When Lotte Geeven released two floating robots into opposite sides of the Atlantic last fall, she questioned the probability of them meeting within such a tremendous space and hoped to learn about the ocean by following their paths. “The moment the two robots touch the water,” she wrote, “the project's outcome is entirely ruled by the forces of nature.”
Four months into the project, what she’s learned instead, and perhaps knew all along, is that oceans will do what they want—and so will humans. On top of the vicissitudes of ocean currents, Geeven can now add the denizens of a sleepy North African port town to her artwork’s improbable story.
127109 & 127110 project website
I reported on 127109 & 127110 last September, when Geeven released the eponymous sensory robots—spherical buoy-like objects with submerged GPS sensors—into the Gulf Stream and Canary Current, some 7,000km apart. Collaborating with oceanographers from four marine institutes, Geeven chose the times and locations of their deployment to give her robots the best possible chance of reuniting in a year’s time in the center of the Atlantic, carried passively by the opposing currents.
Anyone who’s been tracking the robots in real time on the project website will have a sense of the epic scope—and the seeming futility—of this challenge. Traveling hundreds of miles, though very much still near their respective coasts, 127109 and 127110 have been thrown off course by tropical storms, dragged in mysterious and short-lived straight lines, and stuck twirling in a Bermuda Triangle holding pattern. Nevertheless, they were generally making progress until December, when 127109 was pulled in a direct line off the coast of Morocco into the small port town of Asilah, about 31 km from Tangier.
Geeven was in Chongqing, China, working on a related project when she realized, to her horror, that 127109 was headed aground. She made immediate plans to travel to Morocco with filmmaker Heidi Vogels to learn what happened and hopefully recover the missing art object.
Easier said than done. 127109 is equipped with GPS sensors—a dream for anyone with a target gone AWOL—but four days before Geeven and Vogels’ arrival, the signal went dead. 127109 was truly lost. It might have been destroyed, dismantled, or—best-case scenario—perhaps it had been stationary long enough that it had simply gone into standby mode.
The fisherman / lucky finder with 127109
What they ultimately found, after three days of inquiries, disheartening speculation, and evasive answers, was the story of a local fisherman. He’d had an unproductive day at sea and was about to head home when his radar detected something. He discovered what looked like a buoy and beneath it, thrashing around in the net of the sensory devices, were dozens of fish. The “buoy” returned to shore with him, where it disappeared.
What did he and the people of Asilah think of the project in which they’d unwittingly picked up supporting roles? Receptive, it seems: Geeven’s luck in finding 127109 changed only once they'd understood it as an artwork. Language was a huge barrier; initially people thought she represented a foreign scientific agency, and she made little progress with Asilah residents and local authorities. Then she remembered a French translation of a press release she had describing the artwork. When she handed it over to the police chief to clarify her mission he was touched by the artwork’s gesture—mais c'est magnifique… c'est poetry!—and the possibility of the robots’ reunion. He wasn’t the only one: the fisherman who found 127109 had initially hidden it and was reluctant to come forward, but he ultimately understood the project, telling Geeven it was the will of Allah that he had found it and could return it to her.
Geeven with the found 127109 outside of the police bureau
Around the time the robots were deployed Geeven said, “I am interested in the chance of an encounter, but also in a possible failure.” What does this terrestrial detour mean for an ostensibly ocean-based artwork? “The abstraction of the journey has been broken by an epic intervention,” she says, and this “changes everything.” 127109 & 127110 started with humans as mere observers, but “suddenly it was personal and I was part of a work. Literally.”
Geeven’s work has always dealt with mapping, storytelling, the blending of subjectivity, fact, and fiction. “Creating a work,” she says, “for me is like writing fiction in reality.” Asilah became a sort of improvisational theatre onto which the story of 127109 played out, its occupants the unsuspecting cast in this staged reality. The fisherman’s story about how he found the artwork was fantastical and absurd “but I choose to believe him. Just like me he is a storyteller; I came all the way to Asilah to meet another storyteller.”
Fishermen in Asilah
The errant robot’s diversion raises a lot of questions, many at the intersection of art and science. “Is there coincidence? Is there such a thing as destiny?” Geeven asks. Are the odds any greater that the two robots meet in the middle of the ocean, or that a lone fisherman comes across one of them and brings it ashore? What does this intervention say about the autonomy of “nature” in an epoch in which humans have an ever-increasing effect on the natural world?
Geeven plans to make an art documentary with this, and other footage from the duration of the project. 127109’s journey doesn’t end here. An American research vessel will be stopping by Asilah to pick it up and place it back on track—with lots of new followers, keenly watching its progress across the Atlantic. In the course of its wayward travels 127109—once an agent for visualizing the force of nature—has become “almost mythical. It now has a place in the collective consciousness of a Moroccan harbor city.”
(Image at top: Asilah fishermen with 127109; All photographs: Heidi Vogels; Courtesy of Lotte Geeven and Heidi Vogels)