It is rare, if ever, that the Southern Indian Ocean has come into view with the intensity that it did, than during the search for missing Malaysian Airways flight MH370 in March and April this year. During this period, media channels showed a great deal of footage of the ocean, sometimes with debris floating in it, sometimes not; of technology (towed pinger locators and Bluefin 21’s,) of data visualisations of flight paths and ocean depths, often with inverted buildings or mountains floating in it; we learned about Acars, Inmarsat and Pings; we watched simulations and drift models of ocean eddies; we were given daily statistics of numbers of ships and aircraft searching for the plane, whose they were, how far they had to go out each day and where they searched; we watched grey patches of searched sea growing like stains on maps; we heard authoritative pronouncements that finding the plane was immanent, only to have them proved wrong. This on-going invisibility of the airplane opened an aperture that made the ocean itself visible in new ways. It was materialised as a hybrid of nature, culture, media and technology.
As nature it appeared as unpredictable, fluid and unbounded, a nature that moved too turbulently and was too deep, too vast and too cold to be captured by culture, despite the best efforts of science, economics and politics to do so. It was swept by unrelenting winds and whipped up into storms by bands of low pressure moving eastwards across it; its waves were monstrous, dwarfing the ships sent out to search it; powerful undercurrents ran along the slopes of its surfaces, as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current raced eastwards around the southern part of the planet virtually unobstructed and the Indian Ocean Gyre swirled anti-clockwise up the east coast of Australia. Moulded by little known trenches and mountains on the seafloor, these currents connected deep, cold abyssal waters with the surface and, influenced by differences in speed, temperature, salinity and pressure, they collided, swirling and eddying and transmitting energy in complicated, turbulent and non-linear ways.
The ocean appeared as culture, on the other hand, through the codes, conventions, rituals and technologies of the international search operation. It became a vast quasi-militarised space of daily sorties, uneasy alliances and fault lines.
It was constructed as a debris field through satellite soundings and inspected through the windows of small aircraft or with binoculars from ship decks; it was scrutinised as an epistemological field by a host of remote sensing platforms and encountered as media – data, diagrams, maps, models and simulations. As it coursed its way through global communication circuits, fissures and delays filled it with neurosis, humor or malice or calibrated it with national pride; it fed catastrophic imaginaries, raising hopes and dashing them; it resisted, outwitted and confused; it bounced sound around in inexplicable ways; buildings, mountains, countries and previous disasters were inverted in it as rather comical units of measure to translate its vastness into something more humanly comprehensible. At the same time it emerged as culture in more reprehensible ways – as a noisy, trashy, warming soup, an urban hinter-land being disrupted, in probably irreversible ways by long-term anthropocenic events.
In short, the search for MH370 revealed the Southern Indian Ocean’s swirling, eddying, watery more-than-human materiality as outside of human affairs no longer, but as an alive and embodied sensorium, intimately and inextricably bound up with human existence in multiple complex ways.
This is a short version of two papers, one published in the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region and one in Art in the Anthropocene.
Bremner, L. (2015). “Fluid Ontologies in the Search for MH370.” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 11(1): 8-29. DOI: 10.1080/19480881.2015.1019994. You can download a pre-production version here. The final published version is available from the journal’s website here. 50 x free copies can be downloaded here.
Bremner, L. (2015).”Technologies of Uncertainty in the Search for MH370.” Art in the Anthropocene. H. Davis and E.Turpin (eds.), 199-212. Open Humanities Press. This is available for download or print-to-order here.