There's something in the water by Roisin Agnew

October 2021
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There's something in the water
Roisin Agnew

Some time in the last year we ran out of names for storms. The naming process began as a response to tragedy when, in 1825, a storm made landfall in Puerto Rico on St Anne’s Day, killing hundreds, and subsequently becoming known as Hurricane St Anna. For a storm to deserve nomenclature it has to surpass a maximum sustained speed of 73 miles per hour, when it becomes, to all effects, a hurricane. The logic behind naming is unmysterious. It’s about humanising an elemental force so that people care and pay attention, thus mitigating loss of life but also personalising the loss of life if and when it happens. It takes things to potentially be soon-to-die or just-dead for us to care, but it also takes flashpoints emblematic of a collective anxiety for us to humanise and collectivise them.

Storms are catalysts for change we’re told, (as in the case of Ayesha Hameed’s performance lecture, ‘Black Atlantis’). They are born at sea and only manifest their true potency once they hit land mass. But while they remain in the blue yonder it is impossible to tell what they might become. The ocean shrouds its violence in mystery and becomes equivalent to disorder, a watery anarchy that threatens ontological disruption and environmental destruction in an unknown way. So when meteorological mappings indicate that we should expect more storms and that they’re not slowing down, it’s up to us to find new ways to express what will come from the sea without the benefit of Bertha, Dolly, or Luke. If the function of naming is to generate awareness of what is to come, then we must find a different way of generating a sustained alertness that doesn’t cave in to panic or fear, but acknowledges that we should fear what comes from the sea.

Over the course of the pandemic an already growing trend received a boost of interest in no small part due to the indoor activities being closed to the public. ‘Cold water swimming’ or ‘wild swimming’ became so popular that it was given an actual dedicated column for a while in The Irish Times and wild swimmers were estimated to have doubled in numbers over the course of 2020 alone. For those who weren’t put off by the holisticism and breathy earnestness with which it was spoken about, the appeal, as I understand it, comes from the revitalising effects and sense of presentness induced by the shock of the cold water, as well as the freedom of communing with nature. But the roots of wild swimming have less to do with the self-project and are more systemic. In Britain, wild swimming in its current format was first popularised in 1999 by the publication of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, an account of swimming around the country via its seas, lakes, rivers, and natural pools that served as a critique of the increasingly privatised watery commons, as well as a celebration of what we now know to be the healing powers of wild swimming. Earlier still, cold water was used for medicinal purposes by British high society in the 18th century as a way to treat the vast array of ailments that plagued them. The sea was treated in this case, like a medicine cabinet, with sea water to be dunked into and drunk. The descriptions of this form of ‘taking the cure’ seem closer to a form of self-waterboarding than to mindfulness. Women would be repeatedly dipped into the rough sea, where the mixture of cold and a sense of drowning combined to induce a state of terror and fear that gave way to a sense of revitalisation, an act of micro-Sadism that seems quintessentially British. In this sense, the healing properties of the sea were only equivalent to the fear the sea induced. It is on this point of fear that cold water fetishists of the present differ (and are less interesting) than those of the past. The 18th century marked the time of greatest colonial expansion in the British Empire and the height of the slave trade. It was also during this time that Britain debated its ‘blue water policy,’ whether it should turn away from the continent and embrace instead the full potential of the sea. Sea monsters were still widely believed in and news of shipwrecks were common. More than any other element, the sea fascinated and terrified the British imaginary of the time and yet they saw engagement with it not just as helpful in restoring psychic-physical balance, but vital to healing.

In Maïa Nunes’ ‘CROSSINGS’ the sea is a similarly haunted space where the spectres of colonialism can only be put to rest through immersion by way of story-telling. Conceived during their time in their ancestral Trinidad, ‘CROSSINGS’ is narrated by the artist’s aunt, Diane Bertrand, whose sense of familial duty has drawn her into chronicling ‘the crossing’ of slave ships to Trinidad and situating the geographical enigma of the Bermuda Triangle as a burial ground haunted by slaves thrown overboard who now seek to wreak revenge. Moving from the sounds of calypsonian Lord Kitchener’s ‘London is the Place for Me’ to the winds of a storm, the sound piece is punctuated by Nunes’ quiet “uhums” as family and community mythology is passed down. (Nunes’ interest in the subject matter seems inevitable given their shared Irish, Trinidadian, Madeiran ancestry, making them congenitally sea-bound).

The oral histories and hauntings materialise for Nunes into the practice of indigo-dyeing, still practiced albeit seldomly in Trinidad and neighbouring Tobago. Indigo was one of the most important cash crops of the Americas and the way of working it is derived from the way of working the other cash crop, sugarcane. Its journey around the world at the time took in the whole stretch of the British Empire, from its provenance in India to its destination in the Caribbean. Its intense shade of blue, which Newton added to his colour wheel as distinct from ‘blue’, is also a colour associated with mourning. Mourning can be a politics, as Black historian Christina Sharpe argues in In The Wake, which draws parallels between ‘the wake’ of the slave ship (the parting of the water and waves that occur as a vessel moves through it) and ‘the wake’ engaged in as a grieving ritual after somebody dies. In ‘CROSSINGS’ mourning is not a passive act, but something present and vital, much like the indigo colour to which it clings. Mourning in this format becomes not an act of remembering, but a way of grounding oneself in an alert and defiant present. As Sharpe notes, “how do you memorialise that which is still ongoing?”

In Pádraig Spillane’s ‘What Passes Between Us’ the relationship to the sea is one that instinctively tries to escape history in favour of science fiction, through a focus on the robotics and pharmaceutical hub of Cork Harbour. Printed onto mesh, hung from the ceilings and accompanied by the industrial soundscapes of Simon O’Connor and operatic vocal dread of Michelle O’Rourke, the works hint at an alien future informed by an industrial present, where once again family forms the connective tissue. An accompanying text written by Spillane upon first presentation of the work, describes being a child growing up in Cork Harbour, where his father worked for Pfizer. The sounds of a working port and the knowledge that his dad is nearby making it run, combine into “a moment of knowing that there was something outside of home, a connection to my dad at work in louder places, places where things [were being] made.” Cork Harbour’s emergence as a major pharmaceutical hub was a result of its importance in the British Empire, a major stop-off point for ships to refuel and load up on stocks. Its importance as an industrial complex is the result of it being passed from the hands of one empire to another one, a corporate empire now attracting the likes of Apple egged on by the lowest (and currently hard-fought) corporate tax rates in the European Union.

The connection between past and future-forwarding empires is rendered most acutely in one image of a hand whose fingers have been severed off, hinting at a desire for continuity without knowing quite how. It is also suggestive of an embodied response to a colonial history and the potential future effects of body-modifying chemicals. The mesh-like consistency of the hands suggest at a repetition of history through the medium of the sea as first a cultural, then an industrial site of empire; “the same visual information cycled and reiterated in different visual ways - fragments flowing into each other, repeating similar-ness and difference through framing and proximity,” as Spillane says.

Again, history, memory, and family are not presented as reasons for melancholia, but rather as up-holding a tense presence on the verge of future-change. The unseeing figure in one Spillane’s images looks like a mute but all-seeing alien staring past us and into what is to come, bearing witness to change. Coincidentally, the first time the work was shown was in Sirius Arts Centre, the former site of the first ever yacht club, the Royal Cork Yacht Club.

(The Pfizer plant where Spillane’s father worked is said to be one of the biggest manufacturers of the world’s supplies of Viagra. A 2017 story in The Sunday Times reported that locals had begun to suspect that the fumes from the plant were causing feelings of arousal, with one bartender, Debbie O’Grady, describing it as, “One whiff and you’re stiff,” whilst others maintained it was having an effect on stray dogs. Viagra and the sea meet in an unconventional nexus over the colour blue - or indigo. As Maggie Nelson notes in her vertiginous book-length abstraction on blue in Bluets: “Acyanoblespia: non-perception of blue. A tier of hell to be sure - albeit one that could potentially be corrected by Viagra, one of whose side-effects is to see the world tinged with blue.”)

In ‘Silver-Tongued Seas’ both Maïa Nunes and Pádraig Spillane undertake an elemental materialism that plants culture in the environment, a vision similar to Carl Schmitt’s in his seminal essay, Land and Sea. The works engage with sea-hauntologies and familial history with a desire to subvert them and create connection. Unsentimental and un-wet, their vision is akin to one of “fluidarity,” as conceived of by Kodwo Eshun in his Afrofuturist masterpiece, More Brilliant than the Sun, with reference to an all-genre-encompassing rhythm of solidarity. Here, the importance of the sea webs out beyond the personal and into the planetary, the systemic, to form channels of solidarity at high water, from where unknown and nameless storms may well soon be coming.

Silver-Tongued Seas curated by Liquid continues at Jupiter Woods until October 31st.