Powerful statements, captions, song lyrics, dictionary definitions, and phonetic spellings run across the screen of Barbadian-Scot artist Alberta Whittle’s filmwork, alongside audio clips for pronunciations and a pulsating soundtrack which seems to take the sharp clacking of typewriter keys and crunching factory machinery as its base. Whittle’s 2019 filmwork What Sound Does the Blk Atlantic Make? departed from a visit to the archives of the North British Rubber Company, founded in Edinburgh in 1856 by American businessmen Henry Lee Norris and Spencer Thomas Parmelee. During early explorations of the material held in the company’s archives in the Ewart Library, in Dumfries, Scotland, slippages in terminology surrounding the materials under explorations became apparent—between Scotland and Barbados, and over the course of time.
Gutta-percha is a latex distinct from natural rubber and—in some applications, pre-dating it—made with the sap taken from plants within the Sapotaceae family. Gutta-percha was used during the Victorian era for a wide range of purposes, from insulating telecommunications cabling, golf ball production, and in medical instruments.
The most well-known of all the products produced by the North British Rubber Company was the wellington boot, of which the factory produced 1,185,036 pairs of boots for the British Army during World War I. For the artist, the phrase was familiar but held a different meaning—that of the slingshot, with its crucial “sling” made of a rubber-like substance.
In etymological terms, “translation” is derived from the Old French translater and Latin translatus, meaning both to “remove from one place to another” and “to turn from one language to another.” Its use in English replaced the Old English awendan, from wendan, meaning “to turn, direct.” In a similar vein, the etymology of “transmutation” stems from the Latin transmutare, to “change from one condition to another.” The synergy between these roots appear to suggest firstly that translation also happens in a dimension encountering space and place, and secondly that rather than being a direct switch, that the process requires configuration and re-routing. The disjuncture and familiarity experienced by the artist upon hearing the phrase “gutta-percha” brings to mind the extended foreword to the English edition of Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation” by translator Betsy Wing. She notes that alongside Creole and the French of his education and empowerment in Martinique, that he also wrote in a “French different from the so-called standard French of the Métropole: one made supple by Creole, one ready to incorporate aIl the aspects of its formation, one cognizant of the history of the Antillean people and ready to imagine for them both past and future,” for which she gives “héler” and “roidissement” as examples.1 The context of the im/possibilities of translation which she describes also highlights the potential in offering up historical reminders via the particularities and archaisms of Glissant’s vocabulary (to use the phrasing employed by Wing). In a similar fashion, for Whittle to highlight the varied means of gutta-percha in use, and especially the divergence between these in Scotland and Barbados, is, as Wing notes, a “tooling of the past to serve the present.”2 Glasgow, and more broadly Scotland’s, historical entanglement in the Triangular Trade has been under much review over the last decade, contending with prior collective amnesia despite glaringly obvious architectural clues, and Whittle’s work has been a significant voice within this conversation.
Whittle’s work was filmed in part within the North British Rubber Company archives, surrounded by documents and objects relating to their former Edinburgh factory site, singing the mournful lyrics of African-American blues, jazz, and folk singer Odetta Holmes’s song “Deep Blue Sea.” A prominent activist, Odetta was frequently referred to as “the voice of the Civil Rights movement.” For the artist, the historic production at the site of these materials (rubber, latex, gutta-percha, and Wellington boots) is wholly intertwined with capitalism, language, sound, race, and migration—with race historically and in the present-day rendering certain people collateral. The artist responds both to the present day Windrush scandal, and historically to the utilization of Black military regiments in World War I and World War II. 2019, the year of the film’s production, marked the 100th anniversary of Glasgow’s Broomielaw Race Riot of 1919, which saw angry mobs attack African sailors with violent outcomes over unemployment and wage competitions fears. Whittle’s use of her own body within her work is almost omnipresent; its presence, however, is unlike the direct messages which roll out on the screens as we encounter her videoworks. Her body transcends a single reading, through dress, nudity, blue body paint, transcending into the digital realm of an avatar, or as the water spirit Mami Wata. In doing so, the artist asks us to simultaneously read, understand, and digest multiple signals, emanating Glissant’s opacity in image form.
1. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010), xvi- xvii
2. Ibid, xvii