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Artist focuses her camera on the Arctic north

A panoramic view of the ice-class vessel on the Arctic Circle expedition. Image by Janet Biggs.
In a scene from a previous expedition, the ice-class vessel that Méndez will travel on to the Arctic Circle is shown dwarfed by stark surroundings.  Photo by Janet Biggs.
Rebeca Méndez, a professor in the Department of Design|Media Arts, has traveled the world to film and photograph nature in its extreme forms, from the Sahara Desert in Africa to the glaciers of Iceland. In October, she will go on the adventure of a lifetime to the Arctic north, the furthest north she’s ever traveled.
She seeks these extreme weather conditions to throw herself into new settings and refresh her artistic viewpoint. “Inevitably, we become desensitized to what nature is and to its force, its power,” she said. “I need to put myself in situations where I can see anew, where I’m actually seeing something for the first time so that I can see it more precisely.”
UCLA professor Rebeca Méndez. Image by Joe La Russo.
UCLA Design|Media Arts Professor Rebeca Méndez. Photo by Joe La Russo.
For Méndez's trip with the Arctic Circle, an organization that sails to the High Arctic each year, she will join a group of about 20 artists, scientists, educators and architects aboard an ice-class ship to collaborate on projects inspired by the cold, barren landscape. They'll travel Oct. 7-24 to Svalbard, an international territory near the North Pole.
By talking with previous participants, Méndez has gathered a few tips for surviving the trip. “I already chose the center of the boat for my room so I won’t get dizzy, and I chose the bottom bunk bed so I won’t get wet from condensation dripping from the ceiling,” she said.
Other "survival" tips are more literal: On the ice, she must keep close to crew members with rifles in case of polar bears. “There are strict rules to not go beyond a certain amount of feet from the person that carries the gun.” Plus, though she is a vegan, Méndez will likely have to eat fish to keep her energy up. She admits she's looking forward to Arctic char, a tasty local fish, though.
When Méndez first learned about the residency aboard the ship, she was immediately drawn to the concept. “I fell in love with this art residency when I saw it,” she said. “I learned that Osman Khan, a UCLA alumnus from my department, went on the 2009 expedition and I contacted him” about the organization.
This residency was made possible by the California Community Foundation Mid Career Fellowship for Visual Artists and by a generous contribution by the Icelandic clothing company 66° North along with a travel grant from the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture. 
Méndez filming with her 60-year-old Bolex camera at Jökulsárlón, Iceland in 2006.
Méndez with her 60-year-old Bolex camera at Jökulsárlón, Iceland, in 2006.
The trip to the Arctic will bring her to unknown territory, something that inspires her. She grew up in Mexico camping in the jungles, and now seeks contrasts to the familiar land she came from. “I felt much entropy and chaos in the city and jungle environment,” she said of her homeland. “The jungle, the warmth — all of that is my home.” So she goes to find the unknown in places like Iceland. “This really counteracts the experience of the world I grew up in. Not that I don’t love the lusciousness of the jungle, but I think it is more familiar.”
Both of Méndez’s parents were chemical engineers, which gave her an unusually scientific outlook on art. “Every question I had as a child, my parents would bring out huge chemistry tomes and answer everything according to the physical world. I perceived the world from that viewpoint.”
The Arctic brings challenges that this UCLA artist has been preparing to face. The ship has heating to keep participants and crew warm through the -5 to -25 degrees Celsius temperatures, but the chill won't be her main problem. Her cameras can withstand cold, but not humidity. The camera lenses react to the weather much like eyeglasses that fog up with condensation, Méndez said.
She’ll be bringing two cameras on the ship: a digital Canon, and a 60-year-old Bolex camera. To protect against condensation, Méndez's Canon now has a waterproof casing, which happens to cost as much as the camera itself, and she's attempting to find a case for the Bolex camera or even fabricate one. The ship also has a “decondensation chamber,” similar to decompression chambers used for divers, to help the artists’ equipment adjust to temperature changes when returning inside the ship. The reacclimatization process might take up to a half an hour.
Méndez filming at Jökulsárlón, Iceland during an art residency at the Gunnar Gunnarson Institute in July 2008.
Méndez caught the frigid beauty of the landscape in Iceland during an art residency at the Gunnar Gunnarson Institute in July 2008.
Batteries also have a much shorter lifespan in the freezing temperatures — batteries that would normally last three to four hours only last about 10 minutes in the cold, if they work at all. “I’ll have a battery belt that I’ll wear to keep them warm,” Méndez said, and she’s even thinking about getting an electric blanket to wrap around her to keep the equipment warm. Ironically, if the batteries fail in her digital camera, Méndez will still be able to use the 60-year-old Bolex crank camera.
Méndez is also interested in creating pieces that highlight the complex geopolitics of the region where people are constantly fighting over ownership of land because the oil stakes are very high. “There’s no doubt that a political piece will come out of this,” she said.
One particular place she wants to explore in the Arctic is a seed bank located on international territory near where the ship will be sailing. It's an invaluable scientific collection of all plant seeds in the world, but could be in danger because of the complicated geopolitics in play.  “I don’t know why it is there in the Arctic, but I’m interested in getting to know more about it,” she said.
After she returns from the Arctic, her work will be added to her art series “At Any Given Moment,” an ongoing project that she started in 2006, as well as in Méndez's other art series such as "Never Happened Again," "Recurrence Relation" and "Morphogenesis." The Arctic Circle also organizes exhibitions for its residents. “They understand that this work has to make it in the world, so they’re very active with helping you connect with exhibition space,” she said. “Their goal is to communicate to the world about this endangered land.”
Méndez will continue her work exploring the nature of matter in a future collaboration with Bjorn Stevens, UCLA professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, for a climatologic study in Barbados. She’ll also collaborate with her husband, Adam Eeuwens, on a project tracking the path of the Arctic tern, which sees the most light of all birds in the world.
See Méndez's video art installations at her Vimeo site and watch Méndez's video artworks shot from 2006-09 from her series "Never Happened Again" on her Bolex camera below:
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