2023 Adelaide Festival
3 – 19 March 2023
North Eastern Concourse, Adelaide Railway Station, North Terrace
Entering the concrete shell of Adelaide Railway Station’s North-eastern concourse, now repurposed for the 2023 Adelaide Festival presentation of James Newitt’s Haven (2023) and Emily Wardill’s Night for Day (2020), a symmetry unfolds between art and life. These exhibitions were intended for the vaulted galleries of Samstag Museum of Art, but a burst water pipe at Samstag has—poetically, and rather dramatically—reinforced the narrative: the shows were deftly relocated, now manifesting as a double island off the coast of North Terrace.
This repurposed architectural context brings the two artists into close range, with Wardill’s Night for Day echoing across the cavernous concourse, but brings a sympathetic brutalism to Newitt’s Haven in particular. Haven focuses on a crumbling concrete relic of its own—a World War II British naval defence fortress located (illegally) at the edge of the North Sea and International Waters, perilously accessible by sea or air. Its towering twin pillars, flat-topped helipad, and waves of occupation and abandonment provide rich material for Newitt’s poetic inquiry into a real social history of failed utopias.
In fact, my first encounter of Haven is not with Newitt’s epic panoramic three-channel video, but a small black and white reproduction of the title illustration from Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516). The intricate sixteenth century linocut heralds one of the earliest Western literary inscriptions twinning the concept of utopia, that elusive non-place (ou-topos), with the hard-edged boundary of an island. Across Haven, the island-utopia figuration endures. The installation features a collection of archival material, pen and ink drawings, ghost-like hand-redacted photography and a fictionalised rendering of the events that took place on the fortress throughout the mid-to-late twentieth century. The sum of these parts envision the concrete monolith as subject and victim to the dreamer, the zealot, the radical.
In 1966, Roy Bates, a retired British Army Major and amateur DJ, occupied the fortress in the hopes of establishing a pirate radio station beyond the jurisdiction of British broadcasting law. What ensued was a legal claim to principality and the creation of the world’s smallest, but ultimately unrecognised, micronation—“Sealand”. Although the fortress was subject to waves of litigation over the proceeding decades, including a military coup d’etat, it was the technocratic lure of Sealand that also piqued Newitt’s interest. At the turn of the 21st century, amidst the dot-com boom (and perhaps, more obtusely, prompted by Y2K paranoia), a group of young entrepreneurial Americans approached Sealand as the primary base for Havenco—an internet server farm free from censorship and regulation of international digital and copyright laws. In essence, a data refuge.
Newitt exorcises these dramatic histories, quite literally, through the digital medium. Footage intentionally suffers from ghosting (a pixelated artefact that occurs when frame rates and monitor refresh rates don’t match); images of shimmering digital static, or ‘snow’, transform into stretches of boundless ocean; footage of Bates and his wife appear uncannily doctored, like an archival deep fake. Even audio is treated with a glitch aesthetic. A one-sided conversation with Havenco’s co-founder, Ryan Lackey, sounds corrupted in transmission, as if entering the gallery via a thousand-mile-long underwater internet cable. The only moments that feel staid are renders of the island monolith itself. A slow panning camera traces Newitt’s digital reconstruction of the fortress, a moving image reminiscent of a lo-fi first-person shooter. When abutted against archival clips and imagery of Sealand—fictional or not—these scenes feel hollowed out, void of the unrelenting water and weather that dictates “island” life.
Haven is ultimately an evocative portrayal of utopian desire. Newitt has captured the ontological pleasure of the (concrete) island boundary, that inverse, or perhaps perverse, relationship between increasingly scaled-down containment and perceived psychic and civic liberty, Bates’ voice bouncing off the walls, ‘…from the sea, freedom.’ This island lure feels even more pointed knowing Newitt himself is Tasmanian born.
In The Concept of Utopia, sociologist Ruth Levitas describes utopian imagining as an education in desire. Whether that manifests as a mythical country of glut and excess, think Bruegel’s The Land of the Cockaigne (1567), or a revolutionary whim to raze society and begin again, all utopias—failed or not—reflect our collective desires. The utopian work offers a future-scape where ‘the problems that beset our current condition are transcended or resolved’; utopian imagining is, as Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch describes, an expression of the darkness so near.
For Haven, these desires are marked by two enduring island tropes. The first is the notion that history is wrought by a few good men. Just as Moore’s King Utopos severed a peninsula to create Utopia, Bates (through the scripted recollections of his wife) is framed as the patriarch of Sealand, having dubbed himself “Prince Roy”. Island conquest is enacted through the sovereign material on display, such as a national stamp and declaration of the principality of Sealand. And, upon further reading, territorial and sexual conquest are also twinned. When the flag of Sealand was first raised in 1967, Bates’ accompanied the act with the romantic gesture of re-titling his wife “Princess Joan”.
In the case of Havenco, Lackey’s story comes loaded with a now all too familiar tech-entrepreneurial machismo (although in the cases of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, they look to the skies rather than the sea to begin again). In Haven, Newitt questions Lackey’s figuration of the sea as a vault. Is it truly the safest place to protect information? Could cold stored data, housed out on the blustery North Sea, quell a fear of forgetting? Lackey’s paranoia is most acute in his planned fail-safes. If a digital breach was to occur, data would begin erasing itself. If someone were to physically approach Sealand, its remote location would allow time for hardware to be thrown overboard.
While failure is inherent to utopian imagining (no Cockaignese actually wants to drink rivers of beer or live under a sky raining cheese), Haven reinstates the natural order of things—another island trope. Radical and rugged individualism is corroded by weather. At Haven’s climax, water is seen to gush into the seemingly impenetrable concrete pillars of the fortress—the island body is flooded. At any moment, it feels as though Samstag’s flood might just reach these concrete walls too.
- ^ See Christina Li’s curatorial essay on Newitt and Wardill’s double-billing here
- ^ “History of a Nation”, https://sealandgov.org/the-story/
- ^ This is Sealand’s national motto, https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/from-the-sea-freedom/, accessed 8 March 2023.
- ^ Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Oxfordshire, UK: Peter Lang, 2011), 185.
- ^ Richard Noble, ed. Utopias, Documents of Contemporary Art (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2009), Introduction, 12.
- ^ Pete Hay, "A Phenomenology of Islands." Island Studies Journal 1:1, (2006), 27.
- ^ https://sealandgov.org/the-story/, accessed 8 March 2023.
Dr. Belinda Howden is the Assistant Editor at Artlink. She lives and works on Kaurna Yerta, Tarntanya / Adelaide.