Atlántica # 56

“Oblique tales on the aquatic sublime” – the phrase, taken from one of Vertigo Sea’s nine intertitles, provides an apt descriptor for this moving triple-channel installation produced for the 2015 Venice Biennale. Running 48 minutes, the installation portrays the ocean as a site of both terror and beauty, and creates a vast expanse of historical meanings and experiential sensations in which incongruous narratives interact. Startling seascapes provide the colourful backdrop for the routes of colonial exploration and the transatlantic slave trade, indicated by seconds-long clips of shackled black figures lying on the dank bunks of a ship’s hold. Stunning images of marine life are interrupted by sailors killing whales and hunting polar bears. Gorgeous footage of mountainous Arctic icescapes competes with the brutal militarisation of nature, the sea as test site for nuclear bombs and field for deepwater oil drilling, leaks, and fiery explosions, while oceanic signs of climate change and global warming, in footage of melting and crashing glaciers, form a counterpoint with shots of the sea as a cemetery out of which the bodies of countless Europe-bound migrants wash up on shore.


 


This panoply of images is largely drawn from the BBC’s archive of nature films and television programmes, including David Attenborough’s sumptuous 2001 sea life documentary, The Blue Planet, though in Vertigo Sea they appear delinked from their original narratives, as mere glimpses of dramatised history and oceanography. In addition, the film includes footage, shot by Akomfrah, depicting Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–97), the freed African slave and abolitionist who travelled the seas, explored the Arctic, and lived out his life in England, and who wrote an important autobiography in which the sea also figures as place of multiple valences, of wondrous beauty, existential threat, and watery captivity.1 Joined together in triple projection, Akomfrah’s montage is redoubled in the soundtrack, where breathy strings of majestic and foreboding affect combine with whale song, interrupted at times by the echoing shots of hunting rifles and the blasts of harpoon cannons.


On Terror and Beauty: John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea | Atlántica

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Bringing these audiovisual elements together in conversation, Akomfrah presents a haunting meditation on this selection from the visual culture of Western modernity. Focusing attention on the intervals between projections as much as on their interior images, the piece proposes a cinema of relationality, an archival work that resists providing a simple message, moral, or partisan interpretation. Instead, Vertigo Sea reveals unanticipated connections between narratives, virtual openings that offer places where the unexpected appears and where discovery can take place.2 More often than not, what results is a matter of visual and affective experience rather than informational communication, even though the film cites several cultural references, bringing together audio clips from a variety of sources, including literary works that take the sea as subject, such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927); philosophical accounts of conceptual exploration, namely Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–91); and hymns dedicated to marine life, specifically Heathcote Williams’s epic poem Whale Nation (1988). In addition, there are recent television news reports, which have now become all too familiar, of the deaths of unnamed refugees at sea. Audio elements enter into the film intermittently, without proposing a clear connection to the imagery or obeying a specific order or chronology, as befits the piece’s overall non-narrative manner (one that develops the aesthetic strategies found in Akomfrah’s earliest productions with Black Audio Film Collective, such as Signs of Empire (1982–84)). In Vertigo Sea, audiovisual matter unfolds to reveal a dizzying intersection of history, fiction, and philosophy, with no clear boundaries between them.3


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As Akomfrah explained in reference to the “unspeakable moments” developed through similar juxtapositions in The Unfinished Conversation (2012), his work on the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall, montage possesses the power to elicit “unconscious relations between the subject and historical forces,” “uncanny” affinities beyond the “literalism of historical causality.”4 Vertigo Sea builds on that precedent, defining an innovative cinematic methodology to endow the past, present, and future with new meanings.


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The film’s sense of vertigo is further thematised by the footage of Equiano, who, as we know from his autobiography, hailed from the Igbo people of what is now southeastern Nigeria. Vertigo Sea pictures him statically in stylised tableaux, standing in eighteenth-century European attire on the coast gazing out at the sea. He appears posed in states of contemplation against ravishing backdrops of coastal mountains, bringing to mind the romantic painting of Caspar David Friedrich, as well as providing an analogue of the viewer’s own position watching the film, and thus initiating a slew of identifications. In one scene, recalling Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931), he is shown amidst an array of clocks, each set to a different time. In another shot evoking the ocean iconography of literary romanticism — specifically Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) — he appears on the coast surrounded by assorted domestic items – an iron bed frame, a bicycle, a buggy – depicting the scene of a shipwreck. In referencing Equiano, Vertigo Sea continues the revisionist cultural history of Akomfrah’s recent films, such as Peripeteia (2012), which explores some of the earliest appearances of black people in Western painting, as found in works by the sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Dürer. In his films, these figures become centres of imagination and recovery, contesting the consignment of blackness to oblivion in the marginalia of such canvases and in the conventional art-historical narratives that continue to overlook them.5


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In the case of Vertigo Sea, Equiano embodies a figure of deterritorialisation, of detachment in time and place, confronting the vicissitudes of experiences and memories that the sea represents. That disjunctiveness has historical roots: while Equiano describes being violently ripped from his home by slavers and put in a position of abject servitude, he was able to purchase his freedom in his early twenties. He relates how he subsequently lived an emancipated life of exploration, seeing the world from the Arctic to Central America’s Mosquito Coast. In this regard, the radical ruptures and ambivalences in Equiano’s life mirror the very incongruities of beauty and terror, fear and attraction, absolute greatness and intense dread, that are often associated with nature and that were conceptualised in the eighteenth century’s philosophical aesthetics of the sublime – the cultural framework of Equiano’s Europe – which Vertigo Sea takes up in turn.


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Rather than repeat familiar constructions of the sublime, however, Akomfrah’s film locates and thereby updates its logic within our own cultural-geological present, where modern society, no longer separate from the natural world, has become, in the course of centuries of capitalist industry, a driver of climate change. The world that Equiano gazes upon – our contemporary one – has colonised not only his own homeland but nature itself. With nature and culture now inextricable, and industrialisation determining the course of the earth’s natural cycles – what some call the Anthropocene, others the Capitalocene6 – the incongruous categories of the sublime formerly located in the non-human realm now cross over into the cultural one, each potentially corrupting the other. Indeed, Akomfrah’s film shows how the beauty of nature becomes terrible under the sign of our capitalist present, even as the horror of the latter is aestheticised.


On Terror and Beauty: John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea | Atlántica

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One effect of entering the geological space-time of Vertigo Sea is that we lose our bearings – referentially, philosophically, perceptually – and find ourselves tipping into a nauseous loss of balance that is the very definition of vertigo. The disequilibrium occurs when we can no longer separate our own secure viewing space from the dizzying sight of the real that surrounds us (are we not a part of these geologies, are they not consuming us, reconfiguring our very environment?); nor do we have the distance to dissociate beauty from terror. Taking the expanded spatialisation and extended temporality of the sea – what eco-critic Timothy Morton might call a “hyperobject,” which, owing to its unbounded scale and geological time, displaces human epistemologies and representational capacities7 – Akomfrah attempts nonetheless to subject it to a frame, in accordance with the monumentalising terms of his triptych-based model of expanded cinema and his use of spectacular imagery, which propose a scenography of modern history, both beautiful and terrible. By doing so, I would suggest, Akomfrah shows us that this filmic construction is but one integral part of the very grotesque attempt at dominating nature.


On Terror and Beauty: John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea | Atlántica

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The film’s recurring depictions of whale killing – a powerful and disturbing refrain at the present time of mass species extinction8 – also figure as but one part of modernity’s rampant colonisation of the world. (“The way of killing men and beast is the same,” reads another intertitle, as scenes of whales dying in clouds of their own blood mix with images of drowned black bodies washed up on beaches.) Television nature documentaries, which can capture every element of a whale’s life and explore the most hidden spaces of the ocean, might be directly related to the industrialisation of the sea; as such, the visualisation of the aquatic sublime risks slipping into the grotesque, into a means for human hubris to assert its dominance over natural phenomena. If aestheticisation here becomes a matter of the control and appropriation of nature for human pleasure, then it parallels our horror when scenes of destruction (shipwrecks, slavery’s Atlantic passage, whaling and polar bear hunting, migrants drowning) themselves become spectacularised as filmic images to be witnessed from a safe, mediated distance.


On Terror and Beauty: John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea | Atlántica

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To be clear, Vertigo Sea doesn’t shirk from showing us the unparalleled splendour of aquatic nature; this is, in fact, a courageous act of refusing contemporary cynicism, which has given up on beauty even while it rightfully sees beauty itself as threatened, if not colonised, by consumerist spectacle. The film thereby courts the risk of being accused of naïve aestheticisation, and of a hackneyed politico-ecological manoeuvre of critically juxtaposing natural and human beauty with terrible scenes of industrial exploitation. Yet nature, one might rightfully respond, is intrinsically aesthetic, and beauty a part of life itself, one that Akomfrah portrays in its fullest glory.9 On the other hand, the film provides glimpses of the destruction of that beauty, especially where aesthetic delectation mediates the destruction of a species, the violence of climate change, and the mass death of migrants. There’s something crucial in this vertiginous sea of philosophical speculation that the film initiates about our contemporary response to violence, whether ecological or human. For it is of course intolerable when our image-saturated media invite us to enjoy scenes of violence through their movie-like aestheticisation. The intolerability, as Jacques Rancière has noted in related contexts, identifies not only the unbearable reality that such images show, but also the numbing, anaesthetising capacity of such images, which can also be excoriating.10 Vertigo Sea interrogates both aspects, showing their logic at work in scenes of slavery, ecocide, and migration, and provoking a reconfiguration of the visible without any simple lesson.


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Insofar as Vertigo Sea prompts a reshuffling of times and places, it disrupts the fixation on the presentness of the contemporary, where events may be shocking because they are misrecognised as new. In this sense, the piece offers a continuation of the “hauntological”11 conjurings in Akomfrah’s recent films that bring past horrors and injustices into our own time, refusing to put them to rest, and connecting these “unspeakable moments” and “unconscious relations” to present developments (the persistence of memory, indeed). These interlinked histories demand recognition. Instead of allowing them to act out like unwieldy spectres in our periphery, causing havoc, Vertigo Sea brings them into conscious regard, insisting on conversing with them – on what another of its intertitles calls “feeding the ghost.” At the same time, Vertigo Sea projects what Akomfrah calls an “afterlife of the image,” according to which any image necessarily implies a future. This viewing-time-to-come defines a utopian dimension of image-making, if on an abstract level. Making an image, any image, is thus a protest against finitude; as Akomfrah contends, artists, as image-makers, act as “custodians of a possible future.”12


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Developing the same line of thinking, can we not then say that remembering past tragedies and imaging present wrongs – on the world-historical levels of slavery and colonialism, species extinction, nuclear war, and anthropogenic climate change – proposes, even tacitly, an alternate future? If so, perhaps what Vertigo Sea offers is the following optimism: where past injustice has failed to utterly destroy the future, we can maintain hope of a different time to come. If that time will not necessarily redeem the past, it at least holds the potential to bring historical failings into consciousness, so that they won’t be forgotten in the creation of the new.


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1 Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African [1789], ed. Werner Sollors (New York: Norton, 2001).

2 Akomfrah explains this in an online interview accompanying a 2015 exhibition at the Bildmuseet, Umeå University; see: http://www.bildmuseet.umu.se/en/exhibition/john-akomfrah-vertigo-sea/20548. Turning the interval into a site of meaning creation, Vertigo Sea offers a contemporary version of the “time-image,” as defined by Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

3 Vertigo Sea thus approximates the condition of what Jacques Rancière terms “documentary fiction.” See Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista (New York: Berg, 2006).

4 The artist discusses this in T.J. Demos, “Unspeakable Moments: An Interview with John Akomfrah,” Atlántica, No. 54 (2014), p. 59.

5 Akomfrah’s practice parallels the work of revisionist historians in recovering these figures from the art-historical archive, such as David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (eds.), The Image of the Black in Western Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Akomfrah’s work with Black Audio Film Collective was also invested in reconstructing the history of black subjects from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X, though focused on the twentieth century.

6 On the Anthropocene, see Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (eds.), Art in the Anthropocene (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015); on the Capitalocene, see Jason Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis” (2014), http://www.jasonwmoore.com/uploads/The_Capitalocene__Part_I__June_2014.pdf.

7 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

8 See Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014).

9 If “all life is semiotic and all semiosis is alive,” as anthropologist Eduardo Kohn argues, then it also bears an intrinsic aesthetic element. See How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. 16.

10 Jacques Rancière, “The Intolerable Image,” The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009). Whereas political art once directed intolerable reality against spectacularised appearance, in our current age of “disenchantment” we face “a single regime of universal exhibition” and the consequent loss of such strategies (p. 84).

11 “Hauntologies,” referencing Derrida’s coinage in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, was used as a title for Akomfrah’s exhibition at Carroll / Fletcher in 2012. I’ve also investigated this haunting condition of cultural contemporaneity in T.J. Demos, Return to the Postcolony: Specters of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013).

12 Bildmuseet interview, op. cit.