same as it ever was

Adriatic melancholy of Homo Aquaticus

* An updated and edited version of this text has been published in the book “Designing in Coexistence – Reflections on Systemic Change”.

Ivica Mitrović’s contribution  to the exhibition and the project “Homo Aquaticus: HABITAT ST21” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Split (Oleg Šuran and Ivica Mitrović) which is part of the workshop INTERAKCIJE 2023: Homo Aquaticus at the Arts Academy in Split as part of the discursive program of the Croatian pavilion at Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Photo: Vicko Vidan

The Adriatic, as the northern arm of the Mediterranean, cut into the European continent, has always shared the turbulent history of the Mediterranean Sea. From the “cradle of European civilizations” and the prosperity of the emperors of ancient civilization to the difficult life of island farmers and shepherds, factory and port workers and workers in Mediterranean shipyards, to today’s almost “slave” life of staff in “deluxe” tourist facilities (hotels, pensions, apartments, camps, rooms, holiday homes, marinas, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, tasting rooms, etc.). On the other hand, this European part of the Mediterranean is now being fetishized again, as it was once advertised by the Croatian National Tourist Board – “The Mediterranean as It Once Was”. 

Such a Mediterranean continues to be associated with places of colourful, sunny locals, from wrinkled island fishermen in dilapidated wooden boats to tattooed tanned retirees on local beaches from Split to Naples. These are places where time has stopped, places where life is completely devoid of continuous uncertainty and the stresses of the Western way of life, places where one lives in the present, where the future does not come, so there is no need to run from it. Places devoid of all the ongoing crises and disasters of the modern Mediterranean, from a series of wars, continuous migrant suffering, extreme poverty, to galloping climate change. These places have become new media and tourist commodities, places that offer landscapes and people, as scenographies of mass consumption, places of artificial and fabricated identities. For the local population, they are places where the remaining active members of the community are feverishly trying to resist these new colonializations.

Split is one of those cities, perhaps the ultimate case study. A city that, after a period of aggressive deindustrialization, found itself in an even more aggressive apartmentization that is becoming the main source of income for its citizens. Large industrial complexes employing tens of thousands of workers have now been replaced by global hotel complexes. The population of the city has decreased drastically, and the places and communities that formed the identity and were a cohesive element of the city are disappearing with those who leave, taking away memories. Where there used to be post offices, libraries, cinemas and colleges, now there are bars, bistros, fast foods, hostels and hotels. Just as public amenities have disappeared, residential neighbourhoods are now disappearing, turning into apartment complexes.

The need to react, reflect on the possible implications of global climate, but also technological, economic and political futures in the local context of the Adriatic, away from European urban and technological centres, “from the edge of Europe”, through the so-called “Mediterranean speculative approach”, resulted in a series of projects dealing with current global trends. Focusing on a range of global phenomena, from the “smart cities” of the future, i.e. privacy in the new economies of such cities; the reliability of social networks and rating systems in the context of tourism-based economies; the growing phenomenon of automation at the local level; climate change and the future of the sea; to the resilience of local self-organizing communities. Through these projects, we have stimulated discussion within the local community, among experts and “ordinary” citizens, about a whole range of possible future scenarios. Our wish was also to inspire hope in the possibilities of action of individuals and communities who in this part of Europe and the Mediterranean have long known and managed to find a way to resist (or hack) imposed (dystopian) scenarios.

Although these works may lack concrete action outside the context of the project, they are practices that, in the participatory process between designers and experts, through imagination, but also the design of “real speculations”, opened up potential models of the future that can be built on the foundations of community resilience, i.e. on cooperation, not competition. The intention was to offer possible alternative scenarios to the anticipated dystopian climate futures, scenarios that could prepare us for such post-apocalyptic futures, as well as to try to offer methods and tools that could help individuals and the community rebuild their lives after a possible disaster. 

As a follow-up to the last research, exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2021, which dealt with local communities, i.e. their resilience, here, inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s visit to Split in 1977, we reflect the present of a city torn between unplanned tourism and galloping climate change, again through speculation and in cooperation with experts from the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture in Split.

Throughout human history, the sea and its depths have always been places of new challenges, discovery and colonization. Their mysteriousness generated countless myths, which are also present in modern culture. In the time of the “space age” of the second half of the 20th century, the sea somewhat disappears from focus. The mythical hero of High Modernism, the French sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, brings the sea back into focus. In his speculation created in the 1960s, he presented “Homo aquaticus”, a man who, through scientific and technological extensions developed over the next 50 years, could, as his distant ancestors, live and survive in the sea again. His vision relied on surgical interventions on human respiratory systems that would allow humans to stay under the sea for a longer period of time, i.e. that would bring humans closer to sea creatures. Cousteau’s vision, based on the modernist narrative of man taming “wild” nature, resulted in the construction of experimental underwater habitats in which divers resided for several days.

As well as a number of other grandiose high-tech projects, this one was presented at the 1964 World’s Fair, and resulted in a revolutionary development of diving equipment, scientific breakthroughs regarding the possibilities of human survival in an extreme environment, and a series of insights into life under the sea. It is not possible to ignore the scientific importance, but also the impact of these discoveries on popular culture, which changed the understanding of the origin of life and helped in the exploration of space, and which was partly guided by the human “romantic”, exploratory curiosity. However, Cousteau’s speculation is also an archetypal example of an anthropocentric relationship with nature, in which technology played a primary role in achieving human supremacy.  It focuses on life with the sea, but above all on the possession of sea depths, i.e. submarine resources that would be exploited by colonies of submarine workers (Homo aquaticae). A worldview in which the sea is not an intactness to be preserved and a force of nature to be respected, but a world to be “conquered” and exploited. 

Such utopian visions of life in the marine (as well as space) depths as endless and inexhaustible expanses open to human colonialization, as early as the late 70s and especially in the 80s of the last century, faced with a change in the environment of the planet, lack of resources and indications of climate change that are coming, reflect a new imperative through their next versions – the pursuit of salvation and survival of the human species. Reflected many times in popular culture, for example through literature (Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 “Galapagos”) and film (“The Spy Who Loved Me” with Roger Moore from 1977, “Waterworld” with Kevin Costner from 1995, or the post-modern criticism of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach in the iconic “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” from 2004). The history of such speculations offers insight into the human relationship with the ocean and marine environment, but also creates hope for transformative activities in the upcoming man-made disasters.

Throughout the centuries, seas and oceans have provided and continue to provide resources, as a source of food, energy, minerals, jobs, goods and services, but at the same time they have been places of trade routes, intercultural exchanges and migration. In the modern world, they are the backbone of many industries and world economies, while at the same time they absorb greenhouse gases, create oxygen and store large amounts of carbon monoxide, playing a significant role in mitigating climate change. Today, the interest in seas and oceans is growing again. Corporations are busily initiating mining activities in the deep sea in order to obtain the necessary minerals and metals for the increasing demand and production of electronic devices and electric vehicles. For now, the growing exploitation of the oceans, without strategies and regulations, is a new challenge for the planet.

As critical reference to Jacques Cousteau’s romanticized high-modern visions of the future and life under the sea, which have become part of our popular culture, i.e. “Précontinent” submarine constructions, the project Homo Aquaticus: HABITAT ST21 focuses on potential utopian undersea dwellings and communities of the near future, as well as on local, micro models of resilience. The project speculates on the possible life of man in the underwater, extended living environment, inspired by the idea of the “sea man”. Starting from the described fetishization of the Mediterranean way of life and facing future challenges through multidisciplinarity, we deal with possible local, micro models of resilience, from a specific Mediterranean perspective. By speculating on “man from the seaside/the sea” and creating new communities, we critically reflect anthropocentric visions of the future and life under the sea. 

The speculative scenario reflects the present of a city that, in transition from the once industrial city of production and creation, through an explosion of unexpected and unplanned tourism, has completely turned to service activities. The city, whose urban and populated neighbourhoods have been transformed into apartment dormitories of disorganized tourism, which are the only or additional economic income for its citizens, pressured by omnipresent and growing climate changes, extremely hot and dry summer, has fallen apart communally and infrastructurally. With apartmentization, gentrification and globalized tourist offer, the city centre is not only without inhabitants, but almost without any trace of local identity. This speculation satirizes the present in which a large number of residents rent out their apartments in the summer as private accommodation (studio apartments, rooms, hostels, etc.), while spending the summer in vacation homes, country houses, garages, with parents or relatives in crowded apartments, or on their boats in Split’s communal ports. The speculative future goes a step further, anticipating newly formed floating settlements in harbours and marinas that will turn into first submarine settlements in the near future.

The bays and harbours in Split, as well as in other parts of the eastern Adriatic coast, have always been places of socialization and collective practices, from the beginning of swimming as a civic recreation (but also leisure), through groups that gathered on the city beaches, the so-called “Split Republics” in the time before the First World War, through the formation of sports clubs before the Second World War, to communal ports that were built through self-contributions and the work of the local community during the second half of the 20th century. Such places abound in vernacular design solutions full of various modifications, DIY upgrades and ingenious extensions. These places have created micro resilience communities by developing and preserving these skills over the years, which have developed new ways of bypassing laws and rules, adapting imposed systems to their own needs and way of life.

In order to test feasibility and bring speculation closer to reality, through a series of iterative and participatory meetings, and in cooperation with the Department of Naval Architecture of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture in Split and civil engineers, we have developed conceptual drawings of the community of habitats of the future, which could be launched into the underwater of the Split communal port, in the bay on the north side of the Split peninsula. In cooperation with experts from the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, we discussed our relationship with the environment, nature, the possibilities of coexistence instead of the exploitation of the depths of the sea, stepping away from an anthropocentric approach to the sea. The calculations on the possible use of nutritious marine plankton biomass in this specific location, in a way that would achieve sustainability, conceptualized a habitat module that would collect biomass to expand the diet of the inhabitants of the settlement. Models, visual materials, supported by artificial visions of such futures, generated through AI tools (which refer to the generic, machine representation of the aesthetics of the future), as well as narrative scenarios and a cinematic “mondo” soundtrack, brings the utopian atmosphere of such futures.

Throughout history, we have witnessed a whole range of utopian projects, from prototypes of self-sufficient spaceships, submarines, alien colonies to high-tech artificial ecosystems that eventually ended up as elitist oases, disappearing in new inequalities created within such closed and seemingly autonomous environments. The Homo Aquaticus: HABITAT ST21 shares with such projects an experimental character and a willingness to radically transform ways of life, but at the same time is based on openness, participation and locality. By speculating on the potential departure of the inhabitants of the city to the sea, we are also speculating on the possible creation of a new community, a community that would retain part of the almost lost identity of the city, but also build a new, specific, local identity of the future. This community is not independent, it is not self-sufficient, it is seasonal, exists during the summer, it is connected to the real world, to the global capitalist economic system in which we live. It has no intention of separating and isolating itself, it is actually just a necessary form of local resilience, an attempt to survive within global constellations that reflect on this part of the world, the Adriatic coast.

The project raises several fundamental questions about the possibilities and ways of retaining local identity and diversity in the context of recent and upcoming global crises and disasters. First of all, the question of the possibilities of building new places of community resilience, not as places of new utopian beginnings, but as places of transition from the present to new and different societies, communities of hope and communities of the future. A number of specific questions were also imposed, from those related to the daily diet of residents, to questions about possible infrastructure systems, to what legal and regulatory concepts of such a collective practice would allow these areas to be treated exclusively as a common good. These issues reflect the current global discussions on the ownership of the seabed, questioning the ways of regulating these new areas of human interest for the purpose of preventing new privatizations and further uncontrolled exploitation.

Through the process of research, speculation and design, it was important to us, as the residents of a city “devoured” by tourism and threatened by accelerated climate change, to personally understand and analyse the system in which we live and the processes that occur within it. With the aim of transferring the methods, tools and techniques we understand, develop and use, to the local community, as a contribution to possible transformative changes in society. As we look at models, blueprints and “photos”, as we read speculative newspapers and listen to the soundtrack of the underwater world, we see a new utopia in front of us, and perhaps we see traces of a new hope for the city, a place where the old identities intertwine and new identities of the city are built. Paradoxically, such a utopia is at the same time a complete dystopia, an image of the collapse of the city under touristification and climate change. We see a community that has had the privilege of living in one of the “Pearls of the Mediterranean” or, as the people of Split themselves used to call it, in the “Mediterranean Flower“, which seeks its last salvation in claustrophobic underwater habitats and their dark corridors. 

Musem of Fine Arts, Split, 5/10 – 31/10/2023

Ivica Mitrović & Oleg Šuran

Production: Arts Academy, University of Split

Sound: Niko Mihaljević / Soft Temple II

Speculative newspapers: Kristina Tešija

Collaborators: Department of Naval Architecture (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture) and Mladen Šolić (Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries)

Funded by the Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Croatia and the City of Split.