Circling Collective from the south pathway, the first two windows facing the National Monument are black, the third and also the fourth around the corner beside the ramp are a very subtle almost-black blue: darkness making a mirror. Blue light in the entrance corridor. Moving into the gallery the windows are intense, their light shining through a tank holding translucent moon jellyfish. Circulating. Jellyfish thrive in a warming world, where ‘the liveability of earth for vast kinds, species, assemblages’ is increasingly threatened. [i] Decorative. Clinical. Exhibiting something alive that’s not a person. Dreamlike.
The next room in darkness. The video begins, a still image, perhaps this world but on a tray surrounded by clouds, flat. A voice introducing the ‘Nomads’:
‘We have an amazing community on this cruise ship: graphic designers, SEOs, people who are doing start up consulting and have been working for like the biggest corporations in the world. And it’s so cool that you can just go anywhere and just grab all this knowledge that we have on this boat, and it can, it doesn’t really matter if you’re just starting out or are already professional, we have like everything that you need to run a really successful business while we’re travelling the world’ [ii]
Establishing shots of the cruise ship, surrounding sounds, the Sovereign, in port at Gran Canaria, Spain. Queues of some sort. Then its night and we’re moving onto a, the, ship, lights fading into the distance. Sunshine on deck. Breathing. Tranquil water. Stills of an immense atrium. Walking, watching someone white filming a white entertainer—the image quality changes, decentring—entering a dining area with white guests and white waiters in white tuxedo jackets. Jumping into the pool we are submerged but moving.
Self-styled ‘digital nomads’ are mainly white (often men) from northern Europe or the US with jobs they can do online. Still citizens of privilege attached to a nation, but migrating and working, often solitary, for months at a time, they come together for demonstrations of community. On this, their first (self) conscious cruise [iii], they edutain one other: ‘…em, offshore is a theme and a question you will always find in all digital nomad groups… I think it started in the 1950s … The smaller the country … the more you can be sure that there’s a tax haven waiting for you, and waiting for your money … “Please come in, we don’t tell anybody, we hide everything” … Belize, Hong Kong, Seychelles, Singapore, em Uruguay, Bahama … it became normal.’ [iv]
Cruises and freight transportation are increasing, and so are the number of ships. This cruise, a one way trip to reposition the boat, doesn’t stop, is cheaper, much quieter and consequently has a disproportionate amount of crew to guests, 1:1. There’s still a passenger hierarchy—‘Gold’ tickets for better booze and berths—but, it seems so… Daydream: Nine days trapped on a ship, time to get on with writing: luxury, room always clean, all meals made for me, blue skies, sunbathing at times, meditating, doing yoga, perhaps going for a swim; trying to avoid the complimentary alcohol but dancing at the nightly parties… Are they wearing togas?
Archival maps pepper the footage: beginning with the flat world, then partial but recognisable structures of continents and countries, ‘progressing’ to several based on the familiar Mercator projection: originally dating from 1569, it’s good for navigation but centralises Europe and overemphasises its land area relative to Russia and Africa. Mercator was (disputably) Flemish, although a Japanese map similarly makes ‘home’ large and middle. Mercator’s projection is the basis of Google Maps, endlessly reinforcing a particular understanding of this World’s structure. [v] Routing. Managing.
A youngish white man (Ross Little), semi-prone, eyes closed, being schooled in hypnosis, in front of something that could be his sculptural female alter ego. Smooth jazz Tears in Heaven . ‘Breath in and out… Concentrate and look inside… feel your heartbeat, your pulse.’ Shots of a silent, not white, security guard, not white cleaners. ‘…the weight of your body… you fall deeper, and deeper, get very relaxed… feel really really relaxed and happy.’ The nomads’ final poolside photo call. ‘…feel the air conditioned cool air’ Marichyasana Cs modified. Doubles tennis. ‘…now that we’re really relaxed we’ll start a little journey… you can see any place you want to be… you want to be on the beach, go on the beach, you want to be on the moon… doesn’t matter.’ Images eventually fading from sunsets, through artificial light and into darkness. [vi]
The sound of waves subside. Black. Fading in, following two workers with torches. Is it the engine room? In the dimness a phone tone magically echoes a song I know but can’t name, behind metal structures voices reverberate in a language I don’t understand. Workers open a door into the light, footage of dereliction, controls of ships from different eras, lined up. We are transported to the beach at Alang-Sosiya Ship Recycling site in the coastal Bhavnagar district in the Indian state of Gujarat. [vii]
This second part of the video is formally different. Sound sources are always visible, synced. Subjects talk to one another and there are some gestures of communication but they are not explaining. So, let me offer some explanation: operating since 1983, Alang-Sosiya only really filtered into broader public (US and northern European) consciousness with the Pulitzer prize winning article ‘A Third World dump for America’s ships’ [viii] with workers then famously visualised by Sebastião Salgado. [ix] Ships ‘worn out and torn apart … lie stranded along six miles of beach, in a hundred stage of demolition. Tankers, freighters, fish processor and destroyers – smashed, cut rusting smoking.’ [x]
35,000 workers coming from ‘poor villages on the other side of India, living in ‘hovels built of scrap, with no showers [or] toilets’. ‘They suffer broken ankles, severed fingers, smashed skulls, malaria fevers, cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis. Some are burned and some are drowned. Nobody keeps track of how many die here from accidents and disease. Some say a worker dies every day.’ [xi]
Hard hats suggest conditions are better, but the coastline is still littered with ships and continually recoated with highly toxic oils, asbestos, PCBs, heavy metals (including lead and mercury), asbestos… Workers don’t wear masks or much protection. [xii] A cow stubbornly takes space in the centre of a road; the only other kind of animal, next to people, shown in the video.
Endless accumulations of bowls, mattresses, gym equipment, decorative sculptures, tape dispensers… Other waste is still dumped into the sea, or sometimes burnt on site causing air pollution, or discarded in surrounding villages. Figuring out who dumped what and where is difficult, and so is enforcing any form of legal liability. Pollution impacts the water, and poisons fish (and thus many people’s food) up to (but not measured beyond) 50km away [xiii]. Even jellyfish would find it hard to survive the metal contamination. The repurposing of steel into rebar in local ‘rolling mills’ generates air pollution. [xiv]
Can we dream effective solutions? [xv] What about The 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal ? Some said a boat that’s sailing only becomes waste when it hits the beach then starts to get cut up. [xvi] This argument didn’t wash with those overseeing the convention, but paralleling tax avoidance, ships are often ‘reflagged’ before scrapping to make them seem like they come from countries with poor records of enforcing international environmental law. ‘In 2014, only 7.7% of all beached ships (by gross tonnage) were still registered under an EU flag, although 32% were still under EU ownership.’ [xvii] Audit trails often confused by boats changing name many times. [xviii]
Following the Pulitzer-prize winning story, stringent conditions in the US left almost 170 ships rotting into the James River in Virginia, needing constant expensive repairs just to remain in the water. [xix] In Alang, ships take around four months to dismantle, and companies bid for the boats, making millions from recycling the materials, supporting a large (poorly) paid workforce. In either case, water is polluted with oils and heavy metals. But in Alang, many thousands of workers—as well as the beach and surrounding agricultural land—are exposed and (permanently) contaminated.
Just as there no workable strategies for ‘World Peace’, straightforward solutions to increasing problems of environmental contamination are elusive. Fulfilling commitments to remove highly toxic materials (such as asbestos) before ships are transported could prevent some of the health impacts. But international agreements are levers that require both ongoing monitoring and scepticism about their efficacy. Change on this beach happens slowly through the nascent workers’ association. Perhaps a different ‘solution’ is needed. Jellyfish managed to pacify the USS Ronald Regan by ‘softly but ineluctably sludging it fast within a sea that had become pure slime.’ [xx] Will jellyfish become so numerous that military, freight and leisure transport become unviable? A change spurring the only way to materially suspend the contamination: to stop making, then breaking, ships.
Anna McLauchlan is a teacher and learner who currently lectures in critical human geography at the University of Leeds
The Heavy of Your Body Parts and The Cool Air of the Air Condition, Collective Edinburgh, 22 July -10 September 2017
Satellites is Collective in Edinburgh’s development programme for emergent artists and producers based in Scotland.
Thanks to Ross Little for discussing the exhibition and to Barry Burns, Liam Casey, Ross Little and Katherine MacBride for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this text.
[i] Donna J. Haraway, 2016, Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene . Durham and London, Duke University Press, p.43.
[ii] Quote from audio, Ross Little, ‘The Heavy of Your Body Parts and The Cool Air of the Air Condition’ (still), 2017, HD Video, commissioned by Collective
[iii] Nomad Cruise, 2017, Nomad Cruise I-III.
[iv] Quotes from audio Little ‘The Heavy of…’
[v] Simon Garfield, 2012, On the map: why the world looks the way it does . London, Profile books.
[vi] Quotes from audio Little ‘The Heavy of… ’
[vii] Alang-Soyisa is a compound of the names of two separate villages Alang and Soyisa
[viii] Will Englund and Gary Cohn, 1997, A Third World dump for America’s ships? The Baltimore Sun, 9 December
[ix] William Langewiesche, 2000, The Shipbreakers, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 286, Issue 2 (August), pp.31-49.
[x] England and Cohn, ‘A Third World dump… ’
[xii] Federico Demaria, 2010, Shipbreaking at Alang-Sosiya (India): An ecological distribution conflict, Ecological Economics, volume 70, pp.250-260. Malini Goyal, 1996, At Alang shipbreaking yard, worker safety remains a dusty dream, The Economic Times, 23 October
[xiii] Demaria, ‘Shipbreaking at Alang-Sosiya’ at p.254.
[xiv] Ibid. Also see Langewiesche, ‘The Shipbreakers’
[xv] Ursula Le Guin, 1971, The lathe of heaven . London, Orion Publishing Group.
[xvi] Langewiesche, ‘The Shipbreakers’
[xvii] European Commission, 2016, Thematic Issue: Ship recycling: reducing human and environmental impacts, Science for Environmental Policy, Issue 55 (June), p.3
[xix] As discussed in Langewiesche, ‘The Shipbreakers’
[xx] Tom McCarthy, 2017, Typewriters Bombs Jellyfish: Essays . New York, New York Review of Books, p.2. The USS Ronald Reagan is discussed in relation to Lisa-ann Gershwin’s writing