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Vanishing points: folding a view – interview with artists iida-ssi


In the artistic research project DATA FREE ZONE SWE/SÁPMI_1, which is the starting point for the exhibition Vanishing points: folding a view at Konstmuseet i Norr, artist duo iida jonsson & ssi saarinen, iida-ssi, maps the blind spots of Sápmi, creating a parallel and alternative counter-cartography. We have sat down with the artists for a chat!


The 200 km+ distance between the two 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. 

The Data Free Zone project started when you were master students at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam, (2020-2022). Coming from Åland, how did you end up working in Norrbotten and Sápmi? 
When we started the project in Åland, we noticed many accidental reasons for data-free zones to occur: tall buildings, new glass or rocks blocking the range. But we soon realised that most of the really large data-free zones were a direct result of political and economic decisions that limited the number of masts being installed.

In the autumn of 2021, Hampus Bergander, curator at Konstmuseet i Norr, introduced us to the data-free zone in Norrbotten. We noticed how it stood out – not only in terms of size but also in the unique political reality surrounding them and through their relationship with the Sámi culture. For us, the big question was whether there was a link between these two and, if so, how such a connection would manifest itself.

Which area in Norrbotten is your focus for this project?
We've focused on the largest data free zone in Norrbotten, potentially the whole of Europe. 

It is a common assumption that maps are a neutral representation of reality. What risks does this assumption entail?
Maps can be considered as a collection of data points that, in various compositions, can provide the basis for representation. In its simplest form, this means that coordinate lines create national borders, economic health is measured with inflation, and real-time traffic data create new roads. Contemporary cartography often acts as a politically informed map, built on the combination of places and historical and social temporalities.

In this way, a map can be seen as a composition of data points. The data points may well be based on facts – but the way they are arranged will always be subjective. Not recognising maps as political representations contributes to the consolidation of dominant structures which, in a thriving democracy, should be renegotiated constantly. 

Why might it be problematic that some geographical areas are 'blind spots on the map' – data free zones?  
The blind spots can be dangerous because their lack of information, can help sustain the myth of an area being "untouched". In our focus area, we have noted several phenomena that may profit from this myth; for the extraction of natural resources, it is often a prerequisite that the land appears uninhabited. The same goes for adventure tourism – or for the continued colonisation of Sápmi.

In this project, you collaborate with Sámi researcher Victoria Harnesk from Änonjálmme and Curator Hampus Bergander, Konstmuseet i Norr. What does this collaboration entail for the project?
For the past two years, we have been in contact on a near-daily basis, allowing the project to develop through our discussions. We find it interesting to approach artistic issues as a group: in this case we have been able to discuss and understand a Sámi perspective through Victoria, while our artistic methods themselves and their relation to knowledge production have been able to be renegotiated in collaboration with Hampus and the museum. However, these roles have often proven to be fluid.

Data Free Zone is an artistic research project. In what ways does it differ from a scientific research project?
Artistic research offers the alternative to work with methods and approaches that conventional research does not encompass. We are happy to borrow certain elements from academic research, but we are able to work with a more interdisciplinary approach and with other forms of documentation for instance. Unlike scientific research, we do not strive for objectivity, instead we recognise the situated character of all knowledge.

How has the project been received by the public and the local population in the areas affected by the research?
We have been lucky enough to collaborate with several wonderful local people – in addition to all the help and knowledge injected into the project, we've received kind words, but also critical questions that have helped us to improve the formulation and development of the project further.

Cartography has been a tool of power since the early discovery expeditions; can maps also be used as a means of resistance? 
Yes. As early as the 1980s, a local newspaper called Abiskobladet began working with correcting the spelling of Sámi toponyms. This laid the grounds for the extensive work that Lantmäteriet (the Swedish Land Survey) and Sametinget (the Sami Parliament in Sweden) have carried out in recent years, to update the Sámi toponymy in offical maps. It is rare that authorities lead changes in cartography like this, so counter-cartographies can play an important part in promoting representation and archiving information that would otherwise be lost. Elin Anna Labba's book, Herrarna satte oss hit (2020), is another incredibly important project parallel with the state-run cartographic projects. Here Labba documents the forced relocation of Sámi people in the early 20th century using alternative cartographic methods. 

The exhibition Vanishing points: folding a view runs from 12th May to 10th September. In what way is this exhibition an extension of the original project? 
The exhibition offers insights into the past two years of research. We have worked with cartography in a broad sense that includes maps, but also images, video, sound, and spatial installations that together reflect on the representation of the data free zone. Broadly speaking, we have focused on how opportunities and interest in profit create a tunnel vision that dominates with the image of a "mountain world". We have been interested in this image, but also in the periphery of this perception: the information, the stories and the people who are excluded in order to maintain this image. 

Thank you to iida-ssi for the chat!