For about a month Chris Graham and I have been working together for a few days a week on a project for Bank Street Arts Work In Progress show. It’s an evolving work that yesterday, just as we were packing up for the day, took a more concrete form.
We’ve taken Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa as a starting point for thinking about the current horrific refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Without wanting to imply that the work we’re making can be solved or decoded in any simple way, there are a few things that have become really important touchstones for us.
The story behind Géricault’s painting is reasonably well known and is summarised on the painting’s Wikipedia page:
“(the) painting depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania on July 2, 1816. On July 5, 1816 at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and practiced cannibalism. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain perceived to be acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy. In reality, King Louis XVIII had no say in the captain’s appointment, since monarchs were not directly involved in appointments made to vessels like a naval frigate. The appointment of the vicomte de Chaumareys as captain of the Méduse would have been a routine naval appointment, made within the Ministry of the Navy”
Although Louis XVIII may not have been to blame, the painting became a symbol for incompetence through aristocratic privilege and when the painting was shown in the Salon of 1819 Géricault’s message was clear and his reputation was made.
The Medusa was, of course, the most notorious Gorgon in Greek mythology. It struck us that a lot of Greek tales are based on nautical meanderings in the Mediterranean. Further digging revealed that the original Gorgons might have been more like dreadlocked Warrior-Princesses from North Africa. It seems that we Europeans might have been demonising these women for a lot longer than even the Greeks thought.
To consider the presence of US and NATO troops in an around the Middle East / North Africa as well as US/UK/EU/NATO backing for uprisings with little or no thought for the consequences as malign or at least ill-thought out is not a novel position. Personally, I don’t have a clue what the solution is in that part of the world, but I’m guessing that invading countries and imposing half-baked versions of democracy might not be helping. Click here to be taken to another blog that looks into this in much more depth.
The US have developed a drone called, would you believe, Gorgon Stare. According to Wikipedia “The system is capable of capturing motion imagery of an entire city, which can then be analysed by humans or an artificial intelligence”. A further enhancement of the system is described on the same Wikipedia page as follows:
“On 1 July 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation revealed that the Gorgon Stare Increment 2 pod had achieved initial operating capability (IOC) earlier in the year. While the Increment 1 system, first fielded in March 2011, could cover an area of 16 km2 (6.2 sq mi), the incorporation of the ARGUS-IS expands that coverage area to 100 km2 (39 sq mi). The system has 368 cameras capable of capturing 5 million pixels each to create an image of about 1.8 billion pixels. Video is collected at 12 frames per second, producing several terabytes of data per minute.“
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Argus was the name of the ship that rescued the survivors of the Medusa from their raft. Art History / Classics students get everywhere, even into the arms industry.
As artists we are fascinated by things that look or are looked at and surveillance has become an important issue for everyone. Our work – SANS TERRE (WITHOUT LAND) – picks at the wounds and connections that this research has uncovered. At the time of writing this blogpost it is not complete and it is not likely to be conclusive.
Some images of the elements that make up the installation: