‘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 work, which will be shown at ‘Offshore: artists explore the sea’ in Hull this April, as part of the 2017 City of Culture program. The 2-channel installation; Pfui – Pish, Pshaw / Prr (view the trailer here) is based on interviews with the longest-serving employee of Polyeco/EPE, a Greek oil spill response company, Mr Theodosis. Stationed at the site of the Sea Diamond, a sunken cruise ship off the coast of Santorini for the last ten years. Mr Theodosis has become the ship’s conscientious guardian, tending to the slow release of petrol and oil to protect the surrounding waters and marine life.
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: “Yes, what surprised me most about this situation was the longevity of it. This was 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.”
Mr. Theodosis Alifrangis 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. The fictional script is from an oil spill responder’s point of view and reveals his superstitious reason for filming; Xematiasma, the Greek oil and water divination, where his camera wards off the evil eye as for the last 30 years he has tended to major emergencies on a daily basis.
He expands into further musings around matter and spirit, ancient rituals for cleansing the sea and purifying the natural element, his love for shipwrecks and recollections of heroic acts of protecting the environment against the mundane everyday reality. The ship’s names allude to special mythological allusions such as the cruise ship that commands his indefinite ongoing daily care called the Ananke Express after the deity Ananke the ancient Greek goddess of necessity, compulsion and inevitability. This work’s title is derived from a DH Lawrence quote in which the author abandoned language to express anger.”
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 model sets of cruise ship interiors, ferromagnetic mussels and molecular structures submerged in tanks and covered in iridescently coloured dripping oil paints. 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.”
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.”