Orthodromy, feminine, noun
— published in: On drifting (2020)
— author: Ann Epoudry, artist-researcher, France

Ann Epoudry

Orthodromy is a term derived from the Greek orthodromeîn, meaning to run in a straight line. It defines the shortest route a ship can take to get from one point to another. This route follows the arc of the globe. On the sea, free of geographical obstacles, the orthodrome is theoretically the most simple route.

On the widest part of the Mediterranean, from Montfalcone in Italy to Marsa El Brega in Libya, from the northern point located at about 45°79’38”N-13°54’60”E to the southern confines determined at about 30°27’14”N-19°19’48”E, this route measures 1600 km, nearly 864 nautical miles.
A possible orthodrome.

Navigation on the Mediterranean, even on ” uncertain waves ” 1, played a primordial role for all the societies that populated its shores, as geography books have long stated. “Without this connecting sea (…) ; without
this great mediating agent (…) which carries the boats and distributes the wealth, that connects peoples with each other, (…) we would have remained in primitive barbarism” 2. The Mediterranean “has always been the great road of the civilization it brought to its residents” 3. From Nador to Marseille, from Alicante to Algiers, from Haifa to Syracuse. Onboard triremes, dromonds, cogs, carracks, cargo ships, ferries…Orthodromy, already. Today, the crossing of this sea has become a last resort for thousands of people seeking to flee the hardships they face in their own countries, the “only option available to those demanding refuge” 4.

In the media, often by way of garish map displays, these maritime routes are represented by simple arrows drawn from a few coastal towns in Morocco or Libya, for example, vaguely situated on the Mediterranean coast. These laconic expressions, denounced by a few geographers 5, give the false impression of a flow that is at once easy, continuous and invasive.

Yet, the Mediterranean sea is now6 “a limit (…), as impassable as a wall” . Perhaps it deserves, more than ever,
the name “tear”, used by the geographer Max Sorre in 1934, which recalls the violent process of its geological formation, through “cuts, dislocation, stretching, great subsidence, tearing, stretching, tightening and other accidents” 7. It was born through a tormented history which still continues. For, from now on, simply crossing the “medius terrae”, the sea in the middle, “between two places, (…) intermediate, that is also to say intervening” 8, no longer seems possible. The road necessarily begins in insurmountable consular meanderings.

The routes thus thwarted have become difficult, laborious, tortuous, as rendered visible in the performance Sillage Oujda/ Melilla (2012) by Marcos Avila Forero, in which the artist and other men pulled a cayuco, a traditional Senegalese fishing vessel, transformed into a precarious craft by migrants. They travelled the one hundred and fifty kilometers that separate Oujda in Morocco, on the Algerian border, from the Spanish enclave of Melilla, the starting point for exiles towards the Spanish coasts. The heavy cayuco they dragged was made of plaster and progressively disintegrated, tracing a white line along the way, a reminder of the painful wear and tear of such journey, the fragility of such means, and the reality of these clandestine journeys.

The exiles have to undertake their perilous journey, “most often at the instigation of someone, (…) on a boat that has been there by chance or [expected] for a long time, armed with improvised equipment or gathered together over a long period of time” 9, the writer Predrag Matvejevitche described clairvoyantly in 1987. “The uncertain waves” Reclus defined, -which, in his installation Road to exile (2008), the visual artist Barthélémy Toguo transforms into unstable, moving, rolling glass bottles, on top of which he has installed his boat overloaded with multicolored bundles of fabric, on the edge of capsizing,- become a frightening danger for all those who risk it. These reckless sailors “find themselves (…) crammed into old cargo ships or makeshift boats, on boats with erased names that do not wait long before sinking to the bottom of the sea” 10.

In order to produce the film Harragas (2011), whose title refers to those who burn their papers to avoid being sent back to their country of origin, the artist Bruno Boudjelal collected videos filmed by these illegal travelers. Captured on the spot, with their mobile phones, sometimes as selfies, these images give a glimpse of men on an agitated and sometimes stormy sea, in a precarious boat, unfit to ensure the success of such a journey. There are no topographical or geographical landmarks other than the presence of water, which forms an infinite horizon in each shot.

Shipwrecks, deflated rubber dinghies floating between two waters, wooden ships equipped with derisory oars, rusty trawlers in distress, in which whole families are crowded together. These visions are sadly familiar
to us. They show, in a reductive and focused way, shipwrecked people adrift in the terrible and degrading moment of their interception 11, as denounced by the video artist Ursula Biemann. These images, always the same, unfortunately belong to a media iconography that is plethoric, collective and broadcasted in a perpetual loop. They “circulate indefinitely and eventually lose all reference to their context (…), no longer referring to a specific event ” 12. Images, like boats, navigate from site to site. Without anchorage, without reference, information wanders and gets lost.

Meaning becomes diluted and no longer reaches us. These depersonalized, decontextualized images no longer reach their goal.

The works Sillage Oujda/Melilla, Road to exile, and Harragas tell the same story, of course. They also tell us about these trying and hazardous journeys. But, by mixing an undeniable poetry of the absurd, Marcos Avila Forero’s performance intrigues us. Barthélémy Toguo’s installation imposes itself on us by its presence that is at the same time colorful, massive and uncertain. And, by exhibiting the short films of the Harragas, initially sent to their relatives on social networks, Bruno Boudjelal brings us, the spectators, into their intimate exchange. He puts us on their ‘friends’ lists. We are subjugated. This is what ensures the strength and particularity of these works.

[1] Jacques Élisée Reclus, Nouvelle géographie universelle: la terre et les hommes.T I, Paris, Hachette, 1875, chap III.

[2] نفس المرجع

[3] Max Sorre, in Vidal de la Blache, Paul (dir), Lucien (dir.), Géographie Universelle. «Méditerranée. Péninsules méditerranéennes ». Première partie, Vol. VII, Librairie Armand Colin, 1934, p 54.

[4] Fabienne Brugère, Guillaume Le Blanc, La fin de l’hospitalité, Flammarion, 2018, p 39.

[5] Lucie Bacon, « Cartographier les mouvements migratoires », Revue européenne des migrations internationales, 32. vol. 32-no3 et 4, 2016, p 185–214 https://doi.org/10.4000/remi.8249.

[6] Fabienne Brugère et Guillaume Le Blanc, La fin de l’hospitalité, op. cit., p 37.

[7] Max Sorre, in Vidal de la Blache, Paul (dir), Lucien (dir.), Géographie Universelle. «Méditerranée. Péninsules méditerranéennes ». op.cit., p 9 et 10.

[8] Florence Deprest, « L’invention géographique de la Méditerranée : éléments de réflexion », L’Espace géographique, tome 31.1, 2002, p 73–92.

[9] Predrag Matvejevitch, Bréviaire méditerranéen, Paris, Fayard, [1987] 1992, p 77.

[10] Fabienne Brugère et Guillaume Le Blanc, La fin de l’hospitalité, op. cit., p 37.

[11] Ursula Biemann, Sahara Chronicle–Agadez, WORLD OF MATTER, http://worldofmatter.net/desert-truck-terminal-i#path=sahara-chroni- cle-agadez-0.

[12] Charles Heller et Lorenzo Pezzani, « Images Flottantes, Traces Liquides, La Perturbation Du Régime Esthétique de La Frontière Maritime de l’UE », AntiAtlas Journal #2, 2017, https://www.antiatlas-journal.net/02-images-flottantes-trac- es-liquides-la-perturbation-du-regime-estheti- que-de-la-frontiere-maritime-de-lue/.