12th International IAWIS/AIERTI Conference: Sea and Water in Word and Image
Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, a novel that is over a century and a half old, is on many artists’ and writers’ minds these days. Melville’s tale of hubris and greed aboard a whaling ship is both a strong metaphor for the present and a way of understanding how we got here. As data flows at the speed of light around the planet, it seems apt to reflect on a time when capital flowed over water at a much slower but no less ruthless pace. The world order that haunts the present day was produced during this time through the dogged pursuit of wealth on the high seas. It was an era of colonialism, exploitation, slavery, industry, and technological acceleration. As high-frequency and algorithmically-modulated trading increasingly de-centers the human body in regimes of global finance, so too did the colonial period reduce the natural world to insurance figures and subjugated people to commodities. Allan Sekula’s Fish Story (1995) was a foundational work in this area, and a recent example can be found in Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. (2014), where the fluidity of financial markets is entangled with the messiness of corporal reality. The primordial elements are no more stable than these automated flows. Another example can be found in Return of the Obra Dinn (2018), an indie game designed by Lucas Pope, the creator ofPapers, Please (2013). In the game, the protagonist is an insurance investigator, rather than an adventurer or a sea captain, who is tasked with determining how an East India Company vessel ended up with all of its crew either dead or missing. The operations of finance, greed, and instability are placed at the center of the narrative. This panel will explore recent art, literature, and text that deals with the sea-based trade in the past and investigate why and how this theme is so relevant to the present moment.