An Interview with Stevie Ronnie

Blue Glacier by Stevie Ronnie

Hi Stevie – thanks for joining us! First things first, you’ve been commissioned by Durham Book Festival especially to create Arctica, after spending a residency in the High Arctic. Can you tell us a little about the project?

It all began around the age of twelve when my nana handed me a copy of a 1941 Readers Union edition of Kabloona, the account of French Nobleman Gontran de Poncin’s trip to the Canadian Arctic in the 1930’s. After reading that little book I was left with a strong desire to visit this remote and fascinating place. Several years later I realised that the journey might be possible through my work as an artist and writer. It wasn’t easy to find a way to do this but eventually I was lucky enough to win a place on The Arctic Circle, an international residency programme that sends writers, artists and educators to the Svalbard archipelago in the High Arctic.

In July 2013 I flew to Longyearbyen, where our group boarded the Barquentine Antigua. We sailed around the archipelago for about three weeks. Whilst there I was capturing, making and writing and that process continued upon my return. Initially, I was working in several different media on what I thought were distinct pieces of work but then I started to see connections between the individual strands and decided to bring it all together under the same banner. Funding was important too and Durham Book Festival, New Writing North and Arts Council England have generously supported me throughout the project.

Climate change is a major theme of Arctica. What role do you think art and literature have to play in addressing the problem?

Art has the potential to make us see the world from a different angle. This can help to inform, remind and focus the audience on a subject that is easy to dismiss as we go about our daily lives. Additionally, it has the power to make the story of climate change a human one, something we can relate to beyond the science. I often think of my work in relation to climate change as protest in the Latin form of the word: protestari, meaning to bear witness; testify.

Much of your previous work seems to focus around the North East. Arctica is geographically quite a step away from that! What other differences are there between this and previous projects?

Arctica is my most ambitious project to date. Although I often work in multiple media, I have never attempted to tackle at a subject from quite so many angles simultaneously.

And how did you find your stay in the High Arctic? Few people get the chance to visit the area; can you share some of your experience?

It felt like a real privilege to witness this stunning part of our planet and the experience was life changing. I returned from my travels with a new perspective on the world and my place within it. The landscape there is both familiar and alien. I was also struck by the sense of isolation and it felt liberating to be outside of the hyperconnected world that we live in.

As a multidisciplinary artist, you work with poetry, photography, film, and performance – what influences you the most?

Most of my ideas begin with poetry. Having said that, I try not to worry too much about a hierarchy of disciplines. As much as I try to avoid labelling my work perhaps it is best described as ‘anti-disciplinary’ in the sense that it begins with a desire to communicate something and then I use the tools and disciplines to hand to make that happen.

Your work often includes experiencing poetry visually. What do you find from combining literature and visual or digital arts?

Most poetry has a very small potential audience and I find that crossing over into other disciplines helps to widen the reach of my work. It also gives me a measure of variety in my day-to-day practice, keeping the ideas fresh and helping to create layers of meaning in the work that I produce.

It seems like one of your projects can be something completely different to the next – what are you looking forward to after exhibiting Arctica?

The current set of exhibitions and events for Arctica are due to finish in January 2016 and I plan to continue publishing, performing, screening and exhibiting the work throughout next year. I feel like there is still more to say about Climate Change and I am cooking up a new collaboration on the subject with two US-based artists. Alongside this, I’ll be continuing to encourage new artists through my work with The Writing Squad, in schools and through the Cuckoo Young Writers’ programme.

To continue on that note of your involvement with young artists, as a clear expert in the field, do you have any advice for any aspiring writers and artists?

I think that it is great to learn from others but important to know that the long-term goal is to be able to find your own way though it. Always say what you need to say with passion, if it comes from your deepest emotions then hopefully it will move others too. Having said that, the most important thing for me is not to over think things; to try to play, which is a lot harder to achieve than it sounds! It is tough so keep persisting despite the inevitable rejection. Lastly – make work by finding the conditions that help you to create then reproducing them.

And finally, just for fun and as your project links geographically with Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights which Durham Book Festival is celebrating this year, what would your daemon be?

Oh, I’m not sure. Can I have a husky?

Catch Stevie’s Arctica event with poetry, film and performance at Empty Shop at 4pm on Sunday the 11th of October.

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