Issue 8
—Autumn 2018


Strophe, A Turning

Ellie Ga

This piece was conceived as a two-screen video work,
where the viewer watches one screen and then turns
around to watch the other. Strophe, the Greek word
for ‘a turning’, is the organizing principle for how the
video is physically installed and experienced in the
space. But ‘the turning’ is also implicit in how the
narrative is structured; it invokes the turn of events as
well as the turns of action and interpretations within
those events.

The video is shown on a loop, but the starting point of
the work is a biographical sketch of the Russian poet,
Osip Mandelstam, who compared writing poems to launching
messages in bottles into the sea. Somewhere, someone will find the
poem and read it. In Mandelstam’s essay, “The Interlocutor”,
he stresses that the poet must write to an unknown person,
to an unknown addressee, that there must be some
kind of distance to overcome by the act of writing a poem.
Mandelstam writes: ‘The letter sealed in the bottle is addressed
to whoever finds it, being the finder I am thereby the
mysterious addressee’. [1]
In the video, while I speak this text
in a voice-over, the viewer sees a hand searching through an
archival box of letters, pulling them up one by one
for the camera, messages found in bottles on the beach.

In 2014, I received a fellowship from the Swedish Research
Council (Vetenskapsrådet) in order to create a body of work
about the history of ‘messages in bottles’ and how they have
been used in literature, popular culture and ocean science.
I mean this in a metaphorical sense – I wanted to look at
how accidental drift leads to new discoveries, how people
interpret what they find on the beach, and what they do
with it. Two of the sites that I planned to visit during my
fellowship were in Greece in the Aegean Sea. One was the
island of Symi, home of the patron saint of messages in
bottles; the other was the island of Lesvos, which, legend
has it, is the source of the first message in a bottle.

There is a beachcomber on Lesvos named Eric Kempson
who earns his living by making crafts from the driftwood
that he finds on the beaches. While walking on the beach
one spring morning in 2015, he found a doll next to a
child-size life vest on the beach. Eric posted his first video blog
that day as a plea for help. Soon afterwards, his family’s
house was converted into a supply depot, a rescue base,
and a beacon for volunteers. You can say that the doll
on the beach Eric found that day was a message,
which he interpreted as a call to act.

Soon after I received this fellowship I, like many others,
became increasingly distressed about the dangerous sea
crossings people had to make in order claim asylum in
Europe, including toward the islands that I had planned to
work with. I had to ask myself whether I could continue
working on this project about messages on beaches, and
the metaphor of drift, while also ignoring the brutal reality
unfolding on the shores of the Aegean. My relation to the
proposal had changed, but I wasn’t sure how to act.

In one scene I find myself in the message in a bottle museum
on the island of Symi, located in the southern Aegean Sea.
There is a long tradition throughout the Aegean of launching
prayers in bottles to communicate with the patron saint of
the island. Some of these bottles are on display in the island’s
monastery. Many of the bottles are launched by people
who are sick (asking for help from the saint) and when I
interview the museum keeper, he opens one of the bottles that
washed ashore and, reads the message folded up inside.
Then he looks at me and says:

What I’m trying to tell you is that for someone to reach the
point of making this desperate and irrational act of launching
a message in a bottle to communicate with the Archangel
Michael, proves that at the end of the day, that person has
tested all the boundaries of human nature. One has found a
dead end. Totally. We might not understand this because we
are healthy, up until now at least. When a doctor tells you that
you are very sick, everything around you falls apart. This
is when people start looking to the horizon and then raise
their gaze towards the sky. And this is really when the
unimaginable occurs.

It felt crucial to still go to the Aegean, but it also felt important
to decide on a role, a plan of action ahead of time. Was I going
to these proposed places as an observer? A documentarian?
Or as a volunteer? The often ambiguous term ‘artistic researcher’
didn’t seem to cut it in this situation.

Soon after this quote, the audience turns to a series of interviews
with female asylum seekers at the port in Lesvos. These interviews
were recorded as audio, after I obtained the asylum seekers’ consent,
but only for the purpose of transcription. So the viewer reads
the women’s words on a screen but does not hear their physical voices.
On the one hand, this might seem like an act of exclusion at least
in relation to the other people who feature in the video, whose faces
and voices are usually shown. But at the same time, there are also
situations when a researcher, artist, writer, must refuse to include.

I would end up volunteering on the beaches in Lesvos off and
on during 2015 and 2016. The moment that I arrived, my worries
dissolved, or rather, they were postponed. The amount of help
needed was urgent.


Ellie Ga

Ellie Ga is a New York-born, Stockholm-based, artist whose immersive, wide-ranging investigations include the classification of stains on city sidewalks to the charting of the quotidian in the frozen reaches of the Arctic Ocean. In performances and video installations, Ga’s braided narratives intertwine extensive research with first-hand experiences that often follow uncertain leads and take unexpected turns. She has exhibited and performed internationally at the New Museum, The Kitchen and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and at M-Museum, Leuven; Le Grand Café, Saint-Nazaire, among many others. Ga is the author of Square Octagon Circle (Siglio Press, New York) and Three Arctic Booklets (Ugly Duckling Presse). Ga was a recent recipient of a three-year Swedish Research Council artistic research grant. Her video series Gyres was produced by the Whitney Museum of American Art for the 2019 Whitney Biennial in New York. She is a co-founder of Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn.