Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea

Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea
18 September – 7 November 2010
Curated by Anna Colin and Mia Jankowicz

Gasworks, London
University College London
London Zoo
Broadgate Tower, London

[Exhibition] Mathieu K. Abonnenc, Goldin+Senneby, Laura Horelli, Melanie Jackson, Anja Kirschner and David Panos, Uriel Orlow, Femmy Otten, Christodoulos Panayiotou, João Pedro Vale
[Conference] Amy Balkin, Angus Cameron, Lisa Lefeuvre, Marcus Rediker, CAMP

Produced by Gasworks.

* * *

Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea* is a group exhibition that approaches historical and contemporary examinations of the sea and the offshore as contested cultural, political, legal and socio-economic territories. Focusing on specific events, situations and mythologies attached to past and recent maritime history, the works address power relations at sea and the forms of resistance and survival developed as a response.

Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea brings together artists whose work explores themes encompassing colonialism and the slave trade, commerce, sea tourism and offshore finance, as well as maritime folk history, piracy and the proverbially tyrannical figure of the captain. While not always explicitly referenced in the works, the ship, as the ultimate container and enabler of these activities, histories and relations, stands as the unifying element of the exhibition.

Works in the exhibition:

Paul McCarthy, Aryan Death Ship (1983/2010)
In 1983, Paul McCarthy realised the performance Aryan Death Ship in which the artist assumed the authoritative figure of the captain of an ‘Aryan Ship of Death’. The performance viewers were expected to interact with and humour the grotesque antics of the captain, as though they were a crew subjected to his tyranny. Amplifying shipboard power relations and the violence associated with the figure of the sea captain, Aryan Death Ship is one of several of McCarthy’s performances dedicated to the subject of the ship and its occupants as the embodiment of a micro state and its un-civil society. Aryan Death Ship (1983/2010) is shown for the first time as a video work in Hydrarchy.

Goldin+Senneby, Looking for Headless (2010)
Goldin+Senneby’s project Headless (2007-) is an ongoing investigation into the offshore company Headless Ltd and its possible connections to Georges Bataille’s 1930s secret society Acéphale (meaning ‘headless’). Headless is an ongoing performance and meta-fiction that has generated manifestations including a novel in progress, a blog, lectures and guided tours, produced in collaboration with writers, journalists and economists. More recently, Goldin+Senneby commissioned Kate Cooper and Richard John Jones to make a documentary retracing the multiple strands of this ongoing investigation.

Christodoulos Panayiotou, (Untitled) Act II: The Island (2008)
This is the second work in a triptych made of folded theatre backdrops. Together, they form a narrative of a ship departing to and returning from the European colonies. (Untitled) Act II: The Island catches the voyage at its mid-way point, on a lush and seemingly uninhabited island whose depiction matches the descriptions of the New World as a new Commons or a new Eden. In this work, the ‘remote’ is conceived literally as a stage setting where narratives of discovery at sea unfold.

Melanie Jackson, The Undesirables (2007)
The work takes its lead from the 18th and 19th century practice of making dioramas to document and re-perform sea battles. In this installation, Jackson revisits the incident of the container ship MSC Napoli, which was stricken off the South English coast in 2007. As containers washed up on Branscombe beach, the media announced that according to maritime legislation, their content would become common property. In a tale of present-day bounty, people rushed to help themselves to BMW motorbikes, shampoo bottles and trainers, while the authorities and right wing media became increasingly hostile to the scavenging. Click here to view Melanie Jackson’s video related to The Undesirables.

Uriel Orlow, The Short and the Long of it (v 1.0) (2010)
Uriel Orlow’s multi-media installation takes as a starting point the failed passage of fourteen international cargo ships through the Suez Canal on 5 June 1967. Caught in the outbreak of the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the ships were only able to leave the canal in 1975 when it re-opened. While stranded, the political allegiances of the multi-national crews were dissolved, giving way to a form of communal survival and the establishment of a social system. Playing with different modes of documentary and narrative, The Short and the Long of it (v 1.0) focuses on this event hidden in the shadows of official histories.

Femmy Otten, The Seaspoon (2007)
Femmy Otten’s approach is uniquely dependent on trust, placing the immense imaginaries of the sea in poetic contact with the minutiae of the everyday. The spoon itself is a highly poignant artefact documenting a strong friendship, having belonged to a blind elderly friend with whom the artist spent many years as a companion and helper. As the woman frequently reminisced about the North Sea, Otten one day took her soup spoon and painted it, and then continued to feed her from it as normal, keeping this gesture secret until the woman passed away.

Laura Horelli, Helsinki Ship Yard/Port San Juan (2002-3)
Laura Horelli uses footage and interviews to probe into the production process, working conditions and simulated leisure of increasingly larger cruise ships. This double video piece touches on legal loopholes exploited by cruise ship companies to extend the working hours of the staff, and on the design strategies used in the construction of luxury ships to demarcate the hierarchy between privileged guests and strained workers. While these ships have the infrastructure of autonomous cities, including a hospital and prison, the promise of leisure and international social encounters masks the darker reality of exploitation, alienation and isolation of the crew.

Anja Kirschner and David Panos, Polly II: Plan for a Revolution in Docklands (2006)
Anja Kirschner and David Panos’ satirical fiction is loosely based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and its censored sequel, Polly. The work is set in the near-future where London has been flooded, financial speculation is spiralling and the dispossessed are literally adrift. Here, the high-rise, ‘waterside living’ dreams of government and developers, is pitted against the plans of pirates, prostitutes, criminals and idealists of London’s newly dissident society, fomenting revolution.

João Pedro Vale, Of the Monstrous and Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales (2009) and Scrimshaw (The Crew) (2009)
João Pedro Vale appropriates fables as a starting point to explore ideas of identity-formation. In these works, he draws on representations of whales, ships and sea crews based on the myth of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick(1851). Alluding to amateur cabinets of curiosity, Of the Monstrous… presents scientific sketches alongside trophies and romantic representations of the confrontations with the gigantic creature. In Scrimshaw (The Crew), Vale subverts the heroic symbolism attached to whale’s teeth. Made to look like a collection of souvenirs of a past conquest, the teeth have been printed with homoerotic images suggestive of the debauched fantasies associated with sailors.

Mathieu K. Abonnenc, The Middle Passage (2006)
This work refers to the forcible journey of African people across the Atlantic to the New World, from the 16th to the 19th centuries. A sequence of extracts from a range of Hollywood movies explores this largely undocumented and abstracted space from multiple viewpoints. The collaged fiction starts on the surface of the sea; continues its journey through a tropical forest, a cliff, and a drowned city; before diving into deep seas. Conspicuous in its absence is any explicit imagery of the figure of the colonised and of the vessels that transported several million people on this journey of enslavement.

Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea consciously parallels the maritime activities of the late 18th century with those of the late 20th and early 21st century as two periods in which the exploitation of offshore conditions have produced defining global economic and social relations. These relations, much like the mercenary activities of pirates and maritime privateers, exceed and undermine – and yet ultimately serve to reiterate – the stable fictions of the nation state.

* Revived by radical historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2001), the term ‘hydrarchy’ is used to “designate two related developments of the late seventeenth century: the organisation of the maritime state from above, and the self-organisation of sailors from below”.

Click here for material related to Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea on Pipeline.

* * *


Saturday 18 September, 10am-5pm
Hydrarchy Conference

UCL, London

A one-day conference brings together speakers from the fields of theory, history, geography, politics and contemporary art to discuss the themes behind the exhibition, based on their own research and perspective. Offering a historical and theoretical framework, while expanding on the artistic propositions presented in the exhibition, the conference aims to further delve into the zone of exception and liminality that constitutes the sea and the offshore.

With: Amy Balkin (artist), Angus Cameron (human geographer), Lisa Lefeuvre (curator and writer), Marcus Rediker (historian, writer and activist), and Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP (artist).

Sunday 19 September, 12pm
Each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form

London Zoo

“No one seems to be there to introduce Cameron, and now he’s lost his audience to a monkey. He makes one final scan of his notes, then, as he is about to speak, he notices two macaques sitting high up at the top of the enclosure in a chaotic framework of old branches.”
– K.D. in Looking for Headless

As an extended part of the Hydrarchy conference, Goldin+Senneby organise a talk at London Zoo with economic geographer Dr Angus Cameron, who acts as the artists’ spokesperson. In this talk, Angus Cameron has promised to explain what a 14th century fictional knight and a handful of monkeys in Gibraltar have to do with the construct of state sovereignty.

Wednesday 20 October, 5-6pm /Thursday 4 November, 5-6pm
Offsite screenings of Looking for Headless (2010)

Broadgate Tower, Regus

How do you look for something that isn’t there? Kate Cooper and Richard John Jones take on the role of rookie documentary filmmakers and try to find the middle of nowhere. Sounds confusing? As they find out, this is only the beginning when you cross the border to the non-place of ‘offshore’…

“I was still living in Gibraltar, working through my notice at Sovereign Trust, an offshore management company. […] One of thousands of companies that Sovereign manages is called Headless. It was incorporated (i.e. registered) on the Bahamas through our Gibraltar office. Headless is a strange name, and it got me thinking. Then we got a call from Goldin and Senneby, two Swedish artists. They said they were looking into Headless Ltd. This definitely was strange. Companies like Headless are not really ‘open to investigation,’ so I didn’t really understand Goldin and Senneby’s angle here.”
– K.D. in In Search of Story: A journal in eight parts