What do we look at when we look at the ocean? From where do we look at when we look at the ocean? What shapes the visions of the sea, what are the sources of our personal and collective imaginaries, the references for our impressions, desires, and fears in relation to the sea?
During the past two years, a dispersed community of artists, thinkers, writers, and researchers was summoned, assembled, and brought together by curator Ute Meta Bauer on a set of three expeditions on board of the Dardanella, TBA21-Academy’s research vessel, which was travelling across various locations in the Pacific Ocean.
These expeditions were deeply cinematic experiences. In itself the boat was both a real and figurative site of projection: at once a privileged place from where to observe the ocean, the life forms, transactions, and infrastructures it hosts, and at the same time a vessel that embodied the tropes of the expedition, voyage, and exploration that were being performed.
Further pursuing the production and sourcing of images of the ocean and all that surrounds it—from its infrastructure, to the politics and cultures of extraction and management, to the observation of its social and natural landscapes—the selection of films of Liquid Traces—visions (a title borrowed from Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani’s film Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat Case film) followed the collective agency of Ute Meta Bauer’s Dardanella expeditions. The films presented were chosen by the 12 participants of the expeditions.
The selection of films has been arranged around two programmes, the first focuses on poetic, dreamlike approaches and the second on documentarist portraits of more concrete scenarios and realities. Together, they interrogate the cinematic references that shape our dreamscapes and they offer glimpses of what sort of moving images inform the common gazes of the expeditions participants, their discourses and encounters.
Saturday, 3 February 2018, 12.00 – 4.00pm
Proteus, David Lebrun, 2004, video, 60 min
Proteus is an animated documentary film that depicts a 19th-century understanding of the sea with a particular emphasis on the life and work of German biologist and naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919). Haeckel was a promoter of Darwinism in Germany who discovered, described, drew and named thousands of new species, namely an extensive number of underwater creatures.
The key to Haeckel’s vision was a tiny undersea organism called radiolaria, one of the earliest forms of life. Haeckel discovered, described, classified and painted four thousand species of these one-celled creatures. In their intricate geometric skeletons, Haeckel saw all the future possibilities of organic and created form. Proteus explores the metamorphoses of the radiolarian and celebrates their beauty and seemingly infinite variety in animation sequences based on Haeckel’s graphic work. Proteus weaves a tapestry of poetry and myth, biology and oceanography, scientific history and spiritual biography.
Marsa Abu Galawa (Careless Reef Part 4), Gerard Holthuis, 35mm film transferred to digital file, 2004, 13 min
Marsa Abu Galawa (Careless Reef Part 4) is a psychedelic, mind-altering, rhythmic sequence of images of the underwater world shot in the Red Sea and pacing at the soundtrack of Egyptian shaabi singer Abdel Basset Hamouda. The structure of the film is based on flicker films, in which the whole unconscious experience of the flux of images is more important than the single shots. Marsa Abu Galawa is the fourth part of the “Careless Reef” series, four short films made by Gerard Holthuis, which deal with the underwater world.
Million Dollars Point, Camille Henrot, video, 2011, 5 min 35 sec
Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris.
Million Dollars Point is the name of a dive site on Santo Island, Vanuatu—a lagoon that became an underwater cemetery for hundreds of tanks and canons abandoned by the North American army after the Second World War. The site was named after the amount offered by the local islanders to buy out this war debris. Million Dollars Point juxtaposes the images of this submarine battlefield with footage of a local music video showing a French moustached man dancing and singing on a Pacific beach, flanked by Polynesian girls wearing typical costumes. The choreography of the young women seems to respond the images of engulfed weapons, they hide their faces as a refusal to see and they mimic waves, which recall the borderline between the surface and the sea bottom.
Limits to Growth, Nicholas Mangan, HD video, 2017, 8 min 55 sec
“Limits to Growth begins by staging a comparison between two virtual monetary currencies: the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and Rai, the Yapese currency. While bitcoins are virtual and in a sense immaterial, Rai are made of stone and are often very large and heavy. Bitcoins are mined by computers solving complex algorithms, often collectively, working in a blockchain. In order to “mine” Bitcoins, vast quantities of energy are consumed by the computers processing the algorithms as they labour to verify and record transactions. Processor farms must labour continuously to keep the network alive. Although Bitcoin’s medium of exchange is virtual, it remains, like Rai, bound to the physical world. (…) My interest in Bitcoin was piqued by the use of terminology such as “mining” and “workers.” Trawling through various online forums, I found someone in Australia who was actually mining bitcoin, despite the fact that the country’s high electricity costs render it unprofitable. I came across a discussion taking place within a remote community in Western Australia that was established by a mining company to service an actual mine. As is common practice, the company provided free housing and electricity to workers, as well as much needed air-conditioning in the hot climate. In the online thread, a worker from the mine suggested that a Bitcoin rig could be set up at his company-funded housing in order to take advantage of this free electricity and cooling. This physical mine could indirectly provide the climate for profitable virtual mining in Australia. This situation of a parasitical economy and how the potential overlay of the physical and the dematerialised might function in relation to resource extraction was of particular interest. Limits to Growth includes an underwater video of a Rai stone lying on the bottom of the Miil Channel off the northwest coast of Yap. The sound of a human breathing through a scuba apparatus is taken directly from the video.”
Nauru – Notes from a Cretaceous World, Nicholas Mangan, HD Video, 2010, 14 min 50 sec
Courtesy the artist; Sutton Gallery, Melbourne; Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland; and LABOR, Mexico City.
“I wanted to look at this moment in human history within a much longer period of time. I wanted to place human agency within the contours of a deeper time frame and an evolving ecosystem that doesn’t place humans as the primary organism.”
Nauru – Notes from a Cretaceous World is a video essay that contrasts the ancient geological history of the Pacific nation of Nauru with the country’s more recent political and economic situation. Historically, Nauru’s coral limestone rocky landscape has been rich in phosphate—a valuable mineral which, in Nauru, is the product of a mixture of decomposed marine life and guano deposits compressed over millions of years. In the 1920s, the British Phosphate Commission initiated industrial strip-mining of Nauru’s ancient coral landscape, selling the phosphate mineral off to Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, where it was processed into a superphosphate fertiliser used to enrich agricultural soil.
Over the coming decades, the Nauruan government allowed mining to occur at such intensity that, by 1977, the tiny island nation of Nauru had become the second-richest nation per capita after Saudi Arabia. That year, as a sign of its wealth, Nauru built the then-tallest sky scraper in Melbourne. Called Nauru House, it was crudely dubbed “Bird Shit Tower” by many Australians. By the turn of the millennium, as phosphate levels became depleted, the Nauruan government began to default on numerous major international loans and declared bankruptcy. At this time, the Australian government initiated its so-called Pacific Solution (2001–07) policy, and later Operation Sovereign Borders (2013–ongoing), in which it paid the financially desperate Nauru to house asylum seekers attempting to arrive in Australia by boat.
Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew Barney, video, 2005, 135 min
Drawing Restraint 9 comprises the presented feature-length film, alongside large-scale sculptures, photographs, drawings and books. The “Drawing Restraint” series consists of 19 numbered components and related materials. Some episodes are videos, others sculptural installations or drawings.
Drawing Restraint 9 is a love story set in Nisshin Maru, a Japanese whaling vessel making its annual journey to Antarctica. The histories and traditions of Shinto religion, Japanese tea ceremony, whaling, and global forms of fuel extraction are intertwined in this non-narrative, monumental epic. Two actions unfold simultaneously on the vessel: one on deck and one beneath it. The narrative on deck involves the process of casting a 25-ton petroleum jelly sculpture that rivals the scale of a whale. Below deck, the two characters participate as guests in a tea ceremony, where they are formally engaged after arriving on the ship as strangers. As the film progresses, the guests go through an emotional and physical transformation slowly transfiguring from land mammals into sea mammals, as they fall in love. The petroleum jelly sculpture simultaneously passes through changing states, from warm to cool, and from the architectural back to the primordial. The dual narratives, the sculptural and the romantic, come to reflect one another until they merge into one.
AXIS – Anatomy of space, Good Company Arts / Daniel Belton, video, 2017, 6 min
“With the same evolutionary effect that was followed by the ancient Greeks in their search for beauty, AXIS offers a resonating, lyrical space. Dancers are seen travelling through apertures tensioned with the happening of projected light. Their choreography establishes a circuitry of luminosity. Like a great celestial dynamo, the screen environment transmits oscillating shafts of digital dance and sound—illuminating song cycles in a cosmic choreography of light. We are each made up of photons.
Photons are particles of light. Light is inspiration. Every space has an “anatomy.” AXIS creates a new search with the human figure in space, as projected film and processed sound performance combine. Nothing is in stasis.”
—Good Company Arts
Note: This single-channel version of AXIS was created from parts of the original full-length work of 38 minutes made for 360º full-dome cinema.
Sunday, 4 February 2018, 12.00 – 6.30pm
Trobriand Cricket: An Indigenous Response to Colonialism, Gary Kildea and Jerry Leach, 1976, 54 min
Anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch described Trobriand Cricket as “a wonderful film, perhaps one of the greatest anthropological films of recent time”
(Film Quarterly, 1978).
A key reference of ethnographic cinema, Trobriand Cricket depicts the transformations introduced by the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea to the British version of cricket, a game that was introduced to Trobriand by a British Methodist missionary in the early 20th century as a way to replace violent tribal warfare with Western sportsmanship.
The film shows how the islanders responded to a British colonial imposition by appropriating and transforming the game into an expression of tribal rivalry, mock warfare, community interchange, eroticised dancing and chanting, and unruly fun.
The Shark Callers of Kontu, Dennis O’Rourke, 16mm transferred to video, 1982, 54 min
From 1974 to 1979, Dennis O’Rourke lived in Papua New Guinea, where he taught documentary filmmaking. Made during his stay there, The Shark Callers of Kontu depicts the ancient tradition of ‘sharkcalling’ in the village of Kontu, on the west coast of New Ireland. The documentation of Kontu inhabitants’ traditional way of shark hunting, in which sharks are called and killed by hand, is combined with a portrait of their lives and environment, presented both from still images commented by O’Rourke and interviews with the local population. The film explores the changes to cultural values and traditional customs wrought by colonisation, alcohol, commerce, and Christianity.
The People’s Elect – Pouvanaa te Metua, Marie-Hélène Villierme, HDCam PAL, 2012, 90 min
In the late 1940s, the French Establishments in Oceania (now French Polynesia), saw the dawn of a local political era. In 1949, Pouvanaa a Oopa (1895–1977) became the first Tahitian to serve in the French Chamber of Deputies. Pouvanaa was also the charismatic leader of the country’s first political party, the RDPT (Democratic Rally of the Tahitian People). A supporter of the independence of Tahiti, he strongly opposed the French colonial administration and the French nuclear testing in the Tuamotu Archipelago during the 1960s. Sentenced to prison and exile in metropolitan France, Pouvanaa only returned to French Polynesia in 1968. Combining archival materials, found footage, newsreels and interviews, The People’s Elect offers a vivid portrait of this important figure of French Polynesian political life.
Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat Case, Forensic Oceanography (Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani), video, 2014, 17 min
“Liquid Traces offers a synthesis of our reconstruction of the events of what is known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which 72 passengers who left the Libyan coast heading in the direction of the island of Lampedusa on board a small rubber boat were left to drift for 14 days in NATO’s maritime surveillance area, despite several distress signals relaying their location, as well as repeated interactions, including at least one military helicopter visit and an encounter with a military ship. As a result, only 9 people survived.
In producing this reconstruction, our research has used against the grain the “sensorium of the sea”—the multiple remote sensing devices used to record and read the sea’s depth and surface. Contrary to the vision of the sea as a non-signifying space in which any event immediately dissolves into moving currents, with our investigation we demonstrated that traces are indeed left in water, and that by reading them carefully the sea itself can be turned into a witness for interrogation.
As a time-based media, the animation also gives form to the Mediterranean’s differential rhythms of mobility that have emerged through the progressive restriction of legal means of access to the EU for certain categories of people and the simultaneous acceleration of the flows of goods and capital.”
—Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani
Neytal Diary, Ravi Agarwal, HD video, 2016, 38 min
Neytal Diary was shot over one year off the coast of Tamilnadu in South India. It derives from artist and environmental activist Ravi Agarwal’s ongoing work with a fishing community near the town of Pondicherry, which seeks to examine the ecological understandings and conflicts from the perspective of its inhabitants. The texts of the film are extracts from a diary (Ambient Seas, published in 2016) kept by Agarwal over the years, and contain his reflections on the complex ecological, cultural, and political underpinnings of the fishermen’s lives and their absence from the dominant global debates on the Anthropocene and climate change.
One Belt, One Road: Documentary – Episode One: Common Fate, video, 2016, 55 min
One Belt, One Road: Documentary – Episode One: Common Fate focuses on “One Belt, One Road” or the “Belt and Road Initiative,” a development strategy and framework proposed by Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping. This strategy focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries and primarily between the People’s Republic of China and the rest of Eurasia, consisting of two main components: the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and oceangoing “Maritime Silk Road.”
The strategy underlines China’s push to take a bigger role in global affairs, and its need for priority capacity cooperation in areas such as steel manufacturing.
Matthew Barney: No Restraint, Alison Chernick, video, 2006, 72 min
Matthew Barney: No Restraint documents artist Matthew Barney and his then partner, collaborator, and singer-songwriter Björk, as they film Drawing Restraint 9.
Selection of films made by TBA21–Academy’s participants to Ute Meta Bauer’s The Current three expeditions to the South Pacific: Nabil Ahmed, Atif Akin, Laura Anderson Barbata, Newell Harry, Stefanie Hessler, Dr Kristy H. A. Kang, Dr PerMagnus Lindborg, Armin Linke, Filipa Ramos, Lisa Rave, and Jegan Vincent de Paul.
Image credit: Gerard Holthuis, Marsa Abu Galawa (Careless Reef Part 4), 2004, film still. Courtesy Light Cone.