FOLDED OCEAN: MUTATING TERRITORIES IN THE INDIAN OCEAN WORLD, Dr. Lindsay Bremner
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #16
Biography: Dr. Lindsay Bremner is Professor of Architecture at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA. She was formerly Chair of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Cape Town and Master of Architecture and Doctor of Science in Architecture from the University of the Witwatersrand. Dr. Bremner is an award winning architect and has practiced, published, lectured and exhibited widely on the transformation of Johannesburg after the end of apartheid. This includes the Sans Souci Rebuilding Project in Soweto (with 26’10 South Architects), Johannesburg: One City Colliding Worlds (Johannesburg: STE, 2004), Writing the City into Being: Essays on Johannesburg 1998-2008 (Johannesburg:Fourthwall Books, 2010) and contributions to the Rotterdam and Venice Architecture Biennales in 2005 and 2006.
Once upon a time the Mauritian archivist Auguste Toussant called the Indian Ocean the ‘Neglected Ocean’ (Toussant 1966). This is no longer the case. Today it has moved to the center stage of global politics as China, India and the United States compete to secure its strategic oil routes. It has become a privileged vantage point from which to view a changing world order (Hofmeyr n/d:2).
The Atlantic Ocean has long been a site of Euro-American scholarship and exchange. Paul Gilroy’s notion of the ‘Black Atlantic’ (Gilroy 1993) identified it as a space not specifically African, American, British or Caribbean, but all of these at once, and understood the Atlantic seaboard as the site where capitalist modernity took hold as a transnational system. The Pacific Ocean on the other hand embodies Anglo-American preoccupations, featuring as an “imaginary space of growth beyond stagnation and decline”(Moorthy and Jamal 2010:2). The Indian Ocean presents us with a different paradigm. It brings to light a rich repository, alternative histories and new ways of seeing emerging patterns of globalization, trans-nationalism and multi-polarism, owing to its 5000 history of such practices and strategic importance in the contemporary world. For spatial scholars and practitioners, it proffers new geographies of interconnectedness and new opportunities for spatial research, theory and in(ter)vention.
Folded Ocean (Fig. 1)
The Indian Ocean is almost symmetrical about a north south axis running down the length of the Maldive Island archipelago. If the ocean is folded about this axis, a number of cities map more or less onto one another, along the equator and the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Dubai folds onto Kolkata along the Tropic of Cancer, Mogadishu onto Kuala Lumpur along the equator, and Durban onto Perth along the Tropic of Capricorn. These cities mark the symbolic geographic extremities of the Indian Ocean. At its central point lies Diego Garcia, which, as Malta is to the Mediterranean, is equidistant from all points. This portrait of the Ocean as figure, not void, de-continentalizes territory and envisages the Ocean as a hyper-connected global region. In 1995, this interdependence was consolidated by the formation of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation, with nineteen member states and five dialogue partners.
As part of this emerging field, I recently invented a program of research I have called ‘FOLDED OCEAN’. Acknowledging the legacy of the mappings of the Valpariso Open City in Chile and Stefano Boeri and Multiplicity’s Solid Sea Project in Europe, the project has been conceptualized as a broad based platform for spatial research and design initiatives in the Indian Ocean world. In particular, it seeks out instances where spatial and territorial mutation evidence contemporary economic, political, cultural and environmental realignments. The project is framed by ideas of ‘Anti-geography’, ‘Creolization’ and ‘Liquidity’ (see below). A number of samples are currently under investigation: The Disappeared Island (South Talpatti, Bangladesh or New Moore Island, India); Scrap Yard (Bhatiary Shipbreaking Yards, Bangladesh); Loot (Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya; Port (Lamu Island, Kenya); and Mud (Sundarbans, West Bengal, India). These samples begin to construct a bioptic chart of the contemporary Indian Ocean world, ‘bioptic’ because it privileges the sample for diagnostic purposes and ‘chart’ because serves as an instrument for the navigation of fluid territory.
Geo-political research tends to be tied to national or continental boundaries as if these were static and immutable. In this project, this is resisted and space is read as part of an Indian Ocean world, an open-ended, de-continentalized space of licit and illicit circuits, crossings and inter-continental interactions and migrations. The Ocean is a vast region in flux, sloshing people, plants, goods, money, ideas, beliefs, information, cultural practices and longings around its shores, into its hinterlands and beyond. People have traveled around the Ocean to trade, peddle, propagate religious ideas, in search of work or to expand mercantile or financial empires for centuries. Some of this movement has chugged between local entrepots, while other has been truly transnational, setting up vast archipelagos of circulating Indian Ocean diasporas and interests. This project researches the sites, jurisdictions, nodes, circuits and routes of this anti-geography – its passages, lanes, routes, choke points, ports, docks, deposits and narratives, and, in doing so, raise questions about sovereignty, interconnectedness and the (in)discreteness of continental geographies in today’s world.
What is unique about the Indian Ocean is that for the past 5,000 years, it has been a vast contact zone for overlapping transnational systems and competing universalisms, none of which have ever established hegemony. Instead, these encounters have produced what Harvard anthropologist Engseng Ho describes as “tight embrace(s) of intimacy and treachery, mutually beneficial relations based on aversion and attraction, intersecting interests and encounters that have colluded to produce a world of epic transnational entanglement” (2004:2). This “historically deep archive of competing universalisms” (Hofmeyr n/d:4) has complicated binaries, muddled hierarchies and displaced oppositional logics. A rich legacy of ideas, technologies and cultural and religious practices have been stirred and diffused, producing creolized spatial forms and identities. Indian Ocean cities participate in multiple worlds, they are profoundly cosmopolitan sites. The project seeks to identify and map samples of the threading and thickening of these complex, layered entanglements by contemporary alliances.
The Indian Ocean is a warm ocean, its islands, coastlines and economies subjected to powerful climatic rhythms and cycles – currents, monsoons, trade winds, cyclones, etc. These have shaped the possibilities and limits of human circulation, settlement and livelihood around its shores for centuries. Today this ecology is being profoundly affected by economic pressures and climate change. Ocean based cultures are threatened by hyper-development and changes attributed to global warming are escalating (rise in water temperature, changes in Oceanic circulation, storm surges, increased cyclone and wave action, rising sea levels and droughts etc.) A country like Bangladesh for example faces almost certain catastrophe from a combination of coastal population growth, coastal subsidence, land-use changes and global climate change, and the Maldives has proposed to buy its way out of submersion as a territory and a nation by buying a new homeland in Sri Lanka, India or Australia. The project identifies and examines specific instances of contemporary ecological transmutation and its consequences.
Sample 1: Mud (Fig. 2)
The Sundarbans region of West Bengal is a borderless and constantly mutating transition between land and sea, where the freshwater plumes of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers deposit their silt and mix with the saline water of the Bay of Bengal. It has evolved over millennia through the natural deposition of upstream sediments and intertidal segregation, stabilized by the roots of the largest halophytic mangrove forest in the world. Neither liquid nor solid, the organization of this fluid archipelago, if one can call it that, is an anti-pattern: undifferentiated, oozy, squelchy, materializing and dematerializing in an ongoing process of deposition, accumulation, stabilization, erosion, ebb and flow. This very anti-pattern results in an economy, providing a sludgy protective barrier to the intensely cultivated and populated lands of Kolkata beyond. Amphibious, disposable and expedient, its muddy logics offer a state of the art strategy in a provisional world.
Sample 2: Scrap Yard (Fig. 3)
Between the hills and the sea, under the protective nose of powerful Bangladesh military establishments, shipbreaking in Bangladesh has colonized what was once a luxuriant agricultural landscape just north of Chittagong. It has injecting it with seething ribbons of flotsam floating in waterways, seeping into ground water and fishing areas, stacked in yards and piled high along roads to optimize visibility and sales. Roads are clogged with old WW2 Bedford trucks, bicycles, taxis, tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars and all kinds of makeshift vehicles. Tightly guarded, highly concealed tracks lead to the ship breaking yards. Tropical jungle swallows the residential compounds where more than 100,000 workers who earn their livelihoods from the scrapping of vessels, mostly recruited from the villages of northern Bangladesh, live in makeshift shelters surrounded by residual farm lands and stagnant water ponds. In more than 400 steel mills, steel plate is smelted down, reformed, rerolled and resold. An air of frenetic energy, desperation and defiant optimism is everywhere.
Sample 3: Covert Antagonism (Figs. 4 – 6)
Diego Garcia holds a particularly privileged position in the center of the Indian Ocean (7’20S, 72’25E). It is the largest and southernmost of the Chagos Archipelago, a narrow coral atoll nearly enclosing a lagoon, about 15 miles (24 km) in length, 7 miles (11 km) across and with a land area of about 17 square miles (44 square kms). Diego Garcia is part of British Indian Ocean Territory. In 1966 the British leased the island to the US fleet and armed forces and in 1971 agreed to the terms of its development as a US naval base. The same year United Nations Resolution 2832(XXVI) declared the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Diego Garcia was the only US Navy base that launched offensive air operations against Bagdad, and Coalition aircraft from Diego Garcia dropped more ordnance on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan during the 2001-02 ‘war on terror’ than any other unit (Pearson 2003:283). A number of al-Qaeda suspects are thought to be held and interrogated on the island (although the U.S. military will not confirm this).
On the basis of this covert and duplicitous history, architecture students in the Tyler School of Art at Temple University undertook a design studio in the Spring of 2010. They proposed a more pragmatic, but no less optimistic idea for the Indian Ocean, as a critique of the UN’s Zone of Peace: to turn Diego Garcia into a Zone of Truce. They transformed the island into an ‘Institute of Extra-Continental Antagonisms’ which, by spatializing the inevitable and irresolvable antagonisms of contemporary geo-politics in the Ocean, provided a symbolic space within which conflict could be played out and power relations provisionally adjusted