THE RETURN OF THE PRIME MERIDIAN
The Return of the Prime Meridian is an 8 channel permanent sound installation at Kongsvinger Fortress, situated 10 km north of Oslo, Norway. The fortress’ flagpole served as Norway’s prime meridian for over 60 years, and forms the starting point for this installation. The work conjures up multiple layers of associations by combining sounds from the world beyond the fortress’s walls with sounds that have been an enduring feature of life at the fortress since it was built between 1673 and 1784. An illuminated  brass plate on the floor marks the site of the returned prime meridian.

Place: Kongsberg Fortress (NO)
Date: Permanent installation since June 2016
Commissioned by KORO / Public Art Norway

The starting point for Urstad’s installation was the story of the fortress’s flagpole. For over 60 years, starting in 1779, it served as Norway’s prime meridian. Before a line of longitude running through Greenwich, England, was adopted in 1884 as the international Prime Meridian, each country had its own prime meridian for time-setting and cartographic purposes. Accordingly the flagpole at the fortress served for many years as the geographical centre of Norway.

The sound installation The Return of the Prime Meridian consists of sounds that have always been present at the fortress, such as the tolling of bells, a halyard slapping against the flagpole, gun salutes, rain and wind. One important sound is that of the fortress’s bell, which was used to announce the time and as a warning signal. The installation combines these sounds from the fortress with sounds from the world beyond its walls, such as a muezzin’s chant from Ramallah, recordings made in a bar in Morocco, and fragments of a news broadcast announcing North Korea’s decision to switch time zones by putting its clocks back 30 minutes.

The Return of the Prime Meridian is played through eight loudspeakers. These serve to create several listening zones, providing both a focused listening experience and provoking multi-layered associations. The thick walls of the fortress insulate the interior against external noise and the arched ceiling affects the acoustic properties of the space. The running time is approximately 15 minutes. A brass plate on the floor is illuminated to mark the site of the returned prime meridian. 

Kongsvinger Fortress acts as a landmark on a hilltop overlooking the town. Built between 1673 and 1784, the fortress was originally known as “Kongens vinger” – “the King’s Vinger” (“Vinger” is an Old Norse district name) – which was later contracted to Kongsvinger. When the Union between Norway and Sweden was dissolved in 1905, Kongsvinger Fortress was considered out-of-date and unusable, and accordingly – unlike other border fortresses – was allowed to stand. The fortress has never seen active service.  Today the fortress is part of the National Fortifications Heritage.

In connection with the refurbishment of the fortress in 2011, the Norwegian Defence Estates Agency (NDEA) granted funds for an art project. Maia Urstad was invited to develop a permanent site-specific sound installation for the fortress.

LINKS:
HERE: Download pdf information folder with additional article by professor Bjørn Ragnvald Pettersen of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences about the history of Norway’s prime meridian.
HERE: Link to the project at the KORO website.
HERE: Interview with Maia Urstad about The Return of the Prime Meridian by Astrid Hygen Meyer (Norwegian text only)

Kongsvinger Fortress, Norway. One important installation sound is that of the fortress’s bell, which was used to announce the time and as a warning signal.

Kongsvinger Fortress, Norway. The flagpole served as Norway's prime meridian for over 60 years, starting in 1779. All photos: Walter Zellien