Heidi Ballet and Stefanie Hessler in Conversation, A Quest Toward Thinking in Oceanic Ways

This conversation was originally published on Mousse 57 (February–March 2017)

Curators Heidi Ballet and Stefanie Hessler have both been doing curatorial research on oceans in the past years. Ballet curated the Satellite exhibition series at Jeu de Paume, Paris and CAPC Bordeaux in 2016 under the title “Our Ocean, Your Horizon” in which she focused on the historical construct of oceanic territory as a non-space in terms of sovereignty, inspired by Fiji scholar Epeli Hau’ofa.

Hessler is curator of The Current, a research project that investigates human impact on the oceans and ecology, and is preparing an exhibition at TBA21-Augarten inspired by Caribbean writer Kamau Brathwaite’s concept of “tidalectics,” a fluid alternative to the dialectics that are said to define Western thinking. Together they discuss how the recurring theme of water and oceans in today’s exhibitions could be indicative of new ways of thinking that emphasize formlessness and fluctuation as part of new readings of the world that escape rigid classification.

STEFANIE HESSLER: We actually started this conversation last year, given our common interest in oceanic spaces. It is great to continue, as there seems to be a heightened interest in water and fluid spaces in art and beyond. Some examples in art and curatorial discourse are the container residency, the Arctic Circle program, Alex Farquharson’s Aquatopia at Nottingham Contemporary in 2013, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 14th Istanbul Biennial in 2015, and Koyo Kouoh’s Streamlines at Deichtorhallen in Hamburg in 2016. My interest lies in particular in artists and thinkers who turn toward the oceanic. One of them is the celebrated poet and voice of the Caribbean diaspora Kamau Brathwaite, whose term “tidalectics” is guiding my curatorial concept for an exhibition I am making at TBA21-Augarten in Vienna opening this June. “Tidalectics” is a wordplay on the dialectics that are said to define Western thinking, and proposes a different way of being in and with the world that is shaped by the oceans. The term refers to the fluid dynamism of water, the perpetual movement of ebb and flow, the ripples of waves interacting with one another, and a perspective of connectedness—of the waters covering the Earth and washing onto the shores of land, and of our own relationship with the sea. The show is connected to TBA21-Academy The Current, a research project taking place on a vessel in the South Pacific, during which we investigate humanity’s impact on the oceans, water, and ecology. This project is another example for the recent heightened sensibilities for the sea.

HEIDI BALLET: I have been wondering whether this recent attention for oceanic spaces has to do with a realization that our thinking frames—like cartography, which is rooted in Eurocentric expansionism—are in need of an update. My personal interest in the oceanic territory grew after I worked as a research curator at HKW for After Year Zero, an exhibition that looked at a historical continuum that connects colonialism with World War II Fascism. The trauma of slavery kept coming back in our research, and we juxtaposed this history with historical emancipatory moments related to Negritude and Pan-Africanism. There was one thing that kept buzzing in my mind, something that created some kind of short circuit in my brain. In his book The Black Atlantic (1995), Paul Gilroy reconstitutes the identity of slaves based on their journey on the Atlantic. I kept thinking to myself, “How can you have an identity that is linked to water and not to land?” That question then became the starting point for the exhibition series “Our Ocean, Your Horizon” that I curated at Jeu de Paume and CAPC Bordeaux in 2016.

SH: The ocean is what connects all of these journeys, from the slave trade to recent migrations. They are the floating base for the history of labor and exile. A work dealing with this subject is the Otolith Group’s video Hydra Decapita (2010). It is inspired by the experimental electronic band Drexciya, who developed the Afro-Futurist myth of a country submerged in water populated by unborn babies of women who died during the deadly ocean crossings of the slave trade. The band speculated that the fetuses, who were alive in an aquatic environment in their mothers’ wombs, could breathe underwater and continued to live as mutated descendants of the Black Atlantic. Another example is John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015). The video installation draws oceanic connections between the history of the slave trade, whaling, nuclear testing, and current migrations across oceans. Besides the macro perspective, the microbial scale is interesting to discuss. It ranges from new research into corals for mitigating climate change to deep-sea organisms that are said to be the last common ancestors of all current life on Earth. Susanne M. Winterling’s artistic research into dinoflagellate marine plankton and mangroves looks at the microbial as an indicator of the health of a reef and as an early warning system, and at the hybrid entanglements of humans and other species in what she would call ecological solidarity.

HE: What I like about the works by the Otolith Group and John Akomfrah that you mention is that they make certain parts of history reappear that have been hidden in the oceanic territory. Personally I think this is exactly why it is important to look at the oceanic and its history today, since I think it has always played an important role as a blind spot in the geopolitical and economic system that we live in, a place where things can be hidden. It is a place where U-boats operate and illegal dumping practices can take place, since there is no one who surveils the territory. Even conceptually, large bodies of water justify so-called offshore investment funds that don’t need to follow the same tax rules. But actually the fact that there are no sovereign borders on the oceanic surface—the idea of mare liberum that was coined in the fifteenth century and dictates that the international waters belong to everyone and to no one—this idea is just as fictional, but with real consequences, as the fact that sovereign borders do exist on land.

SH: The question of visibility is an important one. Many of the things happening on the high seas are invisible to most of us and therefore hard to control. Even if laws exist, they need to be enforced to be effective. International waters are defined as a “common heritage of humankind” beyond national borders, but the overfishing happening there—often illegally—is harming that heritage, and it is difficult to control. The same is true for the depths of the oceans that are inaccessible to most of us. Trevor Paglen recently took a group of divers to the Internet cables at the sea bottom that were tapped by the NSA. These cables are part of the invisible infrastructure that is usually hidden from our eyes. The associations between the sea, darkness, and obscurity can be traced back to mythologies such as the deep-sea monster Leviathan mentioned in the Hebrew Tanakh and the Christian Bible, and cultural taboos like the kala pani (“black water”) in India, where those entering the sea are believed to lose their caste.

HE: There is this book called The Outlaw Sea (2004) by William Langewiesche, in which he says that the oceans form a contradiction in our understanding of how the world should be organized, since it’s a place of “free trade at its freest” that at the same time lacks sovereignty. I find that conceptual gray zone fascinating. When I was doing research last year, I found that oceanic space is to some degree comparable to the Internet, as both are economically of vital importance while being lawless places that have no geographical coordinates or moral codes. We also often use terms for navigation and exploration when we talk about the Internet, when we surf the net with Internet Explorer for example. And there is an important bitcoin site that is called Kraken, after a mythical sea monster that occupied people’s imaginations for centuries. I discussed this unknown character of the oceans a lot with Basim Magdy when he produced the film No Shooting Stars for the exhibition series in Paris and Bordeaux that I mentioned earlier. He was fascinated by the fact that the surface of the moon is better known than certain depths of the oceans. His work became an homage to the mystery of the ocean and a beautiful narrative unfolds in the video like a poem, without a beginning, an end, or any resolution. Of course that image of a lawless place has been purposely constructed also, as a mirror image, as the opposite of the safe nation-state with strict laws when nation-states came into being. This idea gave sailors a bad reputation for being too free. The idea of the shores being a tempting call to freedom goes back as far as ancient Greece. But this freedom gives an employer also the freedom to exploit limitlessly. In the 2010 film The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula, you see all these people who work in all types of shady conditions.

SH: Armin Linke is currently working on a film in which the question of insufficient regulations for the oceans is being raised. During his research for the Anthropocene Observatory, he was confronted with deep-sea mining, a relatively new mode of extractivism that targets rare-earth minerals at the ocean floor. These metals are among others used in the screens of our phones and computers. The seabed is administered by the United Nations International Seabed Authority, who leases plots to multinational companies that, assisted by sponsoring nations, aim to exploit the metals. Although there are regulations to mitigate environmental damage, they seem to favor exploitation over protection. Extracting matter that has grown over millennia will most likely affect organisms living at the ocean floor and impact ecosystems beyond our comprehension. Another great film that discusses deep-sea mining is Lisa Rave’s Europium (2015). She links these recent developments to commodity fetish and the taboo shell money in Papua New Guinea (one of the sponsoring nations for deep-sea mining,) showing how colonial history extends into the present. With regards to oceanic thinking, I think it is interesting that the seabed is compartmentalized like land. Water columns and layers of sediment underneath are treated as separate. This is a telling example for how land-based thinking is applied to the sea, whose waters cannot be contained, owned, or separated from their surroundings. Our current ways of mapmaking and our legal frameworks are not adequate for the nature of the oceans. 
They certainly have their specific histories and functions, often linked to political and economic aims. I think there is a real need for reviewing our systems and ways of thinking, as Anthropos is causing geophysical changes. We also need to carefully scrutinize geopolitical interests. With rising sea levels, baselines of countries are shifting and new passages for crossings and trade are opening. More people will migrate. And as the roles and shapes of the oceans change, so will our perception of them. Perhaps this is a starting point for thinking in oceanic ways.

HE: Speaking about the Anthropocene, I am currently reading a lot about the Arctic, and this area might become a very important geopolitical hot spot. We often think about the melting ice caps in terms of catastrophe, but the disappearance of the ice will also create an important new passageway from Europe to China and give access to potential underwater oil reserves in the area. I am currently doing research in the frame of the Lofoten Biennial, which I am curating together with Milena Hoegsberg, and the Northern Passage is one of the starting points of our proposal. Our aim is to try and imagine what the area might look like in 150 years. I recently saw the work Subatlantic (2015) by Ursula Biemann, where she talks about how the melting ice will result in new life when the cells of creatures that haven’t existed for thousands of years will get defrosted, one of the microbial consequences, as you mentioned earlier. Another image of what could happen comes from the Dutch artist Femke Herregraven, who studies potential investment opportunities when submarine cables can be laid on the Arctic seabed. Last week I learned about the sci-fi novel Arctic Rising (2012) by Tobias S. Buckell, which takes place in a world in which the ice caps have melted, and the novel indeed describes a war in the Arctic, a war that is driven by oil interests.

SH: I think science fiction is interesting for considering oceanic ways of thinking and being. So are different systems of mapping knowledge. I am fascinated by stick charts from Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean, mnemonic devices consisting of coconut fibers, pieces of thread, and shells, which represent ocean swells, wave patterns, and islands. Seafarers memorized the maps before their crossings, often with the help of chants. The charts are not scaled meta-representations of land seen from above, like maps, but memories of an experience—the movement of a subject on his or her seafaring journey in the space. Last year during an expedition to French Polynesia with TBA21-Academy I learned about Epeli Hau’ofa, an anthropologist and poet from Fiji and Tonga. Hau’ofa proposes that we need to change the views that fail to recognize the connectedness of Pacific Islanders across oceans and that suppose that “small island states” are too small, too poor, and too isolated to develop autonomy. Hau’ofa’s term “Our Sea of Islands” reverses this view toward “large oceanic states,” reflecting travels and ocean crossings in a world that is anything but tiny. Hau’ofa’s writing echoed in the “P.A.C.T. Declaration (Polynesia Against Climate Threats),” which aided the focus on ocean protection of COP21 in Paris in 2015. The perpetual motion shaping seafaring peoples’ lives is reflected in the distribution of land and flexibility of the operations in many Pacific societies. Movement is also closer to the cycles of nature, our estrangement from which Hau’ofa saw as the main cause of the deterioration of the planet’s ecosystems. This is very much connected to Brathwaite’s thinking, and I find it interesting that both he and Hau’ofa are poets. Poetry seems to account better than technical language for the movement and flux of the oceans. It does not reduce complexity but evokes knowledge based on experience, which, as in the case of Hau’ofa, can also find application in policy making.

HE: Yes, exactly. And the list goes on. Several other people who are at the basis of revolutionary theories are poets. Édouard Glissant was also a poet, for example, and Léopold Senghor, who started the Negritude movement, was too. For a while I got very much into “coolitude,” which is a movement started by another poet, Khal Torabully. Coolitude is a theory that is similar to Negritude, in that it reconsiders the identity of coolies, indentured laborers from India and China who were shipped around the world after slavery was abolished. As opposed to the Atlantic slave trade, the coolie trade was centered around the Indian Ocean, and this second wave of labor migration caused the very complex ethnic layering in the Americas. Like Negritude, the movement rethinks the historical status and contribution of the coolies, and it opens a way for a new understanding of what the word “coolie” might mean that is outside of the derogatory colonial frame that is meanwhile outdated.

SH: I think another motive to reconsider our current conceptions is that perimeters between land and water are changing. 
This affects geopolitics and the environment as much as our social horizon, but it could go even further than that. The posthumanist researcher Astrida Neimanis suggests the term “hydrofeminism” to think these changes: “Not only does water connect us, sustain us—more than this, water disturbs the very categories that ground the domains of social, political, philosophical, and environmental thought.” She goes on to think with water beyond “the cleaving and coupling of sexually differentiated human bodies: we find ourselves tangled in intricate choreographies of bodies and flows of all kinds—not only human bodies, but also other animal, vegetable, geophysical, meteorological, and technological ones; not only watery flows, but also flows of power, culture, politics, and economics.”While modernist frameworks that are based on land do not sufficiently account for complexities, fluidity, and hybrids, profound incisions like climate change are likely to cause an Umwertung aller Werte (trans-valuation of values, per Nietzsche) that challenges these frameworks. I think we need to—and many of us already do—become aware that we are entangled with other species and implicated with our surroundings. Epeli Hau’ofa and Kamau Brathwaite may give us the thinking along which Donna Haraway’s messiness or Karen Barad’s diffractions caused by overlapping waves in quantum physics can materialize: the oceans. Water is connected, fluid, in constant movement. It may not dissolve the rigid frameworks, but it may allow us to attune ourselves during times of oceanic shifts. So let’s consider our horizon to be shaped by the movement of the waves and tides.

HE: I think we might be experiencing an intellectual backlash after a long period during which science has been relied on as the only source of truth. There has been an obsession with categorizing in order to organize the world toward technological progress and economic growth. The boundaries and frames that were created have been defined by a white male Western elite. The theories that I personally find most interesting today are the ones that zoom in on these rigid borders. Haraway moves away from anthropocentrism and blurs the lines, but also, when she says “make kin not babies,” she speaks against the system of transfer of wealth along the male family line, an age-old principle in our economic system. These borders might be part of the same complex that fixes the nation-state borders of the islands in the Pacific that became distant annexes of large empires after colonization. Maybe more questioning of thinking frames and boundaries might follow that goes beyond blurring lines between humans and animals, or between non-space water and ownable land. They might be signs of a necessary psychoanalysis of the West, of a postcolonial coming-of-age that looks at ourselves.

Heidi Ballet is an independent curator based in Berlin and Brussels. She is curating the 2018 Beaufort Triennial in Ostend, Belgium and together with Milena Hoegsberg she is curating the 2017 Lofoten Biennial in Lofoten, Norway. Recently she curated the group exhibition The Morality Reflex at CAC in Vilnius and the 2016 Satellite exhibition series at Jeu de Paume Paris and CAPC Bordeaux which included solo shows by Edgardo Aragón, Guan Xiao, Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin and Basim Magdy.

Stefanie Hessler is a curator and writer from Germany. She is the co-founder of the art space Andquestionmark in Stockholm (with Carsten Höller). Recent curated exhibitions include the 8th Momentum Biennial in Moss, Norway (2015) and Outside at Index and Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden (2014). In 2016, Hessler co-edited the anthology Life Itself with more than 170 texts on the question of what life essentially is for the Moderna Museet Stockholm. She is curator at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna for The Current, a fellowship programme on a research vessel investigating human impact on the oceans.