Unsafe Passage

CB-DRIFT-cover_2I am pleased to be taking part in Drift: Collective Reading & Forensics a live reading at the Whitechapel Gallery this evening as part of a dual launch both of Caroline Bergvall’s new book, Drift (Nightboat Books), and her forthcoming residency at the gallery. Caroline has been touring a live production of Drift, which was first commissioned for the festival lost.las.gru by Gru/Transtheatre in Geneva, and is produced by Penned in the Margins and Sound and Music. From Southend to The Southbank, with dates in Bournemouth, Milton Keynes, Liverpool and London, the tour is now finished. This was the blurb:

a journey through time and space, where languages mix, where live percussion meets live voice, where the ancient cohabits with the present. Ancient tales of exile and love re-emerge to shadow today’s lives and losses. Internationally renowned performer Caroline Bergvall teams up with experimental Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach and Swiss visual artist Thomas Köppel and together they invent a language of extremes: from the ancient pool of English and Nordic poetry to the lyrics of pop songs and damning human rights reports into contemporary sea migrants’ disaster.

For this evening’s performance, Caroline Bergvall has mustered a mob of writers and performers, friends and colleagues, for a collective reading. I won’t give anything away, but I am just looking at the script now, and as Caroline says in her accompanying notes: ‘It looks complicated on paper but should remain v organic and easy and going w the flow of the narration.’

imgsizeI have been following Caroline’s work for a while. In 2010 I took part in Middling English an event accompanying her then current exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton. Going back a bit further — twenty-odd years ago — between 1991 and 1994 I set up and directed a programme of live art commissions, screenings and readings at The Showroom gallery, then in Bethnal Green, which enabled me to work with artists and writers including Oreet Ashery, Anne Bean, Tim Brennan, Stuart Brisley, Tim Etchells, Anthony Howell, Richard Layzell, Deborah Levy, Sharon Morris, Gordana Stanisic, Aaron Williamson and many others. As part of that project, I commissioned an earlier ‘multivocal’ piece by Bergvall. Strange Passage was The Showroom Live Art commission 1993, supported by the then Arts Council of Great Britain. It was a great piece of work. The voices of Bergvall and others filled the Showroom’s idiosyncratic linked spaces, while Christopher Hewitt performed lighting miracles using a Heath Robinson rig that he had made from multiple household dimmer switches. The text was published as a chapbook by Cambridge poetry publisher Equipage. What I hadn’t realised until Caroline mentioned it recently, was that it had been her first major commission.

hold-everything-frontcover-max_221-061b049a927f7dfe2cf54a57fbdca4e2It is an interesting coincidence that with my novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South, and with publication of Bergvall’s Drift we will now each have recently and independently published books that explore from differing literary perspectives what I think may prove to be one of the defining movements of our time: the mulitudinous epic, and the great unfolding tragedy that is contemporary maritime migration. Perhaps, as John Berger puts it in his 2007 essay collection Hold Everything Dear, we are each in our own way simply ‘choosing the voices [that we wish] to join.’

Often branded incorrectly as ‘illegals’ or referred to as ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’, tens of thousands of people are being killed at the Global Frontier. In Australia, the Border Crossing Observatory project whose Australian Border Deaths Database maintains a record of all known deaths associated with Australia’s borders since 1 January 2000, estimate that at least 1,495 people have died (a figure that ‘Includes those who are missing, who have not been rescued or recovered and are therefore feared drowned’). Border Crossing Observatory writes:

Controlling border crossing has become a prime concern under conditions of late modernity, leading western governments to introduce increasingly coercive control measures, ranging from visa regimes to military fortification. Far from eradicating spontaneous border crossing, this ‘defensive geography’ has fuelled illicit people smuggling markets, and forced asylum seekers and illegalized travellers into increasingly hazardous journeys. In seeking to account for, rather than merely count, border-related deaths this project by Dr Leanne Weber and Professor Sharon Pickering intended to shift the debate about contemporary border controls towards the acceptance of a more mobility-tolerant future.

01_fomigrantstalaga29_0d4a4___GalleryIn the same period it is thought that 22,000 (twenty-two-thousand) people may have died trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea — more than 3,000 this year alone. It makes grim reading, but Tara Brian and Frank Laczko’s report Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration (International Organisation for Migration) is a useful primer on the subject.

Bergvall’s Drift uses ‘a medieval sea poem a forensic report an aircraft surveillance image a runic sign’ to lament — and ‘to account for’ — the so-called ‘Left-to-die-boat’ which left Tripoli in March 2011 with seventy-seven people on board. After drifting for fourteen days all but eleven passengers were dead, two more died shortly thereafter, and this at a time when ‘NATO was enforcing an arms embargo in the central Mediterranean Sea, meaning that during that period it was the most highly surveilled section of sea in the entire world’.

It is a great book, and Caroline is a unique performer.

I hope to see you there.


Caroline Bergvall (et al), Drift: Collective Reading & Forensics

Creative Studio, Whitechapel Gallery, E1 7QX

Thursday 9 October, 7pm – 9pm

Booking essential. NB Advance online bookings have closed. Please call the Information Desk 020 7522 7888 to check ticket availability and to book with a debit or credit card. £8.50/£6.50 concession (£4.25 Whitechapel Gallery Members).

Shackleton’s Man Goes South, square thumbnailTony White’s latest novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South is published by the Science Museum — the first novel they have ever published — with an accompanying display in the Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery. The novel is available free from the Science Museum website and from a specially-developed, touch-screen ebook dispenser in the Atmosphere Gallery. The novel giveaway and exhibition run have been extended by the Museum and now continue until at least April 2015.