When writer Colin Dickey goes to the Arctic this summer, he will be bringing two pairs of long underwear, insulated boots and a whole lot of misery. The misery is not his own — he has been dying to go to the Arctic for as long as he can remember — but that of others.
“The idea is if you have things you want to get rid of — break-up letters, crappy news, a terrible health diagnosis — I will take them up to the North Pole and read them out loud to the frozen, terrifying wasteland, banishing them forever,” Dickey says.
Dickey, 35, is participating in a residency called the Arctic Circle, which takes 12 scientists and artists up to the Svalbard Peninsula, a small cluster of islands 10 degrees shy of the North Pole. In exchange for help with banishment, people are giving Dickey money to fund his trip.
A week after launching his Kickstarter campaign, he is sitting in a nice, warm café in sunny Los Feliz thinking cold thoughts. Not only will he banish things into the snow, he will preserve them. “It's the opposite,” he says, “but practically speaking it's the same thing.” He will read a piece of good news, a love letter or anything else you'd like “locked away in a frozen time capsule.”
The Svalbard Peninsula, he explains, also happens to be the location of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. “So it's both this place where things go to die and be obliterated by the wasteland, and also a place to keep things safe from harm forever.”
Dickey is an occasional lecturer at local gallery Machine Project, run by Mark Allen. He recalls, “The whole thing started when Mark said he had a bunch of work emails he'd like to get rid of.” Dickey offered to take them with him to the North Pole.
One thing led to another, and soon he and Allen had devised a fundraising schedule “with many stratified layers of interaction that all bleed into each other in a semi-poetic way.” Banishments are $25 a pop. For $60 Dickey will give you a copy of the notebook he'll be keeping on the trip. For $125, he will laminate a picture of your face and stick it in the snow, so you can attend — if only virtually — the most northerly lecture Machine Project has ever done. For $200, he will write you a personalized arctic adventure tale. “Then Mark was, like, it would be great if you then called me and read it to me as a bedtime story,” he recalls. Dickey agreed, but only if the writing and bedtime phone call could take place after the trip. “I don't want to go up there feeling as if I have to compose on deadline.”
He does not relish the idea of writing dozens of personalized Arctic adventure tales. “Like, 80 of those would be horrific.”
The logistics, for the moment, are hazy. He has no firm itinerary yet. The residency takes place aboard a 150-foot ice-class tall ship, which makes occasional stops along the peninsula. Dickey would like to read the banishment documents with as much privacy as possible, yet from what he's learned from artists who've been on the trip before, you aren't allowed to just wander off into the ice alone. “Because there are polar bears that will kill you.”
For land excursions, the people who run the residency set up a triangular area. At each corner is a guy with a rifle. “So you're allowed to be in the triangular area, but you can't go past the guys with the rifles, who are there to scare off the bears.”
Don't polar bears only eat seals? Dickey frowns and answers slowly, “I … don't … know … per se.” They seem pretty dangerous.
If he doesn't perform the banishments within the triangle of safety, he may read them off the side of the boat, if there's a storm that feels particularly dramatic. “In an ideal situation, there would be some sort of wind that I could talk or shout into. A good howling wind that can sweep the words out into the icebergs, in the vein of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,” he says.
However he winds up doing it, people will get a certificate documenting the time and GPS coordinates of their item's banishment. “So you have confirmation,” Dickey says with a chuckle. “Yeah, a lot of what Machine does, it's sort of useless, it's a little bit goofball, but it's also a different way of having an engagement with the environment and history.”
Often, emotional trauma is what people want to cast out. Dickey's friend who has Stage 2 breast cancer likely will want to banish her diagnosis, “to undo that time.”
Allen, who jump-started the project with his desire to be rid of his work emails, wants to banish the mundane. “He can handle the emotional trauma,” Dickey explains. “It's the things that suck up his day-to-day life that drive him crazy.”
What would Dickey banish? “I don't know. Maybe I would rather not say.” His wife has signed up to banish something. “Maybe it's related to me,” he speculates, then laughs. “I don't want her to tell me. I don't want to know.”
On the whole, friends' reactions to his impending Arctic voyage have been mixed. “Half the people I talk to are, like, 'You are a fool.' ” Some sought to impress him with the obvious: “You know it's cold up there. It's really cold.” Others are jealous and want to go. A few have even applied for the residency.
The money Dickey makes from his Kickstarter campaign will go toward the $5,000 residency fee — which covers the ship, the crew and the guys with rifles — plus the flight and winter gear rated for minus-10 degrees Celsius. In truth it's not the cold but paying for the cold-weather gear that kills you. The multiple layers of Gore-Tex this and wool-blend that will cost him at least $1,000.
Dickey also is working on a history of the arctic explorers of the Northwest Passage. With no specific book or essay in mind yet, he's mainly gathering disparate data “until a shape suggests itself.”
The Arctic is a dual place of forever, he notes, a place where things go to die and yet live on. “We are in a moment when our relationship with the Arctic is changing. Massive ice sheets are falling off it. Suddenly it's no longer inaccessible. It used to be a place that represented death and failure. Now it represents failure of a different sort — a global crisis, our inability to control what we've done to the world.”
He has been reading obsessively about the time when nobody had been to the North Pole and people believed there were diamonds there, and pools of geothermic water, and holes leading to a fiery pit at the center of the earth. Getting there was insanely difficult. Ships became trapped in sea ice. Sailors froze below decks or died of famine or scurvy. “When you have scurvy, your body ceases to make whatever chemical it needs to hold it together,” he says, fully warmed to his subject now. “So your teeth fall out. Your joints separate. It's a terrible, terrible way to die.”
“I've been trying to get to Antarctica for years,” Dickey admits. He's been drawn to it since childhood. Every time he meets a geologist, he offers to be their sherpa. “It's similar to the need certain people have to climb mountains. It's a thing that needs to be done. I just want to be in that environment.”
By the end of Dickey's fundraising campaign, 92 people have contributed a total of $5,761. “I'll now actually be able to buy some waterproof shoes, wool socks and other proper Arctic ware that a dumb Californian like myself doesn't normally make use of,” he tells his sponsors. “Thank you again for helping to keep me out of hypothermia.”