Seth Cooke’s ‘Triangular Trade’ is a compelling examination of colonialism, slavery, migration, place and climate change, in which sound, image and text are intertwined to engrossing and sometimes confounding effect. Initially commissioned as a sonic accompaniment to John Akomfrah’s video work ‘Vertigo Sea’ in 2016, Cooke expanded ‘Triangular Trade’ for its physical release on the excellent Suppedaneum label, augmenting his original composition with a set of text collages and a specially-created mixtape available online.
The title is a reference to the economic infrastructure enabling the transatlantic slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries, and Cooke’s work is a steady unpicking of the post-colonial delusions around this tragedy that still blinker the British psyche. The UK was a key hub for a network that reached from West Africa to the Americas and across the Atlantic, one which provided essential economic fuel for British colonial power even as it displaced and killed millions of African people, an upheaval whose results are still felt today. ‘Triangular Trade’ gains additional power by homing in on Bristol – Cooke’s base and the home of the Arnolfini gallery, who first commissioned this piece – as a city that benefited from slavery while repressing the grim reality of its complicity in that activity.
Cooke’s full-spectrum approach results in an artwork that is rich and detailed, but one which yields its secrets only gradually. The methodology is considered and non-literal: his composition, utilizing shells sourced from Ghanaian beaches, reconstituted samples and Cooke’s trademark no-input field recording, is abstract and open. The textual interventions add layers of meaning without resorting to mere explication, and the mixtape reinserts black diasporic voices into the story. But that’s just the start. Within this trio of formats, there are further layers of significance – the triangle, in particular, is an organizing principle throughout, enabling Cooke to create a hermetic web of allusion in which even the smallest component has a specific role to play.
Seen this way, ‘Triangular Trade’ is at once a self-enclosed system and an edgeless meditation whose many strands merge seamlessly into the complex weave of history. Yet there are plenty of moments of delight, too. Cooke’s eight collages have a fanzine obsessive’s zing in their pile-on of Bristolian local history, news articles and snippets of ruffneck chat. The mixtape is great, cutting bumpy golden-age flow against Manc chancers and splifftastic West Country rumbles.
At the risk of privileging one element in an intricate net, it is Cooke’s sound-art composition that casts the most profound spell. The opening chorale of bowed shells is a cascade of plaintive and fragile whines, part-prayer, part-lament. Its still, stark power transports us from our everyday bustle into an alternative temporality, one that’s intent on creating an ahistorical sound world while foregrounding the political implications of sound-making. The piece’s final stretch, in contrast, pulls us back into the world, slowly reverting a sample of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ‘Planetary Citizen’ from a gleaming drone into the distinctive shriek that provides the engine for Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. While Cooke’s method for reanimating the fragment is technically intricate and thematically precise, the slow-motion epiphany it delivers is pure rave joy.
My experience of circling around ‘Triangular Trade’ these past few months is, in some ways, similar to that of encountering ‘Vertigo Sea’ or other of Akomfrah’s multi-channel video works for the first time. Cooke and Akomfrah’s pieces share common preoccupations – migration, colonial history, climate change – but, more importantly, both require an acceptance of the impossibility of processing them in a single instance. Just as you can’t watch the multiple screens of ‘Vertigo Sea’ at the same time without missing something, the onion-like layers of ‘Triangular Trade’ resist easy assimilation.
And, although you could spend a considerable amount of time listing out the different interacting elements of ‘Triangular Trade’, the synergistic pulse that arises from these components working in concert would still evade articulation. (In any case, Cooke does a pretty amazing job of laying it all out in this interview. ) Like all superior works of art, ‘Triangular Trade’ revels in its plenitude even at its most spare and tragic moments. It’s not so much haunted by migratory ghosts – both historic and contemporary – as marking out a space within which these voices can be acknowledged and remembered. As such, it is both subtle and revelatory.