Naufragios: Manuel Piña-Baldoquín
by Denise Ryner
Throughout much of the 15-minute duration of Manuel Piña-Baldoquín’s 2015 video work, Naufragios, the viewer’s focus is directed towards the liminal visual space where an anonymous body of water meets the sky. Even before encountering Piña-Baldoquín’s work, the viewer is already accustomed to looking towards such horizons as a point of orientation. The artist plays with this visual tendency through a series of digital manipulations, thereby forcing the viewer to repeatedly search the shifting, morphing and folding images for each new horizon.
Naufragios is the Spanish word for shipwrecked, a state of emergency and diversion from the crisscross of global commercial, exploratory and migratory routes that have been established over time. Shipwrecks can lead to the founding of new routes or represent temporary-to-permanent exclusion from the historical and universalized narratives that equate constant movement and expansion with progress. The implied temporariness of Naufragios counters the cultural associations between sea, sky and eternity, and brings the documented seascape in Piña-Baldoquín’s work in line with the series of visual disruptions and glitches that define the formal characteristics of his video.
The opening frames of Naufragios feature a stable image of an anonymous body of water. The work is silent and shown in black and white. The horizon line splits the vertical height of the frame at almost the halfway point. The overcast sky and low contrast mostly diminish the visibility of the clouds and juxtapose the seemingly calm sky with the sharp ripples spreading across the dark waters below. The exclusion of visible terrain or any other objects and markers creates a uniform symmetry between sea and sky.
This uniformity allows the viewer to easily spot the jump cuts marking the start of the ten-second loop, from which the video is built. This regular pulsing of the image serves to pull attention away from contemplation of the seascape and towards the characteristics and limits of video as a medium. However, rather than reading as failures, the jumps quickly become familiar and establish the structure of Naufragios. Despite the representations of geography in the recorded image, and the various geometries that Piña-Baldoquín creates from the seascape, it can be argued that Naufragios is a meditation on time rather than space. Beyond engaging video’s time-based qualities, its metronome-like progression proposes that the medium itself can also be a form of time-keeping.
About a minute into the video, the sea suddenly mirrors itself, replacing the sky save for a narrow, horizontal, light grey band indicating the now doubled horizon. A minute or so more and the sea closes in, filling the sides so that the sky is reduced to a rectangle at the end of a watery tunnel, still pulling the eye towards it.
The video continues like this—now the horizon folds itself into two interlocking right angles, then expands out again to a diamond, with the horizon stretching out towards four corners and referencing the frame of the screen, which slowly overtakes the horizon as the orientating structure. Simultaneously, the time between each shifting form starts to pull away from minute-long intervals to establish a new regularity and unit of time.
The simplicity of Naufragios’ key looping image supports the ease with which Piña-Baldoquín’s forms build on each other to develop a rhythm and timecode unto themselves. The viewer slowly begins to adapt, then rely upon, this shift from the visual orientating structure of the horizon, dividing the water below and the sky above into a new orientational apparatus based on the screen and a series of layered time-intervals.
It is a common association to link water and time through the daily ebb and flow of tides as markers of the passing day. However, Naufragios expands on these broad cultural givens that equate oceans and seas to spans of time, as well as immensities of space and distance. Recent and historical associations between water as a site of migration and mythology make it a constant signifier for the formation of histories and networks of oppression and otherwise. The representation of water is also neither new nor incidental to Piña-Baldoquín’s work, as he has often featured images of shorelines and sea walls in earlier photographic series.
Manuel Piña-Baldoquín is a Vancouver-based Cuban artist who explores the potential of the vernacular image and urban experience by challenging the dominant narratives that characterize political and cultural nationalism. He studied mechanical engineering in Vladimir, Russia, in the early 1980s before establishing his art practice a decade later. The Cold War legacy of sanctions, political interference and dictatorship in Cuba includes decades of broadcasted images of refugees taking to the seas towards the United States in homemade vessels. This spectacular archive, combined with Piña-Baldoquín’s own migratory routes in pursuit of cultural and academic exchange, serves to narrativize the shifting horizons in Naufragios. Furthermore, the implied slippage across watery borders now conjures up the images of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa to land on Europe’s southern shores, wading into the spotlight of current international media and political attention.
These mass crossings make visible another temporality. Whether colonial settlers, migrants or slaves, the trans-global flow of bodies across water, borders and boundaries of people creates more than new routes and forums for discursive and cultural geographies. Anthropologist and theorist Arjun Appadurai has argued that ever-shifting cultural flows and networks construct new subjectivities and create “… new communities of sentiment, which introduce empathy, identification, and anger across large cultural distances.” This observation can be expanded upon to consider that such global movements also establish and strengthen cultural identities through new temporal bounds and measures, therefore claiming time as a subjective entity.
Whether Naufragios puts the viewer in the place of the protagonist about to cross the water, or the perspective of those on land awaiting a welcome or unwelcome arrival, the fact that the human presence is unseen develops the possibility of empathy for either position. The viewer could be looking through the eyes of an Indigenous person of African, American, Asian or other land for whom the sea, that stretches out before them, will bring centuries of dispossession, slavery and genocide. The viewer could also be looking through eyes that are contemplating a flight from war and oppression. The viewer may even be looking through the eyes of the would-be colonizer. The only thing that is certain is that the disorientation of both time and space unfamiliar to the protagonist awaits.
Reading Naufragios as an exploration of the multitude of ways that the mass migrations of bodies keeps time also brings to mind Indigenous methods of asserting sovereignty by mapping place through movement and time. In particular, the Stó:lō First Nation entrenches their land rights in history by establishing and tracking the intervals and patterns of the intergenerational migrations of their ancestors and other Coast Salish peoples throughout the Northwest Coast region that traverses the Canadian American border.
Naufragios enacts a reclaiming of subjectivity and sovereignty from the dominant measures of time and time-keeping that have been universalized through colonization and its attendant technologies. Naturalizing and standardizing his micro time-intervals through association with the assumed truths of geography and topography, Piña-Baldoquín intervenes in standard time codes and describes a counter-time-keeping in line with the various strategies of counter-mapping undertaken by Indigenous, civic and political activists.
Despite the assumed ubiquity of the horizon and the sky upon which Naufragios seemingly depends, both suddenly disappear from the videowork partway through its duration. The frame of the video screen becomes the sole point of visual orientation. The minute-long shifts in shape and pattern continue to establish a rhythm through interlocking triangles then rectangles. The pale sky is replaced with an outright white background. Without the sky, the rippled water dissolves into near-complete geometric abstractions that appear as formalist compositions occupying the screen’s center.
A subtle introduction of colour returns some recognition of a seascape into the continuing montage. Squares with sunlight-tipped wave surfaces collide into each other before a sudden return to greyscale and slowed ripples inside a diamond-shaped lozenge. These final frames hypnotize and stretch time while drawing all focus into a central “eye” formed by the surrounding movement. Once this last image relinquishes the viewer’s attention and concludes Piña-Baldoquín’s work, it becomes possible to consider the entire montage that comprises Naufragios.
This work formulates a compelling questioning of the relationship between progress and temporality as represented in the modernist teleos around which frustratingly enduring social histories and damaging cultural hierarchies have been structured. The reclaiming of space and bodies dominate the conversation on decolonization, but Naufragios serves as a reminder that the reappropriation and redefinition of temporal structures is an equally effective and necessary act of claiming a sovereign identity.
Denise Ryner is an independent curator and writer. Recent public and exhibition projects include Art + City + School, Rain or Shine Saturdays and Interim Measures. Currently she is a research associate on the project: Kanon Fragen at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Germany.
This article was originally featured in BlackFlash issue 33.3.