Vertigo Sea: Migration Catastrophes

by | 20 Oct 2016

“I’m for the blur. I’m about trying to blur these boundaries and borders because I think more resonance comes out of things, narratives conversant with each other, than not.”

In Border/Talks: a conversation with John Akomfrah on sea migration, borders, and art, Maurice Stierl, an assistant professor at University of California Davis, engages in a conversation with the critically acclaimed artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah at the Smoking Dogs Films studio in East London.

Border crossings and precarious migratory journeys across the sea play a significant role in Akomfrah’s art work, and particularly so in his recent video installation, Vertigo Sea, which first premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2015. On three large screens, he juxtaposes footage and images of the sea as a resilient and stunning life-force with those that expose humankind’s violent relationship to maritime spaces.

In Vertigo Sea, the viewer also repeatedly encounters portrayals of past and present forms of human suffering and the ways in which the sea has been used to exploit, to colonise, and to disappear. Alongside contemporary practices of dangerous sea-migration, we see Vietnamese boat-people struggling to survive, Argentinian death flights during which political opponents were dropped into the sea, and enslaved populations shipped across the Atlantic.

In his video interview, Stierl enquires what Akomfrah’s intentions and inspirations were behind creating connections between elements that may at first sight seem so distant and detached from one another. How did last year’s tremendous rise in sea migration to Europe impact on his art work and its reception? What are borders for him and how does he conceive artistic practices seeking to challenge these human constructs? And does he believe in the freedom of movement for all people?

John Akomfrah is an Britain-based artist and filmmaker.

Maurice Stierl is Visiting Assistant Professor in Comparative Border Studies at UC Davis and an active member of the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone.


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