Selvær is an island on the outer skerries of the Helgeland archipelago in North Norway. For centuries, islanders in this area have built houses for and tended to the eider ducks while they are nesting and hatching their eggs, receiving eiderdown as a gift in return. In this Nest, we focus on this interspecies collaboration and the close-knit relationships between humans and eider ducks. Ahoo Ahoo is the title of the project which is also the captivating sound of the male eider ducks. Their call engulfs the island shores like a choir on early spring mornings in the breeding season.
THE EIDERS AND HUMANS
The unique and unbroken tradition of caring for the eider ducks and collecting the down is kept alive by bird carer Eivind Hanssen on Selvær and Jann Sandøy on Sandøy, a nearby island. When the eider ducks have hatched their chicks and left their houses Eivind and Jann collect the eiderdown and give it to Gerd Jakobsen who spends her winters meticulously cleaning it by hand and making it into beautiful down duvets. For 20 years the biologist Thomas Holm Carlsen has also worked closely with the eider duck carers. Thomas monitores Eivind Hansen’s eider duck colony on Selvær by capturing, tagging, measuring and attaching loggers for the registration of winter migratory routes. Thomas has been a link between us and the community of humans and birds on the island and has generously shared his knowledge and findings with us.
Some people on the island still have a connection to the birds and know their individual sounds and movements. They greet them in spring when the migratory birds return. The birds trust the people and make their nests in their gardens, sometimes even right by the front door so that the human landlord has to use the back door during the nesting time so as not to disturb them. Something happens to people who have the forces of nature and birds so close to their lives. They become aware of the more-than-human dimension and recognise the importance of listening to the needs of other species.
This project is about a lot more than just the relationship between eiders and people. Like the mycelium network of the fungus, there is so much here that is seamlessly connected. Through the different artworks that has been made and still are in the process of being made, we are hoping to convey some of this finely tuned connection with the birds and nature as a whole.
In 2022 the artists were resident in Selvær for 10 days working with the people and the eider ducks on the island. The work continued in 2023 where we were also joined by the first volunteers of the E-state agency.
This Nest and the work that has derived from it does celebrates the beauty and love of this unique, interspecies collaboration with long cultural roots. It also dwells on the deeper learning of working WITH the birds in sustainable ways.
The result of these creative and scientific explorations and interventions, will be shown together with work from the other Nests. In 2024 exhibitions are planned at Österängens konsthall in Jönköping, Sweden and in Hanaholmen Cultural Centre in Espoo, Finland and at Terminal B, Kirkenes, Norway. The Ahoo Ahoo works by Eyes as Big as Plates is exhibited at Gyldenpris kunsthall in Bergen from 29th of February – April 2024.
The curator for this Nest is Eva Bakkeslett.
EYES AS BIG AS PLATES
The artists Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen, aka Eyes as Big as Plates, have made a body of work that engaged the local eider duck keepers on Selvær as active participants. The biologist Thomas also got endo(w)ned. The work consists of a series of large scale photographs, combined with sculptural elements and objects of significance to each participant. The bird carers have been “dressed” with materials relating to their relationship to the place and the eider ducks and photographed in places of significance to themselves and the eiders on the island. The photographs will be exhibited together with some of the eider duck houses and sound works of recorded stories told by each of the bird carers. These stories will also be available as text in a pamphlet.
Ahoo Ahoo – the film
The artist and curator Eva Bakkeslett is making a poetic documentary about the close relationship between humans and birds on the island. The film is a poetic portrait exploring the communication and collaboration between humans and eiders, and how these relationships have formed strong bonds over time affecting both birds and humans. The myriad of other wild birds and the amazing eiderdown that is gifted to its carers also have a strong presence in the film, that will be finished in spring 24.
As part of the exhibition Eva is also making an eiderdown suit, “I-The Duck”. The suit is inspired by the “sleeping pyjamas” from the Russian North pole-1 polar expedition in 1937-8, where they brought handmade pyjamas stuffed with eiderdown quilted into a silk-lining. The eiderdown is a marvellous and magical material, carefully plucked from the eider-mothers chest to line her nest. It is almost weightless but still has the ability to keep you warm even on very cold winter days. The time consuming process and the materials is integral to the work, carefully cleaning the down and dying the cotton fabric with stone lichen collected from the shores before stuffing it and sewing it into an eider suit. The suit will be an artwork in itself and will also be incorporated into place specific and meditative experiences during exhibitions.
Eva has also initiated the socially engaged project “E-state agency” that connects the eider duck carers with potential volunteers. The carers themselves are now getting old and in need of help with some of the labour intensive jobs involved in the maintenance and early preparations of the eider duck houses. The only down cleaner on the island also needs help with this very time consuming but beautiful job.
An important part of the “E-state agency” is to spread and communicate this old tradition and connect with people who are interested to come and learn and help in order to keep the tradition alive. The agency will connect, organise and potentially fund the volunteer program and also be an information base about this work. This is an ongoing project, rooted in the Conference of the Birds, but in time aiming to be an independent organisation run by the islanders. The E-state agency had its first volunteers in 2023, Jake and Nao who were both art-students at Pratts School of Arts in New York.
Participants in Ahoo Ahoo
Eva Bakkeslett (NO)
Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, curator and cultural activist. Through her work, she conveys connections between nature and culture as a living organism. Communication across species boundaries, bacterial cultures and fermentation as a process and metaphor is central to her work and disseminated in the form of socially engaged and inclusive projects. Her work provides insight into poetic, sensory and transformative processes where new perspectives are revealed and materialised. Eva is curating The Conference of the Birds with Ulrika Jansson.
Thomas Holm Carlsen (NO)
Thomas is a researcher at NIBIO at Tjøtta (Nordland) and has a degree in biology in terrestrial ecology from NTNU, Trondheim. Thomas has worked with eider ducks and the culture of collecting eider down since 2007. He has led several Nordic cooperation projects regarding the unique eider tradition and has lived and worked with eider ducks in Iceland for two years (2013-2015). From 2016 to date, he has monitored Eivind’s eider colony on Selvær by capturing, tagging, measuring and putting on loggers (GLS technology) for the registration of migratory routes in the winter.
Thomas has mapped species, vegetation types and habitat types both in Norway and in Iceland for 21 seasons. He has worked in various projects such as management plans, impact assessments, habitat type and vegetation type mapping, vulnerability analyses and monitoring. He has good species knowledge in botany, game (especially birds), insects, as well as some knowledge in moss, fungi and lichen.
Riitta Ikonen & Karoline Hjorth (FI/NO)
Hjorth & Ikonen have collaborated since 2011 on publications and projects including Eyes as Big as Plates (ongoing). Starting out in 2011 studying folkloric explanations to natural phenomenons, the ongoing collaborative series Eyes as Big as Plates has evolved into a continual search for modern human’s belonging to nature. With the goal of combining the powers of art, science and activism, the Norwegian-Finnish artist duo is increasingly portraying people who are actively engaged in the climate emergency discourse, exploring the potential of art to propel actionable system change.
Eider duck (Somateria Molissima)
The eider is a diving duck that lives in polar regions of the northern hemisphere. For centuries our species have collaborated with humans. Human archaeologists have found traces of our species in Stone Age landfills and mapped on rock carvings in northern Norway. Remains of our down have also been found as duvet filling from later times, including the Oseberg find, dated to around the year 800.
Humans help us build our nests and look after us during the nesting period. In return we generously share our soft down when our chicks have hatched. We have had this collaboration for thousands of years all along the coast of Norway, the Barents Sea and Iceland. Sadly, in the last 50 years humans have largely stopped this tradition. Because of the lack of food and undisturbed places for us to live and breed, our numbers have plummeted. We are now only 20% of the population we were 40 years ago.