In the 19th century, the international order of power and commerce rested on the sea: the vast merchant navy and the gunboats of the British Empire. In the 20th century, power gradually passed to the skies, as air-power gradually became the defining tool of imperial wars, and planes the primary means of personal travel around the gradually shrinking globe.
Come the 21st century, some would say, the mantle of power and wealth has passed out of the physical realm altogether to the internet: Vast networks of computers automating and operating financial transactions, while the popular uprisings of 2011 are often thought of as the spring of Facebook and Twitter.
Why, then, re-approach the sea now as an object of political and artistic enquiry? The Contemporary Image Collective’s exhibition “Hydrarchy” does just that, and suggests some compelling answers.
The first is that the sea is still a defining space of power and conflict in the modern world, albeit in a manner radically different to that of 200 years ago. The term hydrarchy was appropriated by the historian Peter Linebaugh, who used it to describe two related developments of the late 17th century.
“The organization of the maritime state from above, and the self-organization of sailors from below…a maritime radical tradition that also made it a zone of freedom. The ship became both an engine of capitalism in the wake of the bourgeois revolution in England and a setting of resistance.”
Linebaugh’s idea is that maritime capitalism, in order to traverse the globe, created an international maritime proletariat: a multi-racial, multi-lingual class of sailors, smugglers, privateers, whalers and escaped slaves. They were joined by vagabond adventurers, fled from the failure of their radical democratic aspirations in the English Civil War and elsewhere. This maritime proletariat found various ways to strike back at the maritime state which created it: shirking, mutiny, piracy, self-governing maroon communities and rebellion. They created an antagonistic culture.
But what is modern hydrarchy?
In 1968, a former trucker and businessmen from North Carolina, Malcolm McLean, was in trouble. He’d invested heavily in a new scheme to revolutionize modern shipping: huge, standardised modular containers. Not only would they make loading and unloading quicker and more efficient, they would also reduce the reliance of ports on the troublesome dock-workers’ unions, who bore an extant form of the traditional maritime militancy. (Oakland port, one of the new container-ports, has unexpectedly reproduced this militant tradition, despite the technological adjustments.)
However, huge costs were involved in transitioning to McLean’s new system, and many port authorities were reluctant.
Then, in that revolutionary year, the US decided to renew its involvement in Vietnam. That meant a new port facility at Cam Ranh Bay. McClean won the contract, and — his financial position secure — set about making containerization one of the defining features of modern globalization; the dominant means of international trade in today’s world.
It is this global infrastructure which carries industrial manufactures and food from Asia to Europe and America. It is this infrastructure at which the US Occupy movement seeks to strike with its December 12 plan to shut down every port on the country’s West Coast. Perhaps it is a precursor of a new antagonistic hydrarchy.
Uriel Orlow’s installation gives us an esoteric insight into the world of international shipping on the brink of this transformation. In 1967, the six-day war trapped 14 cargo liners in the Suez Canal. The Egyptian Navy scuttled ships at either end and the canal was blocked for eight years, leaving the 14 vessels — carrying, amongst other things, plastic toys for British children and t-shirts for West German teenagers — trapped until 1975.
The crews were rotated every three months, but a strange, becalmed community developed there, complete with its own football and athletics competitions, and a postage system with its own stamps. Orlow’s collection showcases photographs, footage and ephemera documenting this odd temporary community.
The sea has not only political and economic importance, but also an aesthetic and sensual uniqueness. When Sigmund Freud was looking to describe the sense of “eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded” which lies behind all religious and spiritual sentiment, he called it the “oceanic feeling.”
“It is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole,” he said.
The most famous painter of the sea, J.M.W. Turner, made use of a similar idea, “the sublime,” popularized by the 19th century conservative Edmund Burke. To experience the sublime in nature was to experience its awesome power, and one’s own smallness and vulnerability in comparison. The sublime might be visually beautiful, but there was nothing calming or pleasant about the experience of it. This feeling, of terror in the face of vastness, was given its name by alpine mountaineers, in the days before helicopter rescue and gore-tex replaced hobnail boots and brandy.
But when we look at Turner’s paintings of wooden ships tossed in storm, we can imagine something similar; the feeling of the sailor, thousands of miles from home, in the grip of the elements and — perhaps — imminent death. It’s a far cry from the characteristic modern, middle-class encounter with the sea: the beach holiday; the corniche at Alexandria, scuba-diving at Sharm El-Sheikh.
Even for most ocean-going vessels, vast tankers, container-ships, cruise-ships and leisure-yachts, the sublime experience of the sea is now largely gone: for the most part, they’re too big to capsize, and if they do, they sink so slowly that rescue is all but assured.
But there are a few places where the experience of the sea as a terrifying, deadly space remains. One of these is the Mediterranean, across which sail, every year, hundreds of tiny, often make-shift vessels carrying migrants from Arab and Sub-Saharan Africa, headed for the fields of Spain, street-stalls of Italy, the kitchens and cleaning contractors of metropolitan Paris and London.
It’s a journey several migrants describe in Bouchra Khalil’s “Mapping Journeys,” and a journey that is depicted in Xaviera Simmons’ collection of press photography. Every year thousands die making such journeys. In May this year, European naval units allowed one such migrant vessel to drift for 16 days, ignoring their distress signals, leading to the death of 62 people on board, all but 10 of the passengers. One of the survivors described the experience as follows: “Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard. By the final days, we didn’t know ourselves…everyone was either praying, or dying.”
The sea as a vast, eerie space, tragic and powerful, is evoked by the Otolith group’s film work “Hydra Decapita.” The film begins and ends with a commentary on a Turner painting depicting a 1781 atrocity, in which 100 slaves were thrown overboard. It moves on to imagine an Atlantis-like under-water world, Drexciya, populated somehow by the children of pregnant African slaves, thrown overboard during the Middle Passage in the Triangle Trade, which brought slaves in irons to the plantations of North America. It’s an attempt to imagine some sort of escape and emancipation in a story of more or less unrelenting horror.
The simplest piece is amongst the most affecting. Palestinian artist Ayed Arafah asked friends to bring him samples of seawater from around the world. A few of the 135 liters are displayed here, in a tarpaulin strung up like a giant version of the sort of bag in which a goldfish might be sold to a child. There are no notes to tell us why Arafah wanted to build an inland sea in Ramallah. But perhaps it’s that even inland, the sea can be a symbol of freedom, just as it can of power, rebellion and the sublime.
“Hydrarchy – Transitional and Transformative Seas” is showing at the Contemporary Image Collective: 2 Abdel Khalek Tharwat St., 4th Floor, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2396 4272.