This is the End of Something: Review of Stevie Ronnie’s Arctica at Durham Book Festival

Icescape, by NASA/Kathryn Hansen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Icescape, by NASA/Kathryn Hansen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“This is the end of something…something not meant to end.” So writes Stevie Ronnie in his filmpoem “From Arctica,” a meditation on climate change, loss and death. This, and other filmpoems, were premiered at Durham Book Festival. Clare Barker ponders how this unique collaborative genre, which mixes film, audio, and poetry, can help us to conceptualise one of the defining issues of our times.

Does climate change feel distant? Impossible to imagine? Unthinkable as you walk into work and power up your workstation, as you eat dinner and watch the latest program on television? For interdisciplinary artist and writer Stevie Ronnie, the reality of climate change became tangible when he spent a month in the frozen Arctic.

Stevie premiered a triptych of filmpoems at Durham Book Festival. As part of a larger collective, his work brings together the spoken word, written word, photography, film, and music. Filmpoetry as a genre is considered to be in its infancy; the medium creates a path for an artist to present the work in a spoken form with additional visual and auditory layers.

Stevie’s initial filmpoem portrays familial longings and connections as images of the Arctic taken by Michael Eckblad float over the screen to the sound of Stevie’s poem “What I Should Have Said”, set to the deep, intense tones of sound artist Luca Nascuiti. The work shifts slowly into images of a child before dwelling solely on the beauty of family and home.

Endless Arctic day – in-situ on deck
observing the retreating snowline
like some granular stop-motion.
– from Stevie Ronnie’s Everything is Accelerated Here

The second work in the triptych, “Time and the Two Year Old’s Hands”, also shifts between the Arctic and a child, focusing intensely on images of a small girl playing. The language of this poem differs from the other two, connecting the overall theme of climate change to the delicate beauty of family and future. The piece was originally commissioned by Tipping Point in response to their request for an artistic rendering of the massive online report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Stevie took jargon and scientific data and melded it into a cohesive work that hauntingly touches the receiver as spoken words, music, and images blend into a perception of the abused glory of the Arctic and the long ago innocence of a happily playing child from the past.

Finally, the third piece in the triptych is “From Arctica”. Stevie says “[…] this is the end of something […] something not meant to end […]” as he weaves the emotional pain of the unexpected death of a child in Northumberland with the pain of separation from family on his travels with the grandeur of a damaged landscape succumbing to climate change. The conclusion of the triptych brings to light our human inability to process the possibilities and effects of climate change with the metaphor of a too often experienced and relatable reality – unexpected death.

Stevie’s work was presented in conjunction with Alastair Cook who showed six filmpoems. The genre, in Alastair’s hands, proved malleable and dynamic as the collaborators showed their individual works before sharing the presentation of the triptych on Arctica. According to Alastair, while filmpoetry is viewed as a young genre, it is a medium that has been used for poetic expression since the beginning of film. The works shown ranged from “How to be a Poet” with words by Dylan Thomas to an ode to Scotland titled “Alba”. Of particular interest was a juxtaposition of two works. The first was “Born to Die” by Iraqi poet Zaher Mousa

followed by the same work in English voiced and translated by Jen Hadfield.

The images were intriguingly different as the first explored the poem in terms of stone and a city bridge, swiftly flashing an Arabic sign, graffiti like, at occasional random moments while the second focused on fish and trains, including the same sign; both included moving vehicles. Several of Alastair Cooks’s works can be found on Vimeo.

Stevie stressed the collaborative nature of his work, noting the aid of director Melanie Rashbrooke and photography curator Suzy O’Hara, as well as artists previously mentioned. This exhibition is part of a much larger perspective and exploration of Arctica taking place this year around the United Kingdom.

Durham Book Festival ran from 6-17 October 2015; our reviews of many of the Festival events can be found here. Follow the organisers of the Festival, New Writing North, for more literary events throughout the year.

If you’re particularly interested in themes about polar exploration and climate change, visit Durham’s Palace Green Library for a thrilling exhibition, Antarctica: Explorers, Heroes, Scientists.

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