Littered with Life
A practice-based research project in collaboration with documentary filmmaker, urban studies, and media art researcher Mukul Menon.
In Littered with Life, we aim at decoding the persuasive rhetoric deployed to justify the need for deep-seabed mining (dsm henceforth) and to build subversive authority on the issue of its ecological, economic, and social ramifications. For that, we apply the methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to the language of open-access policy documents, audits, statements by mining contractors, and scholarly papers incorporated in policy documents. The discussions around dsm are led by a swathe of highly heterogeneous actors who build their scientific authority along the way of assessing the uncertainty associated with the insufficiency of knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems, mechanisms of carbon sequestration, the unpredictability of the waste dissemination through the water column, and the low priority of experimental studies on the disturbance of ocean floor by mining. These heterogeneous actors represent governments and regional alliances with a vested interest in dsm, private corporations lobbying for fast-tracking the development of mining regulations, independent research groups and those backed up by corporations, ocean literacy programs, and environmentalist and conservationist groups. This heterogeneity underpins the diversity of discourses around dsm and informational obstacles in the way of citizens’ meaningful engagement in policy making.
We approach this discursive heterogeneity from three main angles or standpoints:
1. Construction or dismantling of the idea of the inevitability of deep-sea mining: how is dsm justified as a resource infrastructure for green economies?
2. Dismantling or justification of risks associated with existing uncertainty and insufficiency of experimental knowledge: what is an acceptable degree of uncertainty regarding the environmental and social impacts of dsm?
3. Construction of expertise and authority: who is competent to authorize commercial dsm?
Each standpoint comprises a number of macro-areas where different arguments and persuasive strategies are unfolded in support of or against dsm.
Littered with Life is a piece of practice-based research. Decoding the persuasive rhetoric deployed to justify the need for dsm is intended to facilitate the general public’s engagement in discussions around this nascent extractivist industry. Our goal is to develop a series of artworks that do not just raise awareness about dsm but, more importantly, foster critical thinking and media literacy around this topic. The choice of the artwork as a primary outcome of our investigation is motivated, in part, by the Heideggerian framework of technological enframing, within which we problematize the exploitation of the ocean floor. To this end, we are exploring the feasibility of Heidegger’s idea that art can safekeep the essence of truth from being lost to the dangers of enframing. Secondly, by developing a series of artistic displays we hope to engage a broader audience in the discussions around dsm. Our project is itself indebted to an outstanding data mapping project that visualizes the dynamics of the oceans and uses art spaces for outreach.
Rumble in the Sea
The first artwork we developed based on our investigation is the two-player card game, which we titled “Rumble in the Sea” and exhibited during the MicroPOM Aalborg 2022 - Politics of the Machines (Denmark). Through the game, we hoped to enable the audience’s understanding of how different social actors use language to construct or dismantle the need for deep-sea mining, to establish or diminish the risks associated with it, and to build their credibility. Mary Flanagan’s account of critical play became the framework within which we connected Critical Discourse Analysis with the experience design. By the same token, it allowed us to experiment with game as an artistic medium: we discovered the novel possibilities in the game itself by successfully incorporating the Critical Discourse Analyses into the very mechanic of the game. The choice of a card game over a computer game symbolized our attempt to distance ourselves from digitality. This is because the digital device market is one of the main areas in need of a supply of virgin metals, thus contributing to bolstering the business case for dsm. Furthermore, we tested our hypothesis about the existence of the link between activating criticality, enabling playfulness, and learning for the exhibition audience on the subject of dsm.
We selected five excerpts from the statement made by the biggest mining company as a basis of Rumble in the Sea. These statements display several topics of misinformation around dsm. Such topics are (i) equal distribution of profits and benefits from dsm; decarbonization of energy; enabling an infinite economic growth, (ii) manageable environmental and societal footprints of the industry; (iii) low value of the deep-seabed life; and (iv) sponsoring states as equal partners. These topics corresponded to the macro-areas of our Critical Discourse Analysis of the said statement, in each of which we delineated several arguments constructed by means of a limited set of rhetorical strategies. We contextualized these arguments in a larger context of the history of dsm, policies around environmentally hazardous environmental infrastructures, and the neo-colonial arrangement of extractivist industries. The arguments and sound counter-arguments, facts from the present-day industrial and legislative developments around dsm, as well as attitudes of three actors leading the discussions—private mining companies, investors, and environmentalist groups—were incorporated in both the narrative and mechanic of the game. The two-player competitive decoding of the statement meaning proceeded by way of making guesses based on options available in each round and building a strategy of depriving the opponent of resources.
The game was supplemented by a fable with the same name, which we wrote and illustrated. It served as a site knowledge installation that introduced the topic of dsm to the audience. Describing the history of dsm and some of the involved actors, the fable allowed us to offload the amount of new information conveyed through the game, thereby leaving more time for the play itself. It was also intended to build a ‘lusory attitude’ necessary for the game and served as the waiting room reading material for those who just watched the game being played. We depicted each actor as a specific animal, which let us embody the story and some of the hyperbole that we encountered in our analysis of discourses on DSM by dramatizing the actors’ emotions and actions. The dark humorous style of narrating enabled learning combined with playfulness as soon as the participant entered the installation space.
During MicroPOM Aalborg 2022 - Politics of the Machines, we held multiple game sessions as each play took only about 20-30 minutes. The entertaining nature of the game attracted a large audience of observers and participants. Players quickly embodied the roles assigned by the game system (i.e. Investors and Environmentalists, represented by shark and seagull characters). They expressed their appreciation of how language was used by the involved actors to construct different realities. In addition, most players communicated how the humor integrated into the game made it easy for them to engage critically. They described how they had either never heard about deep-sea mining or only heard the term in passing not knowing what it meant, and that the intervention informed them about the subject.