Hydra Decapita

Hydra Decapita 2010 is a colour film shot in High Definition lasting just over thirty-one minutes and shown as a projection. It exists in an edition of five plus one artists’ proof; this copy is number two in the main edition. The film is centred on the work of Detroit-based techno music duo Drexciya. Drexciya, which was active from 1992–2002, consisted of James Stinson and Gerald Donald. In opposition to mainstream musicians of the time, Drexciya rejected the cult of personality and excess that surrounded the techno scene and instead focused on the conceptual and political. Afro-futurist theories were central to their practice and most notably in their album ‘The Quest’ (1997), where it was revealed that Drexciya was a submerged underwater country that was populated by the unborn children of pregnant women who were thrown overboard during the middle passage of slave ships across the Atlantic.

In Hydra Decapita, The Otolith Group used this imagined world as a point of departure to explore notions of globalisation, capitalism and climate change, with particular attention to the relationships between finance, death, abstraction and language. The film focuses on a legal case from 1781 in which a slave ship called The Zong, which was travelling from Jamaica to Liverpool in England, became lost and the captain of the ship decided to murder all 133 slaves on board by throwing them overboard so that he could claim insurance for the loss of cargo. When the case came to trial in 1783, it was in relation to the insurance claim and not the murder of the slaves. In Hydra Decapita this historical moment is related to a wider understanding of how financial capitalism operates. The artists draw a parallel with J.M.W. Turner’s (1775–1851) painting The Slave Ship 1840 (Tate TW0976), in which the artist attempted to depict the atrocity on board The Zong having read about them in Thomas Clarkson’s The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808). An advocate for the abolition of slavery, Turner exhibited the painting during an anti-slavery conference in London with the intention that it would be seen by Prince Albert, who was speaking at the event, thus prompting him to increase British anti-slavery efforts.

Speaking about Hydra Decapita, Otolith Group member Kodwo Eshun explained:

Hydra Decapita is a way of connecting this historical atrocity to the present of financial capitalism via a few other roots. We link the 1781 atrocity to J.M.W. Turner’s painting, The Slave Ship from 1840, which attempts to visualize this atrocity. Then we link that to John Ruskin’s 1843 text from Modern Painters, volume I, in which he talks about Turner’s methodology for painting water, and he refers to this painting. So, you have this constellation of dates, and finally you have the Detroit electro group Drexciya, which from 1992 to 2002 created a series of albums that were set in this underwater kingdom called Drexciya. This kingdom was populated by the children of slaves who had been thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. [In] this science fiction, the female slaves who were thrown overboard did not die but gave birth to children who could breathe underwater. We constructed a relation between these elements. Visually, the film is extremely monochromatic. It’s also based on singing, so you get a film that has a desolate eeriness to it. And all of this is our way of trying to apprehend abstraction. The idea is that financial capitalism works through abstract processes that nonetheless have real effects, which means that our language, aesthetically speaking, has to become as abstract as reality itself. It also relates to the point that I made earlier, about constructing nonlinear relations to the present.

Commissioned by The Manifesta Foundation for Manifesta 8 and The Otolith Collective.

Shot in Cornwall and London
Editor: Simon Arazi
Sound Track: Tyler Friedman and Anjalika Sagar


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