by Rahul KumarDec 30, 2021
One-Fifth of the Earth's Surface is a multimedia web-driven project that is described as a conversation between the collaborating artists Hakeem Adam and Maxwell Mutanda, and the Atlantic Ocean. The online experience of the project is broken up 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 its focal point as the Atlantic Ocean, the artists bring together archival material in the form of diagrams, maps, recordings and more.
We understand a body of water as being naturally occurring and formative to the world that we live in. Civilisations were set up next to bodies of water that provided food, sustenance, and navigation, to grow further into trade routes and cultural exchange. The title of the work refers to the area that the Atlantic Ocean occupies in the world, a mass of water that runs into numerous tributaries, taking shape as rivers, streams, lakes and other smaller masses. Moving against the compositional quality of the Atlantic Ocean, or its naturally occurring state, the artists question the very notion around the natural, looking into the historically man-made features that were incorporated in order to allow easier access for trade, exploring the manifestations of colonialism.
Maxwell Mutanda tells STIR, "Hakeem and I have talked a lot about this idea of the Atlantic as this graveyard of buried souls, but also buried information that was very key for us. That this history in a way is this continuum of capitalism.”
The project started as a mode of connecting the two British cities of York and Liverpool, both occurring along rivers, that expanded into a larger conversation around the artificial creation of trade infrastructure, looking at the notion of the 'improved river' that is dug deeper and made wider in order to accommodate travel by boat. Mutanda says, "If you think of Liverpool with this idea of the ship canal, which is this manmade body of water specifically to facilitate trade and movement of these goods and the building of ships – specifically slave ships, all by Black and Brown people. This history is very much a part of the life of the city."
The collaborating visual artists describe the project as looking into the informational quality that can comprise the ocean and all that can be held within, in terms of histories that look at labour and trade and so on. Different views of water are created on the basis of maps, wind charts, audio media and recitations, to create a mesh network of information that takes hold in the mass of water. They look at the systematic creation of infrastructure and routes that include canals, dams, naval passages, not to mention data cables that speculatively allow for information to be embedded in the ocean. The transatlantic trade is difficult to capture the imagination without taking into account its occupancy in the colonial slave trade of primarily Black bodies.
In a conversation with STIR, Adam describes the nature of the project, "We were very interested in not just the spatial dimension of water, but everything that is absorbed and held in, and how you can construct something from trying to look within that, rather than looking across."
Compared to American rivers, such as the Mississippi that was used as a passage for slave trade in the South, rivers in the UK are seen as quite "benign", as described by Mutanda. The Mississippi, for example, “looms very large in the imagination of African American history,” as per him.
Besides looking at historical constructions of the ocean, one can also consider the political setups that function even in the realm of water. Claiming water bodies within national identifications becomes less about naming rights, than about geopolitical control, trade and commerce, defence, naval occupation, as well as the element of surveillance, extending from a colonial construct to a post-colonial space.
At the same time, water becomes a space to discuss ecological change as a result of the global climate crisis, where Mutanda speculates, “I believe that the kind of food that may start to dominate our diet could be calamari and octopuses, for example, because they can survive more in warmer temperatures. Whereas right now, especially from the North Atlantic and in the North Sea, the ocean is dominated by cod and salmon, etc. But that will change the way we relate to the natural world and the way that we have changed. As we said, the way that the water itself is composed is very much linked to the fishery and to the present day."