On a flat sea under a crisp blue sky, a ship sails on. There is no one on board the ship. Or rather, there are no humans on board the ship. Its mast is made of floating wood, washed up trees from an island’s deforestation. The wood wears colourful necklaces, rings and wristlet, as it enters its new life peeled from a once landed past. There are tools left on the deck, hooks and chains once used by dockers, remnants of a bygone age. In the empty captain’s cabin, unreadable maps that have taken the colour of dried blood adorn the walls. Dust lingers in the corridors, food crystallises under a plastic wrap, a plant alone grows in what was once a kitchen. Birds are perched on the furniture, silent and unmoving. The ship sails on. A window opens onto the ocean. Bubbles and foam assemble at the surface of the seas. A creature appears, tubes of a drilling machine that have found a new life, in the abandon of their former masters.
This paper takes as a departure point the spectral exhibition Ghost Ship, held at Kulturfolger in Zurich in February 2021, which remained closed to the public due to pandemic regulations. Through the sculpture of Anne-Laure Franchette, the drawings of Cora Piantoni, the textures of Dorota Lukianska, the photographs of Gregory Collavini, the films of Amélie Bargetzi and the imagery of David Jacques, it explores the afterlives of discarded maritime worlds, considering the second lives of maritime objects, whose industrial past both fades and survives in an elliptical evocation of 21st century environmental futures. The works of the artists were additionally filmed through an eponymous video piece which opened through dialogue and narrative an alternate form of documentary production, whose fictional and rhetorical extensions will also be discussed.
Gabriel N. Gee holds a PhD in contemporary art history from the Université Paris X Nanterre. His doctoral research focused on Aesthetics and politics in the North of England from the 1980s onwards. His book Art in the North of England. 1979-2008 was published by Ashgate (now Routledge) in 2017. He joined Franklin University in 2011, where he teaches contemporary art history and theory. His current research interests include 20th century British and Irish art, the changing representations and imaginaries of port cities in the second half of the 20th century, as well as interconnected global histories. He recently edited with Caroline Wiedmer a publication on Maritime Poetics: From Coast to Hinterland (Transcript, Spring 2021). He is co-founder of the TETI group, for Textures and Experiences of Trans-Industriality.
Philip Scheffner’s 2016 experimental non-fiction film Havarie is a 90 minute-long slow motion extension of a 3:36 minute-long amateur cell phone video shot from aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and focusing on a dinghy with migrants hoping to reach the coast of Spain. Its minimalist aesthetics turn Havarie into a meditation both on the divisions and the linkages between the migrants in the dinghy and the passengers aboard “Adventure of the Seas,” a maritime representative of Euro-American political and economic hegemony.
Proceeding from posthumanist, materialist analyses of the sonic and visual quality that structures the gulf between camera and object in Havarie (Strohmaier and Spahn, 2019; Villeneuve, 2020), my paper seizes on two features of the film—its single mid-film camera pan away from the dinghy onto the cruise ship which suggests the potential breakdown of the divide between Euro-American citizen-subject and stateless migrant object, and the film’s acousmatic space, which I read as a geopolitical space of lived existences and power relations. My reading gives these features a historical dimension linking the passengers on the dinghy and the cruise liner via Giorgio Agamben’s concept of Homo Sacer or “bare life” (Agamben, 1998). I relate the potential collapse of the statuses of migrant and tourist that is implicit in Havarie’s dispositif to two concrete historical instances of such a collapse: the 1939 voyage of the HAPAG liner “St. Louis,” whose 937 Jewish migrants were officially turned into refugees after Cuba, the U.S., and Canada rejected them, and the 2020 incident of subjecting the cruise ship “Diamond Princess” to a Covid-19 quarantine, which turned it into a modern day plague ship. Both instances confirm Havarie’s project of rewriting the relationship between the dinghy and the cruise liner, of imagining the implications of human life facing its transformation into the barely human.
Roy Grundmann is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Boston University. Author of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (2003); editor of A Companion to Michael Haneke (2010) and Werner Schroeter (2018); co-editor of The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, Vols. 1-4, Michael Haneke: Interviews (2020), and Labour in a Single Shot: Critical Perspectives on Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki’s Global Video Workshop (2021). Current research: how ships have shaped the visual and literary imaginaries of modernity and postmodernity (war, migration, colonialism, globalization). Monograph Refugees at Sea: The MS St. Louis in History, Film, and Popular Memory (SUNY Press) will publish 2022.
Ursula Biemann’s Acoustic Ocean explores the relationship between marine life and technology, humans and the acquatic. A marine biologist—played by indigenous performance artist, Sofia Jannok—records the soundscape created by marine life on the ocean floor on the Lofoten Islands in Northern Norway. The video installation depicts her using hydrophones, parabolic mics and recording devices used by submarines to detect danger. The scientist as explorer takes the installation visitor on an acoustic journey into an underwater universe in which technology and acquatic conversations are indistinguishable, in which we experience our own insignificance in the face of an intelligent universe.
Through frequent cutaways to the sublime visions of the northan Norwegian coastline at dusk, the primary film in the installation clearly reminds us of Romantic paintings. The journey of the Romantic visionary to the ends of the earth is one marked by blindness. In the depths of the ocean, there is no possibility of seeing. Hence the use of sophisticated acoustic technology by naval submarines for the purposes of discovery and documentation. Sound is the only way to know, to communicate, to explore.
The visitor to Biemann’s exhibition is also blinded. Even though the main video demonstrates its manipulated images through use of a superimpositions, and discontinuous editing, we believe in the reality of what we see. We assume that the sounds we hear are produced by the technologies carried by the marine biologist. In fact, they are archival sounds from the 1970s. The sonic pollution, even in this remote part of the world, is so high that the acoustics couldn’t be made today. Through immersion into the depths of the ocean, we are taken into this sublime universe, alerting us to our blindness and ignorance of the sea. We are confronted by our blindness to the sea’s ecological systems, and our want to believe what we see, even though it is an illusion. We thus learn that vision leads to self-deception. At the very same time, we discover our connection to the sea (sonically), a connection that has ultimately brought about the pollution and degradation of the oceans.
Frances Guerin teaches Film, Art and Visual Culture at the University of Kent. She has written extensively on questions of memorializing the past through images and art objects. She is author of multiple books, and articles including Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) The Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture (Columbia University Press, 2007) and most recently, The Truth is Always Grey: A History of Modernist Painting (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). She also recently edited a special issue of the Journal of European Studies on European Photography Today (Volume 47, Issue 4, December 2017). Her monograph on the contemporary American painter, Jacqueline Humphries, is forthcoming from Lund Humphries.
Brenda Longfellow is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Department of Film, York University and an award-winning filmmaker. She has published articles on documentary, feminist film theory and Canadian cinema in Public, CineTracts, Screen, Camera Obscura and the Journal of Canadian Film Studies. She is a co-editor (with Scott MacKenzie and Tom Waugh) of the anthology The Perils of Pedagogy: The Works of John Greyson (2013). She was the 2018 recipient of the inaugural Faculty Research Award in the School of Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University. Her most recent project, the interactive documentary Offshore, is available at: http://offshore-interactive.com/