Submerged Collaborations: Meditations on Subsistence, Cultural Ecology, and Water

There are ghosts in the river.

In addition to establishing the extensive collaborative aspects of Swoon’s artistic practice, Thursday night’s “Submerged Collaborations” at the Brooklyn Museum – presented alongside and within Swoon’s “Submerged Motherlands” – delved into a larger conversation about our cultural and ecological relationship with water. Filmmaker and musician Todd Chandler’s film “Flood Tide” started off the night, which storied Swoon and company’s 2008 travels down the Hudson and gave cinematic life to the “Submerged Motherlands” junkyard boats.


Attendees waiting in line for the screening, aptly placed in front of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of landscape paintings.

The pseudo-fictional film follows a group of musicians and artists whose friend, Maya, drowns in the nondescript river with which the group’s lives become increasingly intertwined. After her body departs via a Viking-esque sendoff in a Swoon-decorated canoe, Maya’s wispy voiceovers accompany the group’s embarkation down the river in a flotilla of three makeshift ships. Although it is at this point essentially a visual documentation of Swoon’s “Swimming Cities,” Maya – whose name means “brook” or “spring” in Hebrew – and an entrancing score from Minneapolis band Dark Dark Dark add incredible depth to the film. Though entirely off-screen, Maya quickly becomes the focal point of the film and continually offers ghostly insight into the interconnectedness of geography, ecology, and human culture. With pithy quotes such as “there are ghosts in the river” and “all water is connected,” she further elaborates on her experience being dead in the water, contemplating how her body’s “millions of particles” merge with the billions floating down the river. Her physical disintegration acts as a microcosm of the universal notion of ecology, while also exploring the social and cultural effects of a single death.

If Yup’ik people do not fish for King Salmon, the King Salmon spirit will be offended and it will not return to the river.

It brings to mind  an article in the Atlantic that explores similar issues of culture and ecology and highlights the deterioration of rivers, related legal actions for preservation, and their effects on native Alaskan religious culture. While Maya’s group of what the New York Times deemed “grown-up artsy kids” is far from similar, their integration into their maritime environment is leaning towards a type of post-capitalistic, romanticized indigenous ethic. In any case, the film highlights just how much the environment can – and maybe should – impact our daily cultural lives, its fictional story of loss running alongside the very true stories of simultaneous environmental and cultural degradation happening in many parts of the world. In such an anthropocentric contemporary culture, the film works to philosophize loss, to place it within the larger context of ecology, and to eventually unite culture with geography in the same way they have been for much of human history.

After the film, attendees formed a LED-lit procession from the 3rd floor auditorium to the Brooklyn Museum’s breathtaking Cantor Gallery, where the Submerged Motherlands Orchestra were waiting atop Swoon’s installed ships. Dark Dark Dark’s Marshall LaCount led the procession, mentioning that they had intended the performance to be an opportunity for silent meditation; with the orchestra’s presentation of atmospheric melodies and thundering drums, the opportunity seemed not to be lost on the audience.


Audience procession into the Cantor Gallery.


Drummer of the Submerged Motherlands Orchestra (lower right) and Swoon’s gigantic tree installation.


Chloe Swantner, Todd Chandler, and Marshall LaCount.

The orchestra’s set in conjunction with Swoon’s surreal landscape was incredible, blending the reality of the artists’ travels on the boats with Chandler’s fictional film. The presentation formed an ethereal, comprehensive meditation on the nature of our relationships with others and with the multifaceted world of water. And with the recent news that there may be an underground ocean that would confirm the origins of much of Earth’s water, the meditation adds an important layer to the science: not only are we are physically intertwined with the Earth and its resources, but culturally, too.

Swoon’s “Submerged Motherlands” and “Submerged Collaborations” are both incredible pieces, both on their own and in conversation with each other. They offer just enough insight for us to question our own values and relationships while maintaining a ghostly beauty, immersing the viewer in a kind of parallel world from which we may learn about our own.

– Patrick Jaojoco

Submerged Motherlands is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until August 24th. All pictures by Patrick Jaojoco.

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