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05.24

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Soon in Kintai - Art Observatory on the shore of Curonian Lagoon !

In April 2022, Boris Belchev, a representative of Kintai Arts and the Kintai community, together with the Norwegian partners "Biotope", visited the northernmost village of Vardø in Norway. This visit aimed to learn from good practices in building birdwarching structures that will be implemented in the framework of "Cultural Barn" project in Kintai.

 

By merging contemporary art practices and creative development of Kintai, the "Cultural Barn" project, funded by EEA and Norway grands aims to enrich the cultural resources of the Pomeranian region and to create a local cultural attraction point, connecting the community, nature and heritage with visiting artists, tourists and other cultural initiatives. One of the core missions of the Cultural Barn project in achieving these goals is to establish an Art Observatory on the shores of the Curonian Lagoon, which will not only become a unique place to observe the wildlife in the Pomeranian region, but it will also create a symbiosis between nature and art making. In cooperation with the Norwegian architects 'Biotope', who has a particular expertise in understanding nature and cultural interventions, a structure for birdwatching designed by these architects will be installed in Kintai, where people will observe flora and fauna, make art or simply enjoy nature on the shores of the bay.  

             Boris, a well known ornithologist and wildlife guide in the region, was unanimously chosen as the most suitable representative to explore the harsh Norwegian landscape. He agreed to share his experience and findings of this trip:

"The town of Vardø greeted us with contrasting views as soon as we arrived on the island of the same name. Colourful wooden houses are scattered on the island's rocky hills overlooking the Barents Sea, their windows are still being lit up in broad daylight with lights or Christmas garlands. The polar night, which has lasted almost half year, ended here just a few weeks ago and, although the air temperature is just above zero degrees and the sun is penetrating the clouds, the melting snowdrifts and closed, impassable mountain roads are evidence of a winter that has not yet passed at the end of April. Three large white spheres float like huge snowballs at the top of the Vardø hills, the rumored Globus radars operated by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and the military base here. There are no inhabitants in the streets, and we barely saw anyone outside. There is a lot of junk in the yards - snowmobiles, fishing gear and other things that are not very neatly scattered around. Many houses are uninhabited or used as summer houses, and many more are falling down or have been renovated and have wooden walls that have peeled off with paint chips due to the harshness of the wind and the humidity. Most of the houses are painted red, indicating that this is an old fishing village. The cold Barents Sea of the Arctic Ocean is rich in fish stocks, but the Arctic weather has never made life easy for people in this region. In a tundra landscape that is unusual for us, this was the first resemblance to the Lithuanian coastal region - people who are able to cope with the challenges of nature. With faces and characters washed by the winds. They are composed, sometimes harsh on the outside, but in reality warm and always helping each other in times of trouble. Historically, the inhabitants of both countries have experienced many ups and downs due to environmental, political or economic changes. The last particularly severe recession, unemployment and emigration in Vardø took place around twenty years ago, when the fishing industry, which was the main source of livelihood, was undergoing changes. Our partner Tormod Amundsen saw the village in crisis when he first came here. Architect, nature photographer and birdwatcher Tormod Amundsen travelled to Hornøya, an island just off Vardø, where a colony of hundreds of thousands of Laybasnaps and Stornapples, Alcids, Tricolored Gulls, the spectacular Mormons and the staple cormorant are nesting on the cliffs, and gulls and other species of seabirds are nesting in valleys and on the neighbouring island of Reynøya. It takes ten minutes to reach Hornøy Island by small boat from Vardø. Already at the pier, on the lowest rocks, we are greeted by a completely unfinished set of tufted cormorants, now wearing their finest plumage, with a ridiculously ruffled tuft in the wind, staring with their dark emerald eyes at us, standing just a metre away, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the birds that are nestled on the steep rocks here. The noisiest are the Tricolored Gulls, with their shrill voices accompanying every flutter or twist in their nests on the narrowest ledges. Above the gulls, where there is soil between the rocks, small round Mormons with their unusual-looking large orange beaks and triangular eyes are nesting in caves. They often show tenderness to their mate by rubbing their beaks together, as if kissing, but one moment they are sweet and gentle, the next they may be fiercely fighting on their knees to defend their caves from intruders. Even higher up, the agile, penguin-like narwhals and the calmer, fierce-looking alas are kneeling and barely standing. The action and sound never cease for a second as some try to keep a better place on the edge of the cliffs, others perform mating rituals and chase their rivals away from their mates, some fly up and fly out to sea to fish or are already on their way back, and sometimes almost all the birds are blown from the cliffs by a sea eagle or a peregrine falcon that suddenly appears in the sky. A steep, rutted and in some places knee-deep snow-covered path leads past this bird market to the top of the island, where there is a lighthouse that is important for the region's shipping and for the island's biologists and birdwatchers. This Scandinavian seabird habitat has long been known to scientists, with annual bird counts and various studies for over 40 years, and the establishment of a nature reserve.

            Fascinated by the impressive view of the birds' island, Tormod couldn't help wondering if this was commonplace and, one might say, completely uninteresting to the locals. He then came up with the idea of setting up birdwatchers' hides to shelter them from the strong winds and rainfall that characterise the area, so that more nature-lovers would be willing to visit this remote area, and more tourists would help the people of Vardø to make a living by providing accommodation, catering and other necessary services. Listening to him talk about this, my thoughts kept returning to the Lithuanian coastal region, where people live with the fantastic phenomena of tides and bird migrations, but are so used to them that they often do not even see them as a distinctive and special feature of their own land, and do not see the benefits they could gain from developing activities that are harmoniously in tune with nature, instead of seeing it as a distraction from some popular economic activity. From the idea of Tormod to the installation of the first viewpoint, it took several years before the project was presented more widely, funding was obtained and a team of builders was assembled, largely made up of local people. The regatta was built on the southern part of the island, in a quiet location. Its main space is elevated, sheltered from the prevailing winds and spacious enough to accommodate overnight stays. There is a comfortable seating alcove at the side and a place to build a warming fire. The first birdwatching shelter was very popular with the community of Vardø because it was located in a picturesque location and was open to everyone, not necessarily birdwatchers. In order to spread the word and attract not only the international birdwatching community, but also the people of the area, Tormod and his Biotope team organised the first Gull Fest the following year, which included artistic and educational workshops, thought-provoking talks, birdwatching, and gull ringing. The event was an unprecedented success. The following year, not everyone who wanted to attend could find a place to stay, but word of the bird island near Vardø and the unique Biotope viewpoints spread widely. The local community wanted more of them and even contributed to the installation of several. Over a decade, Biotope has built eighteen structures of exceptional design and functionality and attracted large numbers of visitors throughout the Varanger region. Vardø has recovered, with a number of plots of land under construction, hotels, restaurants, a cinema, and a large number of artists' drawings and sculptures decorating the town. And Biotope continues to work with the local community to develop projects that combine the needs of nature and people in a sustainable way.

            We visited several bird watching observatories in the Vardø and Vadsø area. They all have in common their apparently simple structures, their elegant design, their ability to blend in with their surroundings or simply to become a highlight of a beautiful area. However, the most important thing that stands out is their functional layout, which creates cosy spaces that, even when open, offer protection from the harsh weather and gives the opportunity to look around, to warm up by the fire or to have a cosy meal in the company of others. Each one is different in terms of their purpose, but all are similar in terms of Biotope's creative approach.  

            Already this summer, our Norwegian partners for the "Cultural Barn" project are planning to arrive in Kintai, where, with the help of local craftsmen, they will be constructing the first unique birds observatory, tailored to the Lithuanian landscape, the needs of the town of Kintai, and the needs of the community.