This month, the Australian Cinémathèque at GOMA has been screening the moving image work of Turner-nominees The Otolith Group. The work of duo Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun is rich in reference to eclectic sources. For example, the world building of enigmatic Detroit techno musicians Drexciya is the launching pad for Hydra Decapita 2010.
Through their early EPs and subsequent full length albums, Drexciya conjured the mythology of a submarine nation populated by the descendants of pregnant slaves thrown overboard during the crossing of The Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. Through these releases and a series of albums referred to as ‘Storms’, attributed to Drexciya and other working names, the cosmology evolved to encompass an astronomically distant fluid universe linked to the underwater Drexciya by wormholes.
In a January 1998 article for music magazine The Wire, Eshun articulated his fascination with Drexciya, linking their aquatopia to earlier manifestations of submerged worlds suggested in the music of Hendrix, Parliament and Can. Noting that humanity knows more about the surface of Mars than the depths of the ocean, Eshun found ‘these unknown depths… the appropriate environment for concepts secreted deep in track subtitles, impressed in the vinyl, hidden notions you have to dive for.’ The Drexciyan mythos, he concluded, was not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be passed on.
Hydra Decapita is a metadocumentation of the world that Drexciya described, or perhaps implied, through sleeve artwork, vinyl run-out etchings, and the occasional appearance of spoken vocals in their music. Visually, the film is punctuated by hypnotic high-contrast close-ups of flickering water, an intentionally unbreakable code which Eshun described to The Wire in 2010 as a depiction of the tension between hermeneutics and hermetics: ‘they’re enigmas which we continually try to decode and interpret, even though we know they’re not interpretable’.
Hydra Decapita draws in the voice of a mysterious ‘author’ receiving transmissions from the remnant of Drexciya, imagining pan-galactic stretches of water-space whose coordinates are now lost. It also references one of the ‘rival hypotheses of Drexciya’s origin’ via JMW Turner’s painting The Slave Ship 1840. The arresting image of the slaves, tossed overboard and struggling against a violent ocean and the oncoming tempest, is evoked through Sagar’s singing of passages from art critic John Ruskin’s 1843 analysis of the painting. The brief, strobing appearance of details of the painting in the final minute of Hydra Decapita is a rare burst of colour in the otherwise murky seascape.
The artists Drexciya put their mythology first, so much so that James Stinson was only officially identified as the lynchpin of the project after his death in 2002. With co-conspirator Gerald Donald, Stinson infused the project with a potent political undertone that teased interpretation, but existed entirely in a world of their own making. The Otolith Group capture this spirit in their sublimation of the Drexciyan idea for Hydra Decapita as they present ‘the perspective of the sea looking back at us’. Without using any of the duo’s music, their point of departure is purely conceptual and their own ‘passing on’ of the mystery is a credit to the depth of the notions encoded in the Stinson and Donald’s discography.
Hydra Decapita 2010 screens with I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another 2012 and The Radiant 2012, at the Australian Cinematheque, GOMA, from 3pm on Saturday 20 July.
For more on Drexciyia, their music and mythology is chronicled in exhaustive detail on Stephen Rennick’s Drexciyan Research Lab blog.