3 Apr 2013

Submerged (Drowned Lands)

Chew Valley Lake, July 2013
Submerged (Drowned and Dammed Lands)

[aka The Almanac of the Submerged]

Environmental artist Antony Lyons is working with others, including Professor Steve Poole (UWE-Bristol/Regional History Centre, Bristol) on an Arts Council England funded initiative, involving creative fieldwork, community conversations/voices and research at a number of locations. The first phase of the project runs from Spring 2013 to late 2014.

The approach involves a creative and poetic response to a variety of landscape and cultural settings that are affected by changing water-levels. The unifying theme is that the waters come, the waters inexorably rise. Then everything is changed (and the waters recede...)

Submerged (Drowned Lands) will be attentive to local stories and circumstances, but also engage with panoramic themes of sea-level rise, vital/ecological processes, environmental justice and landscape heritage/history. It is about complex relationships to submerged/defended places, involving both loss and opportunity.

The approach weaves together artistic research threads and stories to come up with a series of site-specific exhibitions that will present maps, sounds, multiple voices and film.

Initially, the Severn Estuary coast (including connected landscapes such as the Somerset & Avonmouth Levels) are the main field areas - situations of living on the edge. Over time, other sites will be part of the evolving creative exploration.

Severn Estuary/Somerset Levels:  These are sites of significant threat and change (in terms of flooding, farming, habitats, water quality, siltation, fish species and shipping.) A key issue is the controversial Severn Estuary Barrage which, in 2012, resurfaced as a major infrastructure development proposal. The Severn Barrage was first proposed as an engineering project in 1921. Looking further back, much of the low-lying lands bordering the Severn were seasonally flooded by the river/estuary. However, since Roman times they have been progressively drained and protected from sea and river flooding. 

The Regional History Centre is based in Bristol, England. It is partnering Lyons at two sites: the Severn Estuary Coast/Somerset Levels and Chew Valley Lake.

The project also has other partners including the University of Birmingham and the PLaCE Research Network. More detail on the evolving, morphing plan and possibilities will be posted on the blog over the coming months. The project brings together - as a creative geographical investigation - scenarios of slowly rising coastal waters, with the submergence of lands by constructed dams/reservoirs. (Locally, the proposed Severn Barrage potentially straddles these two situations). 

The approach weaves together these threads, whilst being founded on a set of site-specific reference points or contexts - most of which I have already encountered in the course of previous creative research projects.
  • Deep-Time and Drowned Lands, and the periodic erasure of 'everything' by the sea (and how this idea permeates many ancient human stories and myths such as the Old Testament  and the Epic of Gilgamesh); Doggerland is a specific instance of such a pre-historic happening, which is now undergoing archaeological investigation. This thread will explore aspects of the enduring human psychological preoccupation with submerged lands, villages and other places.
  • Contemporary anthropogenic acceleration of sea-level rise (including the social repercussions and responses to risk and loss); The Severn Estuary coast (and connected landscapes/waterways, such as the River Parrett and Somerset & Avonmouth Levels) are the primary reference points here - an example of living on the edge.
  • Submergence (and re-emergence) of a different kind - within 'dammed landscapes'; reservoir creation, with its social displacement, pain of loss and issues of environmental justice. Chew Valley Lake, Alqueva Dam (Portugal) and sections of the Colorado River are the specific zones of interest for this strand (Previously I have carried out fieldwork at these latter two sites; it may be possible to revisit them in a future phase of the Submerged (Drowned Lands) project).
  • 'Conversations with Water', in the sense of water (and underwater), embodying the human unconscious. In this thread, there will be a delving into some mysterious relationships with lakes, rivers and the sea. On the Atlantic fringe of Europe, there is a long, pre-Christian, tradition of veneration of water bodies, of offerings, sacrifices, rituals. This exploration of the sacred nature of water will touch on the transformative, magical protective and elemental aspects of the substance. The sacred lake of Lough Gur in Ireland is the main representative site, along with the lost land of Lyonesse (Cornwall).
Submerged (Drowned Lands) will juxtapose the tendency towards reductionist control and domination of environmental forces and 'resources' (rivers, tides, floods etc), with a more accommodating, rhyzomic and respectful appreciation of aquatic and cultural dynamics, interactions and dependencies. For this latter view, I am tempted to resurrect a term I encountered a few years ago when walking in the footsteps of the Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge - namely 'esemplastic' (meaning 'the unifying power of a poetic imagination'). Whilst dwelling on Greek philosophical concepts, there is maybe also room here for an amalgam of 'chronos' and 'kairos' - the idea of 'clock time/measured time' an that of  'meaningful time' (or moments in time that may be epiphanies)?

Severn Estuary/Somerset Levels: The Estuary acts as a counterpoint to Chew Valley, insofar as it is a possible future dammed/inundated landscape, and an appealing site for conjecture and speculation. This is a coastal landscape, with a vast connected inland floodplain (former salt-marsh). It is the site of significant threat and change (in terms of flooding, farming, habitats, water quality, siltation, fish species and shipping.) 

Chew Valley: Built in the 1950s, this is a 'drowned landscape' from the tail-end of what might be termed the 'nature-domination' era. It is also a classic British drowned landscape, in that it involves drowned hamlets, churches, mills, fields, farmsteads etc, some of which are reportedly exposed when waters drop to very low levels. There is an extensive body of archival documentary material (including news-reels) from the clearing, building and opening of the reservoir.

Much of Bristol's water supply comes from Chew Valley Reservoir, thus providing a strong connection between investigation site and exhibition. The Regional History Centre will work with local community groups – including possibly the Harptree History Society and Bishop Sutton School – to research the archival background and record local memory for an audio-scape installation.

EDIT (March 2014): The main focus for the first Submerged (Drowned Lands) exhibition/installation - end 2014/beginning 2015 - will be the Severn Estuary Coast, Somerset Levels and Bristol’s waterways.

Some other facets of 'The Almanac of the Submerged':

This project has some links to a related tidal landscapes initiative which is already underway. I am artist-consultant for a series of workshops on the Severn Estuary and the Wadden Sea (2012-14) and contributor to a research panel at the July 2013 Emotional Geographies conference at the University of Groningen, Holland.

 "Between the Tides: Comparative arts and humanities approaches to living with(in) intertidal landscapes in UK and the Netherlands. Learning from those who live and work with complexity, change and fragility. Workshop and networking project jointly funded by NWO (Netherlands) and AHRC (UK).

Intertidal and littoral landscapes: This research and exchange programme surveys current arts and humanities research and practice in the UK and Netherlands (NL) in relation to low-lying intertidal and littoral landscapes (ITLLs) and the communities who live and work with them. It brings these together to exchange and develop conceptual and thematic approaches to living (within) dynamic, changing and rhythmic environments which are at risk, but also hold high value in natural and cultural heritage for the broader community.

The project is based upon case studies of the Severn Estuary and the Wadden Sea -  two of the most important intertidal landscapes in the world. The intention is to establish an international arts and humanities community dedicated to ITLLs which will sustain beyond the project and extend to other areas across the world.

ITLLs have always been changing and unsettled – routinely, through a series of rhythmic daily, monthly and seasonal cycles, and also in other ways through erosion, deposition and development. There are major points of uncertainty and contestation about these kinds of landscapes in terms of conflicting forms of value, use and management.

Project goals: The project addresses how arts and humanities practitioners can come together to help communities and local stakeholders develop new narratives of shared (i.e. locally, globally, future generations) heritage/risk. What can we learn from those living/working with these fragile and dynamic landscapes? What wider lessons can be learnt for arts and humanities communities, and society more widely, particularly in the face of climate change and other environmental and economic challenges?"

I recently outlined some of the background and influences on these projects in a presentation - jointly with Dr Owain Jones - at PLaCE Research, Bristol. A recording is posted here.

The topic of controversial dams was covered in the Guardian Online recently, marking the International Day of Action for Rivers, and also here.