The Possibility of Hope: on boats

“The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us,  is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.”

“There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places — places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society — which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.”

“The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”

“The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains.”



-Michel Foucault

“…and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development (I have not been speaking of that today), but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.” 

– Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres”

L’Internationale situationniste, No. 1, 1958

There is a world elsewhere….

I was fortunate to see again, at the recent DIA retrospective of Shirin Neshat, the two-channel video installation Rapture, B&W, 1999. One channel contains a group of muslim men dressed in white shirts and trousers, whilst the other channel is occupied by muslim women, the concluding scene of which begins with a large group of abaya clad women gathering around a boat at the edge of the ocean. Six alone of that larger group of women get into the boat – it is a simple boat, without sails, but with a modest engine – and are pushed out to sea by the women who remain behind. The work ends with the six or so women in the boat moving simply out across the currents upon the ocean. Such is hope.

Transfixed by the pathos of this separation – from shore, from land, from oppression – I recalled another boat, this time one which carried me as both participant and viewer or, may be, better, witness: the boat on the Detroit Rouge River in October 2010 as part of Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler’s film opera KHU, the guiding movement of which was the resurrection from the depths of the Rouge River of the god Osiris manifested as a broken Chrysler Imperial … From there the swift and sudden transitions to Foucault’s deeply felt sentiment of boat(s) as reserves of the imagination, of Debord’s feeling for water and boats in the baroque imaginary – images of the movement of time and liberty – passing by Scott Hocking’s boat on dry land in Detroit – “In the Long Run, to be Stranded” is the title of one of J.H. Prynne’s great poems from The White Stones – no less than the iconography of the boat used in the Detroit journal (S)trait(s) – a partial translation of the French word Dé-troit, and as such a figure of in-betweeness, transition. Woman. God. Transition. There is a world elsewhere…

    Michael Stone-Richards

Shirin Neshat, Rapture, 1999, video still. 

Reprinted courtesy of Glen Mannisto, from Straits Vol.1, 1982

“What I like is the solution is the boat. 
What is the definition of the boat? 
It’s that it doesn’t have roots.
It’s rootless. It floats around.
That’s the solution. 
We must really accept how we are rootless.
This is for me the meaning of this wonderful metaphor – boat.
Boat is the solution, boat – in the sense of: you accept rootless / free floating. 
You cannot rely on anything. 
You know, it’s not a return to land. 
Renewal means you cut your roots.”

-Slavoj Žižek