In his lecture "Waiting for Gaia," Bruno Latour establishes an oblique critique of the political figure of the leviathan. He describes the breakdown of the fictional "we" in the current discussions of climate change, arguing that the ideal political collective, supposed to have vanquished the natural forces of chaos, violence, base instinct, has actually constructed an even deeper chaotic force of climate change. He says:
The human collective actor who is said to have committed the deed [of climate change ] is not a character that can be thought, sized up, or measured. You never meet him or her. It is not even the human race taken in toto, since the perpetrator is only a part of the human race, the rich and the wealthy, a group that have no definite shape, nor limit and certainly no political representation. How could it be “us” who did “all this” since there is no political, no moral, no thinking, no feeling body able to say “we” —and no one to proudly say “the buck stops here”?
I am interested in how Latour articulates this breakdown of the "we"–--when the political system of the sovereign state has failed us, when its political economic systemacity seems to have overtaken any notion of a body politic. How did this happen and in what context? In this essay I want to look at a few art pieces that might offer some answers to this question.
Two important contemporary media projects address this new representation of the Leviathan (and its historical becoming) obliquely through the lens of Herman Melville’s narrative about the white whale, Moby Dick.
One of these is of course the highly influential photo essay, Fish Story by Allen Sekula,1989-1995, a foundational documentary/art photo essay on the global port and container system under deregulated capitalism, from the early nineties. The book documents the growing network of container ships and their ports, seeking to create visibility around the dispersed and flowing aspects of our economic system. Another is a more recent film from 2012, titled Leviathan made as part of an experimental program at Harvard in Critical Media Studies called the Sensory Ethnography Lab or SEL, which focuses on an industrial fishing vessel off the coast of the US eastern seaboard. These two fish stories use Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as an entry point into their aesthetic spaces and symbolic structures. But might seem at first to be about fish and other sea creatures (especially given their titles). The Leviathans they identify are not fish at all, but the diffuse political and economic substructure of capitalism itself. How do they do this? They address the way in which the ship becomes a metonymic figure of the monstrous machine, and ocean a forgotten space or conceptual gap of the capitalist system -- a space in which the ship, as a means of exploitation labor and natural resources, has largely made the processes of colonization and globalization possible.
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?