Indian Ocean Energies

I recently attended a workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (23-25 July 2015) to discuss the future of Indian Ocean Research. It was titled “Indian Ocean Energies” and organised by Isabel Hofmeyr and Sharad Chari of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA) and hosted by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER).

Left to right: Jamie Cross, Sharad Chari, Kirk SIdes, Jatin Dua, Meg Samuelson, Sukhdev Sandhu. Photo: Lindsay Bremner

Left to right: Jamie Cross, Sharad Chari, Kirk SIdes, Jatin Dua, Meg Samuelson, Sukhdev Sandhu. Photo: Lindsay Bremner

The aim of the workshop was to establish a research collective to provide new accounts of the Indian Ocean world and to enable a series of experiments in socio-cultural method for charting what has been suggested to be an emerging world order in the global south. The organisers put out this call to participants:

The Indian Ocean has been a vital arena of historical and literary exploration, for instance, of forced labour, Islam, anti-colonialism and the Cold War.  In our time of shifting certainties about the centre of gravity of global capitalism, US-centric geopolitics, expert knowledge, and cultural production, the Indian Ocean resurfaces as an arena of South-South exchange and creative possibility.  We turn to contemporary and emergent practices and circulations to ask what set of tools, questions, and approaches might be adequate to an Indian Ocean Studies of the present and future. Indeed, does the Indian Ocean represent a future of more general significance to the world?  Will it be the arena for the clash of the new world titans and resurgent ‘pirates’?  Will it be the locus of a distinctively ‘Southern’ capitalism in which various classes from Asian national-capitalisms take on new incarnations intent bleeding African resources into oceanic conduits?  Will the Indian Ocean assert its centrality to global Islam in new ways?  Might ‘Islam’ and ‘piracy’ be ljegible outside the imaginations imposed by the counterinsurgent war on terror in an ocean that has at its centre the US colonial base at Diego Garcia?  As the sea over which most oil is carried, will it become the strategic battleground for carbon resources, or the site of new exchanges of post-carbon technologies?  How might new forms of cultural production inspire our ways of seeing the futures of the Indian Ocean world in new ways? While drawing from established work, these questions equally draw the field away from older traditions of historical and cultural studies on the connected histories of the monsoon ocean, and from socio-cultural studies of Atlantic and Pacific worlds.

The project ‘Indian Ocean Energies’ seeks to think with the emergent, speaking to contemporary issues and potential futures.  Longer historical perspectives might be pertinent in some cases, but in others it might be as important to inculcate attentiveness to new sites of interaction, of Chinese managers, Brazilian engineers, and Mozambican workers in the transformation of Mozambique’s ports, for instance, and also to new forms of writing these exchanges and interactions premised less on historical depth than on the facility of circulation. The notion of ‘Energies’ provides a material and metaphorical device to think kinetically and oceanically, through the movement of people, objects, capital and socio-cultural forms, through, above, below and beside the water.  We focus on resources such as oil, carbon, water, wind, and sound waves, as well as the social and cultural technologies that enable or prevent their transmission.  Importantly, we invite a group of singers to think about their own practices of singing ‘across the waters’ through rigorous engagement with distinct musical archives and with the political and aesthetic will to make sound travel.  What might this artistic work inspire in our broader and linked attempts at forging new forms of socio-cultural praxis?

This call was taken up by an amazing group of scholars, some presenting very new, unpolished experimental work, others work that was more developed. I took the opportunity to present my first thoughts on the Maldives, titled “Thinking with an Indian Ocean Archipelago,” which, in addition to contributing to the Indian Ocean Energies agenda, laid the oceanic ground for my design studio next year.

Taking up the charge of the workshop – what it would take to think with emerging socio-cultural processes in the Indian Ocean world, I attempted to do so with one of its central island formations, the Maldives archipelago. The Maldives was the central fold line in the cartographic device (Folded Ocean) with which I started my work on the Indian Ocean. More importantly, because it is a territory whose area is comprised 99.66% of water, it provides an apt place to reconsider or even overturn the idea of the world as human and terra-centric and to consider what it means to live on a terraqueous globe.  Since the 1970’s, the archipelago has been used by a number of architectural theorists (Oswald Mathias Ungers, Rem Koolhaas, Pier Vittorio Aureli et al.) as a metaphoric trope for portraying architecture’s material and disciplinary autonomy from the metropolitan conditions that surround it. This is based on a Eurocentric or Mediterranean notion of a binary relation between land and sea, of solid, stable, rocky outcrops pitted against the dynamic forces of the sea. My presentation undertook a critique of this from an Indian Ocean perspective, and began to lay out a new non-binary ontology of the archipelago as a complex, emergent, relational, self organising, assemblage of coral, fish, wind, waves, currents, sand, ships, scientists, developers, politicians, international agencies, fishermen, tourists, data and much else besides, and asked what it might means to think architecture and the city as relationally embedded, resilient assemblages within this complex system.

Waterfront, Male Maldives. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

Waterfront, Male Maldives. Photo: Lindsay Bremner.

Other participants at the workshop were:

Melinda Barnard: Through the Office Window: Corporate culture, work, and the ethics of office space in an Indian corporation in Mozambique; Abby Berman: The Indian Ocean Journey of Rwandan coffee to Johannesburg; Jamie Cross: Capitalising on the Sun; Lindelwa Dalamba: Hearing South African popular Music beyond the Black Atlantic; Jatin Dua: Encounters at Sea: Piracy as hospitality in the Indian Ocean?; Patricia Hayes: Exclusion in Mocambique photography, 1960s-1990s; Evan Jacobs: Lost in Transit: Calculating the properties that Indian Hair looses through its travel across the Indian Ocean; Kwanda Lande: New Economic Spaces and Communities on the Indian Ocean littoral: Nqura Port in South Africa; Charne Lavery: Indian Ocean Depths: Cables, Cucumbers, Consortiums; Walter Matina: Revelation from Revolution: Indian trade and capital in the era of a Zanzibari political consciousness, 1964 to the present; Justin Neuman: OPEC Literature: Culture Exchange and Supply Chains; Suvendrini Perera: Letters to the Angel of the Ocean; Kirk Sades: Holocaust in the Indian Ocean; Jewish Exile in Mauritius and the Exotic other of Africa; Meg Samuelson: Chasing Waves and Searching for Stoke: Surf Travel, Energy Consumption and Indian Ocean Circulations; Sukhdev Sandhu: Hydropoetics; Joshua Remo: Islands under Erasure: Wastelands and a Possible End to US Empire in the Indian Ocean; Jennifer Wenzel: Fueling Culture: Energy, History, Politics.

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