A VOYAGE INTO THE GEOPOLITICAL AND BIOPHYSICAL OF THE PACIFIC
Initiated by TBA21–Academy, The Current is an ongoing research initiative focusing on pressing environmental, economic, and socio-political concerns.
Its first cycle, on board of the research vessel Dardanella, brought us to remote archipelagos in Papua New Guinea (2015), French Polynesia (2016), and Fiji (2017). Each of these journeys into the complex waters of the South Pacific was guided by a theme informing the activities of the two-week long trips. The first expedition to Milne Bay Province (PNG) followed The Kula Ring, a ceremonial exchange system practised in the Trobriand Islands, with Convening #1 in Kingston, Jamaica. The second was titled Tuamotus – Distant Islands, tracing the consequences of 193 nuclear tests in French Polynesia, which informed Convening #2 in Kochi, India, joined by The Current Fellows as well as Cesar Garcia, who led a second expedition team to the Trobriand Islands. Lastly, the third expedition focused on the tradition of the tabu / tapu, practised for centuries in Fiji, where a community chief demarcates something as “sacred” or “forbidden.”
After three years of collectively researching, while meandering through vast bodies of waters, transgressing the surface and exploring their depths, passing limestone formations, low-lying atolls, and volcanic islands, the first cycle is coming to a close with Convening #3 that explores the potentials and challenges of tabu. In Fijian communities, the concept of tabu extends to social, cultural, and environmental traditions. Throughout the Pacific, the creation of tabu areas has existed for a long period of time, including temporarily closing off areas to fishing as a mark of respect for the death of an important community member, to protect sacred sites, to affirm a village’s rights to a fishing ground, or as part of traditional ceremonies. While tabu has not always been motivated solely by environmental reasons, in the current global climate situation, it has become highly significant in marine conservation and resource management. The traditional concepts of rāhui and tabu have the potential of protecting oceanic habitats as an effective, contemporary alternative to existing legal frameworks. In this custom, a “resource,” such as the sea, is not understood in terms of rights of property, but based on rights of use in which an entire community partakes—both in the present and with a view to the future.
The expeditions engaged with large-scale human interventions in oceanic ecospheres, such as nuclear tests and mining, and, more recently, seabed mining. They not only created a connection to the histories of the diverse and rich cultures of Pacific Ocean archipelagos and their astonishing biodiversity, but also prompted exposure to the alarming environmental and economic threats. The issues around ecological urgencies, which affect the ocean and its littorals as a habitat for humans and a myriad of other species, raise crucial questions regarding sea governance and ownership. In which way can humanity create for itself a set of rules and societal agreements that respects the ocean as a shared habitat and resource? The Current allowed a diverse group of artists, filmmakers, composers, and researchers to embark on these inspiriting journeys and engage with local communities. Pacific Island societies have an intimate relationship with the environment—land and ocean are inseparable for them—as marine habitats provide irreplaceable resources for their societies.
From the outset, the aim of The Current has been to foster exchange between disciplines, bringing together thinkers and practitioners, whose work was not necessarily engaged with the oceans before, to imagine new ways to communicate, or even tackle, some of the pressing ecological issues of our time. On all three expeditions, we were graciously welcomed by diverse communities and met many individuals who have become close dialogue partners, collaborators, critics, and friends. This encountered generosity allowed us to gather a wealth of information, both physical and conceptual, as a result of this first cycle. Now that we are back on land, an unsettling sense of urgency is still resonating with us. But where do we go from here? What are we doing with this overwhelming amount of material? What are the ethical implications? And what about ownership? Convening #3 is an attempt to share and address these challenges and questions. To situate this gathering at the NTU CCA Singapore was a natural choice, not only is it the base of the expedition leader, but also because its geographical, political, and cultural history is closely linked to the sea. Its container port is the second busiest in the world, connecting the country to over 600 harbours in 123 other nations. Land use, coastal territories, and the design of “natural” habitats within a densely populated city-state give rise to important issues concerning our relationship to the environment.
During this multi-day gathering, The Current Convening #3 applies various formats of exchange. Policy makers and educators from Oceania will present case studies that will be followed by short provocations pointing to the fluidity of fact and myth, resistance to climate migration, food security, the difficulty of an exchange without exploitation, or the curse of natural resources. Another case study will refer to the customs of the Orang Suku Laut, who continued their traditional ways of living, adjacent to high-tech Singapore. Talanoa is a traditional system of communal conversations. For a full day, The Current Fellows and collaborators from the Pacific will apply this format to discuss and exchange questions of ownership of cultures, images, and sound production, the oceans as resource, human interference in natural habitats, and the potential of traditional knowledge.
Convening #3 focuses on modalities of exchange, addresses environmental urgencies, raises questions regarding responsibilities and ownership, and discusses whether rights of nature can equal human rights. While travelling in Fiji, we discussed issues of marine protection, self-determination, community, and ownership with diverse communities, organisations, scholars, and activists. Before sailing to the Lau Islands, we spent a day at the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific (USP)—one of two regional universities of the world, which is supported by 12 Pacific Island Countries—in Suva, Fiji, where we participated in a talanoa roundtable discussion sharing our research and were introduced to the practices and concerns of local artists, cultural workers, and activists. The Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), for instance, key in the resistance against deep-sea mining, generously shared information with us. The artist and poet Peter Sipeli and the educator for sustainable development Dr Cresantia Frances Koya Vaka‘uta introduced us to contemporary Fijian arts and contemporary poetry, and the artist and curator Lingikoni Vaka’uta presented his work towards an indigenous art theory to us. Roko Josefa Cinavilkeba, High Chief of the Yasayasamoala Island Group, joined us for 10 days on the vessel Dardanella, and included us in the creation of a marine protected area on a reef between 2 islands in the Lau region, one of the first tapus established in the open ocean. In Fiji, we were also challenged with critical questions regarding our role, entering the local community as foreigners. We discussed what it means to partake in issues that affect Oceanian communities, the potential and responsibilities to research and gather information, and how to reciprocate and give back after being on the receiving end of generous gestures of sharing.
Convening #3 coincides with the exhibition The Oceanic at the NTU CCA Singapore (9 December 2017 – 4 March 2018), in which artworks, films, and research of 12 The Current Fellows manifest. This gathering comes with the hope to share the questions that have arisen during the past three years with a wider audience, and envision the next steps that are necessary to develop a suitable response. Such a response can only come from a shared effort and a close dialogue between regions facing immediate threats and those involved in causing them. We have to address the existing barriers between “worlds.”
Ute Meta Bauer, Founding Director, NTU CCA Singapore;
Stefanie Hessler, Curator, TBA21–Academy;
Markus Reymann, Director, TBA21–Academy