‘Offshore: artists explore the sea’: an Interview with Saskia Olde Wolbers
This week we asked artist and Goldsmiths lecturer Saskia Olde Wolbers some questions about her new project which will be shown at ‘Offshore: artists explore the sea’ in Hull this April, as part of the 2017 City of Culture program. The two screen video installation is based on a trip to a wreckage off a popular Greek island where she met the oil response team dealing with the oil which has been leaking into the sea for years.
A still from Saskia Olde Wolbers, Pfui – Pish, Pshaw / Prr
ID: Was your trip to the wreckage eye opening, in terms of the realities of oils spill response, or was this something you were aware of before?
SO: “I started working on the film installation Pfui – Pish, Pshaw / Prr after being invited to do a commission for the Greek toxic waste company Polyeco, who in 2014 launched an Initiative for Contemporary Art (PCAI).
In 2014 I visited one of their oil spill sites; A sunken cruise ship off the coast of a popular Greek island. Here I interviewed Mr. Theodosis Alifrangis who is Polyeco’s longest serving employee. He has worked as an oil team responder since the 1980’s and is a real enigmatic oracle and also something of an outsider artist who prolifically filmed all the response callouts to oil spill locations for his personal home video archive.
He has been servicing the cruise ship since 2010.
The 100 m long ship is balancing vertically on its propeller, 150 m below sea level and only 20 m of the shore. Her fuel tanks imploded and petrol and oils are covering the interiors. The ship is visually a grand scale version of my work, where model sets are dipped in oil and filmed in aquaria. In both cases Materials are animated through this unpredictable confrontation of oil and water. What surprised me most about this situation was the longevity of it. This is not the emergency response I associated with oil spill disasters, but an almost ritualistic lo-fi daily wipe of a few drops on the water’s surface in the containment boom. The ship has been dripping for ten years and no one knows how long it will continue.”
A still from Saskia Olde Wolbers, ‘Pfui – Pish, Pshaw / Prr’
ID: For those who aren’t aware, what kinds of footage and visual material make up your film?
SO: ”The visuals for the film will feature three strands of imagery; Footage shot in my studio such as prismatically coloured dripping cruise ship interiors, cell-like structures, and mussels with ferromagnetic liquid bouncing between the sides of their shells. Then there is Mr Theodosis’ home video archive, which is an eclectic alternation between Christmas gatherings with the family and oil spill disasters (most of which happen at Christmas) and all manner of clean up actions and wrecks. Then there is material filmed with sonar imaging devices of the submerged cruise ship on location and other underwater landscapes and structures.
The fictional monologue is constructed from the point of view of a 70 year-old oil spill responder, who speaks of his love for wrecks, heroic actions versus the boredom of cleaning up, camaraderie and culpability.
The work will be shown as a multi-screen installation.”
Still from Saskia Olde Wolbers, ’Pfui – Pish, Pshaw / Prr’
ID: How was it that you began using sonar imagery?
SO: “I came across sonar and laser images used in marine archeology to locate wrecks and loved the way it looked like early photography, daguerreotypes of sort. I knew sonar imaging only from medical contexts and had not seen it used for understanding what is in the sea. Through this technology the sea is no longer a black box, like the body was 100 years ago.
I bought a sonar fish finder. The returning echoes translated by the device make for this really nice spectral imagery. Its been a steep learning curve as my first shoot was in the containment boom above the cruise ship in Greece, which is almost too deep for surface sonar but I managed to catch it on one image. I also rented a submarine sonar device, which came from Scotland and I was taking taxis with what looked like a missile. This device didn’t work well for me but I got a brilliant but expensive line from the rental company saying ‘ sonar is like looking at a world of black plastic illuminated by a tiny torch … which is in the fictional narrative.
I since have filmed at diving lakes and dams purposefully looking for structure underwater that produce interesting visuals. All ideas of perspective are questioned with sonar as you are looking at a cross section of an environment but your brain translates it as something else and makes you see these otherworldly landscapes. These ghostly visuals will also allude to unseen pollution and contamination and compete on a sonic level with vision, our most dominant sense.”