Arctic Utopia: An Interview with Marek Ranis

In celebration of McColl Center for Art + Innovation’s 15th Anniversary, a major exhibition of mixed media sculptures, videos, and site-specific installations will be presented by 1999 McColl Center Alumnus Marek Ranis. His studio and social practice exemplify the Center’s commitment to advancing artists and community. Arctic Utopia investigates, through a historical framework, how climate change influences humanity and interprets the complex social and political consequences of this dynamic shift. Through an examination of indigenous cultures, Ranis explores how geographic displacement becomes increasingly critical to their existence. 

You moved to the United States in 1997, from your native Wroclaw, Poland, Charlotte’s sister city. You were among the first nine Artists-in-Residence in fall of 1999. How did this opportunity impact your career? 

Marek Ranis: I was in the first group of Affiliate Artists, a program that continues to benefit regional artists who have full access to the Center’s facilities and other Artists-in-Residence from across the country and around the world. Until this two-year opportunity, I worked as an environmental artist, creating large-scale installations on location. So, in fact, this was the first time in my early professional career that I had an opportunity to focus on studio projects, in addition to having the time and space for uninterrupted, long-term artistic research. Those two years were extremely productive, I was building new bodies of work, experimenting and creating connections to a local and national art community in my new home. 

We–the artists–were so privileged to be invited to a brand new, state-of-the-art facility. Now, looking back, I cannot imagine a better start to my professional life in my new country. It was an empowering and inspiring experience allowing me to quickly establish myself as an artist in a very supportive and welcoming environment. 

In what ways has the Center informed the dialogue around contemporary art and community engagement? 

In 1997 when my wife Maja [Godlewska] and I moved to Charlotte, there were still quite limited opportunities to see or to show contemporary art here. The Center quickly became a place to encounter the best local, national, and international artists, not only to view their work but also watch them develop it. The power of contemporary art is that it has the ability to engage us in a meaningful dialogue with our contemporary experience. 

Charlotte is a growing, dynamic city, which has been experiencing a dramatic change, in this way it has been a perfect urban laboratory for artists. Now it is almost impossible to imagine this city’s cultural scene without the Center. For me as an artist and art educator, McColl Center’s programming is a very important resource. It is a place where students can not only see new art, but also interact with the artists. 

You are now an Assistant Professor of Sculpture at UNC Charlotte. How does your role as an educator inform your own practice? 

Art has a tremendous power of emancipation. As artists, we are life-long students, an art school is just the beginning of a never-ending process. I am a student myself. I do not see that much difference between my students’ creative struggle and my own practice. I learn and I teach at the same time. My relevance in the classroom studio is not only built on my knowledge but also on my own artistic experience. I cannot imagine teaching without being active as an artist. My practice constantly evolves on both a conceptual and formal level; this I believe also keeps me relevant in the classroom. 

I dislike repetition or any kind of routine. I expect from my students experimentation and risk-taking, thus putting oneself as an artist in a vulnerable position. I expect the same from myself. 

You recently worked at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska through the Center’s partnership with the Rasmuson Foundation Artist Residency Program. How did that experience shape this new exhibition Arctic Utopia

The concept of Arctic Utopia was developed during my two-month stay at the Anchorage Museum. Research travels in the Arctic and Iceland inform and inspire my new body of work. This opportunity provided a new way of thinking about climate change in the context of the ongoing industrial development in the Arctic vis-a-vis an anthropology of climate change and indigenous populations of the Arctic Circle. Those two months were extremely productive and crucial in the development of new ideas and new projects, including this show. Time and research at the Anchorage Museum will impact my practice for the next few years; I am already involved in two long-term collaborative art projects in Alaska. Although my work during the last ten years has been focused on climate, a new body of work presented at the Center is for me a beginning of a new artistic investigation. 

Arctic Utopia (installation view) at McColl Center for Art + Innovation (Photo: McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

Why the title Arctic Utopia

About 20 percent of remaining oil and gas resources are in the Arctic. As a direct result of climate change we (humans) are gaining access to the same energy sources that caused the current phenomenon (global warming). The Arctic region is facing a massive change, from offshore drilling to opening new shipping routes. The environmental impact on a local and global scale is and will be tremendous. Yet, we can hear from large global corporations that this colonization of the region in search for energy will be better, safer, and altogether flawless unlike anything we have seen since Columbus left Europe. 

The Arctic is romanticized as one of the last pristine and undeveloped regions, but is no longer a utopian mystery land. It has become a battleground for national and corporate interests. 

Your earlier work documented the direct environmental effects of climate change on the Arctic landscape. Your current inquiry now focuses on global populations you refer to as “climate displaced communities.” Tell us more about this. 

This is a growing phenomenon around the world. In fact, a number of communities in Alaska are already facing this problem. They will have to relocate to higher ground due to rising water levels and erosion of coastlines or riverbanks. This is just the beginning of this global trend which will not only impact people living in the coastal areas, but also people who for many other climate related reasons will not be able to sustain their lives in their current location. 

When we talk about climate change and its impact, we are so often focusing on melting glaciers or migration of the white bear. Over 20 years ago, the Pentagon concluded that unrest caused by climate change might be the largest security risk we will face in this century. After ten years of investigating this subject I am no longer interested in convincing people about melting glaciers or in romanticizing the disappearing Arctic ice shelf. I believe that in the span of two generations we will experience a dramatic change in the environment, including geopolitical and economic shifts never before witnessed. Large-scale human migrations or wars caused by changing environment and changing resources are among the critical issues. 

Commercial and political interests have long ravaged the environment and indigenous cultures. From a historic context, how have these forces evolved over time? 

The history of human civilization is the history of colonialism (well, we are in North America), we have had a constant desire for growth, access to more land, more resources, developing bigger markets or areas of influence. We are told that in order to survive we have to grow. Western civilization is built on this premise and we are still subscribing to this late capitalist model. The majority of indigenous cultures already fell victim to our commercial and political desires. The latest development in the Arctic is just the pinnacle of this philosophy. Of course now we are much more aware of those mechanisms and we do carry this post-colonial guilt but this is not preventing us from applying the same model––for example, to energy policy. 

The representatives of indigenous cultures are now invited to many national and international forums (United Nations or Arctic Council) to present their case, often to large political or commercial interests; yet they are still not powerful enough to fully control their destiny. We are definitely better at observing and appreciating our past and present actions. One could call it “Imperial Nostalgia” or “Conqueror Grief” over destroyed environments or cultures; all of us liberals can freely exercise this notion. 

You refer to yourself as a nomadic artist. How does this inform your studio practice? 

My studio practice is a reflection of my nomadic approach to making art. And that is in terms of form and content. I recognize this fluidity as a principal freedom of art making and being an artist. I aspire not to feel attached to any location, culture or point of view, which would or should determine my opinion. I refuse to be static and to be determined by my personal circumstances (gender, race, cultural background etc.).