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We have interviewed researcher Victoria Harnesk about her participation in the artistic research project DATA FREE ZONE SWE/SÁPMI_1, developed by the artist duo iida-ssi in collaboration with Konstmuseet i Norr. This project was the starting point for the exhibition Vanishing points: folding a view that runs from 12th May to 10th September at Konstmuseet i Norr.

The roughly 200 km+ distance between lakes Gátterjávri and Ikkesjávrre in Norrbotten/Sápmi is one of the largest areas in Europe without mobile coverage. Despite the detailed local toponymy of both valleys and mountain peaks, the area is sparsely described in official maps.

What part did you play in this project?
My research contributes to the artists' vision of investigating data that may be in danger of being lost in a data free zone. My goal has been to complement this work with a reflection on history and the present. To fill the gap between the white spots on Google Maps and the image of adventure that exists in parallel. I have spoken to tradition bearers and dug into archives, records, literature, and maps. I have also taken into account what people that come here usually know and expect of the area.

The geographic focus for DATA FREE ZONE SWE/SÁPMI_1 is an area in Sápmi situated between lakes Gátterjávri and Ikkesjávrre. What is your relationship with the area?
A small part of that area, Änonjálmme, is my home district. I have basic knowledge of its history, my own experiences, and my reflections. Today's Áhkájávrre has undergone dramatic changes during the course of the last century. People, animals, and nature here have become secondary in relation to industry. It's not easy to describe the submerged cultural environments below the surface of the reservoirs that were created. That is quite thought-provoking.

The art project investigates one of Europe's largest areas without mobile phone coverage, that is depicted on maps as a relatively unspoiled wilderness. How has this information vacuum been created and how has it affected the world's perception of the area?
What we see reflects the development of society in a broader context. Sámi and local knowledge have had to give way to more affluent people who have documented and started using these areas for their own adventures, research, tourism, or industry. Another reason for the vacuum is the information structures: For example, Google Maps' structures show cities' public transportation, ATMs, restaurants, and pharmacies. Mountain regions are quite empty in this respect.

The Sámi names for mountains and watercourses can now be found on Lantmäteriet's (the Swedish Land Survey) mountain maps. What are the benefits of using Sámi toponomy in maps?
Sámi toponyms are thousands of years old and can provide crucial information for those who need to farm, find reindeer pastures, or travel. Toponyms and the alphabet give character; personally I think that signage in local languages constitutes a significant part of the experience when travelling.

In recent years, interest in Sámi literature, art, music and film has grown. What do you think is the reason for many people to now become aware of a people and a culture that have existed for thousands of years?
The fact that Sámi artists have won prestigious national and international awards has played a significant role. The works are of high quality, and they explore Swedish history, people's identity, and the contemporary society. The Sámi styles of art are beautiful and approach sustainability in a perfectly natural way.

The artist duo iida-ssi comes from Åland. Is an outside perspective necessary to navigate the sensitive issues involved in this project?
The fact that the artists had no personal experience of the area from the beginning, led to many open questions. We have had to deal with matters such as how information can be exposed, how stories relate to families, and ethical aspects. And there are hate crime issues too, conflicting interests that collide. To this day, there is also a fear that the authorities will silence stories.

Your aim is to contribute a Sámi/intercultural perspective to the project. What does an intercultural approach mean to you?
It is a two-way process that aims at achieving a more positive attitude towards other cultures. This allows many people to interact and develop a critical approach to their own prejudices while simultaneously sharing knowledge.

The exhibition Vanishing points: folding a view runs at Konstmuseet i Norr from 12th May to 10th September. Why is it worth a visit?
The layers of information that overlap on maps have never been displayed like this before. The exhibition reaches many senses through sound, images, and history.

Thank you to Victoria Harnesk for the chat!