Errantry, 2021. Two-Channel HD Video with Audio. Duration: 11 mins.

Fall 23 - Memories

Simon Benjamin


There is something about your being that says “maritime.” When did your relationship to the ocean begin? And how do you see yourself in relation to the ocean?

As a child, I have fond memories of visiting the sea with my family. We would take beach trips to Hellshire, a fishing village and public beach, just outside of Kingston, where I grew up. I distinctly remember the transition from the bustling city to a dry and arid landscape, which led us to a beach with crystal blue waters beyond the makeshift zinc sheds of the seafood vendors in front of the sand dunes. As a teenager, going to Lime Cay, a small island off the coast of Port Royal, was a weekly ritual for me. Even after leaving Jamaica to study in New York, I continued to find my way back to the sea. I started surfing in the Rockaways in Queens and further out in Long Island. My lifelong connection to the sea is constantly evolving and changing over time, teaching me new things and connecting me to new places.

In an interview for BOMB there was mention of the contentious relationship that many Jamaicans have with the sea. Why do you think that is?

The contention lies in that many people in Jamaica, who are mostly of African descent are non-swimmers and are rightfully fearful of the sea. In West African life, where many Jamaicans are believed to come from, swimming and aquatic culture were highly valued. Despite the perilous transatlantic journey endured by the enslaved, they likely brought with them an extensive understanding of swimming, diving, and canoeing, as well as a deep spiritual reverence for the power of fresh and salt waterways. It seems as if there has been a slippage of the memory of this significant ancestral knowledge. A lack of access to safe swimming places likely has contributed significantly to this forgetting. However, with the growing visibility of Black surfers, swimmers, and divers, I am optimistic that we are on a journey of rediscovering and reconnecting with this knowledge.

The name of the film is born of the idea of errantry from Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant’s book Poetics of Relation.  Errantry  is described as “sacred wanderings.” What about this idea resonates with you? How does it relate to the film?

I was reading Glissant while I was in Jamaica making the film, doing my best to unpack some of his ideas, his concept of errantry among them. I started with the literal meaning of the word, which has to do with wandering, or chivalrous adventure, which I thought could be mapped directly to the occupation of a fisherman. 

I made the connection with Tommy’s Chinese and African heritage to the notion of errantry, which Gilssant suggests as a way of navigating multiple cultures as a way of being. Mixed heritages such as Tommy’s are common in the Caribbean, something many people outside of the region don't know. The nuances of culture can get flattened in the presentation of the islands of the Caribbean as a tropical paradise for tourist consumption. Working with Tommy on the film presented an opportunity to complicate the narrative of identity to audiences outside of Jamaica, where the film was first being shown. I also loved that the errantry felt open enough to multiple interpretations, so the viewer could place themselves in relation to the experience of the work. 

The pandemic was the catalyst for your return to Jamaica and retreat to Treasure Beach. While there you met Tommy Wong, the fisherman and now friends, who is featured in the film. Can you tell us how you met Tommy and how/why he became the subject of the film? What did you find most compelling about his stories?

I met Tommy by chance after finding a beautiful carved wooden stick with a piece of bicycle tire wrapped around the top of it with wire and a fishing line, while doing a daily walk along the coastline. It was very thoughtfully crafted and just beautiful as an object. Seeing someone further down the empty coastline, I approached a man with wild silver hair and a bushy beard, who was leaning on a fishing canoe, gazing out to the sky, and asked if he knew what the object was. He replied casually that he had made it, and it was an improvised “outrigger pin” that he used in his trade as a fisherman. After giving me a demo of how the tool worked, we had a good conversation. He told me he was also a painter and he invited me to come by another time for a coffee to see  his work at his home which was just behind us on the beach. I ended up spending a lot of time at Tommy’s home having very long, open conversations, or “reasonings” that covered any and everything, usually over coffee, while he smoked Craven “A” cigarettes. 

After that first meeting Tommy, I knew I wanted to work with him in some way. I love the cadence of his voice and the cool effortlessness about him. After a few visits I asked if we could record our conversations, and he agreed. Those months of conversations were edited to create a loose narrative and soundscape that the film was built on. Sometime after getting to know each other, Tommy invited me to go out on his canoe to see what his work at sea was like, so I brought my camera, which I usually had with me. We also recorded some footage where he played a “fisherman character” in a future, where there was no fish. Tommy improvised responses to my prompts, and those became a part of the film. The whole thing unfolded naturally, starting loosely and then becoming a little more structured as we went along. 

How has your time with Tommy altered the way you experience the ocean and see the world?

Tommy gently guided me to see beyond the immediacy of what's visible from the shore, which opened up a richer experience and deeper engagement with the ocean than I had before.  I will always be grateful for that.  

I was moved on many occasions by Tommy’s spirit of generosity and kindness. Tommy is unwaveringly giving with his time and knowledge. Generous to his family and the people in his community. Over the years he has spent quite a bit of time mentoring younger fishermen along with caring  and supporting his family. He sent all of his children to university on his wages as a fisherman. He has been incredibly generous with me, who at first was a stranger, and now a friend. This way of being and moving through the world is something I admire and aspire to. 

Climate change is an important part of this piece. Can you share how this relates to the idea of memory and the detritus that people leave behind whether physical or philosophical?

A major motivation behind this project was wanting a firsthand experience of how climate change was unfolding, on the ground or at sea in Jamaica. Good fishermen are attuned to the slightest changes in the weather and their surroundings, as oversights can be deadly. For Tommy, the changes in the marine environment have not gone unnoticed. He is able to pinpoint how changes in once-reliable weather patterns have altered the migratory patterns of fish stock and in turn fishing to more a harmful occupation that put additional pressure on an already fragile marine ecosystem. We also discussed how theft, novice fishermen enabled with technology, as well as the pervasiveness of lower quality materials have increased the amount of discarded or lost, or unretrieved fishing gear litters the ocean floor creating a phenomenon known as ghost fishing, where fishing gear deemed no longer viable continue to trap and ensnare marine life. I was reading Stuart Hall’s memoir Familiar Stranger while I was making the film and could see the parallel between ghost fishing and Stuart Hall’s description of the way colonialism continues to perpetuate, even as it has been declared a thing of the past. The Sisyphean task of pulling on the rope to retrieve the fish trap in the film's first channel could represent a similar sense of tension. 

What is one of the most important ideas you’d like viewers to consider while watching the film?

I hope the work presents a more complex representation of the Caribbean outside of the notions of paradise, while recognizing the beauty and depth of the people and the landscape. 

Three Books I was reading at the time.

Poetics of Relation – Édouard Glissant

Familiar Stranger – Stuart Hall

A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None - Kathryn Yusoff

Simon Benjamin is a Jamaican multi-disciplinary artist and filmmaker based in New York whose practice considers how the past ripples into the present in unexpected ways. Using the sea and coastal space as frameworks, his current work explores how lesser-known histories and colonial legacies impact our present and contribute to an interconnected future. His work has been included in exhibitions and screening internationally, including Kaunas Biennial, Lithuania (2023), Baxter St. CCNY, New York NY (2023); documenta 15, Kassel, Germany (2022); Kingston Biennial, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica (2022); Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Governor’s Island, NY; Third Horizon film Festival, Miami, FL (2022); trinidad+tobago film festival, Trinidad and Tobago (2021); NYU Gallatin at Governors Island, New York, NY (2021); The 92nd St. Y, New York, NY (2020); Hunter East Harlem Gallery, New York, NY (2019); the Ghetto Biennial, Port Au Prince, Haiti (2018); Jamaica Biennial, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica (2017); New Local Space, (NLS) Kingston (2016); and Columbia University, New York, NY (2016).