Between Land and Sea: Art and the Bigger Picture

By Steven Ball

continental-drift-william-raban.jpgContinental Drift, 2005

Between Land and Sea is a collaborative exhibition of moving image and photography by Catherine Elwes, William Raban, Susan Trangmar and Chris Wainwright, co-curated by the artists. To date it has been exhibited at Box 38 Gallery, Ostend, Belgium (12 February - 23 March 2007) and The Gallery, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth (19 January 2008 - 14 March 2008). In this personal tour Steven Ball reflects upon the exhibition, its themes, associations and implications.

Over the tracks, over the flats, down past the coast road, past the beach, through the haze and spray, a red light flashes. On and off. Off, off and on: The sea is getting warmer.

You are used to the idea that digital technology is based on a binary code, an essential state of ones and zeros, ons and offs. You are used to it to the point that you forget sometimes, that processes of remediation have been so complete that the digital moving image, just over there, isn’t a film, its indexicality, if that is what it is, is buried deep in silicone, and transmitted by code. Will you one day wake up and find that it really is too late, that the transformation is complete, that physicality has been encoded, plucked from a material base that has long since dissolved now that all is information?

Of course all this started some time ago, around 200BC in fact when Pingala, an ancient Indian writer famous for his work the Chandas Shastra, developed advanced mathematical concepts for describing the patterns of prosody. As this is the earliest know use of binary, code digital media has it seems, its deepest roots, not in the military-industrial complex, but in poetry. Samuel Morse’s invention was then a late addition to the use of binary code. Originally developed in the early 1840s for use on an electric telegraph, Morse code can be used on any signalling instrument with a simple on and off state. Morse was also a painter and a strict Calvinist, his Landing of the Pilgrims was painted in Plymouth Massachusetts, it depicts the first English Pilgrim Fathers landing to found America at the colony with ideas of religion and government.

Here in the first Plymouth, the three video screens of Chris Wainwright’s installation Red Sea flash messages in Morse, his long exposure night views of the sea from the beach are eerie and sinister.

On, off, off, on…

Are you carrying dangerous cargo?

You think of these nameless spaces between, these provisional, shifting and ill-defined spaces, places that evoke mystery quickly shading into danger, tides change, boats trapped, dashed on the rocks. Or some cockle pickers, unfamiliar with the deceptively shallow waters of the sands, caught in its undertow. These migrants of doubtful status, living lives on the run, lives as bare as the rocks of nameless places, driven to the blackest of labour markets. The status of the migrant is provisional and unformed at the point that they arrive in a new country, at the edge of the known world. Unlike Morse’s colonists with their Christian determination and destiny, our most recent arrivals by sea might be crammed into suffocating containers, lucky to survive the journey, their destinies tied to the sea and always precarious.

But out on the waves we are all migrants of a sort aren’t we? In this state of temporary statelessness they are Telling Tales Aboard Bluefin (Catherine Elwes), bringing to a floating boat party an exchange of stories, anecdotes, experiences. Shot mostly from the bobbing boat, you feel almost as though you are there as the talk turns always to places arrived at by sea, around the islands, life on the islands, and about how in the open sea one might experience a “...total absorption with one part of nature, not making excuses for not thinking about anything else.”

Except perhaps how in Cuba a man who won’t kill a cockroach is no good, because he also won’t mend the roof; or how when you encounter Haitians on one of your forays ashore, they like to be seen at their best and if not will turn angrily away from your camcorder; or how in Jamaica you run the risk of encountering drug dealers from Oxford; or how men on the Orkneys cope with the harsh environment of the islands by regular heavy drinking and how a member of filmmaker Margaret Tait’s family walked out to sea after one such session. From these tales you learn how small island colonies, with their reliance on the sea, are inhabited by people whose existences seem more precarious than yours.

red-sea-chris-wainwright.jpgRed Sea, 2007

Here is an anecdotal anthropology of sailing and you learn how people negotiate the force and beauty of the ocean in an elemental, abstracted sense but also in a social sense in their encounter with folk from the islands. You understand how these human connections are based on a shifting and complex relationship with between-ness. The inhabitants of the boats have their own self-determined liminality, their own floating island if you like; they are able to exist in this temporary touristic sublime space, like a moving colony of migrants in their suspended statehood. Unlike your cockle pickers, they occupy a self-elected state of exception as the sea gives our sailors temporary respite from their responsibilities, from being tethered to a mainland, from what gives them licence to sail. And when they go ashore they don’t exchange baubles or God for land with the natives, their trade now is in US Dollars, Euros, stories, and video images.

In your mind Dungeness on the English south coast will always be associated with two things in particular: Margaret Thatcher and Derek Jarman. The association with Thatcher is due to the presence there of the Dungeness B nuclear power station and you are of an age when Thatcher’s policies in the eighties had a profound and lasting impact on your political outlook. It might seem paradoxical now, but the rise of nuclear power as a primary source of energy in the UK is directly linked to environmentalism and global warming.

Thatcher’s policy of closing coalmines was primarily because of fears of global warming. Replacing dirty, inefficient and uneconomical (vastly labour intensive, employing entire communities of miners in the north) coal power with nuclear was the answer. Jarman, of course, was attracted to Dungeness for its strangeness, its otherworldliness, and you might have thought of him as the other side of the radical coin to Thatcher, but it seems he rather approved of the power station, he certainly romanticised it: “the nuclear power station is a wonderment. At night it looks like a great liner or a small Manhattan ablaze with thousands of lights of different colours.”[1]

But for you, like many people in the eighties, art was not a transformative force and you couldn’t help but conflate nuclear energy and weapons, they shared a technological process and the enthusiastic embrace of western powers, while Mutually Assured Destruction and the endless nuclear winter, the aftermath of a bomb dropped on London illustrated so graphically by concentric circles spreading up to the Midlands and across the Channel, haunted our cultural and private imaginations.

conditions-of-visibility-susan-trangmar.jpgConditions of Visibility, 2007

The view from the edge of the marshes in Conditions of Visibility (Susan Trangmar) is hazy and indistinct, Dungeness B is not a glittering marvel but a brooding hulk obscured by mist, enveloped in cloud, the weak sun is unnaturally static across these views. In spite of a similarity in appearance, the locked-off camera evokes not the Romantic painters’ temporal simultaneity of singular spatial viewpoints, but a temporal medium’s mechanistic recording, indifferent to human presence. As the Romantic painter would have laboured for days to produce an index of moments in an instance, the mechanics of the photographic records as index of instances in a moment that, distant but imperious through the mist, the power station persists in your absence like the low sun. And in spite of nuclear power, the sea is still getting warmer.

Low in the boat, blue-gray waves lap close as the horizon bobs high in the frame. Bathing beaches, anglers, ferries, boys jump in the water: on both sides of the English Channel the same activity. From here in the middle of the Channel the view is of traffic passing, the sun rises and sets, this passing-through place is home to nothing more than the temporary, and the South Goodwin light is moored, calm and resplendent in red. Continental Drift (William Raban) takes you on this journey, you look around from port to starboard, from east to west as the cargo and human traffic pass, on a trip to the Continent that the Island of Britain is a reluctant part of. You think that out here in the uneasy calm of the Channel, perhaps Britain is a kind of liminal partner in relation to mainland Europe, in its psychological, subjective, conscious state of being on the threshold of, or between two different existential planes. Can a national psychology be characterised as agoraphobic, repressing space?

Raban also presents you with the facts of navigation, the old nautical maps, sketches, filmstrips, photographs the materials of the process of making, and you can see how the film thinks itself into existence and by extension you think about how the exhibition has developed.

Throughout this exhibition you have inhabited representations of these between-spaces, and the gallery in its bare state is also a kind of liminal space, between representation and the represented, the environment and the experience. The moving and still photographic media representations of space are themselves between: between the deep space of representation, the flat surface space of the screen and the local contained gallery space.

The collaborative nature of this show ensures a material practice, an ongoing discourse, a spatial hither and thither movement between works and between imaginative associations. ‘Between’ is not simply a neutral space of shifting and dubious affiliation but it is movement and movement is discourse. In a migrant space you work things out for yourself as you begin the process of place making and it is thus with this a gallery, not a neutral space as its status as a place is predetermined by its function. You think that perhaps collaborative curation by artists as a material process can continue to change the shape of space, recombine and refresh the potential for creating new relationships and associations between place and the viewer.


Endnote

[1] Derek Jarman, Derek Jarman’s Garden, Thames and Hudson, London, 1995, p 67.


Steven Ball is a maker of moving image works, a writer and a critic. He works at The British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection in London. Visit: www.steven-ball.net