Sea Creature
Studium Generale 2021-2022 Rietveld Academie

Erika Balsom, Fluid Labours

In his 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes casts the ocean as a blank space, a traceless void that paralyses the production of meaning: ‘In a single day, how many really nonsignifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.’ The ocean’s salty expanse will never quench the semiotician’s thirst for signs. The films of Fluid Labours confront the ocean’s difficult relation to signification yet challenge this perspective, conceiving of the sea not as an empty space but as an inhabited realm that is a site of work, contingency and relationality, as well as a place of fraught encounter between the human and other-than-human. Beginning in 1895, at the birth of cinema, and extending into the present, this selection explores how nonfiction filmmakers have mobilised diverse strategies to represent the myriad forms of labour that take place on the water. They call for a reprisal and revision of Barthes: here I am, before the sea, and it is true that it bears many messages – messages of fantasy and necessity, exploit and exploitation, tradition and modernity, life and death. 
Erika Balsom is Reader in Film Studies at King’s College London. She is the author of four books including TEN SKIES (2021), An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea (2018) and After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation  (2017), and the co-editor of Artists’ Moving Image in Britain Since 1989  (2019) and Documentary Across Disciplines  (2016). Alongside her academic work, she regularly writes criticism for publications including Artforum, 4 Columns and Cinema Scope.  She was the co-curator of the film programme Shoreline Movements for the 2020 Taipei Biennial and the exhibition Peggy Ahwesh: Vision Machines, currently on view at the Stavanger Kunsthall. In 2018, she was awarded a Leverhulme Prize and the Katherine Singer Kovacs Essay Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.