Coordinates - removed

Rose Butler

Rose Butler

The following dialogue took place between Rose Butler and artist Michelle Atherton whose paper Submersive Aesthetics, formed a starting point for a dialogue about ambiguous states and removed coordinates in thinking through what might be involved in a resistant image praxis.

Michelle’s paper accompanies the video ARP, which presents an actual tourist trip taken in a deep sea submersible to a depth of two thousand feet below sea level off the coast of Roatan, Honduras. The artwork and essay present differing encounters with a state of submersion predicated on the view through the submersible’s thirty-inch porthole. Rose has responded in reference to a fictional account of a prisoner in the historical novel The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. In this account an inmate in one of Stalin’s special prisons transforms from the status of prison guard to that of prisoner.

Michelle Atherton: My first reference from the paper begins with tourism. It has been argued by, amongst others, the German essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberg (1958) and more recently reiterated by the art historian Marcus Verhagen that tourism evolved out of the French Revolution and advanced in step with industrial capitalism. Verhagan comments ‘that tourism springs from a utopian impulse that is directed along a spatial axis rather than a temporal one, and that as a pattern of consumption, it unavoidably defeats that impulse.’1 The tourist trip combines the desire for freedom at the same time that it undoes the possibility of finding it, and as a result speaks to many of the contradictions of our time and complexity of our experience.

The second quote, in a more meandering mode, relates to materiality, perception, fluidity and alterity, in describing the experience of being in the ocean. Perhaps what is pertinent here is a certain set of coordinates that allow a displacement to occur through alterity, that situates us in a relatively permanently, uncoordinated position. One that is ambiguous, where we have a view, we see and as result believe we feel, the ocean manifest in remaining forever withdrawn, to paraphrase the Harman quote below, a presentation through constant withdrawal.2 This is not for me a sublime state, but rather the realm of being confounded, a confusion that is not ambiguous. There is perhaps a question here about what we mean by the purchase of ambiguity, as perhaps it is now too often a problematic paradigm? For me the dynamic within the ocean’s alterity necessities registering the full force of a non-relational encounter, structured as a drifting radical negative rupture. I have to be really careful here not to instrumentalise the ocean for aesthetic and political ends, and not to make experiences synonymous, but the potentiality of negative ruptures within praxis opens up the space of resistance, presenting less grounded forms of knowledge. This in turn of course refers to older avant-garde traditions that still holds potency for me, even though it needs particular reconfiguration in early twenty-first century context, (thinking back to the contradictions explicit in the tourist position) … but back to the ocean…

All around, out there, is a dark liquid expanse, but we fail to register it on any level. We are not even sure we can see it; it denies me, a solid liquid deflector thrusting us back onto ourselves and intensifying the confinement of the space as we travel forward. This is the total blackness of the Mesopelagic zone in which we are descending, totally unmoored from the terrestrial.

… Our position in the hydrosphere is maintained by a finely tuned manipulation of the laws of physics that equals a slight negative buoyancy. We are held surrounded on all sides by a different state — a liquid, fluid, yet solid in its pressure. We are out of our element, sitting suspended between what is solid and what is gaseous — no land, no air, in a space where molecules move freely from one state to another but do not fly apart. How is it to be submerged — to be set into an unfixed state? Can we register we are undone down here? The space of the deep sea comprises, by volume 78.5 per cent of the planet’s habitat compared with only 21 per cent of the rest of the sea and 0.5 per cent of land habitats.3

The fan was turned off long ago and the walls are running with condensation. The ocean subtracts; the further down we go the greater the limits set on our modes of perception and centrality. In our protracted confinement the black continuous expanse grows. In the repetition of apparent nothingness, of sameness so complete it becomes a consummate space of alterity, an excited anticipation grows in us that anything could lie outside.

Then the headlights are turned on, a dipped setting produces an oscillating form of succulent midnight blue. It jumps around before us in perfect synchronicity, as if its weight shifts under the contracting, expanding darkness above. This blue is thick with its own liquid mass, a dynamic materiality that penetrates us, that appears palpable with its own material substance. The further we travel the more it sinks into us, commensurate with the increasing cold, signalling depth.

The submersible’s lighting rig is said to be equivalent to that of a small photographic studio. As all the lights are turned on the scene from the dome is flooded with ultramarine blue, an aquatic immensity with no end. Our orientation is scrambled; we have lost all sense of perspective. This is the view that holds claustrophobia at bay, that overwhelms patho-logical fears and placates our immobility through an absorption into what unfolds on the other side of the window. This relation is sold as ‘that portal to another world’, the space that we think we can feel but never touch. By now we are infected by this liquid environment, this blue, held outside by only ever seeing inside out.

In this space of perpetual wet darkness, time is, for us, delimited only by the technical supports, there is no physical means to mark time. In the rebuttal of the sun, day does not follow night, there are no circadian rhythms, no seasons, only the space of inky blackness, bioluminescence and the occasional touring battery-pack beam. Wherever we go on terra firma we are caught in an endeavour to place ourselves in a spatial and time-bounded relationship. In the deep, the day-to-day markers of space and time fall away, the passage of time usurped by the time of space. Time is spatialised, destabilising teleological end points and sublimating linear trajectories. The oceans recycle themselves over millennia, in a time-scale outside human comprehension. We might encounter creatures older than the dinosaurs — but this is only a momentary respite, a marker that swims by. This watery ecology refuses expectations and experience. For us, as passengers, the restrictions of fuel and oxygen are displaced by an oceanic immensity. From inside, the ocean view disjoints time. In this other space of the liquid we can recognise the primordial, but the primordial does not recognise us. We lose time, lose ourselves to a state of temporal drift.

Our collective encounter followed a pattern, as we registered its inaccessibility in its retreat ‘beyond our grasp.’4 The encounter seeped into us, but remained as presenting an absolute outside. It was as if the ocean had its own ‘transcendence and futurity’, and we did not, we could not look back at ourselves. There is no space for us here. The more we moved through it the more it receded, and the greater we felt its presence. In this dynamic of submersion an encounter is felt both, to again use Harman’s phrasing, ‘as a bursting forth and slipping away, a presentation through a constant withdrawal.’6

Rose Butler: I have just finished reading Solzhenitsyn’s historical novel The First Circle and will refer to chapters towards the end of the book, which presents authoritative oppression experienced through the eyes of a prisoner.

As I read your experience of being within the submersible this prisoner’s account stayed with me, and as I go through this process of reflection, I am trying to make sense of why your experience feels so evocative in relation to this fictional account. The book is set in one of Stalin’s ‘special prisons’, a technological research establishment which houses highly qualified political prisoners arrested during Stalin's purges. While most are aware of how much better off they are than regular gulag prisoners, some are also conscious of the overwhelming moral dilemma of working to aid a system that is the cause of so much suffering. Inmates are working on technology that will allow the state agencies to identify the voice in a recorded phone call. Towards the end of the book one of the senior free workers of the prison is caught after warning a family friend by telephone that he was under surveillance. This quote is part of the description detailing his transition from one of rank within the Diplomatic Services, to that of a prisoner.

‘No sound came from the corridor except, once or twice, the unlocking and the locking of a nearby door. Every minute the shield of the glazed peep-hole rose and a solitary, searching eye looked in. The door was four inches thick and the space of the peep-hole was cone shaped, widening towards the room. He guessed why it was this shape; so that nowhere in this torture chamber could the prisoner find cover from the eye of the warden.

He felt cramped and hot. He took off his winter overcoat and looked sadly at the lining of the tunic, sticking out where the epaulettes had been ripped off. There was no nail or projection on the walls, where he could hang his hat and coat, so he put them on the table.

Now that lightning had struck — he had been arrested — he was no longer afraid. His mind started to work, pinpointing his mistakes.’ 7

The space the prisoner inhabits is claustrophobic, initially too hot and suffocating and then, as he is moved from cell to cell within the prison, he is left in a cell that is too cold. He is isolated and prevented from catching sight of other prisoners. The strange noises intimidate him, he is terrified that the vents are releasing poisonous gases but eventually relieved to discover it is the hum of a lift within the prison. In the first few hours as he is taken through a process of transformation — from guard to prisoner he is effectively ‘broken down’ by stripping him of any of his coordinates. This process of ‘breaking down’ a prisoner ensures compliance ‘so that the full force of the whole vast, ramified apparatus is felt to be bearing down on him and on him alone’.8

The removal of the prisoner’s coordinates goes through several stages of transition. Initially his personal possessions are removed and his clothes damaged or replaced. He is moved from cell to cell and told to strip naked then asked to re-clothe and to confirm his name repeatedly during many separate points of questioning. On one of these occasions his head is shaved. The cells do not have windows and are referred to as ‘boxes’; the prisoner cannot see out and so does not have an external fixed point of visual or temporal orientation. The cells are flooded with bright lights in order to expose the prisoner further and deprive him of sleep. Confusion and disorientation ensue as days and nights begin to merge and there is no indication of the circadian rhythm, or the seasons. Through the peep-hole the prisoner is looked in upon, subject to his own destiny. Totally exposed, he is controlled and powerless within this divided, uncertain space of transition.

As you descended in the submersible and described the loss of your external coordinates the internal space becomes one of confinement and submission. Once submerged you are locked in by the water which surrounds you, situated within a space of displacement and division, on the inside looking out into a space of uncertainty and ambiguity in flux.

I have become to think of this space of flux, the space of transition or ambiguity as the space of potential or the space of resistance. The prisoner Innokenty reflects upon the fantasy of his arrest:

‘Thinking about his arrest before it happened, Innokenty had pictured to himself a duel of wits to the death. For this he was ready, prepared for a high-principled defence of his life and his convictions. Never had he imagined anything so simple, so dull and so irresistible as the reality. The people who had received him were petty minded, low-grade officials, as uninterested in his personality as in what he had done, but alert and watchful in matters to which he was unprepared and which offered him no chance to resist. What, indeed, would resistance mean and what good would it do him? Every time on a different pretext, concessions were required of him, so trifling compared to the battle ahead that there was no point in making a fuss — yet taken as a whole, the minute thoroughness of the procedure effectively broke the prisoner’s will.’9

In the passage above Innokenty is dismayed by the dull and irresistible nature of his arrest. There are no grand moments of oppression or opportunity for dramatic resistance or highly principled defence. Instead he describes a slowly advancing procedure, a creep of subjugation, uncertainty and exposure that gradually breaks him down.

The panoramic image, introduced in the previous text discussing the border between former East and West Berlin, represents a tipping point. A once managed and thoroughly controlled border with clear defined boundaries and coordinates activated through the dynamics of surveillance, now was in disarray and broken down. During the period of the Cold War these sites were temporarily spaces of division and oppression. They now represented the space of reunification and of potential; ambiguous and in transition. It is perhaps ironic that the building being constructed on the right of the image is the new German Federal Intelligence Service. This image spans the old and new materials of state surveillance. Both of which are in flux, the remnants of historical state-surveillance and the potential of the new.


1 Marcus Verhagen, ‘Art Tourism’, Art Monthly, 358, (Jul–Aug 2012), p. 9.

2 Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), p. 144.

3 William J. Broad, The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea (New York: Touchstone, 1997), p. 44.

4 Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 53.

5 Ibid., p. 40.

6 Harman (2005), p. 144.

7 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle (London: Collins, 1969), p. 635.

8 Solzhenitsyn (1965), p. 657.

9 Solzhenitsyn (1965), p. 642.