploration and the idea of discovering a terra nova or “new land”. Not long after Souter’s trip, the great age of the Victorian explorer came to an end. The Antarctic silence was broken forever. Captured images allowed photographers to stake a claim to the land more effectively than planting a flag, but simultaneously eroded its mystique.
Half a century later in 1957, a new era of grand exploration was initiated with the start of the space race. Ultimately, photographs allowed US astronauts to lay claim to conquering the moon a little over a decade later. However, despite their beauty it was the existence of photographs of the lunar surface that ultimately led to the loss of public interest in continued human exploration of space. What more was there once we had seen people walk on the moon? Once again, the sublime quickly becomes mundane.
Six years before Souter’s photographs were uncovered, a team of Russian scientists started drilling down through the Antarctic ice over Lake Vostok, an underground lake 60 degrees west of where the Discovery was ice bound a century earlier. Their aim was to prepare for possible missions to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. In early 2015, having penetrated over two miles of ice, the scientists retrieved a litre of fresh water that had been isolated from the rest of the planet for up to 25 million years. This was the year that Antarctica’s, perhaps the world’s, last great wilderness succumbed.
Around the same time, in 2007 the internet search giant, Google, launched Street View, a technology allowing users to explore city centres virtually through the use of images captured from a special fleet of camera cars. In 2013 the company rolled-out the use of a backpack camera to allow imagery to be captured on foot. As a result, Street View now extends to Antarctica. You can tread the same paths that Scott and Souter did, look out across the bay that the Discovery was stranded in, and walk up to within sight of the slopes of Mount Erebus, all with 360 degree views and high definition colour. What’s startling is how quickly this becomes banal. There are a lot of muddy tracks, piles of industrial equipment and low-rise buildings scattered around. Wander about a bit and you might come across the hut that Scott built while his ship was locked in ice, although you’ll find it somewhat lost amongst the grubby clutter of the landscape.
So, at the end of the century since Souter’s trip, we have one of the world’s largest companies making the biggest land-grab of them all, photographing the planet from every conceivable angle, allowing us all to be armchair explorers. This, more than anything, instills in us the troubling notion that there is nothing anymore that remains unknown.
The sound of this quadraphonic installation is partly shaped by Souter’s photographs and images taken from Google Street View cameras. Purpose built software scans the horizon of these images and uses the data within to trigger sounds. New abstracted images are created as a side-effect of the scanning process and these are displayed as a static “snapshots” on the gallery walls, and as a moving image of the data that the installation is processing in real time.