Tag Archives: environment and justice

John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

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Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

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John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…

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Transition, or The Power of Just Doing Stuff

the-power-of-just-doing-stuff-160x246This book is an invitation to explore a new approach to how our economy might work, how we create employment and wealth, and how we live and work in our local communities. (9)

I’d heard about the Transition Town stuff, I’ve even been a member of the Brixton group on facebook for quite a while now, but it never seemed very active and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was all about… This book was lying around the office, brought in by Claire I expect, and reading further down the first page I found:

I hope that this proves sufficiently inspiring that in later years you might look back at the moment when you picked up this book as having been one of the seminal moments in your life, beyond which you never looked at things in the same way again. (9)

As if for all of us there’s some pre-packaged red and blue pill a la Matrix with the same content, the same deconstruction (or reconstruction) of reality that some dude can give us to swallow and thus change everything.

I really hate that shit.

That said, looking at content over style and the point of this book as a simple introduction to energy descent and what are mostly permaculture principles as they might apply to building local community and resilience, well that’s all good. I understand the idea is to inspire. So I won’t quibble too much over style, just note it didn’t work for me and won’t work for anyone else with a bit of a chip on their shoulder from having been regularly informed of what to think because you’re a woman, or poor or any of the other multitude of reasons like being a person of colour or an immigrant or disabled or elderly or… all those things.

The idea underpinning this book is that local action can change the world. Between the things we can do as individuals and the things that governments and businesses can do to respond to the challenges of our times, lies a great untapped potential, what I am calling ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. It’s about what you can create with the help of the people who live in your street, your neighbourhood, your town. (11)

That’s all good. The aspiration that local action can change the world. I like too that it’s tied in to big problems that neither austerity nor any proposed new deal is talking about — peak oil, climate change, an economy in crisis that can’t just keep expanding forever.

I’d like to suggest a third approach, a new Big Idea for our times, which could prove to be one of the most essential and pivotal shifts in thinking in recent times. It is the idea of local resilience as economic development. It is the idea that by taking back control over meeting our basic needs at the local level we can stimulate new enterprises … while also reducing our oil dependency and carbon emissions… (27)

Resilience — I am still not sure what I think of this term, in many ways it has always seemed to me an academic appropriation of what poor people have doing for thousands of years to survive, and something to admire in that sense, but surely we should be aiming higher. Still, I’m willing to look at it as a construct. He quotes Lewis and Pat Conaty’s The Resilience Imperative on what generates resilience

  • Diversity
  • Modularity (leave a gap in that line of dominoes)
  • Social Capital (another word I quite hate, but ‘social networks and vibrant communities’ are all good)
  • Innovation
  • Overlap (no siloes, no one is isolated)
  • Tight feedback loops (the real point of evaluation — get better as you’re going along)
  • Ecosystem services  (real understanding of our impact) (34-35)

Thinking about how to build that into community work is important I think, and useful when actively thinking about how to knit together different people and projects to make the whole stronger. These terms used both to plan work and to evaluate how well you are doing seem very useful indeed.

The point that ‘We are the cavalry‘ is an interesting one…no government, big business, wealth benefactors or billionaires are going to bail us out. We have to do it. Am I sure about this? Frankly not so much because those are the guys really causing climate change and taking the whole world to hell in a hand basket, but I am sure that communities working together like this is a vital part of the solution. How does he argue this works?

If you can get a group of people together where you live and you can start practical projects on the ground which demonstrate this new approach, then what starts to happen is that the story that place tells about itself begins to shift. (47)

A good insight that practice shifts discourse, shifts the way we understand the world through our narratives. What Re:imagining Change talk about, but a more organic way of creating a counter narrative built in positive change rather than all the many important campaigns that stop all the bad things from happening.

Transition is an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. And it’s a movement you can join. There are people near you who are optimistic and practical too. And it’s something you can actually do. Actually, it’s lots of things you can actually do. Lots of things.

The Transition approach is self-organising and people-led. It looks different everywhere it emerges, yet is recognisably Transition…It’s a social experiment on a huge scale. It’s also great fun.

You can think of it as being like Open-Source software. Everyone who gets involved picks it up and tries it out where they live, and is part of its ongoing evolution. Their additions refinements and insights are available to others who are also trying to figure it out…You can think of it as a self-organising system, driven by people’s enthusiasm and ideas. (49)

There’s a whole lot of this happening everywhere, which is so inspiring, and not all of it is Transition of course. The internet has made it possible for stories to spread so quickly, for people to learn from one another. There are multiple different networks, another one growing out of the Community Lovers Guides done by Civic systems labs, and their even more intentional approach to how the growth of a thickly networked participatory community might be facilitated (see thoughts on their marvelously detailed report on a year’s work in South London here). But networks are important, feeling part of something bigger is important. Hopkins answers the question of why label things as Transition — it allows for a more joined up approach, can be a catalyst and idea incubator, provides a network. As long as there’s no proprietorial feeling over such local efforts, that’s all good too.

Transition of course builds on the permaculture principle that we are moving into energy descent, having to scale back everything as deeper crisis approaches (Holmgren writes about this, as well as Bell and Mollison of course). The vague outlines of it as an economic approach are interesting. Hopkins argues Transition:

proactively sets about creating a post-growth economy from the bottom up, contributing to the ‘Big Idea’… It doesn’t just accept that we have to grit our teeth for five more years of ever-more-soul-crushing austerity..

What characteristics will it have?

  • Localised
  • resilient
  • brings assets into the community ownership
  • low-carbon
  • has natural limits
  • not purely about personal profit (59)

Quite vague though. It also depresses me the absence of words like justice, a line about how we end existing structural inequality. The environmental justice movement has been fighting that for so so long, arguing addressing class, race, gender, sexuality inequalities have to at the forefront of any real and lasting change. You have to throw in global inequalities as well. Graham Haughton is one place to start, Vandana Shiva‘s work somewhere else. I know this book is mostly about motivation, but this could just become (or remain) for the most part a nice comfortable middle-class thing. It can’t stay there and maintain any real meaning, especially when there is so much amazing stuff happening around the world — more amazing outside of the UK to be honest. This does try to connect to some of those things, but clearly it’s mostly limited to Britain and its former white colonies.  This is the weakness of localism in many ways I think, it tends to avoid these issues as well as the big agents of climate change with a positive goal of doing what we can here and now. An uneasy trade off that needs more work.

So all that said, I did like the case studies — I always love case studies, they actually help you do things and they really push our ideas about what is possible starting where we are.

I do like that that is the point.

Here are a few that you can look at

Totnes REconomy project

Malvern Gastketeers

Bristol Pound

Transition Town Brixton

The one I most love is Brixton Energy — I’m just sad living in Brixton for the past six years I had never heard of it, but putting solar panels up on estates is definitely my idea of awesomeness. Their last post, though, is November 2014 and like a lot of these initiatives they seem to be continuing on but not expanding. These initiatives rely quite heavily on people with a lot of time and no few skills, at least to really start up and get going. That makes it hard, and not so resilient and is something that needs more thought I think. The participatory city folks are working on what it would take to get a very dense network of projects up and running that would network a whole community and make this more sustainable once set in motion. That’s quite exciting really, and I do have immense enthusiasm for these kinds of projects…

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