PSi #21 Fluid States Cook Islands, What is the Sea Like, by Rarotonga Correspondent Margaret Werry

What is the sea like where you come from?

by Margaret Werry

20 September 2015

PSi#21 Fluid States - Rarotonga


PDF available here




What is the sea like where you come from?

Go on. Tell me.


Perhaps, like me, you’ll find yourself at sea when you try. How can one possibly describe the sea – an entity so vast, so varied, so changeable, an environment so sensually overwhelming, so ineffable, so undeniable in its quiddity, yet so seemingly unknowable as to give Western philosophy its best analogue for the sublime, the unconscious? And while you flounder trying, perhaps it will dawn on you that the question has flipped the deck on you by presuming there is a sea where you come from.  Insofar as there is a global “we”, it has lived by the sea, the vital circulatory system of capital, and the more ancient medium of trade, transport, communication. Nevertheless, we operate according to a continental, territorial norm that pervades our vocabulary: we come from a place, and that place is nation, country, land. We talk of the ground of identity, the ground of knowledge, imagining the sea as a margin, a space between, an empty surface to be traversed. Not just an unknowable space, but—in its fluidity, its unassayable, opaque depth—a space of unknowing.


What is the sea like where you come from?


Here in the island Pacific, the question has a different cast.  The ocean is a dominant fact of life: constant threat and sustaining medium, geography and genealogy, an ancestor itself, and a tissue of glittering pathways that link communities from the migrations of ancestral time, to the diasporas of the global present, and the networks of the as-yet-unimagined future. Pacific peoples live not on islands in a far sea, but in a sea of islands. It has been over 20 years since Epeli Hau’ofa gave Pacific islanders this refrain, writing against the belittlements of development rhetoric that see only the Pacific’s marginality and isolation, and giving a generation of scholars the warrant to argue what they always, already knew – what in fact was the condition of their knowing: that living by the ocean gives rise to its own epistemology, its own ontology, historiography, ecology, and politics. And, we should add, to the performance genres that express them.


What is the sea like where you come from?


At dawn, off the coast of Rarotonga, on the first full day of Psi “Sea-Change: Performing a Fluid Continent”, aboard a small glass-bottomed boat on a choppy sea, a performer asked this question of his audience. The gesture was an invitation to at/tend to the ocean.


Attend – expect, wait, hope.

Tendere – extend oneself toward, stretch

Tend – To care for. To be inclined to move in a certain direction… temporally, bodily.


What is the sea like where you come from?

Here, in Rarotonga, attending this conference, you are likely not where you come from. How do you know the sea is the same as it was when you left? Here, in the island Pacific, climate change is not an imminent threat. It is a present, accelerating catastrophe. The Pacific has given us our first climate change refugees (not recognized as such by international law): communities in the Carteret islands, Tuvalu, and the Kiribati group have fled to higher-lying islands as rising sea levels swamp their sea walls, and salinate their water tables, wiping out subsistence horticulture. Refugees place pressure on already fragile governments and economies, on ancient relations of obligation between island communities (the historical core of Pacific sustainability). How will they be received? What will happen to their lands, their languages, their performance cultures in their absence? The pace of change is syncopated, at once generationally gradual and certain (coral reefs bleach and die, algae blooms in hotter waters, fish stocks dwindle, high tides lengthen, destructive cyclones gain in frequency and power, seasonal rhythms change) and alarmingly precipitant. Culture workers who are “first responders” to climate change, our keynote speaker Latai Taumoepeau says, don’t have time to do anything fancy. They just have to act. The future arrives catastrophically at the same moment as we have dared to imagine it. Climate change is, we might say, a known unknown.




This was the sea-change proposed by the Psi 2015 Rarotonga/Oceanic Performance Biennale: to unknow.  Displace the center.  Liquefy the ground. To at/tend to the sea. To respond, to be responsible to, the urgent, oceanic fact of climate change.  To navigate the space of unknowing by different set of arts.



Dear Colleagues,

I wish you were there.


PSi, membership and leadership, has for two decades struggled with twinned problems: how to do the academic conference differently, and how to honor the “international” in its name – how to democratize the space of academic thought, opening it to alternative forms of knowledge and expression, and how to sidestep the implicit imperialism of the Euro-American academy’s engagement with “the rest of the World.” Mostly, we have failed. The rationale for Fluid States (infused, as it was, with Oceanic philosophy) struck me as brilliant engagement with these questions, positioned at the formative front-end of the conference, rather than as a corrective after-thought.  The Rarotonga meeting realized this promise.  It was (without hyperbole) unlike any other conference I have attended.  It created a space where ways of knowing and forms of knowledge usually kept rigorously separate could jostle with one another: local, vernacular and academic, ‘expert’ modes of authority; indigenous and ‘global’ thought; ‘amateur’ and professional, ‘traditional’ and experimental performance; oral and scientific histories; natural and supernatural frameworks. (And if the scare quotes seem to multiply here, it is only an indication of how relentlessly Euro-American discourse has enforced a hierarchy of value on these purported opposites, a hierarchy that this meeting rigorously refused). It threw down the gauntlet for the scholars and artists amongst us who are accustomed to ‘container shipping’ our parcels of research, our modes of discourse, our (often unspoken) values to geographically distant places, largely unchanged. Here, in Rarotonga, we are enjoined to listen as much as to speak, to respond as much as to present work.


The result was challenging, moving, frustrating, provocative, imperfect, inspiring.


I wish you were there.




But let me backtrack. What happened, exactly?


A handful of papers were presented (on topics from queering the Hawaiian diaspora, to performances involving aquatic animals, to contemporary Pasifika theatre and conceptual art), drawn together by shared Oceanic premises: relational ontology and eco-phenomenological approaches, the contemporary currency of historical migrations and mytho-historical precedents, and a shared preoccupation with reimagining temporality. There was a rich program of installation artwork, dance, multimedia and musical performance, site-specific, durational, and staged performances, as well as community-based, traditional, and tourism-focused items.  There were expeditions to sites, presentations by local experts on climate change, navigation, marine science, island history, or environmental policy.


But this says nothing about what made the event unique: its dramaturgy and the set of principles, broadly shared by the (ancestrally and culturally) related indigenous peoples of the island Pacific, on which that dramaturgy drew. Call it what you will – Pacific praxis, Pacific epistemology, Pacific protocol – it determined not just the shape, but also the consequence, purpose, and warrant for the event, its kaupapa (to use the Maori term).  It had two anchors.


First: any attempt to address climate change must begin with people, local people. What is the sea like where you come from? The knowledge of those who live with the sea, observe it day to day, depend on it, are vulnerable to it, whose histories are entwined with it, the experience and perception of the bodies that climate change quite literally impacts: this is the authority that we returned to, again and again.  There was much said, directly and indirectly, about the workings of neoliberal precarity (especially for Small Island Developing States, as policy-speak calls them), the political production of natural disasters, the global scale and ramified geopolitics of the climate crisis.  But this was not our centre of gravity. The people there were.




We hear a chorus of voices. The out-islanders interviewed by (Marine Biologist and Climate Change Adviser) Teina Rongo, whose sobering stories document changes in the lagoons and fishing seasons of their islands – before Teina, no scientists had ever bothered asking them. Residents of Manihiki, an island decimated by a cyclone nearly 20 years ago, who come to perform, to celebrate survival, in honor of a recently published oral history of the event. Papa Tangi (Tangianau Tuaputa) historian, elder, and religious expert (in an event created/curated by artist collective, Local Time), stood by Puna o te Vai Marau, an ancient spring and told us of the political logic that links mountains to sea in the Cooks, and of the sacred duties owed to water sources. Seafarer and master navigator Tua Pittman, who talks of how voyaging makes people(s) by bringing them to trust, know, and feel the ocean, and of sailing by celestial navigation in a traditional vessel through the Pacific gyre, the continent-sized raft of clotted waste plastic, en route from Rarotonga to San Francisco as ambassadors to a meeting on climate change.


The visiting artists spend a week or more before the meeting on the island, developing their work, tuning into those voices, listening to the land, collaborating with local performers. Dorita Hannah and Linda Erceg invite locals (business woman June Baudinet, Brynn Acheson, a personal trainer, and Henry Ah-Foo Taripo, entertainer and casting agent) to be our spectral guides, “Island Brides” bedecked with veils of remnant plastics, hauling trains of ocean flotsam, who silently materialize to lead us from event to event.  Richard Downing meets us every day with an ingenious, transitory sculpture, forged from material found on the site - waste matter transformed into something rich and strange. One night, on a dirt lot next to our concert venue: delicate balance. Four long planks balance on four improvised trestles, their ends overlapping to form a square floating, undulating perilously a couple of feet above the ground. On each plank sit bottles, partially filled with water, precisely placed to maintain the structure. Christina Houghton takes us on a survival trek through the ruins of a Sheraton hotel, mingling her stories with local accounts, as—clad in sombreros and foil blankets—we walk past concrete pillars marked with the sea-level in ten years, in twenty, fifty, a hundred, two hundred… too soon mounting above our heads, a jarring memorial to our future demise (Amanda Yates’ “See Level”).  Olivia Webb walks into the sea at sundown, chanting “In Paradiso” from the requiem mass (the chant that marks the passage of the soul to the afterlife). She walks until the sea fills her mouth and the light fades, and then emerges once more, her white smock drenched, her skin blue with cold. How will we speak when the ocean covers us? How will we sing?




Second, any attempt to address climate change, Pacifically, must begin in a place

(Ani O’Neill explains).  Whose land are we on? Whose house are we in? Our program was a pilgrimage around the vaka, the districts of the island, each of them the ancestral province of a different family. Day 1: Vaka Te Ao o Tonga; Day 2: Vaka Takitumu; Day 3: Vaka Puaikura.  In the many, varied, historied, differently institutionally structured places we visited, observed, watched performance in, presented papers in, learned about – the marae (meeting place) of a University of the South Pacific regional campus, a cultural center on the archaeologically reconstructed site of an abandoned mountain settlement, a tourist simulacrum of a generic Pacific village by a snorkeling beach, the empty ruins of a Sheraton hotel, the Palace of one of the paramount chiefs, an uninhabited island in the middle of a lagoon, a farm in the foothills where cows graze and forest meets pasture, a film-set on a beach – in all these places, the questions were the same. Whose house are we in? Whose land are we on? To ask these questions is to recognize your hosts (the people of this place) and their ancestors, both their human forebears and their non-human ones, the mountains and rivers, sky, gods, ocean, and elements.  It is to acknowledge your relationship to them.  (For many in the group – the indigenous delegates from Aotearoa and other Pacific islands – these were kin relations, their ancestors linked with their hosts’ by centuries-old journeys of discovery and migration). It is to affirm the responsibility and obligation that come with that relationship: a responsibility and obligation to respect and host, to care for and sustain, both the humans and non-humans in this network of relations.


Whose house are we in? Whose land are we on? These, then, are ultimately ecological questions. They are also performed. Every mihi (in Maori, a speech of greeting, thanks, and recognition) that introduces a presenter’s paper, accompanies our formal welcome to a new site, or thanks a host, proceeds by way of marking the place and its people, tracing the network, through past, present and future, that links them to the speaker. The mihi is both an art of performance and a profound performative utterance: through it, the network is animated, its phenomenological, cosmological, cognatic, material, and mythic linkages made sensible and sensed. The mihi that punctuated this meeting left an affective residue, enhancing the gravity of each presentation and performance, uplifting the mana of the places themselves. It felt, even to the most secular amongst us, like a benediction.


The principles undergirding this political ecology have names: (again, in Maori) kaitiakitanga (guardianship), whakapapa (genealogy), manaakitanga (hospitality), whanaungatanga (the relatedness of all things).  These concepts are not mine to explain – I won’t try.  They are philosophically complex, rigorously theorized, and inherently untranslatable. Together, they explain how answering questions like Whose house are we in? Whose land are we on? have held Oceania together for millennia, across distance and over time.  They may also (this event seemed to argue) be the Pacific’s best hope for survival in the anthropocene.  The tools of the politically powerless against climate change are few: moral suasion and adaptation.  Performing – continually, powerfully – the bonds of respons-ibility to each other, and to Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, past, present, and future, may prove central to both.


We are the ocean.




Ite Uhila, begins and ends his durational work -- tanga’i one’one – dressed like a mendicant monk: barefoot, a wreath circling his head, clad in a long black T-shirt and lavalava, a belt of rope dangling coral, like prayer beads and cross.  For three days, he bears a sack of sand over his shoulder, and walks the circumference of the island, anti-clockwise – working, walking against time. Where he walks he leaves a trail from a hole in his sack, cryptic Rorschach splotches of sand on packed dirt roads or gravel pathways – the ephemeral imprint of one who has passed, marking territory and time. He takes rocks, shells, or washed up fragments of coral from one beach and restores them to another. As he goes, he asks permission from those he encounters. May I walk on your beach? May I fill my sack?


Ite’s peripatetic work is an act of bodily communion with the island: massaging the bones of the land with his feet, doing the work of the tides, taking, returning.  He is a print-maker by training, and tanga’i one’one is a performed experiment in the medium: what imprint can an artist make on a place without damage or permanence? His questions too leave a human mark. Here in Rarotonga, economically reliant on tourism, all beaches are public. But who has thought to ask permission to sit, stroll or swim? His questions, asked of a tourist, mark presumption and privilege, but invite gratitude, humility, care, and curiosity about the silent hosts, those who have already given permission.  Asked of tangata whenua (people of the land), Ite’s questions are a reminder of responsibility, a request for hospitality, and a gesture of recognition. The artist does not presume to know the place, but asks only to enter into humble, shy conversation with it.




Latai Taumoepeau sits on a white tarp suspended, like a sail or a lean-to, by an eroding sandbank on the upper reaches of Sunset Beach. In one hand she holds a wooden mallet, pounding bags full of glass bottles that she has hauled, Sisyphus-like, down the creek-bed.  Making tapa cloth with mallets like these is women’s work, women’s art: sustaining community, documenting time and change, like the quilters of the American South.  Tapa artists transform bark into cloth. (White tarp: tapa without the beauty, eloquence, and rhythm of design. White noise. Whiteness, unnatural, tyrannical, that covers over difference. Whiteness, in much of the world a color of mourning.) But here Latai is returning waste glass to sand. The work is barely begun. As the leis of shredded plastic trash bags mount around her neck and the treacherous debris mounts around her. We are the witnesses who prolong her labor. The beach is dark now and the trade winds muffle the sounds of her beating. She sits in a sea of glistening shards. Climate change is a slow pain, felt in the vulnerable bodies of the displaced and struggling, and in the bodies of those waiting, haunted, paralyzed, silenced. Who will do the labor of repair? Who will document and remember? How long will we stand and watch? For Latai, the performer’s work responding to climate change begins and ends with a body, asking difficult questions. Persisting.


Copyright –  Margaret Werry  (2015) “Re-thinking Labor: Arting”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

Tags: Daily Life Daily Rituals and Performance   Environment Ecology and Performance  History Tradition and Performance  Indigeneity and Performance  Performance Studies in the Pacific  

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