2017, HD video, sound, 12 minutes
A woman born with sirenomelia, a mythological posthuman being takes us on the journey to the Cold War submarine base above the arctic circle. She exposes a future liberated from the military and economic structures that oppress the present, a future in which relations between humans and nonhumans have been transfigured, a future in which the cosmic dimension of an earthly coexistence is interlaced within the texture of the social.
Nadim Samman: Sirenomelia: Mermaid Syndrome. It sounds benign until you discover that it is a rare disorder. The sirens attract Odysseus, but this attraction is dangerous. What call did you heed in travelling to the destinations featured in the film? Did you want to throw yourself into those frigid waters even before you stood at their edge for the first time?
Emilija Škarnulytė: In my films from the last ten years, I have mostly researched places where contemporary political issues are staged between human and non-human worlds, the shifting boundaries between ecological and cosmic forces. I want to feel out all kinds of non-human and post-human scales in the depths of space and time. Often the actual location, a border or geological stratum, suggests the script and takes the main role. Sirenomelia is shot in two locations above the Arctic Circle where I measure and sense places with my own body: Olavsvern—Royal Norwegian Navy base located 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle—and the Geodetic Observatory at Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen, the most northerly permanent civilian settlement in the world.
I was invited to make a new work for “Nothing Will Grow Together Because Nothing Belongs Together”, an exhibition organised at the actual Olavsvern site by Kurant, an artist-run space in Tromsø. When I first saw the endless canals where the submarines used to be located, I was immediately tempted to dive there and see what Cold War ruins were hidden in the salty water. The counter-mythology of the Cold War was interesting to me I wanted to reflect on what the East believed about the West and vice versa, the myth in itself, which is invisible. I needed a mythological character as a guide through these endless infinity pools, tunnels and canals, and to see though her/their point of view. I searched for a specific remote sensing post-Cold War world voice, which never made it into the story. Rewriting history into a scenario where another species—and other nonhuman beings—can be at home on this planet was of crucial importance. I was interested in giving evidence on how alternated states of consciousness arise through sensing and learning from new formations of underwater plants are dimensions that have shaped our history as humans in evolution.
NS: Technology negotiates bodily engagements with the atmospheric. In scuba, the deeper you go, the more the mediating gear presses in around your body. On the surface, where everything is as light as air, we tend not to notice that cities are exoskeletons too. Your mermaid swims through technical facilities with only the aid of a wetsuit and a single fin, out into open water. Is she a cyborg, or a symbol of escape from that condition?
ES: The siren is symbol and a counter-myth. She/they is like water in different states of matter, with molecules changing and expanding. She/they is mutilated. She/they is a cyborg, still linked to a human just merged with the fish, submarine, machine, and torpedo. The siren posits possible post-human mythologies.
The military shipyards have specialised in submarines since the Soviet period and World War II staged reenactments that I have visited in Northern Russia were also an inspiration for the research. Technical and socio-political functions of counter-myth, examining its dangers in society. I wanted to counter this militarized place, which still retains the myth of war, with a counter-myth: sea creatures have always been mediators of "nature".
NS: What is your relationship with the ocean, off-camera?
ES: The ocean is sound. The ocean is transmission. The ocean is cosmic. How to measure the Ocean and its scale? Using my own body to measure the depths of time and space. The ocean like flatland, which is another dimension, maybe 4th or 5th or 6th. The ocean is like space, the unknown, the invisible. To reach it, we need to cross through it, it’s the state where time and space wrapping is almost tangible. Like in Maya Deren’s films, trying to almost physically impact this dimensional walls in order to reach the other. A thin line above and below water dividing the real and quantum.
Roger Penrose, one the world's foremost theoretical physicists, is known for his work in mathematical physics, in particular for his contributions to general relativity and cosmology. In his book Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe (2016), Penrose talks about the mermaid representing the magic and mystery of quantum mechanics: you might see her human side and she looks straightforward—or at least as straightforward as the rest of us—but dive below the surface and you’ll discover that she partly lives in this strange and mysterious entangled world.
NS: Do you prefer still or turbulent water? Do you prefer to see the bottom beneath you, or an abyss? Do you prefer the surface, or enclosure within a liquid volume?
ES: Hunting for a lost and decaying deep time, observing human left scars in the strata is somewhat an obsession of mine, especially after visiting Spitzbergen and seeing the ice melting around me. Earliest life—the single-celled organism. Water. A sizeable quantity of water would have been in the material that formed the Earth. Water molecules would have escaped Earth's gravity more easily when it was less massive during its formation. Liquid water. Solid. H2O. Evolution. Coming for a single-celled organism and where are we heading to: it’s my proposal to the evolution. Water level is rising. We will go back to the water from where we came from.
NS: Liquid, in various states, appears in the frame throughout much of your video work. But to what extent does your practice consciously explore the question of a continuum or flowlinking one film and another? Sirenomelia seems to be a montage of geographies and footage otherwise extant in your previous videos—Twin Øso (2016); Øso Lens (2015), and others. Did you always know that such material would, eventually, become scenes for this film?
ES: Liquid operational images. Liquid states of matter. A liquid is a nearly incompressible fluid that conforms to the shape of its container. How do we perceive the invisible? With remote sensing? Through geology, archeology, astronomy, observing the invisible deep sea basin, they are all like Jules Verne’s journeys into the unknown geological deep time scales. Looking underwater to the Ocean Basin from the persepctive of future alien archeology. All underwater material is shot in the actual navy base. It’s the other way round: the footage from other films appeared from this shooting material. Yes, its continuum merges together and adds to one another. In the series of my films, I try to have the vision from a future perspective observing man-made places that become monuments: submarine bases, particle accelerators, neutrino observatories, mining sites.
NS: Must viewers be able to decode Sirenomelia in the manner of those cryptographers who once staffed the radar base at Spitsbergen—cracking some kind of coded message? Or, rather, should they encode the film with their own meaning?
ES: I was always fascinated how we always need a specific reference point outside as a reference in order to understand ourselves. We listen to the quasar—a quasi-stellar object—in order to understand better the Earth’s rotation, movement of the tectonic plates and ourselves. There are also audio-coded messages (that can be read differently) in the film, which are two types of binary files: in the first part we hear white noise slowed down more 100 times, recorded from the quasars at the station in Spitsbergen and in the second part there are Cold War number radios in the background in both. The absence of the Siren’s voice transforms into echolocation signals traveling remotely and sensing the unknown sea basin.
A film by Emilija Škarnulytė
Camera: Emilija Škarnulytė, Jokūbas Čižikas (drone), Vasco Pinhol (underwater)
Editing: Emilija Škarnulytė, Michael Sarcault
Sound design: Jokūbas Čižikas
Music: WAVE∞FORM. Written by Per Martinsen/ Copyright Control
Diver : Emilija Škarnulytė
Field sound recordings: Emilija Škarnulytė, Stefan Nafets
Special thanks to:
Norwegian Mapping Authority (NMA)
Olavsvern - Royal Norwegian Navy base
Tromsø diving center - Dykker Sentret A/S
Copyright Emilija Škarnulytė ©