Time travelling with psychedelic lights and Cold War warning systems

Charles Stankievech's masterpiece resembles a military station on an acid trip. It's a 10-foot-tall soccer ball-like dome with lights that psychedelically flash the colours of the rainbow.

Charles Stankievech’s masterpiece resembles a military station on an acid trip.

It’s a 10-foot-tall soccer ball-like dome with lights that psychedelically flash the colours of the rainbow.

But it’s more meaningful than it sounds. And it’s brought the Dawson-based artist all the way to Germany.

The DEW Project is an homage to the Distant Early Warning line that was to detect Soviet missiles and bombers during the Cold War.

“The value of these warning systems is obvious,” reported The Lewiston Daily Sun in November, 1954.

That was three years before the line was declared fully operational.

“Before the enemy could reach the Mid-Canada line, which will be manned with audio-visual devices as well, US and Canadian fighters would be in the air searching for the foe.”

That was also published 24 years before the artist was born.

Yet he was still inspired by the warning system that was built way before his time.

“I think the DEW project is a strong symbol internationally of what people think of the Arctic,” said the 32-year-old contemporary artist on the phone from Berlin. “Very few people go to the Arctic, but yet the Canadian identity looms very large as a presence in who we think we are as a country. So as a result we have certain symbols or fantasies of what is in the Arctic – everything from igloos to seal-hunting to Santa Claus to these amazing vistas of the tundra.”

The Cold War and the fear of bombs did play a part in his childhood.

He connects his experience of living in the territory to the memory of bomb drills and sirens.

“When I’m up in the Yukon, there’s this amazing historical infrastructure of the Distant Early Warning system that really I think plays a significant role. It was a symbol for our culture that we grew up in the Cold War and what it meant.”

Remains of the line are still found near Tuktoyaktuk.

Every winter, Stankievech travels the Tuktoyaktuk ice road to see one of the original DEW line stations that hasn’t been updated to be part of the North Warning System.

“So you still see the same infrastructure of the geodesic domes, the antennas and the outpost. So maybe it was built before my birth, it’s still something that is very prevalent.”

His project looks similar to the station that remains intact in the Far North, the exception being the disco-like lights that his flash.

“These things look like outer space stations and I think that that esthetic stays true in my work.”

But his version features a more sci-fi look. That came from the Star Wars influence.

The Empire Strikes Back, one of Stankievech’s favourite films, opens with a battle scene on an Arctic planet.

The real-life stations are also much bigger in size. Their scale is “epic,” said the artist.

“Mine is a little more, shall we say, poetic with its colour.”

The military station sends out a radar signal that bounces back. Stankievech’s sends out hallucinatory lights.

The 1973 book Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, also influenced Stankievech’s work. It’s a “very psychedelic, classic American novel” about the V-2 rockets, said Stankievech.

In the first exhibit featuring The DEW Project, Stankievech did a live concert that mixed his ‘60s minimalist music with noise from the Yukon River.

The flow of the water didn’t sound different than it would from any other river, he said. But the ice breaking, once spring came, sounded like a distant thunderstorm. He fused that with the non-melodic sounds of his ‘60s-inspired tracks.

He called this performance Gravity’s Rainbow.

In other exhibits, he plays the sounds of the river that he edited down to 12 minutes from a month’s worth of time.

“Feeling music is really important to my work – the material and visceral reaction to it.”

The music is played quite loud, but sometimes he has to negotiate the volume with the people he’s working with, he said.

The piece and accompanying sound have travelled to the ODD Gallery in Dawson, the Ellen Gallery in Montreal and the Deep Wireless Festival in Toronto. Next week, it will be showcased at the International Symposium on Electronic Art in Dortmund, Germany.

The funding for the project came from the Canada Council for the Arts, but the $16,000 wasn’t nearly enough to cover the costs of building the piece. He had to invest a lot of his own money.

“That’s why I’m a professor,” he joked.

Stankievech taught at Concordia University in Montreal after he received his Master’s in Fine Arts with open media. Three years ago, he moved to Dawson to become one of the first faculty members of the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture.

About $6,000 from the territory’s Touring Artist Fund helped Stankievech travel to Germany to display the piece, to a lecture and exhibit in Toronto, to a lecture in Finland, a performance in Helsinki and a concert in Portugal.

He splits his time between Dawson and Montreal, where he is represented by Galerie Donald Browne.

For now, he’s in Germany setting up the piece, which will begin its showcase August 19.

“This isn’t just a story of me coming to Europe and showing my artwork,” said Stankievech. “While it’s really great that I’m here and able to show this work, it’s also really neat because in this case, the work is about the Yukon. So it’s not just going to be me at the centre of the festival … as we look at this work, what’s going to be on the forefront is what is its infrastructure and what is this artwork about and what is the story behind this? And the story behind this is the history of the Yukon and the future of the Yukon, both in its past militarization of sovereignty and in the future of its environmental concerns and who owns what land.”

Contact Larissa Robyn Johnston at larissaj@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley gives a COVID-19 update during a press conference in Whitehorse on May 26. The Yukon government announced two new cases of COVID-19 in the territory with a press release on Oct. 19. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
Two new cases of COVID-19 announced in Yukon

Contact tracing is complete and YG says there is no increased risk to the public

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on April 8. Yukon Energy faced a potential “critical” fuel shortage in January due to an avalanche blocking a shipping route from Skagway to the Yukon, according to an email obtained by the Yukon Party and questioned in the legislature on Oct. 14. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Energy faced ‘critical’ fuel shortage last January due to avalanche

An email obtained by the Yukon Party showed energy officials were concerned

Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys), the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. “Our government is proud to be supporting Yukon’s grassroots organizations and First Nation governments in this critical work,” said McLean of the $175,000 from the Yukon government awarded to four community-based projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government gives $175k to projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women

Four projects were supported via the Prevention of Violence against Aboriginal Women Fund

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

When I was a kid, CP Air had a monopoly on flights… Continue reading

asdf
EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Alkan Air hangar in Whitehorse. Alkan Air has filed its response to a lawsuit over a 2019 plane crash that killed a Vancouver geologist on board, denying that there was any negligence on its part or the pilot’s. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Alkan Air responds to lawsuit over 2019 crash denying negligence, liability

Airline filed statement of defence Oct. 7 to lawsuit by spouse of geologist killed in crash

Whitehorse city council members voted Oct. 13 to decline an increase to their base salaries that was set to be made on Jan. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Council declines increased wages for 2021

Members will not have wages adjusted for CPI

A vehicle is seen along Mount Sima Road in Whitehorse on May 12. At its Oct. 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the third reading for two separate bylaws that will allow the land sale and transfer agreements of city-owned land — a 127-square-metre piece next to 75 Ortona Ave. and 1.02 hectares of property behind three lots on Mount Sima Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse properties could soon expand

Land sale agreements approved by council

Most Read