We know relatively little about life in the deepest oceans. But we know that the blue that covers more than 70 percent of the planet is also a regulator of its climate, and responsible for around 50% of our oxygen. It is also home to millions of extraordinary species. Only last month, 5000 new life forms species were discovered in the deep ocean.
Legally, the majority of the deep seabed is the shared responsibility of humankind. As a connector of continents, people and creatures, a source of food, cultural heritage and identity, how we choose to consider, portray and talk about the deep sea is fundamental to how we govern it.
But its safety is at threat. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an organization set up by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to manage mining in the high seas (two thirds of the ocean), is known for its lack of transparency. For more than a decade it has been operating behind some very closed doors, with the result that most people have no idea that a new, extreme new wave of deep-sea extractivism for metals such as manganese, nickel and rare earth minerals is under way.
In July 2021 a Canadian-owned company called The Metals Company and the government of the Republic of Nauru in the Pacific triggered the ‘two-year rule’ that states ‘upon the request of a party, the ISA shall complete the adoption of rules, regulations and procedures necessary to facilitate the approval of plans of work for exploitation within two years of the request.’ If adopted, this would mark the first ever case of commercial deep-sea mining and has intensified attempts to finalise a mining code that will define all future mining operations, though many strongly believe it should never happen at all. In July 2023 at the ISA in Jamaica the decision will be made about whether to green-light a new wave of ocean-grabbing. All 36 member nations of the council must reach a consensus for mining regulations to be approved.
It was against this backdrop that my love affair with the deep ocean, and my deep concern for it, began. As an artist who has worked under water for over 20 years, I have worked with channel swimmers, sea gypsies, deep-sea biologists and free-divers to explore our human relationship with this space. But I’m particularly drawn to the deep sea as a place that many of us can only ‘experience’ through the mediated lens of technology or the cultural imaginings of films and books. With this comes the inherent problem of the fantasy that has been constructed around this environment, which positions it as ‘other’.
How can most people begin to care about a territory they will never see or come to know at first hand? Answering this became my mission as an artist.
Between 2016-2019 I made a film called Common Heritage, as an urgent response to the gold rush of deep-sea mining taking place far from the public gaze. It exposes how reverberant layers of industrialisation, colonialism and territorial claim have affected the way we relate to our environment, and questions the presumption that the deep sea is a new frontier that is ours to colonize. With the new escalation of events and threat of commercial access of the deep seas I’ve returned to the subject again creating Sirens, a film triptych released this summer, where we witness an intimate encounter between a dancer and 3 deep sea creatures. The Sirens will also feed into the larger Soundings project, a multi-screen installation that explores how film, sound and dance can connect us to the deep ocean. Audiences will be invited into a constructed environment that stages the complex and multi-faceted issues surrounding deep-sea mining, creating imagined spaces for people to stop and reflect. The project, due for release in early 2025, invites the public to join marine biologists, ocean law experts, activists and rare specimens from abyssal plains to create a space for discussion and exchange.
Our relationship with the deep ocean is in crisis. Along with the geopolitical, social and economic concerns at stake, deep sea mining will cause devastation to untold numbers of species and their habitats. It is critical that we fully understand the presence of the ocean in our lives and it not be seen as remote from us.
Emma Critchley is an artist from the UK who uses water as a formal material property within a range of media including film, photography, sound, installation, writing and dance. Her work examines the underwater environment as a political, philosophical and environmental space. Her work has been shown extensively nationally and internationally in galleries and institutions. In 2019, Emma was the winner of the Earth Water Sky residency programme with Science Gallery Venice, where she worked with the Ice Memory Project. The resulting film installation launched in the official Italian pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 and was developed to include live spoken-word in multiple languages for the Brighton Festival 2022.
Call to action: This is a pivotal moment to consider our relationship with the deep-sea and all life that exists there. If you are by the coast during July-August 2023, Emma invites you to take part in her Soundings project by telling her what the deep ocean means to you, using these prompts.
- Please describe the sea as you look at it today. Please interpret this as you wish, this could be for example how it looks, feels, tastes, sounds, whether it’s making you feel a certain way, what it means to you on a personal or cultural level etc.
- What does the deep ocean mean to you?
These responses can be through words (written or spoken), drawing, painting, photo, video, poem etc – however you wish to express your description.
Please send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org by 15th August 2023.
For hand written/drawn material, please post to: Emma Critchley, Unit 4S4 Phoenix Studios 10-14 Waterloo Place, Brighton, BN2 9NB, UK
To find out more about the Soundings project: https://www.emmacritchley.com/films/soundings/
For information about Sirens: https://www.emmacritchley.com/films/sirens/