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The Journey Embassy


Land grab

Alex Hartley on Nyskjaeret, 2004

In 2004, when Alex Hartley first stood on the land that was to become Nyskjaeret, he wrote a message, claiming the island as his. His blog records, “We surveyed the island taking longitude and latitude readings for all features and extremities. A cairn was built and in the age old style, a claim note was placed inside a tin-can and this in turn was inserted into the cairn. The note stated in both English and Norwegian notice of our claim on the newly revealed land. Upon our return to the mainland our new island will be charted and I will submit it for inclusion in all subsequent maps. The land will be named and registered. The name has not yet been finalised, but I feel the most obvious Alex HartleyLand may cause some ill feelings amongst my fellow crew members.

In 2011, the expedition team uncovered the can, which disintegrated as it was handled, and they replaced the message along with a new one which recorded the names of all in the expedition team.  These were placed inside a new can and the cairn was rebuilt around it.

Alex Hartley building stone cairn, 2004

Alex’s act of claiming the land and his subsequent negotiations replayed those of explorers, miners, invaders, liberators who have, for centuries, made claims on territory. This is especially true of claims on land where the conditions make it difficult, or impossible, to settle. Alex built a cairn and left a discreet message. Others faced with a similar challenge, have planted flags.

In 2007, veteran Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov used a mini-sub to descend to the seabed below the North Pole. Once there, he planted a titanium Russian flag: a symbolic act, but one nonetheless a provocative one that signaled Russia’s intentions to claim a large proportion of the Arctic, and the associated mining and drilling rights.

The United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea states that the five nations on the Arctic Ocean [Russia, Norway, Canada, the United States (through Alaska) and Denmark (through Greenland)] may operate only within 200 miles of their territorial waters. But under the treaty, the five nations are allowed to file claims to a UN commission for greater territory if they can prove that their continental shelves are geographically linked to the Arctic seabed. Russia argues that the underwater Lomonosov ridge was not merely a chain of mountains in international waters but was actually an extension of Siberia’s continental shelf. With this as evidence, Chilingarov set off on his mission to plant the Russian flag.

Jim Irwin salutes the US flag, the Moon, 1971

Such claims on Arctic territory are likely to become more fiercely contested as climate change results in greater proportions of the Arctic becoming accessible as the ice cap melts. Some estimates state that a quarter of the world's remaining oil is in the Arctic.

Alex Hartley’s original claim for the island was not upheld by the Governor of Svalbard and the Norwegian Government, however permission to remove materials from the newly named Nyskjaeret to create the sculpture of Nowhereisland was granted.

In an article on ‘Islands and the Law’, Professor Christine Duffy Burnett describes how The Guano Islands Act of 1856 has allowed remote islands to be declared off-shore colonial possessions of distant metropolitan powers. Treated as way stations, outposts, and resupply harbours, these outre-mer acquisitions tended to be spatially and legally marginal, regardless of their economic importance.

“When it was discovered in the mid nineteenth century that the Guano mountains made of bird droppings piled up on remote sea islands made very effective fertilizer, such places and their 'resources' became much sought-after. The price rocketed and the US Government passes a law that any US citizen can claim such places for themselves, as long as "these islands 'appertain' to the United States as 'possessions'.

Guano being collected, Chincha Islands, Peru, c.1875

"Burnett argues that, "We tend to think of empires in expansive terms, as projecting across space, but in fact, as far as the law is concerned, the projection of imperial power has frequently traded on the careful refusal to extend sovereignty, since this often comes with unpleasant obligations". In the nineteenth century, these Guano islands were, Burnett argues, the testing ground for an empire's new expansionist agenda and that out-of-the-way islands, that no one knows much about, make an ideal place to start the test.”

Read the article from Cabinet Magazine, Issue 38: Islands (Summer 2010) here

The Nations and States section also contains information related to this, concerning the modern-day potential for islands to be declared micronations.


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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.