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VENICE, Italy — “Google why U mad?” spins onto the screen in the film Deep Down Tidal (2017) by Tabita Rezaire. The internet is not decentralized, Rezaire reminds us; neither is it in “the cloud.” It’s actually lying all over the ocean floor. Along the Atlantic slave trade routes, the film goes on to say, sharks would follow ships hoping to catch the bodies that were thrown (or had jumped) overboard. On screen, we see a shark butting its head against a thick, underwater cable, over and over like an endless glitch — the ships might be gone, but the routes remain.
Rezaire’s film declares a striking parallel: the internet (and its infrastructure) continues to reenact the “geopolitical matrix of preexisting colonial routes.” The film was screened as part of the daylong program “Phenomenal Ocean” at the TBA21–Academy’s Ocean Space in Venice. Curated by Chus Martinez, it brought together artists, scientists, and lawyers to take a deep look at the “Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate,” issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in late September this year.
The report was authored by over 100 scientists from 36 different countries, citing about 7,000 research studies. It states: “Global warming has already reached 1°C above the pre-industrial level … The ocean is warmer, more acidic and less productive.” The ocean is also noisier than it has ever been before, which was the subject of “Sounds Too Many” (2019), a lecture-performance by Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza. Just like scuba divers, whales get the bends, she explained. It’s decompression sickness, and is entirely the result of human interference into their habitat. High-frequency sonar technology, commonly used in naval exercises and patrols and first developed in the 1950s to detect submarines, is what throws them off balance. It produces stress that ends up as liquid nitrogen in their body tissue. Like a shot of adrenaline, this changes their diving patterns, and they dive deeper than they can handle. Since the ‘80s, this is one of the most common reasons for whale beachings all over the world (especially within the territories of the United States and its NATO allies). Sonar is not the only sound that pollutes the ocean: there are bomb tests (often atomic), underwater drilling (mostly for oil and gas), and loud containerships. In “Sounds Too Many” sophisticated equipment played us some of these sounds, sometimes with minutes-long reverbs and deep, explosive bass. Thyssen-Bornemisza had also collected the rhythmic, totally entrancing sounds of whales and dolphins communicating with each other, which transported us deep into the ocean, our eyes closed.
Martinez asked, what was one of the most pertinent questions of the day: “How do we look at the ocean as the future, rather than as a colonial past?” She also asked, “How do we locate ourselves after nature?” The answers, we found as the day progressed, pointed to reclaiming nature, or rather, significantly returning to the imaginative methods proposed by nature, and the indigenous practices that are closest to it. “Phenomenal Ocean” proposed that we try to achieve a political imagination that operates outside of the damage/rescue response structure as operated by the state, and instead embody a politics that will allow the ocean to guide us, rather than the other way around.
Ocean Space, which functions as a space for collaboration and discourse in a city, Venice, flung to the whims of the sea, hopes to continue this dialogue with projects to come, and with Ocean Archive, which will take their initiatives online through an open-source database for conversation. The archive hopes to encourage alternative imaginations to confront our apocalyptic times, by providing a space where contributors can upload entire projects, start their own archives, or look for collaborators with similar interests. During a historical moment where it is certainly difficult to be optimistic of the future to come, there is a radical potential to making records, and to opening up space for inventive discourse.
“Phenomenal Ocean” was a daylong program of film screenings, talks and performance which took place at Ocean Space (the Church of San Lorenzo Castello 5069, Venice, Italy) on 28 September 2019, and was the venue’s closing event of its inaugural season. The program was curated by Chus Martinez.