Armin Linke, OCEANS. Dialogues between ocean floor and water column, 2017, four-channel video installation, color, sound, 40 minutes. Installation view. Photo: Giulia Bruno.

Armin Linke, OCEANS. Dialogues between ocean floor and water column, 2017, four-channel video installation, color, sound, 40 minutes. Installation view. Photo: Giulia Bruno.

Armin Linke

Istituto di Scienze Marine

In Venice, images of exotic monsters and hybrid animals abound. Among them is the city’s emblem, the winged Lion of Saint Mark with its open Bible, the mythical figure that is embossed into the facade of the Istituto di Scienze Marine (ISMAR). Inside, in a much drier register, was Armin Linke’s exhibition “Prospecting Ocean,” featuring videos and photographs that often depicted the alien machinery clawing at the floor of the sea. These extractionist robots from developed countries threaten fragile local economies such as that of Papua New Guinea, bringing metaphorical monsters closer than ever to Venetian shores. Venice, whose expansionist sinews once stretched across Europe and Asia, provided a fitting context for Linke’s exhibition, which posited that, from a legal point of view, the oceans, far from unified, are complexly demarcated and scored with dotted lines. This monumental show was the culmination of three years of research, commissioned and curated by the TBA21-Academy, analyzing “the technocratic entanglement of industry, science, politics and economy at the new frontier of ocean excavations.”

Each of the eleven rooms was densely packed with information, conveyed variously in a video chronicling the multihued problematics of the realm of the ocean, a six-channel sound installation introducing the concept of prospecting; subaquatic surveillance footage documents pertaining to the law of the sea, archives of historical maps, rare books open to drawings of underwater phenomena, photographs of core depositories, photographs taken by Jacques Cousteau while shooting Le monde sans soliel (World Without Sun, 1964), footage of indigenous and community activism in the South Pacific Islands, excerpts from YouTube videos about conspiracy theories involving deep-sea mining during the Cold War, photographs of technical equipment and of a large manganese nodule (a concretion of metal-rich rock found at the bottom of the sea and thronging with epifauna), and, finally, a roomful of videos of four hours of lectures by biologists, lawmakers, and marine experts, including those from ISMAR, compiled and edited by Linke and the curator of the show, Stefanie Hessler.

The exhibition’s centerpiece was the hour-long video Prospecting Ocean, 2018, which is academic, elaborate, investigative, and clinical in character. It includes interviews with activists, scientists, legal experts, and others, and often subtly focuses on their hands as they trace routes on maps, point at documents, and so on. This vision of disembodied hands brings up questions regarding the production of knowledge. Is the era of “fake news” a time in which the viewer must engage with art by surveying a wealth of information supplied alongside it? And is it, then, the artist’s task to be a philosopher at large, as well as a documentary filmmaker, curator, historian, and dramaturge?

Linke’s four-channel video installation OCEANS. Dialogues between ocean floor and water column, 2017, came as a mesmerizing relief. Here, Linke uses archival footage shot by remotely operated underwater vehicles at depths of up to sixteen thousand feet, which he combines with music by John Cage. Every so often, parts of a rover can be seen, its own “hands” moving at steely right angles, clunking against the coral, in stark contrast to the creatures of the sea which move with a viscous grace. The images of methane geysers sputtering gases form an abstract collage as the alien machine performs its hubristic task of collecting research samples of minerals and ores in the seemingly infinite waters. The work thus broaches questions about extraction—not only of natural resources but also of video footage and ultimately of meaning itself. Can a remotely operated vehicle have artistic authority? The music imposes an element of fantasy, distorting our sense of time, eliciting an eerie torpor amid crisis. It sounds our own minerality, and the minerality of our machines, blurring states of matter and lines of sentience. We’re left wondering what counts as natural in the Anthropocene, and how to recalibrate the compass of artistic production to navigate it.