Shipwreck Series: Background (2002)


Anybody who knows anything of me or my film and video work knows that I have some kind of entrenched (some might say “obsessive”) relationship to the writings of Herman Melville. Almost all of my stuff (not just film/video, but written stuff too) includes some sort of reference or allusion to Melville, sometimes direct appropriation, and there are a couple of pieces that are utterly about Melville, his works, his life, and my “obsession” with them. So this thing starts there.

If you’ve read Moby-Dick (and even if you haven’t — most people know the story), you know that in it a whale sinks a ship, and everybody on it, save one guy, is killed. You might know that Melville got the idea for the book from the story of a real incident in 1820 in which the whaleship Essex was stove and sunk by a sperm whale. (Recently, a whole miniature publishing industry has sprung up around this true story, as set down by the Essex’s first mate Owen Chase. No doubt the Hollywooden version will appear soon.) If you know Moby-Dick well, you’ll know that right in the middle of the book is a tale-within-a-tale, a chapter called “The Town-Ho’s Story,” which is a detailed account of another (fictional) whale-instigated shipwreck, and that throughout the book, and throughout the rest of Melville’s work, there are many mentions of, allusions to, or narratives about shipwrecks. And it turns out that this wasn’t just the case for Melville; you can find the shipwreck theme abundant across the literatures of the 19th and earlier centuries, and not just in North America.

I began to wonder why this was. I mean, apart from the obvious notion that shipwreck held a fascination for people going back from, say, the beginning of WWII to antiquity, for the same reason that airline crashes hold a fascination for us today. It was certainly the likeliest way for a fairly large number of people to be killed at once doing a fairly normal thing: travelling. But I was interested in what uses so many literary artists were making of shipwreck. What was its utility as metaphor, for instance? Did it bear an ironic cargo? Did it have political or social resonance? And so on.

While shipwreck as a literary event or theme goes back to the earliest literature – certainly it’s a central element in epic Greek poetry, The Odyssey for example — I eventually learned that the “shipwreck narrative” as such began with the Portuguese in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the era when their galleons began voyaging around the horn of Africa to the Indian sub-continent on a regular basis: maybe you remember Vasco di Gama and Bartholomeo Dias from grade school. These were pretty risky crossings, the waters were treacherous, and these ships were wrecked at an alarming rate. Plenty of people were drowned of course, but in many cases survivors were cast away on remote uninhabited islands, or washed ashore on the (for them) forbidding African coast. These “lucky” ones began to write down their “experiences” (a word whose etymology exactly describes these voyages: L. ex periri, perilous crossing), which they often declared were worse than if they’d gone down with the ship.

These shipwreck narratives were not merely about heroism in the face of adversity (á la The Perfect Storm, Titanic, and similar stuff) or its opposite; they weren’t just about fascination with the tragic, horrific, or stupefying aspects of the events, though this accounts in part for their widespread initial popularity; they weren’t only about the redemption of faith, the punishment of sin, God’s hand in all things, etc., and while this also in part accounts for the interest of a broad readership initially, it doesn’t explain why the vastly more secular 19th century would sustain that interest. Let me baldly state the obvious, and hope that the ensuing implications are less so: for there to be a shipwreck narrative, there has to have been a shipwreck and at least one survivor (such as Ishmael – if that’s really his name – in Moby-Dick) to tell the tale. For that teller, there arises a set of prerogatives and obligations that are very much more complex than what these days falls under the pop-psychological rubric of “survivor’s guilt.” One has the status of authentic witness, and thus a privileged access to the “truth” of “what has happened,” a privilege that one is free, perhaps even enjoined, to abuse in the interest of pleasing one’s interlocutors. At the same time, one is beset by a sense of “duty” to the dead, an obligation not only to tell their tale, but to provide the event of their loss with “meaning,” to salvage it from mere ordinary, senseless, aleatory happenstance.

For the 16th century Portuguese, and, we could say, for all sea-faring cultures and nations from antiquity up until at least the start of WWII, shipwreck was the disaster par excellence. (Even the word “disaster” secrets within its etymology a maritime resonance: to be separated, estranged, from the star [L. astrum] that ought to guide you. The condition of being lost, we might say. Capsized, perhaps.) It was the moment in which the extremity of a culture’s technological achievement would be brought down by the staggering force of nature. And it marked, we could say, the signal encounter (at least for Europeans) with what would become by the 18th century the defining moment of modern aesthetic experience: the sublime. The sense of utter engulfment, the dizzying brutality of the mind faced with precisely that which is beyond its capacity to grasp, the terrified urgency toward flight mitigated by the pull of some inexorable thrall, the dim mute recognition that causality itself is stupefying, senseless, secret, overwhelming all human scope: this is the experience of the sublime, a risky crossing indeed, which the idea of shipwreck figures aptly.

For us nowadays, the barbarous 20th century has provided new paradigms of disaster: Hiroshima, the Shoah, totalitarianisms of the right and left, genocide, state and stateless terrorism, the AIDS epidemic, environmental devastation – there are no doubt others. But it’s interesting that shipwreck persists as a disastrous metaphor, for instance in the writings of Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben on the Holocaust; in the renewed philosophical interest in the sublime in the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy, the mightily prolific Slavoj Zizek, and the ubiquitous Derrida; in the fiction of Marguerite Duras and W. G. Sebald; the poetry of Charles Olson and George Oppen; the poetics of Steve McCaffrey, Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe; the painting of David Salle; the dance of Pina Bausch: this list is probably inexhaustible. (A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay on the films of Phil Hoffman called “Landscape With Shipwreck,” despite the fact that there aren’t any ships, let alone wrecks, in Hoffman’s work. Eventually, the essay lent its title to a collection of pieces by various makers and critics on Hoffman and personal cinema, as well as to a retrospective of Hoffman’s work held at the Images Festival.) Even for contemporary artists and thinkers, shipwreck is able to provide a rhetoric for addressing disaster in a range of forms: the political (think of the “ship of state” and its inevitable foundering – even the Portuguese authors of shipwreck narratives dimly recognized the calamities they faced as penalties for the enjoyments brought about by empire, and at the same time as a sign that empire was coming to an end); the social (slavery, Auschwitz, race, homelessness, etc. – the experience of abjection, the turmoil of survivorship, the obligation to the lost, the insurmountable impossibility of justice or redress coupled with the intractable necessity to seek them); the personal (the catastrophe of love, depression, grief, guilt, psychosis, illness, etc.); the domestic (the broken home, the dysfunctional family, abuse, the imposition of other people’s notions of “family values,” etc.); the spiritual (god is silent, god is dead, god is mean, the concept of sin, the problem of redemption, the meaning of existence, etc.); the artistic: (the barely bearable solitude of making, the near impossibility of finishing the work, the work which exceeds its capacity to be a work, etc. – it’s possible that I’m alluding to myself here, but I’m probably not the only one in this particular (leaky) boat); the sexual (the drive, pure and simple). Again, probably not exhaustive. But I hope you get my drift.

Anyhow, that’s my theme.


The Series
The production of the series will be governed by a regulative principle which will determine its structure. The one I have in mind now is the abecedarium. (I’m thinking of calling it Abecedarium Naufragii (The ABCs of Shipwreck), but I might think better of it.) Abecedaria were repositories of general knowledge on various subjects, with items arranged alphabetically; one about snakes might have entries such as “A is for Anaconda,” “B is for Boa Constrictor,” with articles delineating everything known about each entry (you’ve probably seen similar sorts of things in books for infants). They were the early avatars of the encyclopedia that emerged in the 18th century, and were still fairly popular around the time the Portuguese shipwreck narratives were produced. So my series, in this conception, would have a minimum of 26 parts, one for each letter in our alphabet. There would be another principle governing the length of individual pieces: something like “each has to be at least 30 seconds in length, but no more than 10 minutes.” (I should point out here that this abecedarium format is only a possibility I’m considering; there are other possible regulative principles that could govern the structure of the series. But for the purposes of this description, I’ll stick to abecedarium.)

Just in case there’s any lack of clarity so far, let me stress that none of the pieces will be about literal shipwrecks: I wouldn’t have sections like “E is for Empress of Ireland,” or “T is for Titanic.” To give you an example of where I might be likely to engage shipwreck in a less than metaphoric way, I might have a section called “R is for Robertson” or “F is for Futility” that might be based on this piece of arcana:

In 1898, a struggling author named Morgan Robertson concocted a novel about a fabulous Atlantic liner, far larger than any that had ever been built. Robertson loaded his ship with rich and complacent people and then wrecked it one cold April night on an iceberg. This somehow showed the futility of everything, and in fact, the book was called Futility when it appeared that year, published by the firm of M.F.Mansfield.

Fourteen years later a British shipping company named the White Star Line built a steamer remarkably like the one in Robertson’s novel. The new liner was 66,000 tons displacement; Robertson’s was 70,000. The real ship was 882.5 feet long; the fictional one was 800 feet. Both vessels were triple screw and could make 24—25 knots. Both could carry about 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number. But, then, this did not seem to matter because both were labeled “unsinkable.”

On April 10, 1912, the real ship left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York. Her cargo included a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and a list of passengers collectively worth two hundred and fifty million dollars. On her way over she too struck an iceberg and went down on a cold April night.

Robertson called his ship the Titan; the White Star Line called its ship the Titanic.
(from Walter Lord, A Night To Remember (New York, 1983) pp.xi-xii)

Most sections, however, will use shipwreck as a governing metaphor. For instance, since shipwreck entails loss, dispossession, abandonment in the sense of being “cast-away,” the series might include sections dealing with the break-up of a marriage, or shattered love, or the collapse of a livelihood and the poverty that ensues, or catastrophic illness, or the destitution of old age, or abject loneliness, or lacerating depression. And so on. (And perhaps a section dealing with, say, homelessness, could be set in Rimouski, Québec, near where the Empress of Ireland went down in the St. Lawrence in 1914, with the loss of 1012 lives.)

Sections will also address more obscurely psychological (let’s say, ‘unconscious”) aspects of human existence, those features in each of us that pertain to our particular specificities: what the American poet George Oppen called “the shipwreck of the singular.” I’m saying “the singular” is that which marks each human subject in its uniqueness, that gives the subject its truth, though not in a readily accessible way. (I should stress that I’m not talking about “personality” or “identity” here, both of which I would construe as “dodges,” efforts on the part of each human subject to defend itself against the terrifying demands of its secreted truth in the interests of some sort of social compliance or personal comfort.) The singular is what structures me in my specificity; it’s what governs the particular ways in which I articulate my phantasy, suffer my losses, mount my defenses, dispense my desire, and endure my enjoyment. It’s aptly figured by shipwreck since it’s what leaves me, in the last instance, a solitary, always at some level marked by an inability to “fit in,” to belong: I’m a bit of flotsam washed ashore, desperate to return to what I vaguely sense is my home, but without any clear memory of where or what it is. And yet, the singular is that which makes me who I truly am, and not somebody else, not some mere example of a “type,” and thus provides the (foundered?) foundation for any possible freedom, and for the responsibility that follows from it. The work, this series, will direct itself, under the sign of shipwreck, towards these issues, of which I hope I’ve given you an inkling with this, admittedly dense, description. Again, if you want more on this (in a possibly clearer context) you could consult my Hoffman piece online (

We are, I am saying, bereft, cut-off, solitary, foundering; and yet, if this situation isn’t difficult enough already, there is an additional and omnipresent problem, as intractable for us as it was for Robinson Crusoe: that of the footprint in the sand. As human subjects, we are in some sense constituted precisely in the interstitial space between the singular and the communal. The requirement to bear witness to this conundrum, and the responsibility to act in the face of it, will also feature as part of this work.

So, each section will address its subject by means of what I’ve been calling a rhetoric or “metaphorics” of shipwreck, although perhaps not in a direct or explicit way. I don’t mean to say that I plan on being willfully obscure, but I have no qualms about making stuff that’s difficult to understand (and I don’t just mean for the spectator — I don’t think the maker has a special privilege in understanding his or her own work: one does as one is compelled to do, occupying at every turn a position, not of mastery, but of failure to master, a position which, I would say, is constitutive of human subjectivity itself). Complexity, difficulty may lead to diminished accessibility, but there is an audience, however small – and it’s certainly not as small as the gods of the dominant cinema would have us believe. I regard cinema (film/video) – as I do poetry, fiction, painting, even sculpture and dance — as a tool for thinking. It’s something one can think with. Thinking may not be something everybody wants to do, but plenty of people do do it, even in these dark days.


The initial period will be spent (alone) reading, viewing, developing ideas, marking out sections, culling material from books, magazines, museums, libraries, films, videos, etc., working out what shooting needs to be done, and how and when to do it, and so on.

I will take a couple of courses led by Avid Certified instructors, in the Avid Xpress DV software. During the editing of my last piece, Noncompatibles, I was able to gain a little familiarity with some of the older higher-end Avids, Xpress and Media Composer. But I’m by no means a whiz at it, and although Xpress DV is similar to these other systems, I really think I could use a basic grounding in the NLE software, and especially in its capacity for effects production, which will be important in this project (see below). The effects course covers Adobe After Effects and other plug-in software as well. And despite the fact these courses are certainly not aimed at artists, they do emphasize workflow and organization, two elements from which I could certainly benefit. I recently built the computer that runs Xpress DV for me, and have gone through myriad hells of misconfiguration and reconfiguration till things finally got working right, and I don’t feel intimidated by whatever the “technical” component of these courses might be. Anyway, I’ve budgeted $3500 for these courses, including travel and (modest) accommodation, and I think it will prove a useful expenditure.

A total of ten weeks of shooting/recording based on requirements developed during the research period. These may not occur consecutively. I’ve budgeted for a production assistant, both for the obvious reason that help on shoots is a great boon, and for the added consideration that working on a schedule that involves another person helps me immensely in overcoming my innate, undoubtedly neurotic, tendency to remain stranded in my house. So I think it’s a worthwhile expense.

Any travel that’s necessary during the production period will be absorbed by the production portion of the budget as it stands. (I’m not planning any grandiose overseas tours. I’ll be keeping to my normal North-American stomping grounds.)

I’ve asked Peter Anson, co-founder and former member of the experimental music group CCMC, to help with the composition, performance and recording of music (more precisely, “sound-scapes” – certainly not normal music composition) for the piece. This will provide an additional means of tying the parts of the series together, since there may be wide variation between sections. It remains to be seen how much of this can be done before the series is constructed, and how much will need to wait till after. We will use his studio in Aurora. I’ve budgeted an honorarium for his efforts and the use of the studio and equipment.


Making the Series
Like a Portuguese castaway, I’ll do it alone, cut off from my familiars. Well, no doubt I’ll be more comfortable, and no doubt I’ll work more or less a “nine-to-five,” but the editing room should be, in Duras’ words, “un lieu de détresse, naufragé.” (She wasn’t actually writing about her editing room.) The idea is to somehow reproduce, or at least to figure, the condition of shipwreck, and to inscribe such a figuration in the work itself. That is to say, not to belabour it too much, the making of the work will be exemplary of what the work is about, and the work will be, to some extent, about its own making.

The I’ll have a collection of images and sounds in digital format, some regulative principles, a general outline of sections. If I’m working with the abecedarium structure, my ideal would be to construct at least one piece per week for 26 weeks.

The essential work will be to invent, discover, think through ways of articulating the material audio-visually. I’m reasonably good at the discursive approach to things, but in the past I’ve felt that my literariness got in the way of my making films or video. When I was teaching, I was often struck by my students’ visual inventiveness, which seemed to dwarf mine. This even led (in part) to my departure from filmmaking during (most of) the 90s. But DV allows for so much experimentation, so readily admits of the verbal (both graphically and aurally), makes completely solitary making possible, that I’ve overcome my timidity. The serial nature of this piece affords a great vehicle for experimentation. Each section can exhibit its own solution to the particular aesthetic problems that arise within it. Some sections may be spare and minimal, while others may have multiple video tracks and be laden with effects.

As a (fairly simple, I guess) example of the sort of thing I’ll be seeking during this process, the film I’ve included as support material, Ithaka, contains a (pretty obvious, I suppose) visual metaphor. I say “I suppose” because while I don’t make any great claims for its ingenuity, very few people who’ve seen it have noticed it, or at least consciously noticed it. It’s just a “picture-in-picture” effect. There’s some water, and in the middle of the water is a rectangle in which the action of the piece occurs. Well, Ithaka is an island, Odysseus (the man of many devices) is trying to get back there, the video has a good deal to do with “island” in a variety of permutations. So the visual metaphor is: the box within the water is the island.

The process of constructing a piece is, for me, precisely the process of thinking. As I’ve implied, it’s not about making things easy for anybody, spectator or maker. At this point, I can’t be specific about how I’ll use this DV tool to think about shipwreck in this series. I’ll know when I start doing it. But the tool is precisely suited for the range of seeking and experimentation that will be necessary to produce the series, to “think it through,” so to speak.

After all the sections are constructed, there will be an eight week period during which the sound tracks will be prepared for mixing, the mixing will be done, the sections with mixed tracks will be output to masters, and duplications made. With so many separate sections, I imagine this might be a reasonably complex business, which is why I’ve allowed so much time for it.

I will be exploring some alternative means of disseminating this work. I will produce a website where the work can be experienced in modified form. (I’ve been building and maintaining websites on a free-lance basis since 1996, to make my meagre living, and I’m familiar with the current technologies pertaining to web-based streaming media.) I will also investigate the feasibility of a CD-ROM, VCD or DVD version of the series.

I have budgeted for an assistant during this period, for the reasons given above in the Production section.

The program as a whole should take at least a year to complete. I’ve requested subsistence for that period so that I can be liberated from the usual catch-as-catch-can scrabbling that passes for my livelihood.

With this project I hope to develop my practice in a number of ways, while building on some of my strengths. I’ll be thinking about something I’ve thought about considerably in the past, but I’ll be doing that thinking in a new way and with a new tool, and as a result the thinking will change, will develop. I’ll get some training in the tool, from a perspective that’s likely to be radically different than mine, but which stresses some of the organizational skills that I lack, but which I recognize as vital. I prefer to work alone, and this is a project that demands a sustained period of solitary work, on a subject that perhaps has not a little to do with sustained periods of solitude. I’ll be extending the range of my work beyond the domain of my personal obsessions, into more overtly social and political areas. I’ve felt that there’s been a social or political element in my past work, but I’ve tended to obscure it. I plan not to do that. I’m not saying that the personal, or the obsessive, is going to go away, or that there’s anything wrong with them; I think it’s mainly the theme here that’s bound to move the work in the other direction. Maybe it’s just a result of recent events in the country in which I happen to live – you know what I’m talking about – that’s giving new urgency to this. Things are pretty bleak, after all. I don’t imagine I can do anything about it. But I don’t see how I can be immune from recording it, or I should say, thinking about it, with these tools, in this context. I think it’s obvious that it’s pertinent to the theme.