Skip to main content

Artwork by contemporary Haitian artist Frantz Zephirin


A one-day conference bringing together speakers from the fields of theory, history, geography, politics and contemporary art to discuss the themes behind Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea, based on their own research and perspective. Offering a historical and theoretical framework, while expanding on the artistic propositions presented in the exhibition, the conference further delved into the zone of exception and liminality that constitutes the sea and the offshore.

This conference was organised in collaboration with the the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art at UCL.


10.00 – Doors open
10:30 – Introduction by Stephanie Schwartz (UCL)
10:40 – Introductions by the curators Anna Colin and Mia Jankowicz, and chair Lisa Le Feuvre
11:00Against Terracentrism: The Sea and History
               Keynote by Marcus Rediker (historian, writer and activist). Respondent: Julia Morandeira
12:00Free Seas, Free Skies?
               A presentation by Amy Balkin (artist). Respondent: Paula Ruiz
12:50 – Lunch break
14:00 Splendid Isolation: Philosophers' islands and the contemporary geopolitical imagination
               Keynote by Angus Cameron (human geographer). Respondent: Stephanie Schwartz
15:00To Go Where No One Else Goes.
               A video lecture by Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP (artists)
15:30 – Coffee Break
16:00 – Panel discussion with the day's contributors
                Chaired by: Lisa Le Feuvre
17:00 – End


Listen to Marcus Rediker's talk here.
Listen to Angus Cameron's talk here.
Listen to the panel discussion here.
Read Amy Balkin's paper here.
Read an extended version of Angus Cameron's keynote here.


Marcus Rediker Against Terracentrism: The Sea and History

This lecture will explain the genesis and meanings of the concept "hydrarchy," in its seventeenth-century origins and its redefinition in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press/Verso, 2000). The first of the two main themes of the talk is how the sea has functioned as a historic space for the exercise of violent, tyrannical, world-transforming power (capitalism, empire, etc.) even though most people think of it as something of an ahistorical void – because real history, we are taught to think, happens on land, in nation-states. A terracentric bias haunts our thought. The second, related theme is how the sea has functioned as a space of resistance, where alternative, sometimes revolutionary social orders are imagined and practiced. A dialectic of oppression and emancipation shows the sea as a place of human agency and profound history-making after all.

Amy Balkin Free Seas, Free Skies?

In 1609 Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius published Mare Liberum or The Free Sea. In this maritime legal treatise, his argument was that the high seas were open and empty stages on which sovereign nations were free to exert state power economically and militarily. The seas were international territory that all nations could use for trade to which no nation could deny others access. Further, he claimed the sea was more similar to air than land, in that its limitlessness made it common property of all.

This similarity is worth considering in light of how the atmosphere is currently utilised as another seemingly limitless, open, and empty space. The contradictions between these ‘free and open’ spaces as global commons and simultaneously as stages for capital and state power can be seen in conflicts over trans-boundary air pollution, the commodification of greenhouse gases, and negotiations in climate change conferences today, all which provide case studies against which to consider these contradictions.

Angus Cameron Splendid Isolation: Philosophers' islands and the contemporary geo-political imagination

The remote, inaccessible island has long been a convenient setting for those wishing to experiment with social possibility. From Plato's account of Atlantis, through Utopia, the Isle of Pines, Ultima Thule, Bensalem, Taprobane, Crusoe's Island, Treasure Island, the islands of Dr Moreau and Lord of the Flies and many others to, most recently, Avatar's planet Pandora and Terry Pratchett's ‘Nation', the island provides a selectively closed world within which aspects of complex societies can be explored. Such 'philosophers' islands' (Mackay 2010) play host to conflict, reconciliation, idealism, realism and satire according to the needs of the author and the times. Despite their importance as scenery the islands themselves are of only fleeting importance – a passive and neutral armature upon which the foibles of human nature can be strung out for examination. As such, the spatiality of the philosopher's island has a very ambiguous role with respect to the events that take place upon it.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, it will be argued that the spatiality of the philosophers' island plays a much more active role in the representation of 'normal' space than first appears. For all the fiction of remoteness and wildness, the philosopher's island is far more familiar and legible than it purports to be – standing as a normative analogue for the nascent state. Second, it will be argued that the literary trope of the island has morphed over recent decades into 'real world' counterparts, both in the way that sovereign states are imagined and represented and in the form of an array of ‘xenospaces' – fictional but fully functional spatial domains such as 'offshore' tax-havens, export processing zones, maquiladoras, etc. Despite their conceptual relationship with the 'philosophers' islands', most of these 'zones' (Easterling 2010) are not physically remote from their home and/or client states. Rather, they combine a narrative of geographical distance with a practice of legal/conceptual distance that serves to obfuscate their true nature.

Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran (CAMP) To Go Where No One Else Goes

A video lecture using materials from CAMP's ongoing Wharfage project, involving state records, seafarers and "free trade" between parts of the Persian Gulf, South Asia, and Africa.

Unlike the explorer whose frontier is "where no one else has gone", the wooden-ship-captain who says he goes "where no one else goes" also whispers, "anymore", hinting that things change with time. In this story, there was a turnaround point in Iraq fifteen years ago, as there are several in Somalia today. Trade horizons such as these are produced by some groups doing, openly, what others have deemed unprofitable. This takes a skill and a capacity, a "power and resistance at sea".

At the same time, the orientation of ships and traders towards certain destinations has its "price". How to deal with unexpected intimacies? Remember, Sara Ahmed writes, that the words ‘contingency’ and ‘contact’ share the same root (Latin: contigere = to touch). Goats crowd the insides of boats, charcoal catches fire. Ethiopian discotheques, sinkings off Oman, and boardings by the US navy are recorded on Gujarati sailors' cellphones. Even if the goods are all Chinese, one state "feels" another.

To go where no one else goes, could be dismissed as just capitalism as usual. Or, it can be used to sense the forces at work in the sea of relations between nation-states, tax-regimes, labour-pools and ecosystems, a matrix that is nevertheless perturbed, excited, by each passing ship.


Location: University College London, Medawar Lankester Lecture Theatre, Medawar Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT.

Booking: Attendance is free and booking is essential.