domingo, 1 de fevereiro de 2009

The Good Ship Lusitania - Reflections on Reflections & Oceanography

[Two small toy sailing boats each about six centimeters long painted different colors accompany the speaker on stage. To one side of the speaker and facing the audience is a crudely drawn logo of the Lusitania magazine in red, black, and white, This shows the elegant liner sinking into the ocean bow first at an acute angle, the stern way up in the air. The sky seems lit by red flames.]

I have to admit it is hard for me to get past the title and its logo. There is the good ship Lusitania, the fastest passenger liner of the day smashing the trans-Atlantic speed record but sunk by the German Navy U-boat U-20 on the 7th of May 1915 a few miles off the coast of Ireland, bringing the USA into WW 1. Of the 1,959 people on board there were only 761survivors.

It is a rakish good looking ship, that’s for sure, alarmingly so when it is pictured with its stern in the air, the four huge funnels blowing smoke like crazy as it plunges nose first to its doom.

I recall this very same image as an immaculate sculpture on the desk-table that seemed to stretch the full length of Martim’s studio with its incredibly high ceilings and windows overlooking Reade street where for a few years we had great parties at the end of the year. Ah yes! The Good Ship Lusitania, arse-up in the air, midships and bow covered by the cruel ocean headed for Davy Jone’s locker. And all that black smoke filling the red sky!

This is the logo that appears as a half page picture on the first two numbers of the magazine and thereafter as a small compact semi-circle in red and black—good anarchist colors—thereafter.

Martim was Portuguese, the language of the first number was Portuguese in its entirety, and the two languages of the bi-lingual second number were Portuguese and English. No wonder that unthinkingly I assumed the ship, too, was Portguese. What a shock therefore to later find out it was built in Scotland at Clydebank and belonged to the Cunard company famous for the two Queen Mary’s and of course for that great character, artist, muse, and patron of the avant garde, Nancy Clara Cunard. The keel of the Lusitania was christened, as they say, on the slips up there in Scotland by Mary, Lady of Inverclyde. So in a sense there are really two names here, separated either by time or by a relation of part to whole, the keel to the ship as a whole, or both. The keel—Mary, Lady of Inverclyde, is like the backbone, the essence of the ship. While the ship as a whole, called Lusitania, is the mythic being, the mighty personage redolent with the mystery of its strange name and breaking all manner of speed records.

Surely this is in a nutshell what Lusitania the magazine stood for, not merely with its hybridinal historical and cultural forms, but with the gamut of questions such hybridinal forms provoke?

How can you explain, for instance, how you get from Mary, Lady of Inverclyde, a strong and honest keel, to the name of Lusitania? How on earth did that come about? Other famous Cunard liners were named after Queens, queens of England, Mary and Elizabeth, while the sister ships to Lusitania went all Roman—as with the Mauretania and the Aquitania.

Why name a British ship after an ancient Roman province that occupied what is today most of Portugal bordering on Galicia with which at times it overlapped, the name Luso generally signifying something Portuguese when you want to sound fancy like wearing a medieval cloak or eating peasant bread, something with cobwebs and smears of dried blood on the corners.

One thread here in this name and logo is the impulse of modernity to sink back into prehistory and construct what has been called a “dialectical image.” Did I say “sink”?

In vain did Walter Benjamin try to explain what he meant by such an image that as in a montage contained the past with the present at what he called a moment of danger, his understanding being that such an image flared up briefly at just such a moment and, if not grasped in that instant, would disappear. As did The Lusitania. But then with the founding of the magazine Lusitania in February 1988, Lusitania: A Journal of Reflection and Oceanography, something of that dialectical image is grasped half in and half out of the water readying for the big plunge.

In that first number which was monolingual Portuguese only and a skimpy thirty four pages long, printed in a in a dull green on a slightly creamy background, there was apart from the logo only one reference to what I would call oceanography and the dialectical image.

Tucked away towards the end was short piece called “Body” by Peter Fend under the heading “Ocean Earth Construction & Development Corporation.” It described one of the world’s largest construction projects of our time involving the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The two page satellite map looked uncannily like a human body, all the more because of the words Fertile Body scratched into it between the two mighty river systems between Iraq and Iran.

The rest as they say is history.

Countless dead in the Iraq-Iran war. Then the Gulf War in 1990, two years after Lusitania, the magazine, first came out, and then the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on the deception by the heads of state as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

The name and the logo can be thought of as exactly that, the proverbial ship of state, the Good Ship Lusitania. For it appears that this passenger ship was perforce involved in the war and was carrying concealed arms, breaking the blockade by virtue of its character as a mere passenger vessel. Advertisements were published in New York by the German government advising passengers not to sail in the ship on what turned out to be its fatal voyage back to England, and five hundred bronze medals were struck in Munich by a private individual after the vessel went down, one side saying “Keine Banneware”(No Contraband), the other Geschaft uber alles” (Business above all). Seeing a business opportunity the famous store of Selfridges in London made a large number of iron copies of this medal for sale—some say 250,000—as counter propaganda.

In this connection, two other anarchist ships, or counter ships of state, come to mind. One is the transformation of the logo in the sixth number of the magazine Lusitania called Vulvamorphia, guest edited by Lillian Lennox .

The color has gone. Now we have black on grey. A beautiful three-masted sailing vessel of the 16th century maybe like what Magellan sailed is tossing on the sea. From the stormy surface of sea surfaces a giant squid or octopus with large eyes and tentacles lifting up into the very rigging of the ship and hauling it down, same as what happened to the Lusitania. Now the ship of state meets its nemesis in the arms of an untamed sea-monster whose home and very being is the liquid element on which the ship of state depends for its buoyancy.

And Oh! Yes! There is even an Editorial, but it’s a little back to front. First of all it’s at the very end, not the beginning of the magazine. Second, in the spirit of Martim Avillez, it is a comic created by the guest-editor. Third it too ends in the ocean. And fourth it not only sets forth the ideas behind this issue, but gives climactic place to Baubo, the ancient Greek demon or witch who made Demeter laugh by lifting her skirts and exposing herself and who, according to Oxford Classical Dictionary is a personification of the female genitals. “Perhaps,” wrote Nietzsche in his Second Preface to The Gay Science, ‘Perhaps truth is a woman who has grounds for not showing her grounds? Perhaps her name is—to speak Greek—Baubo?

Perhaps she is an octopus as well, says the main character in this comic editorial, taking us back to the logo displacing the original Lusitania.

The second ship I have in mind, thanks to the short movie made by Anxo Rabinal of Santiago de Compostela, is the Santa Maria built in 1952 with a displacement of 27,000 tons and maximum speed of twenty five knots, making it the fastest boat on the South American run. It belonged to the Portguese shipping firm, La Compania Colonial de Navegacion. In those days two dictators ruled over the Iberian peninsula, Salazar and Franco.

The Santa Maria left the port of La Guaira 20th January 1961 with a crew of 350 and 650 passengers.

Mid Atlantic at midnight a commando of the Directorio Revolucionario Iberico de Liberacion took control of the ship. In the gunfight one officer was killed. In the morning a new flag was flying and the name of the ship was changed to Santa Liberdade.

This kidnapping of an Atlantic liner was the dream of a poet, Xose Velo Mosquera, aided principally by two military officers, Jorge Soutomaior, captain of the Spanish Republican navy, and Enrique Galvao, cavalry captain in the Portuguese army. Their plan was to sail the ship to the island of Fernando Po—from where so many slaves had been gathered prior to their shipment of the New World—and take over the garrison there, free the political prisoners, and thereby initiate a revolutionary movement to free the Iberian peninsula as well as the African colonies.

The ship became what Hakim Bey has called a “temporary autonomous zone.” The revolutionaries came from different parts of the Americas and experience in Africa. They had been long festering their grievances since the Spanish Civil War, including for Soutomaior a spell in Auschwitz. One commentator describes the revolutionaries as so many don Quijotes, animated by the spirit of poetry and piracy. Velo the poet had made a new coin he called the Ibero to function throughout a liberated Iberian peninsula. Great efforts were made to reduce the hierarchy among the crew and also among the passengers, fifty of whom joined the rebels along with part of the crew. Anti-government pamphlets were distributed and forty seven verses of the anti-fascist Galician poet Rafael Dieste were read over the loudspeaker system. The new flag had four bands of color, black, red, white, and yellow, symbolic of racial solidarity. Much banqueting and dancing was held as well.

Eighteen US Air force planes from Puerto Rico, five US naval vessels plus a nuclear submarine, the Sea Wolf, as well as naval frigates from the UK combed the Atlantic searching for the kidnapped ship. Eventually it was found. News agencies were drawn to the spectacle and a daring photographer named Gil Delamare parachuted to the deck of the Santa Liberdade.

The rebels had to abandon their plans for Africa and settled for Recife, Brazil, where they were treated as heroes.

“Brilliantly conceived, more or less adequately carried out, badly accompanies, and sadly terminated,” was the summing up of the poet, Pepe Velo.

And of course there is still another Baubo boat to consider alongside our ship of state, Lusitania, and out anti- ship of state, Lusitania the magazine, and that is the pirate vessel as fantasized by the Neo-Zapatistas in Chiapas, as pictured in one of the many postscripts of the letters of the sub-comandante referring to the democratic convention held in the Lacandon forest in what they called Aguascalientes in August 1994

Although it is actually written before the convention, it is written as if after all the guests and delegates have left and it reads:

When they are alone, the Sup makes a sign . . .Everyone, including the Sup tears off their ski masks and their faces. A multitude of fierce-looking sailors appears, the Sup has a patch on his right eye and begins to limp ostentatiously on his wooden leg . . . The awing [of the convention in the jungle] is in reality a sail, the benches oars, , the hill a hull of a might vessel, while the stage becomes the bridge . . . Aguascalientes unveils itself—se devela y se revela—a pirate ship, solitary and magnificent, it begins its voyage into the night until the day following , skull and crossbones fluttering.

And he signs off;

Pirate without bearings
Professional of hope
Transgressor of justice
Robber of sighs
Owner of the night
Lord of the mountain
Man without face and with no tomorrow

As I said right at the beginning, I have to admit it is hard for me to get past the title and the logo, the Good Ship Lusitania, suspended mid air, or at least mid-ocean, arse up, nose down, now more than ever calling all hands on deck as we think back on those wonderful magazines that Martim Avillez with his editor and artist and writer friends created in the turbulence of the 1990s world downtown in Reade Street New York City

Thank you

Mick Taussig
January 5, 2009

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