Philadelphia-based artist John Peña began his creative project entitled “Letters to the Ocean” in 2003. Every day, he wrote a letter to the ocean, put the letter in an envelope, sealed it, addressed it, wrote his own address on the top left-hand corner of the envelope, pasted a stamp on it, and put it in the mail. The letters were returned by the post office, with various official “return to sender” stamps or notes to the effect that “no such place exists.” One envelope was returned with a note saying: “The ocean is no longer accepting mail.” John Peña has over 3000 returned letters, which he has exhibited in various shows and galleries.
Intriguingly, all the letters identify a single location as their intended destination. Every one of them is addressed to: “The Ocean, 5 miles S Westport, Grayland, WA 98547.” When I asked John about this, he wrote: “I always send it to the same place. I have considered sending it elsewhere but I really like the idea that the ocean is so vast and ubiquitous that if I send a letter to one part of its body, it’ll eventually hear about it.” He later added: “Also, I came up with it because it is near a nice little spot I used to camp out near the beach.”
John’s image of the ocean as a vast, ubiquitous, and above all fully networked body is not only apt but of increasingly urgent consequence. The vastness of the ocean is rapidly moving, in human consciousness, from the status of an empty cliché to the basis of a statistically verifiable planetary emergency. As the landmasses we inhabit reveal their dependence on and vulnerability to oceanic conditions—reminding us, as Thoreau said long ago, “that the earth is not continent but insular” we awaken to the realization that our star-gazing species knows much more—and spends much more on knowing—about outer space than about the ocean. As James Nestor writes, “If you compare the ocean to a human body, the current exploration of the ocean is the equivalent of snapping a photograph of a finger to figure out how our bodies work.”
Yet the ocean is speaking to us loud and clear, with superstorms and tsunamis and bleached coral reefs, apparently responding to the “messages” we’ve been sending, in the form of oil spills, toxic dumping, overfishing, and islands of plastic waste the size of Texas (the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). One imaginative response is to speak for the ocean, imagine what it’s saying to us. A recent public service video has the ocean scarily scolding us in the stern voice of Harrison Ford. John Peña’s approach is the opposite: he addresses the ocean, privately, incessantly. “Ocean Oration” is located somewhere in between these two contrasting options. It has us imagine ourselves receiving messages from the ocean, but the messages are not as loud and clear as the one we heard from Ocean Harrison. Rather, they are enigmatic, intriguing, promising messages. They draw us towards a new language: an emerging system of signs, rhythms, and feelings. As we listen and try to decode the messages, they offer each one of us unforeseen gifts.