The first manifestation of the Port City Safari took the form of a large-scale contemporary art project, exploring themes of mobility and exchange, in the context of the city of Bristol, UK, from September to November 2007. Initiated by Arnolfini, the centre for contemporary art located on the city’s ‘Floating Harbour’, Port City incorporated a range of different art forms including an international touring exhibition, a programme of live art performance, context-led interventions, participation projects and artist-led walks, an on-line writing project and curated screenings of film and video, as well as a series of platforms for critical debate. More than forty artists from around the world participated. Three main areas of concern were addressed: the changing global economic conditions of trade and their effects upon port cities; the cultural geographies of globalisation and the new conditions of mobility worldwide; and, the lasting effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as reproduced in contemporary culture.
The small port city of Bristol is based at the confluence of two rivers, the Avon and the Frome, close to the apex of the Bristol Channel which allows the Atlantic ocean to penetrate deep into the west of England, before continuing on, in the form of the river Severn, into the Midlands. By definition, port cities are located at the meeting point of the land and the sea, traversing the threshold between two fundamental physical states. There can be no gradual shift from one state to another, unlike a beach, as a port must bring deep water into the heart of the city so as to effect an abrupt transition from ship to land. The Avon has the second highest tidal reach of any river in the world and so the Floating Harbour was constructed in the early 1800s to maintain a constant level of water within Bristol’s city centre. Thus the maintenance of ‘difference’ between land and sea is essential to what defines a port.
Traditionally port cities are seen as gateways to the wider world. Through trade and industry, they represent a point of contact and exchange with different countries and cultures, facilitating the movement of people and ideas, as well as goods and money. By implication they also, therefore, define the outer limits of what is referred to as ‘home’, realising an abstract boundary with the world beyond. As such, port cities are symbolic sites of cultural exchange. They are the points of entry and departure, the mouth of an imagined body of the nation-state, where the foreign gets muddled up with the familiar and land-locked certainty is blurred by maritime exchange. In this British context, Bristol has always been a city on the edge, peripheral to the terrestrial centre of governance that is London. Symptomatic of a spirit of independence, Arnolfini has also in many ways tended towards a European rather than British frame of reference, despite its designation as a ‘national flagship’ for the arts in the UK.
Of course the primary function of a port is commerce; buying and selling for profit; and the underlying economic interests at stake are fundamental to the human interactions that they reproduce. With the advent of globalisation, the interests of multinational corporations have become disassociated from those of traditional nation states. Where previously the port was literally a point of exchange between different ‘lands’, global capital has no particular terrestrial allegiances. Historically port cities like Bristol grew up around the industry of the docks, but working ports today are increasingly separated off from the centres of cultural activity and from national life generally. Container terminals have been re-located to the periphery, becoming highly secure, sealed points of entry and departure. The port city has taken on a new role as the interface between a physical ‘homeland’; the place where workers and consumers reside; and the abstract ‘network power’ of global capitalism.
In Bristol’s case, a new commercial port was constructed in Avonmouth, on the coast, away from the city centre. By the time Arnolfini moved into the former tea warehouse it now occupies on Narrow Quay in 1975 the whole of the Floating Harbour had fallen into dereliction and the fortunes of the city seemed locked into a spiral of decline. In terms of industry, Bristol’s mainstays of tobacco, aerospace and arms manufacture were equally in blight. What ensued was a classic story of culture-led regeneration, where the moribund heart of the city was revived through a burgeoning creative economy, so that today the Harbourside has become a thriving hub of creative industries and cultural organisations. Bristol now has the highest gross domestic productivity of any city in the UK outside London.
The high priority currently given to the management of migration at port cities is also a symptom of globalisation. The so-called ‘fortification’ of Europe against a supposed invasion of economic migrants could be said to be more about re-defining a European identity, or ‘homeland’, in the context of globalisation, than the actual dangers of incoming labour. Indeed if employment levels are falling in Europe it is more likely because manufacturing has been re-located to poorer parts of the world where cheap labour can be exploited rather than the effects of immigration. Global economics have produced new conditions of mobility, forcing migrants to travel the world in search of work and the dream of a better life, and in the process port cities have become the highly policed crossing points on a worldwide flow of humanity.
One of the main precursors to the current conditions of global economics, in terms of out-sourcing labour, re-locating industry across the world and exploiting human resources, was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 18th century, much of Bristol’s wealth was generated by this barbaric trade, which created vast fortunes for a few merchant venturers whilst subjecting many hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans to appalling cruelty and inhumanity. The Georgian grandeur of areas of the city such as Clifton bear witness to the enormous profits made from the import of sugar and spices from the ‘West Indies’. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was ultimately responsible for millions of deaths. Its lasting effects are still very much with us today, reproduced in contemporary cultural attitudes and in the unequal distribution of power within society, as well as in the poverty of African states.
2007 was the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary abolition of the slave trade in the UK. However it would be a mistake to think of slavery as simply a part of history. Slavery still very much exists today, whether in the form of chattel slavery, bonded labour, child labour, domestic or migrant labour, people trafficking, forced marriage or forced labour. Anti-Slavery International estimates that at least 27 million people are currently held in slavery-like situations. If we are to face up to issues such as contemporary slavery or forced migration in the context of globalisation, then it is vital for each of us to examine our own implication in the histories and economics of these practices.
On Mobility & Exchange
15 September – 11 November, 2007 at Arnolfini, Bristol, UK
Artists including MARIA THEREZA ALVES, DOA ALY, YTO BARRADA, URSULA BIEMANN, ALEX BRADLEY, KAYLE BRANDON, TIM BRENNAN, HEATH BUNTING, OFRI CNAANI, RAPHAEL CUOMO, CURIOUS, VALERIANO LOPEZ DOMINGUEZ, HALA ELKOUSSY, MARY EVANS, MESCHAC GABA, RAIMI GBADAMOSI, CHARLES HELLER, ROZA ILGEN, MARIA IORIO, MELANIE JACKSON, HARMINDER SINGH JUDGE, SHI KER, GRZEGORZ KLAMAN, ERIK VAN LIESHOUT, HELENA MALENO, ALEX MUNOZ, LA POCHA NOSTRA, JIVA PARTHIPAN, HETAIN PATEL, MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS, WILLIAM POPE.L, KATE RICH, STEVE ROBINS, ANGELA SANDERS, ZINEB SEDIRA, ASIM RIZA SHAHEEN, DUNCAN SPEAKMAN, JENNY VOGEL, ZAFOS XAGORARIS
Curated by Tom Trevor (Arnolfini, Bristol); associated curator Claudia Zanfi (aMAZElab, Milan); Mahgreb Connection screening programme curated by Ursula Biemann (Geneva); live art programme produced by Helen Cole (Arnolfini, Bristol)