Underwater Exploration

Emma Critchley works across photography, film, sound and installation. Her film, Common Heritage, was screened last year at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival and previous works have been screened both nationally and internationally by Tate St. Ives, Eyebeam New York and ICA Singapore. Critchley has always been fascinated with water and the sea – she sees the underwater environment as a psychological, environmental and political space which drives her creative practice.

Common Heritage is a 25-minute film nominated for the 2020 Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Research in Film Awards (RIFA). At a time when the arts are vulnerable, the AHRC is committed to continually supporting the creative industries, with RIFA celebrating the intersection between research and filmmaking. The film is shortlisted in the ‘Best Climate Emergency’ category which is new to the 2020 awards and explores how arts and humanities research relates to the climate crisis and how artists respond to this imminent issue. 

ASFF: Congratulations on the nomination! Let’s talk about Common Heritage. What is the film about, and what inspired you to make it?
EC: Common Heritage is an urgent response to the threat of deep-sea mining for rare earth minerals, exposing how reverberant layers of industrialisation have affected the way we relate to our environment. Highlighting the fantasies we construct around remote and distant places, the film draws into focus how these romanticised stages are, in fact, borders of conquest. The provocation for the film is Maltese Ambassador Arvid Pardo’s evocative speech to the UN in 1967, which still has incredible resonance today. He describes how the newly discovered riches of the deep were an opportunity to create a more equal global society if they became the common heritage of all nations – but warns how the alternative could have grave consequences.

I was drawn to make the film because of the imminence of deep-seabed exploitation and the disjuncture of this largely invisible activity in relation to the potential environmental and geopolitical consequences. To date, the Common Heritage of Mankind Treaty is the only agreement in place and only exploration has taken place. But a new mining code is being written right now, following which the exploitation license application process will begin. The risks mining poses to the ecosystems in our world’s oceans could be devastating, causing irreversible damage to the lungs of our planet.

ASFF: RIFA celebrates the relationship between filmmaking and research. What types of investigations did you conduct into deep-sea mining, and what did you find?
Common Heritage grew out of an intense period of research on a residency called Culture & Climate Change: Future Scenarios. During this period, I built up a network of climate researchers who I spent hours talking with about the history of deep-sea exploration and the ever-evolving developments for mining. Organisations included NASA, ALMA observatory, Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, INDEEP, Deep Sea Cru, Google Oceans, NOAA and the Universities of Plymouth & Southampton. The generosity of time and resources, and the passion of the people I have been working with is something that I strived to do justice to in this project.

The film also draws from UN and International Seabed Authority archives, along with a web of press conferences, interviews and speeches that reveal the tensions and contradictions in the attempted governance of such a vast and powerful landscape, and the continual disputes that probe the edges of law and territorial delineation.

What was striking to me is the sheer scale of the subject and the impossibility of trying to govern the ungovernable; both in terms of the vast and inaccessible landscape, but also in coming to an international agreement. It took 10 years to draw up the Common Heritage of Mankind Treaty, and still then the US tried to stop it going through at the 11th hour. In some respects, the film became a way of speaking about the insurmountable nature of the issue and how this increases the gravity of what is at stake.

ASFF: How important is it that we shine a light on this issue in 2020?
EC: It’s critical: regulations for deep-sea mining for rare-earth minerals are being written now, which will lead to exploitation licenses for mining being granted soon after. Transparent principles about who has the right to mine, to own and to benefit from these riches need to be established. Scientists know very little about the deep and therefore there are real concerns about the true extent of how mining will impact upon the health of our oceans. This is an environment that operates on geological timescales, where organisms take millions of years to grow. Without essential baseline knowledge, how are we able to come up with a robust mining code that protects this environment?

ASFF: What draws you to the ocean as a subject matter? 
For years, I have explored our human relationship to the underwater environment, thinking about it as a psychological, environmental and political space. I’m interested in the reciprocal relationship between the body and its surrounding environment, and my work often focuses on the continuous exchange that takes place between these two spaces: a relationship that becomes heightened when immersed within the density of water. Due to climate change and sea level rise, there are now transgressions occurring across thresholds of the body, environment, land and water. To me the ocean surface is like a membrane that connects countries and continents, but also conceals a wealth of political and historic activity – as well as natural life we know very little about. It is a location for mineral resources, territorial space, a facilitator of movement of goods and people, and yet culturally it remains a place of fantasy.

ASFF: Common Heritage presents archival footage alongside dystopian, science fiction-inspired imagery. How did you strike the balance between arts and education?
It was important to work with archive footage in order to reflect on our past and understand the complex history of the issue and its environmental and geopolitical implications. It is not however a traditional documentary, but a space where history can be re-imagined as a way to think about possible alternative future scenarios. For example, the film starts with Arvid Pardo’s speech to the UN, re-told by a female science fiction writer. The film is supposed to be quite playful in the way it uses the familiar genre of science fiction to lure the viewer into fantastical deep-sea landscapes in order to challenge our desire for exploration and exploitation. It’s important that the viewer goes through this experiential journey, as the film is questioning the nature of our human activity.

ASFF: How important is it for artists, filmmakers and the creative industries to continue engaging with the climate crisis?
Throughout history, artists have proven to be very adept at thinking and working in an interdisciplinary way. I think this is essential to how we engage with climate change issues. Art is essential to the environmental debate as it can stimulate ways of thinking conceptually and analytically about the complexity and emotion within science. Complexity is inherent to engaging with environmental change and emotion is a core element of how people engage with difficult and abstract problems. Art has the ability to provoke seeing, thinking and feeling. It is the feeling that enables a deeper engagement that can trigger understanding and change.

ASFF: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Primarily, I want audiences to come away with an understanding of this pressing issue, which feels very much under the radar. One of the main aims of the film is to distil the complex and multifaceted history of deep-seabed mining and create an immersive space for audiences to stop, reflect and challenge about how we might move forward.

ASFF: Where can readers watch the film, or learn more?
EC: Common Heritage was nominated for the 2020 Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Research in Film Awards (RIFA). RIFA celebrates the intersection between research and filmmaking. The film is shortlisted in the ‘Best Climate Emergency’ category which explores how arts and humanities research relates to the climate crisis and how artists respond to this imminent issue. 

There are further details of the film on my website: www.emmacritchley.com. Follow me on @critchley_emma on Instagram and @emmajcritchley on Twitter to find out about future screenings of the film. You can watch a teaser for Common Heritage here. 

All stills from Common Heritage, dir. Emma Critchley.