Mass Culture Workshop, April 19: Nat Modlin, “Shipwreck, Surveillance, Surface Reading”

Dear all,

Please join us for the fourth Mass Culture Workshop of the spring quarter with Nat Modlin, next Friday, April 19! Details below.

The pre-circulated paper will be shared through the Mass Culture listserv.

Your 2023–24 Mass Cult coordinators,

Joel and Hugo


Shipwreck, Surveillance, Surface Reading: The Spectral Surfaces of Purple Sea (2020)

Nat Modlin, PhD Student, Germanic Studies and Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago

Respondent: Allyson Nadia Field, Associate Professor, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago

April 19, 2024, 11 AM–12:30 PM, in Cobb 311

The Syrian filmmaker Amel Alzakout’s experimental documentary Purple Sea (2020) presents 67 minutes of real-time footage of a shipwreck she experienced during the “long summer of migration” in 2015, when over a million refugees attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach the European Union. While previous scholarship has emphasized the immersive, embodied, and subjective aesthetic experience of Purple Sea, thus contrasting Alzakout’s film against Forensic Architecture’s political investigation into the same incident, I argue that the underwater position of the camera in Purple Sea actually denies viewer identification and instead raises questions about media, environment, and power. Drawing on studies of optical media, surveillance, oceanic spaces, and necropower, this paper addresses questions of (1) surveillance and visual evidence, (2) dynamic motion between Alzakout’s body, the camera, and the liquid environment, and (3) the material and imaginary distinction between surface and depth. Here, I draw on debates around “surface reading” and the question of whether power can be critiqued at the “surface” of the image. To draw these strands together, I argue that Purple Sea challenges viewers to remain on the “spectral surface” of the sea, a three-dimensional, dynamic space in which spectators are confronted by the specters of violence and the spectrum of (in)visibility.

Nat Modlin (they/them) is a joint PhD student in the departments of Germanic Studies and Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Chicago. Their work is situated at the intersection of environmental humanities and German film & media studies. They are interested in how turning to “blue media” – German films and media about aquatic and oceanic spaces – can shift how we think about German ecological thought. Nat holds an MA in Germanic Studies from the University of Chicago and a BA in Comparative Literature from Reed College. Their research has been supported by fellowships at the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights (2023–24) and Fulbright Austria (2019–20). They have also studied at the University of Oxford and Universität Tübingen. Their literary translations and criticism have been published in TRANSIT: A Journal of Travel, Migration and Multilingualism in the German-speaking World and in Chicago Review.

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