For Art Basel Hong Kong (March 2016) I was invited by Asia Art Archive to participate in a panel hosted by the artists MAP office. The following was a brief introduction for discussion.
It would be interesting to think about the ocean as an archive. Literally. Does it employ shelves or rather shark holes? Or is it composed in an altogether different kind of organization? What does it archive? These questions reminded me of a short tall tale by Michel Serres at the beginning of his book Genesis in which he finds a message-a-bottle archive of sorts.
I found myself one fine morning in the green and stagnant waters of the Sargasso Sea, at a mysterious spot where thousands of tiny sparks, all shapes and all colors were glimmering crazily. Bearing off, I was dumbfounded to see an area almost two hundred and fifty acres square entirely populated by dancing bottles. There were countless little vessels, and each one no doubt bore its message ….ballasted with seawrack and rockery, each carried its hope and its despair. Constant and perilous collisions. Cacophonic noise across the horizon. (1)
This sea of bottles represents a space of memory that is both a cultural and ecological log. It holds messages of human connections sent but never received, and also stands as evidence of historic patterns that keep these particular calm waters full of Sargasso grasses and human detritus and the currents of the Atlantic Ocean’s swirl about it. Serres gives a lyrical introduction to the ocean as a medium that bears witness both to geologic time and human time. Is this what it means for the ocean to be an archive?
It is interesting to think about the ocean as archive especially in light of the fact that it seems to have largely functioned as an anti-archive in recent human history. A fluid, turgid medium that at times escapes accounting. We think about the speed and connection of the global goods system, but only if we don’t notice how labor and energy intensive it is to drive such machines thousands of miles each day over the seas. As photographer Allan Sekula called it, the ocean is often considered “a forgotten space” of capitalism. This is a phrase repeated throughout his foundational art as research project, A Fish Story, a hallmark account of the global trade and port system at the advent of neo-liberalization.
Sekula’s claim is related to a longer history of the rise of empire in which oceans actively functioned to hide the violence with which vast wealth of nation states were achieved. As historians such as Markus Rediker have argued, oceans have been kept strategically outside and invisible to the imaginaries of nation and empire. Rediker (along with Cassandra Pybus, and Emma Christopher) argue in the introduction to their volume Many Middle Passages, Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, “most people in the eighteenth century, like most people today, tended to regard as real only the land…. The oceans were vast, ahistorical voids.” The ocean began to operate as the medium on which nation-states and capital could extend their reach, even as, or more correctly, because it was, strategically left out of the purview of territorial law and the ideal of sovereignty.
The history of world systems of trade and politics have always been based on the invisible leverage of oceans (as free seas for fluid trade and resource extraction (oil, whales, fish, etc.) and as an invisible medium to hide movement of populations as well as the risk of trade. This sentiment has been updated by anthropologist Michael Taussig, who claims that the disappearance of the maritime is now a global phenomenon. He says, our societies are “utterly dependent,” on ships and the sea, yet “nothing is more invisible.”
But as oceans are now becoming strategic sites of global geopolitics – with new fights over exclusive economic boundaries and precious resources, competition over global ports and shipping lanes—we can see how important they have always been to the history of world systems, and how ever-more important they are in an age of globally networked and interdependent economies and politics.
Global shipping patterns.
We need to start seeing these activities as an archive in the making. A record of globalization written on the waves. They needs to be recorded, made visible, developed into readable statements about the effects of globalization on the earth, not suppressed or erased. I am starting to accumulate some possible archives of this global activity for my current book project Liquid Archives.
I am interested in artists and other researchers who look at trade routes and logistical spaces of ocean transport. For instance social scientist Charmaine Chua has a blog (the Disorder of Things) as part of her dissertation project on the logistics of containerization for the U of Michigan. In it she details the lives and activities aboard container ships as well as the politics of chock points along the supply chain. This is a nice follow up to Sekula’s Fish Story. Marina Zurkow’s recent show, More and More, in February-April 2016 at biforms in New York, presented a series of objects, websites and digital files that raise awareness for the global commodity system largely made possible by the container system. The objects could be printed from digital files sold through her website, moreandmore.world: Harmonized System commodity code wallpaper, casual wear with More and More logos and 3-D printed objects.
Map Office’s work on the production spaces of Shenzhen and Hong Kong after 1997 have done much to demonstrate ways to potentially document and create an alternative archive of the shipping and manufacturing industry in China. Since then, they have moved from mapping “production space” to mapping what they call the “liquid territories” of islands, littoral zones and shores. Their current project, MARE LIBERUM will create the first map of the portions of the ocean that are currently NOT territorialized. Instead of focusing on the standard geo-political visualization which privileges the territory of nation states, including the 200 mile extension of each nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), they attempt to map everything that cannot be claimed under the current agreements. This kind of map presents an archive in reverse a possible document to preserve the parts of the oceans that can still be held as a commons for the future.
Charles Lim’s work SEA STATE project tries to recover the history of transformations of littoral zones/ shorelines of Singapore. Singapore as a city-state has grown by 130 square kilometers over the last 45 years through reclamation and Indonesia has lost two-dozen islands as a result.’ These are just of few of the current projects that offer new potential archival methodologies.
They begin to think of the ocean as vast and viscous archive that shows the global complexity of human relationship, natural relationship. This is ultimately the theme of Michel Serres Genesis and why he uses his story of the bottles in the Sargasso Sea to begin. Against our love of the unit, the individual, the contained, the black box, the scenic point of view he posits the ocean as a system of multiplicities from which we have turned away and to which we need to now return. The ocean is not individuated, but global. It beckons what Serres calls ichnography -- what is possible, or knowable, or producible, it is the phenomenological wellspring…. As Serres argues, the ocean, in its chaos, in its seemingly uncoordinated “noise,” is the most evocative space for new possibilities of living. “It is the ensemble of possible probables, the sum of horizons.”