CLUI Exhibits in Greenland
A NEW CLUI EXHIBIT, CALLED Ultima Thule, was shown at the Greenland National Museum and Archives, April 21-May 14, 2006, in Nuuk, the largest town in Greenland. The exhibit was commissioned by NIFCA, the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art, and was part of a larger, multi site exhibiton held in Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Finland. Ultima Thule was later shown at CLUI in Los Angeles.
Ultima Thule was about a remarkably isolated American outpost at the top of the world, the largest northernmost community on the planet, a remote electronic American eyeball, staring out into space. Thule is at the terrestrial edge of communication, perception and imagination.
Ultima Thule showed the two primary electromagnetic facilities at Thule, the radar station and the satellite control station, critical links in America’s global surveillance and control system. The sites were depicted through fixed video, shot on site by the CLUI in March, 2006. The effect was to show how the two facilities, ever vigilant, watch and radiate in their frozen nests, continuously, operating on frequencies outside the visible spectrum, out of sight of the world, yet straining to see in the minutest way over great distances, and communicating their vision, to a limited but all important audience, through tremendous effort and bandwidth.
Thule is home to 1,100 people, all of whom live and work at the base. This population includes 600 Danes working for Greenland Contractors, the company that operates the base for the U.S. military, as well as other civilian contractors, and 120 U.S. military personnel, who run the base. Built in 1951 as a refueling station for American bombers, the base exists today to support two radar and telemetry stations, established in the early 1960’s, at separate locations a few miles from the main base, and both expanded and metamorphosed by evolutions in technology.
The word “Thule” originally refers to an imaginary place on the edge of civilization, the “northernmost habitable land.” Ultima Thule was a place thought to be even beyond that, according to the musings of the 4th century geographer Pytheas - the northernmost place. Today, no longer simply mythological and hypothetical, Thule is a physical area, the American outpost on the northwestern corner of Greenland, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Greenland, the world’s largest island, is part of Kingdom of Denmark, but has had home rule status since 1979 (though not in foreign affairs). 80% of Greenland is a continuous ice sheet, up to 16,000 feet thick, sitting on top of the island. The population is 56,000 nationwide, with nearly everyone living on the thin strip between the land and the ice around the southern edge.
Up north, the communities are mostly small, and widely separated, Inuit, military, and scientific outposts. Qaanaak is the world’s northernmost municipality, a community of around 600 Inuit hunters. They used to live at Dundas, next to the present Thule Airbase. When the base expanded in 1953, the native town was evacuated by the Americans, and the residents were relocated to a new community, Qaanaak, in a bay 60 miles north. Though Qaanaak is sometimes referred to as Thule, Thule was the name given to their original community by the explorer Knud Rasmussen, who established a small trading post, mission, and base of arctic exploration there. The American base adopted the name officially in 1963.
During WWII, the USA took over the defense of Greenland from the Danish, as Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and Greenland had a number of important weather stations on it (the day of the D-Day landing, for example, was determined by weather forecasts based on Greenlandic weather information). After the war, the Americans decided to build a base at Thule, to be able to fly nuclear bombs into Russia (from Thule, Moscow was within the range of U.S. bombers at that time). In 1951, Operation Blue Jay commenced, in secret, to build the base. That spring, an armada of 82 ships, loaded with prefabricated buildings, equipment, and construction materials came up from Norfolk, Virginia. 10,000 people were involved in construction, which continued nonstop for 104 days, until the harbor iced in. But by then, much of the base was built, and the 287 square mile Thule Defense Area was established, making this area of Greenland part of the American sphere.
For the first decade of its existence, Thule continued to grow. Its main function was as a gas station, to supply fuel to U.S. Strategic Air Command aircraft. It had the military’s largest fuel tank farm (100 million gallon capacity). It also had a fighter interceptor squadron, and a ring of Nike missiles to protect the base. At its peak, in 1961, the base was home for 10,000 people. With the improvement in aircraft range, aerial refueling techniques, and the invention of intercontinental ballisitic missiles, the base’s function officially changed from offense to defense. The BMEWS radar array was built, a giant ear designed by RCA, plugged into the NORAD bunker in Colorado, by an elaborate network of communication relay points.
With the decrease in aircraft activity, the base population shrank, though it still was—and is—an important airport for military and scientific missions in the arctic. In 1968, it had a population of 3,370, and loaded bombers were still flying around the edges of the Soviet Union 24/7. That year, a B-52, based out of Plattsburg New York, crashed into Thule’s frozen bay with four nuclear bombs on board. The clean up involved moving tons of debris contaminated with radioactivity (much of which ended up at the Nevada Test Site). One bomb is said to have never been recovered from the ocean floor. This event, and a few other “Broken Arrow” incidents, helped put an end to the continuous Airborne Alert flights.
But it was the move of the battlefield to space, through the use of ICBMs and satellites, that changed Thule to the way it is now. Though Thule exists today primarily to support the satellite control station and the space radar array, Thule’s 10,000 foot runway is used as a base for arctic training, research, and scientific programs, and hosts a total of 2,600 flights a year. Thule is the supply base for even more remote facilities, like Alert, 650 miles away, a radio listening post operated by the Canadian military that is the northernmost continuously occupied place in the world.
Nearly all the buildings in use at Thule were built as part of the original base in the 1950s. These buildings were made from Plymouth Panels and Clements Panels, prefabricated insulated sections that bolted together, forming buildings that function like walk in freezers in reverse (keeping the cold out). The building’s are elevated above the ground to keep them from melting the permafrost which is less than a foot thick. If the ground melted, the buildings foundations would collapse. In many cases buildings have pipes and vents forcing air to circulate under them to dissipate the building’s heat.
The entire base, from the electrical plant to the heat plants, runs on J-8 jet fuel. In the winter, total darkness lasts for over 90 days, and the temperature sinks to -40 F. In the winter, vehicles used to shuttle people from building to building leave their engines running continuously. Aircraft bring in supplies and people, with regular weekly and monthly flights from Copenhagen and Baltimore. In the summer, the northernmost deepwater port in the world, at Thule, is free of ice for a couple of months, and supply ships come in. The 1,000 foot pier at the port is made of sunken barges, and is locked in the ice the rest of the time.
There are a few roads that extend beyond the base to remote communication sites, in use and historic, and recreational areas. The furthest is an old U.S. Coast Guard Loran station, 32 miles away. Beyond that, there are no roads connecting Thule to other places, and these roads are open only in the summer. The roads leading to regularly visited places, like BMEWS and Det 3, and the dump, have storm shelters every mile or so, where the heater (powered by Jet 8) is left on continuously, in case someone is stranded by a sudden storm on their way to or from work. Inside each shelter are two beds, some food, a shovel, a phone, and a bible. ♦
The CLUI exhibit Ultima Thule, co-sponsored by the Center’s Polar Program, was part of the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art (NIFCA)’s multi-site exhibition called Rethinking Nordic Colonialism, which was organized by Kuratorisk Aktion, out of Berlin and Copenhagen. NIFCA, a remarkable organization that supported creative projects throughout the world’s arctic region, is now, unfortunately, defunct.