Transgressing Our Horizons: Two Oceans in Relation – On the 2017 edition of the Transoceanic Visual Exchange

By Adam Patterson Monday, November 27th, 2017 Categories: Exhibitions, Features, New Media, Reviews, Updates, Video Art
 

Barbadian artist Adam Patterson shares a response to some of the work featured in this year’s Transoceanic Visual Exchange 2017 experimental video art exhibition held at Fresh Milk, Barbados on November 8th & 9th, in which he was also one of the participating artists.

Looking at work by fellow Barbadian artist Anisah Wood, Fijian artist Shivanjani Lal, a collaboration between Venezuelan-born, Trinidad-based artist Luis Vasquez La Roche and Scottish artist Joanna Helfer, and a submission by the Sydney-based collective Black Birds, Adam reflects not only on the parallels we are able to draw across disparate experiences and cultural backgrounds, but also challenges our frames of reference for viewing the works, and what it means to bring these pieces together in exchanges such as TVE. Read more below:

Luis Vasquez La Roche & Joanna Helfer, Incertidumbre y Fracaso / Uncertainty and Failure, Installation view at TVE, 2017.

Luis Vasquez La Roche & Joanna Helfer, Incertidumbre y Fracaso / Uncertainty and Failure, Installation view at TVE, 2017.

Man does not perceive the totality of what his eye sees in the reality that surrounds him but only what his mind is looking for. He distinguishes the forms he is accustomed to, which remind him of known objects. He recognizes more than sees. He perceives that which responds to an inner interrogation, which accords with his fears or desires.[1]

The eye of another was a kind of cage. When it saw you the lid came down, and you were trapped. [...] There was something absolutely wonderful about not being seen. [...] The darkness brought a strange kind of release, and you wished secretly in your heart that darkness would descend on the whole earth so that you could get a chance to see how much energy there was stored in your little self. You could get a chance to leave the cage. You would be free.[2]

The Caribbean bears an image under constant revision; its history involves an ongoing wrestle with images projected, discarded, persuaded, dissuaded, traumatised, repressed, remembered and forgotten. Mostly islands cradled by sea walls, we have been recognised as both Hell and Eden (and everything in between), usually through the eyes of visitors, but sometimes on reflection of ourselves. New media and contemporary modes of sharing give way to platforms such as Transoceanic Visual Exchange (TVE) which, even if only momentarily, open pockets of dialogue between two seemingly unlinked sides of the world. Between the Atlantic and the Pacific, we travel virtually, taking with us our ideas, our art and our selves. Becoming passers-by and observers, passed and observed, how do we emerge from this exchange? In our arrival to the other side, in the passage from our own unity to intercultural multiplicity, how do our particular ways of seeing operate within the friction of art from parallel horizons?

Shivanjani Lal, में यहाँ नहीं हुँ (I am not here), Installation view, 2017.

Glowing from within the now blacked-out space of Fresh Milk’s Reading Room, the skin of several maps is being erased in a manner of diligent focus. Shivanjani Lal, an artist of varied heritage and upbringing across India, Fiji and Australia, in her work, में यहाँ नहीं हुँ (I am not here), rubs out each of her origins as an act of violent recuperation, their residue being a material liberated from the confines of the map. Each land is freed from its borders as an effort of relief, a reconciliation and response to those colonial and globalising orders that have sought to carve up this world and its peoples. Lal’s residual shreds and their redistribution echo Walcott’s broken vase, whose fragments are reassembled in care, love and pain, whose restoration is not taken for granted.[3] Unsettled and contested identities are gradually becoming more visible in the emergence of a globalising world, Caribbean peoples being an example of this phenomenon, though not an isolated singularity. The national lines, as stubborn as sea walls, become displaced in the “problem” of our selves, calling for a revision of our world in relation to the radical diversification of the map. The map will be convulsive; or will not be.[4]

Luis Vasquez La Roche & Joanna Helfer, Incertidumbre y Fracaso / Uncertainty and Failure, Video Stills, 2017.

Aligned with TVE’s prioritisation of alternative modes of exchange, the work of Luis Vasquez La Roche and Joanna Helfer, a collaboration spanning between Trinidad & Tobago and Scotland respectively, Incertidumbre y Fracaso/Uncertainty and Failure highlights an intimate meeting of the two artists in ritual sharing. Exchanged letters – written though unread – are burned, their contents left intact in the confidence of fire; a preservation of opacity through sacrifice. Whereas the letters, pre-burnt and unread, held themselves as objects that settled us “within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning,” the burnt abject ashes draw us “toward the place where meaning collapses.”[5] Meaning becomes immaterial or, rather, meaning and understanding no longer take their usual precedence in the way we relate to one another. The artists, in this exchange, highlight the importance of the act of a cross-cultural engagement, undetermined and undeterred by the assimilatory and erasive principles of acceptance through understanding. Invoking Glissant, “It is not necessary to try to become the other (to become other) nor to “make” him in my image.”[6] Incertidumbre y Fracaso/Uncertainty and Failure brings to focus a capacity of seeing in opaque confluence with how we may relate.

This brings us to a confluence noted between Anisah Wood (Barbados) and Sydney-based arts company, Black Birds (Fiji / Tokelau / Grenada / Maori), led by Ayeesha Ash & Emele Ugavule, in their respective works Fall from Grace and Pehe. Wood’s Fall from Grace is an experimental animation featuring the panning image of silhouetted bodies falling either to or from a palm tree printed landscape, made in response to the 2015 threat of mass deportation of Haitian migrants from the Dominican Republic. Black Birds’ Pehe (the Tokelauan word for ‘song’), is a video installation highlighting the presence of slavery (‘blackbirding’[7]) and indentureship in the Pacific as told by four women, whose ancestries have been subjected to these colonial practices. Whereas Wood’s work relies on visual narrative paired with ambient sounds of birds and whistling frogs, Black Birds’ installation incorporates a variation of music, historical accounts through voice and ambient sea sounds paired with experimental documentary footage.

Anisah Wood, Fall from Grace, Video Still, 2015.

In Wood’s Fall from Grace, as we pan across a printed landscape of inky palm trees, bodies (silhouetted in textures of what seems to be wire wool) fall from the sky of the screen, scraping, disappearing and submerging beneath the frame. It is difficult to say whether these figures are falling to or from this landscape, or whether they even hold contact with it. In the recent history of Hispaniola – an island shared in tension by Haiti and the Dominican Republic – there have been several violent and unlawful attempts to deport people of Haitian descent from the latter[8]. Looking at this phenomenon not in isolation but as an integral part of the history of migration and upheaval (forced or otherwise) as these relate to the Caribbean, we can witness a multitude of layers in Fall from Grace, especially in relation to Caribbean experience of place and movement. As Glissant states, dispossession “begins naturally with the first African snatched from the Gold Coast,”[9] and this instance lies as one of many epicentres that galvanises the emergence of a series of diasporas. The Caribbean body ripples towards a constant state of freefall; plucked and dropped in front of the land, rooted only in sea and air with branches stretching and hovering just above each island – a dispossessed floating canopy. As in Fall from Grace, the falling bodies are superimposed and, therefore, separate from the land. Even the land itself, a tessellated effort of imagined and remembered visual signifiers (the only other signifier of place being the atmospheric sounds of birds and frogs – a host of disembodied cries), holds a distance, basing itself in indication and not description; a place only to be passed through, to be panned over.[10]

Black Birds, Pehe, Video Still, 2017.

Following similar notions of upheaval, Black Birds’ Pehe is an act of reconciliation with the colonial deceptions the four women’s ancestors were contracted to. In each woman’s account of their connection to Blackbirding and indentureship, there is a final confirmation that their “ancestors were taken by boat,” – a solemn admission that casts waves as far as the Caribbean. Without conflating our respective histories, we can draw lines of confluence between the Caribbean and Oceania. Histories of traumatic displacement have ruptured the selfhoods of those “taken by boat,” and their descendants inherit the task of recollecting the fragments. The sound of thrashing waves is omnipresent as the sea recalls our history – “we sense that this sea exists within us with its weight of now revealed islands,”[11] islands of trauma, scattered memory, reunion with what was lost; an archipelago of recovery. A song inherited from an elder is translated to, “She’s crying for them to bring the boats back,” a plea almost as impossible as asking the waves to move backwards. Ancestors and colonisers are sternly addressed and in our return to the present, with these four witnesses and products of history, Pehe becomes a record, lamentation and recollection of those fragments lost of identities caught in freefall.

Beyond the parts, we must look to the creative conflict of the whole, as represented through TVE’s structures and principles in themselves. Returning to my introductory invocations of Mabille & Lamming, a test of seeing may be at work within TVE. Through the sense of movement and slippery multitude of subjectivities at play within the works exhibited, there is a need to see beyond one’s own frame of reference or, rather, a need to see in spite of it. Without the desire to conflate, we are challenged to adopt alternative ways of seeing – an initiation into aesthetic empathy – seeing without prejudice, fear or desire. Recognition is a tactic of projection and, though the familiar may be an easy access point of penetrating work, it seeks to reduce the object of our gaze, its complexities, its context, to our own stores of reference. Simile is the enemy of confluence. In the exchange, facilitated by TVE and also present in Vasquez La Roche & Helfer’s encounter, our responsibility lies less in mutual understanding (mutual reduction) and more in a care to conserve each other’s integrity. Look not to the branches whose foliage can be disfigured and dispossessed from their own peculiarities; look instead to our roots that tangle underwater, meeting each other across oceans of distance. After all, “the unity is sub-marine.”[12]

Read the original review on the Transoceanic Visual Exchange website here.


References:

[1] Pierre Mabille, “The Jungle: On the importance assumed by art criticism in the contemporary age,” in Tropiques, no. 12 (1945).
[2] George Lamming, In The Castle of My Skin (UK: Penguin Random House, 2016), 75-76.
[3] Derek Walcott, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” in Caribbean Visions, ed. Samella Lewis (Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 1995), 29-35.
[4] This is a repurposing of Breton’s demand of beauty. André Breton, Nadja (Paris: NRF, 1928). Cited in Paul Laraque, “André Breton in Haiti,” in Nouvelle Optique, no. 1 (1971).
[5] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (NY: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1-2.
[6] Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (USA: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 189-195.
[7] Blackbirding is the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers.
[8] For an overview of this history of deportation, see: Javiera Alarcon, “It’s Really Happening: The Dominican Republic Is Deporting Its Haitian Residents,” Foreign Policy in Focus, April 4, 2016.
[9] Edouard Glissant & J. Michael Dash, Caribbean Discourse (USA: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 38.
[10] Glissant & Dash, Caribbean Discourse, p. 130.
[11] Glissant & Dash, Caribbean Discourse, p. 139.
[12] Kamau Brathwaite, Condradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean (Jamaica: Savacou Publications, 1974).


Works Cited:

- Brathwaite, Kamau. Condradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean. Jamaica: Savacou Publications, 1974.
- Breton, André. Nadja. Paris: NRF, 1928.
- Glissant, Edouard. Poetics of Relation. USA: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
- Glissant, Edouard and J. Michael Dash. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. USA: University of Virginia Press, 1989.
- Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. NY: Columbia University Press, 1982.
- Lamming, George. In The Castle of My Skin. UK: Penguin Random House, 2016.
- Laraque, Paul. “André Breton in Haiti.” Nouvelle Optique, no. 1, 1971.
- Mabille, Pierre. “The Jungle: On the importance assumed by art criticism in the contemporary age.” Tropiques, no. 12, 1945.
- Walcott, Derek. “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory.” In Caribbean Visions, edited by Samella Lewis, 29-35. Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 1995.

Adam Patterson
Adam Patterson

Adam Patterson is a Barbadian visual artist and writer based in Barbados and London. He completed his BA (Hons) Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in 2017. His work emerges from imagining strategies of resistance in the face of neo-colonial encounters and desires that affect Barbados and the Caribbean region.