Art of Interference
Season 1: Water | Episode 6: Oceans
LK: Lutz Koepnick | JC: Joy Calico | MJ: Melody Jue | JS: Juliana Snapper | AI: Andrew Infanti | ER: Emma Reimers | TH: Tori Hoover | JG: Jennifer Gutman | ML: Maren Loveland
LK: This is a brief excerpt from Sun & Sea (Marina), an experimental opera that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial in 2019. It is one the first operas staging the devastating effects of climate change and our inadequate responses to what is happening to our oceans. I have seen it twice over the last years, once in Venice, then later in Helsinki, Finland. With me today is my friend and colleague Joy Calico, a musicologist at Vanderbilt University.
JC: Yes, I study contemporary opera and I’ve also gotten to see Sun & Sea. I’ve actually even taught it in a couple of classes.
LK: So what is Sun & Sea all about? And does it deserve the attention it so widely received?
JC: It’s an opera-slash-performance art installation with singers, actors, and a dog who enact a casual day at the beach, arrayed across a giant pile of sand that has to be trucked in for the show, and sing-songs that sound like innocuous pop tunes with hypnotic electronic accompaniment.
LK: And all the while the audience watches from above, as if the performers were animals in a zoo.
JC: BUT one thing that is conspicuously missing here is the sea – the ocean itself. It’s there – but only in our imagination, only in song.
Tori Hoover: From Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this is Art of Interference: a podcast about creative responses to climate change. In each episode, we talk with artists and experts who work at the intersection of nature, technology, and science today.
Today’s episode is cohosted by Joy Calico and Lutz Koepnick.
LK: In our episode today, we talk about the role of oceans in contemporary art concerned with our climate emergency, in the visual arts but even more so in sound art, in music. I am really glad that Joy joins me as a cohost today. Some of her recent work has addressed intersections of music, opera, and climate change explicitly. Which might be a bit surprising, since Joy grew up as even more of a landlubber than I did, right?
JC: It’s true. I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the American southwest. Not only is it landlocked; it’s the high desert mountains, so it’s quite far geographically and aesthetically from the ocean (except for the sand, I guess?). And how about you, Lutz?
LK: I must have been 11 or 12 years old before I saw the ocean for the first time myself. No one talked about rising sea levels at the time; you had oil spills, you had shipping lanes whose noises disturbed underwater migration; you had overfishing, species extinction, and extractive practices around the globe. But few I think at that time anticipated the fear, the worry, the concern we need to have for our oceans today as a result of human interventions, whether you are a landlubber or not.
MJ: If I live in a landlocked area of the world, um, or on a continent, do I have to care about the ocean? You know, it’s so, it’s so far away. And the answer is, of course, you do for many reasons.
LK: This is the voice of Melody Jue, a professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Later in today’s episode, we’ll talk more to her about her book Wild Blue Media and her effort to challenge what she calls our terrestrial bias.
MJ: If you order from Amazon, if you order anything online, you are getting goods through these global shipping networks and the way that your goods get to you is, is mediated by the ocean. If you enjoy the air that you breathe, 50% of that was generated by different algae in the ocean. It’s actually mostly the, the microalgae. So, the presence of those photosynthesizers is equally as important as the trees in terrestrial environments. And we could think of all the products that have seaweed or fish in them in some ways.
LK: Seaweed, really? I remember it as something we threw at each other when playing in the waves. Made my sisters really, really mad.
JC: Well, today it’s everywhere. It’s used to stabilize foam, you have it in toothpaste, in beauty products, and yes, it’s a pretty common food source already as well.
MJ: So the ocean is already all, all over terrestrial spaces. Anyway, it’s just, we forget that it’s there,
often as a resource, but you know, in all kinds of contexts. It mediates the weather too. All the, you know, weird weather we’re having to, so we have to also appreciate and thank the ocean, for work that it does as as a carbon sink. As a heat sink.
LK: Our oceans once served as places of the romantic imagination. Standing at its shore, people dreamt of faraway landscapes and celebrated spectacular sunsets to confirm the perennial nature of life on our planet. In today’s episode of Art of Interference, we discuss the role of the ocean in our contemporary artistic imagination, an ocean in distress. . .
JC: an ocean whose resources we have extracted or overwhelmed at all costs and that now, in return, threatens us in so many ways that people often no longer know how to thank the ocean, how to appreciate all the things it does for the planet. . .
LK: . . . and for us.
JC: What stories, we ask, can contemporary art tell us about the ocean that model different ways of human interaction with the elements, less arrogant and extractive ones, more reciprocal ones?
LK: And how can we learn, or re-learn, to embrace the ocean’s waters, the vast realms below its surface, as a place to rethink what it means to be human on our planet.
JC: Today, to help us think this through, we’re speaking with Juliana Snapper and her collaborator Andrew Infanti. Juliana is a daring singer, opera performer, and voice researcher who has—believe it or not—experimented a lot with singing and performing underwater . . .
JC: What you just heard is a brief segment—an aria, I suppose—from You who will emerge from the flood, an underwater opera conceived, developed, and performed by soprano Juliana Snapper and composer Andrew Infanti. It was staged numerous times over eight years in different locations. And each staging involved collaborations with local artists, professional or amateur, from the host city.
LK: The opera premiered at the Victoria Baths in Manchester in May 2009. Its title draws on German playwright Bertolt Brecht, warning his contemporaries not to drown in their dark times.
JC: It tells the story of a hybrid creature called Blorkra who survives an ecological disaster and has somehow learned how to exist below the surface of the ocean.
LK: Not unlike the Na’vi in James Cameron’s second installment of Avatar.
JC: What we need to know about this role is how truly challenging and innovative it is. Snapper created Blorkra to be performed partly underwater. What you just heard is what Infanti calls an arietta-interlude in which Snapper’s underwater vocalizations are mixed into a piano solo with live electronic distortion.
LK: The critic Jennifer Coates reviewed one of the performances of You who will emerge from the flood
JG (as Coates): “Snapper was visible through a large window in the tank that framed her like a picture, as she floated ethereally in a kind of anti-space, dressed in fishnets, furs, a blonde wig and bright red lipstick. Snapper sang underwater for almost an hour, gurgling and shrieking in disheveled but glamorous distress, into a microphone suspended in the water.”
LK: So, audiences and critics weren’t always quite sure what they heard, what they saw.
JC: But they all admired Snapper’s intense discipline and her willingness to inflict trauma on herself, on her voice.
LK: She really experiments with new sounds and communicates through media not really made for human communication.
JC: Snapper has often been described as a radical who pushes the operatic medium to its extreme limits.
LK: In our conversation, however, she strikes us not as a reckless hothead hellbent on destroying opera, but as a pensive, empathetic, and deeply humble interlocutor, carefully searching for words to describe the challenge of being Blorkra.
JC: Yes, and it’s beautiful to witness how Juliana and Andrew present their thoughts on their projects.
LK: As a dedicated soccer fan, it made me think of the give-and-go of soccer players, cutting passes up the field. After all their collaborations, they intuitively seem to know where the other will be in the next moment on the field of our conversation.
JC: Right! Impressive since our conversation took place in four different time zones: Juliana was in Izmir, Andrew in Paris, I was in Nashville, and, Lutz, I think you were in Montevideo, Uruguay.
LK: Right. Right next to the Rio de la Plata.
JS: I’m Juliana Snapper. I’m talking to you from Izmir, Turkey. And I’m a singer and an artist, and sometimes a writer. And I’m just happy to be speaking with you.
AI: I’m Andrew Infanti. I’m originally from America. That’s where I met Juliana when we were doing our graduate work. At the time I was a pianist and playing a lot of contemporary music. And, Juliana and I started doing a lot of projects. Eventually I moved to France, and that’s where I live now. I’m based in Paris. I enjoy writing about music. Um, I’ve done it at a little bit, you know, scholarly level. Uh, sometimes for fun, I compose, I’m also a school teacher.
JS: We met at UC, San Diego, which is home of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. And that came to be very useful later because we needed a lot of help really in learning how to navigate water. So I grew up next to Berkeley in a little town called Albany, and I was always close to the water. The San Francisco Bay is not a place where you go swimming a lot, but where the water is. Always let me know kind of where I was on the map. It has that kind of quiet but, but large presence for me.
AI: So growing up in Detroit, there was something apocalyptic about water I live next to, to, to Lake Huron, and it was basically unusable. I mean, they basically told us that the rivers were destroyed and, and so without growing up in a family that had any kind of ecological, uh, grounding I sort of knew that water could go terribly bad, especially these big, very special lakes. What I liked about California is that the Pacific Ocean is just scary. I mean it just commands respect. It’s not a cuddly kind of water that you would go to. And so that sort of confirmed the idea of righteous fear for the nature part and not so righteous fear for what people can do to bodies of water.
JC: Juliana, I’m also a classically trained singer. My undergraduate degree was in vocal performance. So much of learning to be a classical singer is control, control, control. I have to learn to master so many things. What really struck me about your process was just learning to let all of that go. What does it feel like to be a classically trained singer who is absolutely not in control to, to just let it all of that go. I found that just really viscerally exciting.
JS: I can hear in your voice that you’re a singer, you can’t quite get rid of it, can you? I was drawn to singing underwater because I wanted to find a different way to work with the operatic voice. I love conventional opera, but I was frustrated that a lot of the contemporary writing left the voice out of the innovation part. So, post-war there was a lot of experimentation with, with how you work with instruments and extended techniques. So contemporary vocal music it’s either kind of going into this new menu of sounds, or it’s kind of prosthetic. It’s the operatic voice in relation to or changed by the electronics that are processing the signal. Or it’s left alone and you have the operatic voice and all of the harmonies, the structures around it have changed, but the operatic voice is left intact .
So I wanted to see if there was a way to work with the operatic voice that confronted that the body and the technology that we built up right inside of us, that instrument, if there could be a more direct confrontation with that instrument. I wound up singing upside down. After a little while, you find that your voice starts to come apart. The diaphragm, gravity makes it not function the right way. And, actually you lose control of pitch. And so, so I really enjoyed fighting, on stage with the voice. That kind of terror that the voice will work, but then confronting that it, that, okay, I know it’s not going to work, and now how do I deal with this musically and vocally? So, going underwater was kind of a next step—how else can I work with this voice that feels new, that feels like it’s, it’s, it’s actually resituating the body in a way that’s dramatically and musically and performatively a new challenge.
Andrew, what did I, what did I miss?
AI: When I heard that Juliana was interested in working with water we talked about doing something based on a, a science fiction book that is basically about a post-apocalyptic world in which climate change has forced humanity to come up with a, uh, genetically modified, progeny to be able to survive in different, uh, ecological disasters, one of which was an underwater creature. So it’s actually supposed to be, uh, a human that gets really shipwrecked 500,000 years from now, in a world that she doesn’t really understand. So basically the ecological aspect of water and the experimental part of Juliana’s work is how we decided to collaborate together.
ER: Emma here. You know, as someone with vocal training, this is so incredible to me. It really is like magic – upside down! Underwater! She’s like a vocal Houdini. Tori, what do you think?
TH: I’m now imagining Houdini popping out of his proposed barrel post-waterfall trick, fully singing opera. But honestly, I know pretty much nothing about singing. But I can say it definitely never would have occurred to me to try it upside down. Or underwater!
ER: Ok, well, let’s talk a little bit about the sounds of the ocean before Joy and Lutz dive deeper into Snapper’s underwater singing. Did you ever see Jacques-Yves Costeau’s The Silent World?
TH: You mean that diving film, of what, the 1950s? You know, I actually hadn’t, but I just pulled up the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s kind of amazing. The music, the camera angles, the colors.
ER: Yes, I really liked it. My Grampa started the LA diving program and got to dive with Costeau. It’s very clearly the inspiration for Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic. These spindly French divers in their speedos, the amazing color images of undersea life. Believe it or not, the film won the Cannes film festival in 1956.
TH: Well-deserved, I would say.
ER: Yes…and No. The Silent World really opened people’s eyes to the diversity of marine life. But it also got a lot wrong because it very much pictured the ocean through a human lens and followed an entirely visual approach.
TH: Things haven’t really changed. I mean, My Octopus Teacher won an Oscar last year, despite receiving those same critiques.
ER: Oof. You’re right. But Costeau, in spite of all his knowledge about the ocean, entered it tone deaf to the many sounds that populate it.
TH: Maybe it was too complicated to record sound on Super8 back in the day. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
ER: For the world of the ocean of course is everything but silent. As David George Haskell writes in his beautiful recent book Sounds Wild and Broken, the oceans’ “waters…”:
ML (as Haskell) : The oceans’ “waters crackle and glow with choruses of snapping shrimp and other crustaceans. Fish . . . drum, twang, and purr. Marine mammals—seals, sea lions, walruses, dolphins, whales—click, boing, moan, and ring like bells.”
TH: The sounds, he adds, mix with the boom of waves or the groan of ice sheets, and all of them travel at speeds much faster than they would travel in air.
ML (as Haskell): “Sound in oceans is ubiquitous and deeply felt by its creatures.”
TH: It’s just that our ears and bodies are not designed to hear all these sounds, that what we call hearing is a rather limited range of frequencies that our ears can handle; and that we prefer air rather than water as a medium of transmission. I guess it takes technologies such a hydrophones for humans to attend to all these underwater symphonies. . . .
ER: . . . and all the different instruments that produce them. Here are some of the incredible things that make sound underwater: swim-bladders hat contract, the vibration of fish ribs, the snapping head and neck bones of seahorses, the grinding of shark teeth and the flexing of pectoral fins. But humans not only have failed to listen to all these underwater sounds, they also increasingly mess up the hums, clicks, squeaks and growls marine life uses to communicate. Ocean noise pollution is tremendous. Here’s Haskel again:
ML (as Haskell): “Today ocean waters are a tumult of engine noise, sonar, and seismic blasts. Sediments from human activities on land cloud the water . . . We are severing the sensory links that gave the world its animal diversity: whales cannot hear the echolocating pulses that locate their prey, breeding fish cannot find one another amid the noise and turbidity, and the social connections among crustaceans are weakened as their . . . sonic thrums are lost in a haze of human pollution.”
TH: Costeau, in other words, got it doubly wrong. We not only fail to attend to the rich sounds that animate the waters of the oceans. In our failure to expand our own listening and understanding, we end up silencing—killing the oceanic life, its living voices.
ER: Yup. A very sad story indeed, and one you don’t hear all too much about. Scientists call this marine defaunation. It’s another huge and depressing chapter of what we now call the Anthropocene.
LK: So, the ocean is everything but silent. We simply think of it as being silent because we have come to build our world, not just around our human needs and desires, but also our perceptual biases. Water is as good a medium to propagate sound as air. It’s just not a good medium for human ears.
JC: This is precisely why Juliana Snapper’s work makes such a splash. She challenges what we take for granted about human sound production and listening, decenters the human, even if it means to put her own body in peril.
JS: One of the main limitations for singing underwater, with the resources that we had are that the inhale is very noisy. You have a phrase of about 15 seconds when I’m in underwater shape. And then you have another long inhale and the melodic material can’t move too quickly. So the, the melody has to be quite slow moving in terms of what I’m singing. And then you’re dealing with the secondary melodic material. Sometimes just textural, sometimes melodic of the bubble noise because the bubbles make pitches and percussive sounds. And in any particular body of water that’s going to change.
AI: It’s sort of like being a DJ where we would talk about when I was supposed to cover the bubbles, when we wanted to leave the bubbles. I usually made the choices, when we didn’t get to discuss it based on what visually she was doing. If it seemed like something that, that, that made sense as noise, I didn’t try to cover it up. And the music, I think Juliana’s right, it all sounds sort of like 13th century organa. It’s very slow and blocky. Uh, so that, um, her singing can move in and out of the structures, without feeling like she’s on a click track.
JC: The piece moves in three layers. One is above water, one is at the cusp of water, where she bounces the voice off the surface of the water, and one takes place down in the deep. She tries to work with floats and weights to get herself down to the bottom of the pool or the bath or whatever they were working in.
JS: But finally we just had me dive in and we had two divers handy to pull my legs down, and to make me face the camera. So they would just kind off hold me down, put me in front of the camera because I’m blind and I’m deaf, so I can’t hear what Andrew’s doing. He’s responding to me. I, I know what the basic acoustics are of that particular site, and I know what the musical material is, but I’m otherwise horribly alienated and, and really clinging onto these divers.
JC: Lutz, I think this is also a big piece of that connection you noticed. Juliana’s life was almost literally in Andrew’s hands during these performances. I mean, you can’t help but foster a kind of intimacy when there’s that dynamic.
LK: I’m so struck, too, by how fragmented her experience of the performance is, because her perspective is so limited as a performer. And then, as her collaborator and as the one overseeing the whole thing, he has a really holistic view, a zoomed-out perspective. To some extent, she’s talking about the experience of the performer; he’s talking about the experience of the audience.
JC: Again, they’re complementing one another.
AI: I love that part of it because it’s in, in some of the mise-en-scene it looked like, uh, like really evil bouncers were sort of kicking her out of a club or making her go into a club and others, it was a very high church theater where they’re holding oars and completely do this theatrical. It was really fascinating to think about how something was as simple bodily constraint became theatrically interesting. How do you look down into a swimming pool and actually see a singer? Like the answer is a lot of cameras that sort of send it back up. It was very strange.
JS: It took quite a lot of practice first in, in bathtubs and swimming pools, and working with two oceanographers who were incredibly helpful just for teaching me how to, how to dive and not die. As I was developing the technique, I didn’t have the money to, to take a proper diving course. A few months in it, I realized, oh, oh, okay. Uh, the stakes really are very high. Actually, it only takes a teaspoon full of water to, in your lungs to kill you. I learned that there are so many ways to die underwater. If you’re at the bottom of a, of a pool, say, and you have exhaled your entire phrase and you’re flat on the bottom, you have immense pressure of the water. You’re pinned down. There’s nothing buoyant inside you. You run out of air, so you’re underneath that weight of water.
LK: Juliana also specifically shouted out costume designer Susan Matheson – she’s a Vanderbilt alum, actually!
JS: She worked with people who do special effects, costuming and, and got this wonderful material that could be immense without, um, without being deadly.
JC: Good classical vocal technique keeps a steady airflow. So this is actually one of the best ways to sing underwater, if you are going to sing underwater. It’s a constant exhale, no water flows in.
JS: But it was distressing. It was upsetting. Sometimes the water was incredibly cold.
AI: That was the worst. It was also, I think, uh, some of the venues we had, uh, really, uh, interested tech people that wanted to be part of something new, and the other people that were just doing the Lion King on the side. And I remember a number of times I just saying, let’s just make sure she’s not dying, before I give you the next cue. I think a lot of people have asked you, if the danger was part of it, if that was something you were conscious of or not.
JS: It wasn’t trauma at the time, but there was, there’s this element of crisis. So the added degree of crisis for me was a place where I feel comfortable improvising because in fact, in those situations there has to be a structured improvisation to what’s going. and, and having those limitations that are so material offered that kind of creative freedom
LK: A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to speak to Melody Jue, professor of English at the University of California in Santa Barbara. In 2019, she published this wonderful book called Wild Blue Media, in which Melody—who is an experienced scuba diver—challenges what she calls our terrestrial bias . . .
JC: . . . the way, that is, in which our knowledge of, our relation to our planet, is largely determined by our bipedal position on land and the impact of gravity on our bodies. . .
LK: . . . and what she proposes is to rethink the world, our position within it, from the perspective of a scuba diver, of a body floating in the ocean, being freed from the pressures of gravity, having to learn the art of buoyancy . . .
JC: . . . and interfacing with the watery environment less with our ears or eyes, but with our lungs–lungs that for divers need to readjust most of their normal work in order to adapt to the pressures below the ocean’s surface.
MJ: One of the things that oceanic-inspired conceptual reorientation can really lead to is that sort of pause where you think twice or are encouraged then to reflect on your own habits of approaching, you know, whatever you’re studying or considering. And this is where I think the book really had to account for multi-species perspectives. Think of these as forms of embodiment to attempt to think with, not into but you know, really with, and then just see, see sort of where those lead. The ocean is so large there’s just so much life to be sort of astonished by it. There’s always a circular reflection, I think, between the, the encounter with some kind of aquatic being. And I hesitate to say, you know, other than this here, because there’s so many different ways of approaching sea creatures, but really to use that and then think twice aabout whatever we can, you know take for granted here.
JC: Wild Blue Media describes diving as an experience of estrangement. It derails how we typically see, sense, and know things, including ourselves.
LK: I am somewhat relieved, though, that she doesn’t want us to turn into dolphins or make us perceive the world like whales or octopuses, although maybe there’s something to it.
JC: But her work certainly has the power to question our terrestrial biases. Diving in the ocean suspends how we normally seek to shape the world above us based on our human needs. It allows us to recognize the impact of our verticalism, our uprightness, the pressure of gravity, on everything we do, sense, and think. And, at least when I taught this text in my class, this idea had a profound impact on my students as well. Some scuba divers, of course, do damage to ocean life. But if you take Melody’s arguments seriously, scuba diving suggests an idea of subjectivity, a mode of being in the world. It’s quite different from the narratives we tell above the surface, the story of the Anthropocene. This conceptual reorientation really opened the minds and hearts of my students, as much as it did my own.
LK: This is quite different, though, from my own first scuba experience, at some point in the late 1990s along the Barrier Reef in Australia. I love the sea – I’ve always loved to snorkel – but when using those aqua-lungs at first, I simply couldn’t get my breathing under control. Or rather, I suppose: I felt as if I needed to control it consciously in the first place. I focused too much on it. I was unable to calm its rhythms – I totally panicked—and experienced a kind of claustrophobia I had never experienced before. Eventually I think I figured it out, I recall, figured out to let go of my terrestrialism, learned how to let go, I suppose, but the initial efforts were everything but liberating, let alone eye-opening. Pure panic.
JC: In Melody’s words, I think you panicked because you wanted to be grounded whereas the trick is to experience what she calls “groundedness through floating.” And as she told us in our conversation, what is absolutely key for any good diver—for the effort to overcome the efforts of terrestrial being—is to be able to readjust our sense of time, of temporality, and our sense of rhythm. The ocean’s clocks tick differently, and it will deeply affect how we experience time above ground.
MJ: There’s an interesting kind of memory work that happens during the dive and also after the dive. So, it’s usually a good idea to kind of have a, have a sense of where you are spatially. But after you come up there’s sort of a habit on dive boats where folks will ask each other, oh, what did you see? So it ends up being a list of sea creatures. I find it much more easy to recall what did I feel like, what were the embodied positions that one, one feels in different moments of the dive. The recollection is non-linear. I have to make an effort to go, okay, ike, yeah, there definitely was a turtle at this point. And then we saw a nurse shark and or, or came across this other habitat. But the, the spatial memory is I think a lot easier to, to access. So a really deep dive might only be 20 minutes. A shallower one might be 45 or 50 or longer depending how well you use your air.
JC: Timing is everything with breath, for scuba diving and for singing, as we recall with Juliana’s underwater singing. Focusing on breath can change the way we feel time. Underwater, keeping track of time requires not only an ongoing awareness of your breath, the air in the tank, but also of the flow of time for the ocean rhythms.
MJ: What are the time cues underwater in what environments and for whom? Another meaningful time markers just simply day night. There’s these huge migrations of, uh, plankton that go from the depths to, uh, closer to the surfaces at nighttime.
LK: We don’t think much about ocean temporalities when we’re above sea-level. Some of it might have to do with the limitations of our vocabulary. Our terrestrial bias inundates our language, our metaphors for knowledge and perception. We see things, we illuminate things, we grasp things. Imagine we used terms such as buoyancy as a concept, as metaphor, to describe how we sense and understand what’s around us?
JC: As a musicologist, I am of course super interested to learn more about the ocean as a soundscape, a place that changes what we know about hearing. You wrote a little bit about this in your last book on Resonant Matter, right?
LK: Yeah, I write about the experiments of musicians such as David Rothenberg, who makes music together with, believe it or not, humpback whales!
JC: But Melody really had some interesting thoughts about this as well, and how listening under water, the acoustics of scuba diving, changes our understanding of attention.
MJ: So usually someone carries a kind of metal stick that they’ll tap, tap, tap on the, on the back of their tank. The only problem is that’s, uh, you know, the way we hear it, we can’t tell directionality of sound underwater. We just know it’s happening. And so usually everyone kind of, you know, perks up and looks around and goes, okay, where, where’s the signal coming from? Is there something interesting to look at? Or, you know, yeah, what’s grabbing our attention.
LK: We see a lot of important artistic work dedicated to the oceans today, our oceans in distress. Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, founder of TBA21, has launched an entire global academy commissioning individual artworks, conferences, and exhibitions about the oceans, “a contemporary art organization,” as she describes it, “and cultural ecosystem fostering a deeper relationship to the ocean through the lens of art to inspire care and action.” The British filmmaker John Akomfrah has made a whole series of stunning films and multi-screen installations such as Vertigo Sea that feature the Atlantic as a principal protagonist in historical dramas of displacement, exploitation, and slave trade.
JC: And then you have outright questionable work, if I may say, such as Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable
LK: . . . staged in Venice in 2017 . . .
JC: . . . whose sole purpose seems to be to use underwater settings to reenergize the profitability of Hirst’s own artistic career
LK: . . . while cynically exposing some of the idiocies of the global art market, its loss of shared aesthetic standards. As the online art magazine Hyperallergic put it: “Boredom has never come at so high a price.”
JC: I am not sure contemporary art consistently and intentionally reflects different strategies of working below the ocean’s surface. Whether more goal-oriented or more playful, we have to stay open to what can’t be controlled or anticipated.
LK: Juliana Snapper’s performances clearly know a thing or two about that. Her underwater work is really an ongoing project of experimentation: experimenting with how the ocean can change our self-understanding, our terrestrial bias. She allows the elements to interfere with the integrity of her body. . .
JC: . . . and in so doing also practices unusual forms of collaboration with her artistic partners, modeling intriguing modes of co-dependency . . .
LK: . . . and she experiments with how art and opera connect to its audiences, appeals to them. She describes her underwater singing as being haunted by feelings of deep isolation and loneliness, but she deeply appreciates her reliance on her collaborator Andrew observing her every move from outside the pool . . . and how both discuss what a particular performance may have actually looked like…
JC: . . . because each of them has of course a very limited perception of what has really happened in the first place. All this causes Juliana to think hard about what art can do today to address the perils of our world, humbly but nevertheless with a clear sense of purpose.
JS: Especially when I started I couldn’t really get away from ideas of the sirens and the mermaids and, and it made me very cranky because I didn’t want this to be a defined thing. But I thought a lot about what the sirens roles really might be or what the, what the mermaids really, might do. They stopped, they stopped commerce for a second. Right. And so all of the Merchant Marines stopped and listened to a song for a second. So maybe that’s a very small thing. But I think in terms of disrupting, maybe stopping the drives we get so caught up in and, um, just having an, uncanny exchange. For its own sake or for what it might open up. What about you, Andrew?
AI: Yeah, I like how you say it. The experience of working with Juliana is something that got me out of the initial pessimism that we had on the paper. Everything had a system. Everything was extremely Teutonic in the, in its conception. And having Juliana improvise into that, and making it into a situation where we couldn’t control the drift of the bottle, of creating the currents that the bottle was going. So it’s just like she took the message out, which was maybe unreadable, but it was beautiful to hear. It was beautiful to have someone read the bottle and to create the currents that would take it somewhere else.
LK: Hmm. Art as a message in a bottle. What I really like about this is how this idea undermines one of the strange compromises of today’s art world, its neoliberal hubris if you wish: its effort to present itself as a medium that is meant to simultaneously expose the damage and repair the problems of world; that wants to be art but also wants to be seen as politics at the same time; and that, in so doing, often doesn’t really reflect hard enough on its own extremely heavy carbon footprint.
JC: Which is perhaps just another way of saying that Juliana’s underwater work really offers an intriguing model for future climate art. It doesn’t want to offer a singular solution for our climate emergency. It does not buy into what you in an earlier episode of this podcast called our fateful solutionism. What Juliana offers is something else, a conversation with the future, an aesthetic wager. She explores new forms of subjectivity, new sensibilities, that ask us to adapt to a changing world without giving up our hope for a meaningful future.
ML: Talk about messages in a bottle! Jen, have you ever seen the short film Plastic Bag? Ramin Bahrani made it in 2009 and it played at various film festivals back then.
JG: No, Maren, I have not. But I seem to recognize the voice we hear in this clip. Isn’t it, ah, ah
ML: Right, its Werner Herzog.
JG: That German director who pulls boats over mountains in the Amazon? Or films people who get themselves eaten by grizzlies in Alaska.
ML: Yes, that German director.
JG: So what is he doing in this film?
ML: Well, he’s just providing the voiceover for this feature, with his very unique voice, of course. But as you probably figured out from the clip already, there is a twist: the film is telling the story of a plastic bag from the perspective of the plastic bag, so Herzog is standing in for the bag.
JG: And whatever I know about Herzog, I assume the bag will have some metaphysical experience, some existential crisis, will face some incredible challenge? Right?
ML: Right. In the film, we follow the bag as it searches for its origins, its maker. We listen to the bag’s thoughts about the world, its existence as a bag. And accompany it as it finally ends up in the oceans, floats in water, ends up in the Great Pacific Plastic Patch.
JG: which I assume, in 2009, was much smaller than it is today. In 2022, it measured twice the size of Texas.
ML: Yep, it’s now three times the size of France. That’s because it takes the ocean on average 450 years to decompose a plastic bag.
JG: It’s mind-boggling to think about this temporal scale. I recently read Pollution is Colonialism, a book by indigenous scholar and scientist Max Liboiron. They are studying what plastics do to our planet, and they make a strong case that we should think of this as a form of colonialism, of taking, extracting, dominating lands that don’t belong to us. I guess what you just said about the slow decomposition of plastic in water makes me think that colonialism isn’t just about land but about water too, and that it has temporal vectors just as much as spatial ones.
ML: Yes! And that’s kind of what that Plastic Bag is all about. When the bag joins the Great Pacific Plastic Patch, somewhere south of Hawaii, it kind of realizes that for plastic death is just as elusive as birth. It’s a spiritual, an existential, and a philosophical dilemma, a brutal disaster in fact, and hearing it told by Herzog’s voice, really has you wonder about what the world we made looks like from a non-human perspective.
JG: It’s eerie, but also neat to hear Werner “Plastic Bag” Herzog. Maybe hearing the voice of the objects we make – and discard – is necessary for a truly effective posthuman turn.
ML: Another exercise in conceptual reorientation, I suppose. Like Melody Jue’s epistemology and ethics of diving.
JG: Yes, we probably can’t have enough of that these days.
ML: Forget the message in the bottle. This is a plastic bag in the Great Pacific Plastic Patch, floating with its own message.
JC: In 2009, the President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, held a by now-famous cabinet meeting about global carbon emissions underwater to highlight how pressing the issue is for that sea-level nation. The gathered officials signed a document asking all countries to reduce their carbon footprint. The images we have from this meeting are haunting and unsettling: ministers in full scuba gear sitting upright at various tables and signing their petition.
LK: Yes, it’s a curious, somewhat uncanny mix of sticking to what Jue calls our terrestrial bias and embracing the underwater environment to launch their protest against what the West is doing to the ocean.
JC: Unfortunately, however, this effort to launch a conceptual reorientation has largely remained unheard until today. In our conversation with Juliana Snapper and Andrew Infanti, we talked quite a bit about Jue’s critique of our terrestrial bias and Nasheed’s underwater action—this is performative politics at its best (and I mean that genuinely!). And we asked about the effect Juliana’s underwater work has had on her. Juliana and Andrew reminded us that things below water aren’t always as they appear from the surface:
AI: A lot of the images that we got out of it show you in this sort of, uh, beautiful busby Berkeley dream surrounded by people kicking around in the pools. And that wasn’t your experience.
JS: I think the loneliness of being underwater became very quickly painful in some way.
AI: I know that I remember several times after the shows, you’re just sort of being in a, in a coma and it’s not the image of the opera diva who’s getting all of the roses and all that.
JS: It’s not very glamorous because no, a wet rat being helped as —
AI: drying everything off, yea.
JS: One of my favorite Death Aria’s opera was written by, librettist Eileen Miles and, um, composer Michael Webster. And the, the protagonist dies singing, “I Would Like to Die Collectively.” It’s called Hell, and it’s modeled after Dante’s excursion loosely. But, um, but I, I was so moved by the dying diva saying that really the way I’d like to die is collectively; let’s think about how we want to die.
LK: Perhaps if we all submerge, if we shed our terrestrial bias, we can be lonely together and rethink what it means to act collectively.
JC: Ah, learning how to live and die in the Anthropocene – together.
LK: Or better: relearning how to live by rethinking what it means to die in the Anthropocene.
JC: It’s a whole new approach to performative politics.
LK: Yes. But luckily Juliana and Andrew are very well and, yes, very much alive today.
JC: Deeply inspiring interlocutors, I want to add. I could have talked with them for hours and hours.
LK: Me too. They have moved on to other projects since they collaborated on You will emerge from the flood, some of it at least as challenging and probing as the initial work. But their collaboration continues to ask tough questions about what it means to live and to die under the conditions we have created on our planet.
JC: In the meantime, however, we have made little progress in addressing the damage done to the oceans of the world and the new hazards they now cause in return. Quite the contrary, ocean levels continue to rise at alarming rates, overfishing and pollution, including noise pollution, deplete species across the globe, and little effort is made to question our terrestrial bias. . .
LK: So, we couldn’t help but ask Juliana at the end of our interview whether she could ever see herself returning to her underwater work again:
JS: Yeah, I would welcome that. I would have to get, I’d have to train, get back in shape, get my water lungs back.
JC: Hm. As a musicologist, I would really welcome this as well. Her work has been very powerful and has turned water, the ocean, into a medium of immense creativity.
LK: And as citizens of a world in peril, we should welcome this as well. I am not sure I am ready to develop my own water lungs yet, but hearing Juliana put to work hers makes you think about the oceans in new ways, makes you appreciate and thank the oceans—as Melody said at the beginning of this episode—but at the same time recognize the effects our presence on this planet has had on them.
JC: I agree. David Haskell—the author of Sounds Wild and Broken who was quoted earlier—writes:
ML (as Haskell): “for all terrestrial animals, rich salt water . . . was our original home, first as single-celled creatures, then as fish. About 90 percent of our ancestry was underwater.”
JC: Those water lungs, in some sense, return us to that home. But they really also provide powerful models for how to approach the planet from a less human-centered perspective. . .
LK . . . and how to envision different futures that pivot less around strategies of extraction and exploitation. And more around co-existence and co-dependency, of living with the elements rather than simply trying to dominate them. Thanks, Joy, for co-hosting today’s episode of Art of Interference.
JC: Thank you for having me.