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JOSÈFA NTJAM, Unknown Aquazone, On the background: CAROLINA CAYCEDO, Serpent River Book, ‘Emotions are Oceans’, RADIUS CCA. Photography: Gunnar Meier

The underground humidity and water-stained stone walls of the recently opened exhibition space Radius CCA set the perfect stage for Emotions are Oceans: an exhibition in which creative alliances are formed across national borders, disciplines and species in order to tackle the complex web of cause and effect that is climate change.

“We are all bodies of water.”

– so wrote feminist cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis somewhere in 2009. A deceptively concise and straightforward statement, as it opens up a series of questions worth pondering at length; Who, or what, is the ‘we’ being referred to? What kind of alliances and entanglements are created by this grouping? Why is it meaningful that being made of water is something ‘we’ all have in common? Neimanis’ engagement with bodies and water is not only thought-provoking (and has since then expanded into a book), but also more urgent than ever before, as the planet heats up, sea levels rise, species go extinct, and whole societies become prone to severe water shortages, droughts, and catastrophic weather events.

The watery bodies referred to are our own human bodies, composed of over 90% water, but also those of plants and animals, as well as oceans, lakes, rivers, swamps, and other aquatic life forms and ecosystems. Our shared liquid materiality and our common origin in the ‘primordial soup’ hold great political and ethical implications. In thinking with and through water, it quickly becomes crystal clear that humans are not some superior species leading an independent existence from nature, but we are embedded and dependent on the well-being of our environment for survival. Water, covering over 70% of the Earth’s surface, is simultaneously a life-giving and life-threatening element, as well as a greatly mismanaged resource. It thus occupies a very special position in the consideration of our collective future on the planet and the collective (political) action we take in this regard.

The inaugural group exhibition Emotions Are Oceans at Radius CCA introduces a series of contemporary artistic responses to these notions. An unusually hot spring day set the ideal conditions for descending into the cool subterranean water basin-turned-exhibition space. As I made my way down the stairs – a slightly sweaty and dehydrated body in need of water – it crossed my mind that it was quite apt that the setting was so closely related to the main subject matter. The underground humidity and water-stained stone walls made for a completely different atmosphere to the climate-controlled, well-lit, neutral(ised) space of the white cube. The multidisciplinarity present in the selection of works, along with the diverse geographical locations addressed by the artists, speak to the urgent need for finding alternative ways of relating to our environment, and for forming creative alliances across national borders, disciplines and species in tackling the complex web of cause and effect that is climate change.

Ursula Biemann’s video work Deep Weather traces the link between intensive fossil fuel extraction in Canada and fast-rising sea levels in Bangladesh. Monstrous machinery is filmed from the sky as it hungrily penetrates the Earth’s crust in search of fossil resources amid a dystopian smoke-filled landscape. While extractive industry devastates its immediate surroundings, its consequences are far-reaching, surfacing in other parts of the globe. The extraction happening in the Canadian tar sands is pushing the Bangladeshi population, thousand of miles away, towards an increasingly precarious amphibian lifestyle. Following its aerial survey, the camera shifts to an on-the-ground-level (or rather, on-the-water) view of how Bangladeshis are working tirelessly on building large-scale mud embankments in the delta as the water encroaches, threatening total submersion. This work exposes a dark reality of climate change; while wealthy countries and corporations situated in the Global North are responsible for the majority of ecological disaster, populations in the Global South tend to be the ones disproportionately affected and having the least resources to cope with the tragic aftermath.

From close to background:  URSULA BIEMANN, Deep Weather; MÜGE YILMAZ, Circle Of Necessities (Halay), DENISE FERREIRA DA SILVA & ARJUNA NEUMAN, Waters – Deep Implicancy, 'Emotions are Oceans', RADIUS CCA. Photography: Gunnar Meier

CAROLINA CAYCEDO, Serpent River Book, On the background: SAMI HAMMANA, 'Emotions are Oceans', RADIUS CCA. Photography: Gunnar Meier

A number of works in the show turn their attention to how modern-day infrastructures are built on violent colonial and imperial practices. Sami Hammana’s video work ~~~~ follows undersea cables along the navigational transoceanic routes of 16th and 17th century colonial ships. The cables are situated on the seabed, a lightless zone which, shrouded from sight by the water’s materiality, renders this large-scale system practically invisible. Yet despite its visual imperceptibility, the ruthlessness of contemporary maritime technology and labour relations is alive and well. Carolina Caycedo’s Serpent River Book is a 72-page artist-book about the biodiversity of river systems, combining archival images, satellite photography, maps, poems, and lyrics, among other elements.

Unfolded and arranged to resemble a winding river, Caycedo’s book forms part of a larger body of work titled Be Dammed in which the artist analyses how imperialist privatisation and industrialisation of water resources in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico, disrupts and displaces local communities while destroying whole ecosystems. Situated in one of California’s most important industrial agricultural regions, Lukas Marxt’s Imperial Valley (cultivated run-off) is an investigation into how corporations have been able to cultivate parts of the Sonora desert by exploiting two bodies of water; while the crops are fed through a large-scale irrigation system drawing water from the Colorado River, the toxic run-off ends up in the Salton Sea, a man-made lake on the verge of ecological disaster. These works shed light on the provenance and inner workings of modern-day capitalist production, while revealing the true human and environmental cost of the relentless scramble for resource ownership and profit-making.

Our knowledge of the world around us inevitably shapes our relationship to it. Alice dos Reis’ video work UNDERCURRENT and the installation Liquid Properties by Marjolijn Dijkman and Toril Johannessen probe the shortcomings and possibilities of Western science and knowledge systems. In UNDERCURRENT, the viewer follows a marine biologist’s research and subsequent ethical dilemma. By inserting nanocameras into the bellies of krill, the scientist is able to study the seabed of one of the deepest areas of the North Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, the camera insertion process complicates the krill’s reproduction process, pointing to an unequal, exploitative relationship between humans and non-humans that is  justified (or not?) in the name of scientific advancement. With the aid of hand-blown spheres providing enhanced vision, Dijkman & Johannessen’s Liquid Properties reveals lively processes happening in water ecosystems that go largely unnoticed. While we tend to think of water as a transparent, tasteless substance, this installation uses scientific tools to show organism growth and the birth of new species in enclosed micro aquatic systems.

Himali Singh Soin’s speculative video work we are opposite like that and the interactive installation River Oracle by Riikka Tauriainen, Paloma Ayala and Anne-Laure Franchette imagine alternative ways of engaging with bodies of water. Sensitive to water’s agentic properties, the artists pose the question of how can we relate to our ‘others’ otherwise? Singh Soin constructs a mythology for the poles told through the non-human perspective of the ice, which she embodies as she appears on screen wrapped in an emergency foil blanket moving through a glacial landscape. The work is enriched by a field recording and a quartet arrangement capturing a humming boat, the wind, and sheets of Pancake Ice smashing into each other.

PALOMA AYALA & ANNE-LAURE FRANCHETTE & RIIKKA TAURIAINEN, River Oracle, 'Emotions are Oceans', RADIUS CCA. Photography: Gunnar Meier

Sound is also an integral element in River Oracle, a work based on the artists’ encounters with the ecology of the Rhein river. The viewer is invited to sink into one of the comfortable bean bags strewn among fabric cyanotype curtains and listen to what knowledge the water might have to communicate to us. This artwork is based on the principle that water is a planetary archive of meaning and matter which can help us situate ourselves and cultivate self-reflection. Despite both works having prevalent visual elements, their strong appeal to the auditory and the haptic (in River Oracle) mark a move away from sight as the dominant mode of access to the world and a step towards a more sensual experience of the environment.

SUSANNE M. WINTERLING / THE KALPANA, In Desert Times, 'Emotions are Oceans', RADIUS CCA. Photography: Gunnar Meier

Emotions Are Oceans further addresses the question of what is the scope of aesthetic production in crisis-ridden times? It would be too much to ask from art perhaps, to state that it can save the world. However, the grouping of works shown in the exhibition demonstrate that art occupies an invaluable role in helping us make sense and navigate through our shared experience of living in a highly complex and stressful present. In a scenario when colonial capitalism not only holds our future captive, but threatens to destroy it altogether, reclaiming creative, joyful ways of living and being in relation to other humans and non-humans is a fierce act of resistance.

Emotions are Oceans runs until June 26 at Radius Centre for Contemporary Art & Ecology, Delft. It is the first in a cycle of 4 exhibitions forming part of Radius’ year program titled UNDERLAND running until February 2023. Participating artists: Ursula Biemann, Carolina Caycedo, Marjolijn Dijkman & Toril Johannessen, Xandra van der Eijk, Denise Ferreira da Silva & Arjuna Neuman, Sami Hammana, Lukas Marxt, Josèfa Ntjam, Alice dos Reis, Himali Singh Soin, Riikka Tauriainen & Paloma Ayala & Anne-Laure Franchette, Susanne M. Winterling / The Kalpana, Müge Yilmaz.

Manuela Zammit

is a writer and researcher from Malta

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