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The Upwelling

Tales from the Abysses

by Elisa Strinna


“Life on Earth consists of specialized drops of a (..) aqueous solution. Life is a consequence and function of the liquid that covers the Earth’s surface.[1]”



Abysses are marine areas deeper than 2000 meters that, like the outer-space, for humans are almost unreachable. Abysses exist in a perennial night, inhabited by luminescent organisms whose life remains mostly unknown to us. The western part of the Aegean Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean, reaches depths of about 5000 meters and is what remains of a very ancient sea. In the constant transformation that characterizes the planet, due to the convergence of plates, the seabed has increasingly reduced, swallowed up in the mantle. The seabed is still consuming at a rate of 5 millimeters per year, and in several million years Africa and Eurasia will become one.

Seabeds collect the sediments of emerged lands, subjected to a constant process of erosion and fragmentation by atmospheric agents. The salt waters rejoin these sediments; they are transformed into new territories most likely doomed to future erosions. “Marine ecosystems form three levels. The top-level is occupied mainly by plankton. The intermediate level of the oceanic ecosystems is occupied mainly by animals that swim. By fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. (...)The lowest level, the “benthos,” is the ultimate destination of all life on Earth (…).” [2] The organisms that live in the ”benthos” never appear to the surface. In the Mediterranean Sea, the Messina Strait is among the few places where these mysterious organisms can be observed, due to the upwelling phenomena. In this area, oceanographic movements produce currents that transport the abyssal organism to the surface. At dawn, on the “ beach of the abyss,” we can observe unknown beings devoid of life, whose eyes explode due to the change of pressure or perhaps because of light exposure. These organisms live in a perpetual night, and unlike terrestrial ones, who survive by absorbing sunlight, they generate light themselves. “The aqueous mass is bathed in eternal night, devoid of any radiation except that which comes from the organs of living creatures that pierce the darkness with their multi-colored luminescence.”[3]

The Sicilian Channel is one of the areas with the highest traffic density in the world. This area is not only an ecological corridor for migratory birds leaving South Africa for Northern Europe but is also the crossing point of an innumerable quantity of merchant ships that distribute the raw materials of modern industry around the globe. In addition to merchant ships, this portion of the sea is crossed by the plastic rubbers of human migrants trying to reach Sicily from North Africa. At the same time, both due to its geographical orientation and its relative depth, fiber optic cables connecting Europe to North Africa are laid on the channel, to then continue towards the Middle East and Asia, in an attempt to connect virtually the entire globe.

Innumerable fiber optic cables depart the coasts of Sicily, which re-immerse themselves in the sea after crossing Europe overland. Twelve depart from Mazara del Vallo alone. Today, submarine cables carry 99 percent of all our communication. For strategic and technical reasons, the cables are hidden from the user’s view. ”Analyses of twenty-first-century media culture have been characterized by a cultural imagination of dematerialization [...] cables have been submerged in a historiographical practice that tends to narrate a transcendence of geographic specificity, a movement from fixity to fluidity, and ultimately a transition from wires to wireless structure [...] but despite the rhetoric of wirelessness, we exist in a world that is more wired than ever.” [4] The first cables were laid in the oceans in the mid-nineteenth century and were made of copper. However, with the discovery of minerals with increasingly powerful conductive capacities, today’s cables are mostly composed of pure silicon and other rare earths. 

The global increasing of virtual world consumption goes together with the increased speed of internet connections, making cable infrastructures always more crucial to corporate interests. Social interactions, trading businesses, and financial ones, today use the network as the leading platform, making social and economic pursuits always more intermingled. Cable disruption can cause the loss of incredible amounts of money, severely damaging the financial world as well as many companies with businesses based online. Despite being the architecture that sustains a massive virtual structure, cables are quite vulnerable in their very nature. They easily are damaged by boat anchors, earthquakes, or even by marine life, and their repair requires continuous work and investment.

While cables carry our communications around the globe, transcending limits of time and space, millions of people risk their lives to cross political and geographical borders.

“I went through the jungle, and the desert on a pick-up, traveling for 13 hours to finally reach the sea. I never sow the desert before, and so the sea, because in my country there is only the jungle. And the desert is like the sea. Your car gets stuck in the desert, and you’ are dead. My journey in the sea lasted 12 hours in a rubber boat. I arrived on a continent that I hadn’t chosen as the destination of my journey. I wanted to reach my relatives on the North-West coast of Africa. Hoping to get there, I crossed 6 countries in 3 years. With me, many other people crossed the sea; many were crying, terrified because they did not know where they were going. But we all knew that going back was impossible. Better to die in the abyss than to live as prisoners, forgotten in lagers, brutally killed and raped or sold as slaves. Before leaving for the sea, they told us not to be afraid because soon we would reach the land where our dreams come true”.

Five hundred years before, many other Africans crossed another sea on a much longer journey, towards a destiny that would have turned them into slaves. The abysses preserve the traces of those passages: ”Whenever a fleet of ships gave chase to slave ships, it was easiest to lighten the boat by throwing the cargo overboard, weighing it down with balls and chains. These underwater signposts mark the course between the Gold Coast and the Leeward Islands.” [5]     


[1] p.68, Vilém Flusser, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, ATROPOS PRESS, New York • Dresden, 2011

[2] p. 68,Ibidem

[3] Ibidem

[4] P. 9, Kindle edition, Nicole Starosieleski, The Undersea Network, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015

[5] http://readingtheperiphery.org/glissant/ Excerpt from Glissant, E. (1997) The Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Harbor: University of Michigan Press.