One-fifth of the Earth’s surface is a multimedia web project described as a conversation between collaborating artists Hakeem Adam and Maxwell Mutanda and the Atlantic Ocean. The project’s online experience is divided into navigable segments comprising audio, video, visual and textual elements that can be explored in a number of combinations, depending on the path taken by the user. Taking the Atlantic Ocean as their focal point, the artists bring together archival material in the form of diagrams, maps, recordings and more.
We understand a body of water as being natural and formative for the world in which we live. Civilizations settled next to bodies of water that provided food, sustenance and navigation, to further develop in trade routes and cultural exchanges. The title of the work refers to the area that the Atlantic Ocean occupies in the world, a body of water that flows in many tributaries, taking the form of rivers, streams, lakes and other masses more small. Moving against the compositional quality of the Atlantic Ocean, or its natural state, the artists challenge the very notion of naturalness, examining historically man-made features that have been incorporated in order to allow easier access for trade, exploring manifestations of colonialism.
Maxwell Mutanda told STIR: “Hakeem and I talked a lot about this idea of the Atlantic as this graveyard of buried souls, but also buried information that was very important to us. That this history is in a way this continuum of capitalism.
The project began as a means of linking the two UK cities of York and Liverpool, both situated along rivers, which expanded into a wider conversation around the artificial creation of commercial infrastructure, looking at the concept of an “improved river” which is dug deeper. and widened to allow travel by boat. Mutanda says: “If you think of Liverpool with this idea of the ship canal, which is this artificial body of water specifically to facilitate the trade and the movement of these goods and the construction of ships – particularly slave ships, all by Blacks and Browns. This history is an integral part of the life of the city.”
Collaborating visual artists describe the project as informational quality research that can understand the ocean and all that may be in it, in terms of stories that look at labor and commerce, etc. Different views of the water are created based on maps, wind maps, audio and recitations, to create a mesh network of information that anchors itself in the body of water. They examine the systematic creation of infrastructure and roads including canals, dams, naval passages, not to mention the data cables that speculatively allow information to be embedded in the ocean. The transatlantic slave trade is difficult to capture in the imagination without taking into account its occupation in the colonial slave trade of essentially black bodies.
In a conversation with STIR, Adam describes the nature of the project: “We were very interested not only in the spatial dimension of water, but in all that is absorbed and held, and how you can build something trying to look inside of it, rather than looking through it.”
Compared to American rivers, such as the Mississippi which served as a passage for the slave trade in the South, the rivers of the United Kingdom are considered quite “benign”, as Mutanda describes it. Mississippi, for example, “occupies a very important place in the imagination of African-American history”, according to him.
Besides examining the historical constructions of the ocean, one can also consider the political configurations that work even in the realm of water. Claiming bodies of water under national identifications becomes less a matter of naming rights and more of geopolitical control, trade and commerce, defence, naval occupation, as well as an element of surveillance, ranging from a colonial construction to a postcolonial space.
At the same time, water becomes a space for discussing ecological change in the wake of the global climate crisis, where Mutanda speculates, “I believe the type of food that might start dominating our diets might be squid and octopuses, for example, as they can survive warmer temperatures better. Whereas right now, especially from the North Atlantic and in the North Sea, the ocean is dominated by cod and salmon and so on. But it will change our relationship to the natural world and the way we have changed. As we said, the composition of the water itself is very much related to fishing and to the current times.”