4 Jun 2013

Water, Water-Bodies, Water-Ways

...and the poetics of vital matter

photo: a lyons

"You can't keep water down"

This comment bubbled up in discussion with Dr. Owain Jones at his PLaCE seminar talk last month (the final instalment of the long-running PLaCE Research speaker sessions).  Over the coming weeks and months, I'm aiming to write a detailed blog-post on what could be termed the 'geopoetics' of each of the materials woven in to my intermedia installation for the recent Tramontana Festival 2013. Water is the topic of the first of these.

Water, and water matters, pervade and infuse most of my landscape-based projects, and this 'element' looms large throughout my background of transdisciplinary activity, bridging across science, design and art. In the late 1980s I was to be found carrying out greenhouse experiments with duckweed (Lemna spp.), testing the potential to bio-cleanse industrial effluents. As the wheels of time tend to bring one back again, I have once more found myself in a close encounter with this unpretentious plant - in the context of a symbolic material incorporated in an intermedia art installation (more on this in a future post). For many years I have been involved in research, development and promotion of what were - in the '80s - the relatively novel eco/water/design-technologies of 'reed bed sewage treatment' and 'sustainable drainage systems' (SuDS). These involvements continue today, but are increasingly located in creative/visioning modes, rather than in the applied technical realms. Water often surfaces in unexpected ways.

One new and unpredictable scenario for me is an involvement with a research project that sets out to explore (in the context of 'more-than-human participatory research') some aspects of being 'in conversation with water' and 'designing with water'. For this project, my role is to be a lynchpin of sorts, and to lead a field-trip to the River Torridge, in Devon - site of my 2012 collaborative residency project, Shadows and Undercurrents. This novel confluence of topic and site has led me to reflect on my own long-term and deep participation with water, water-bodies and water-ways (their ecological health, their dynamics, their secrets...).

River Torridge, 2012 : a lyons
I am struck now by this oft-used, slightly jargonistic term 'water body', or a 'body of water' - which generically refers to a river, lake, sea, pond etc. Fittingly, if one is to 'converse' with water, then a water-body seems an appropriate image to embrace?

"Were they not figured as bodies of water because, since antiquity, their flow was likened to the blood circulating through the body?...to see a river was to be swept up in a great current of myths and memories that was strong enough to carry us back to the first watery element of our existence in the womb." Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (1996)

And 'participatory research' ? Arguably, all research involves participation. It is maybe about an attitude? Is the process soft or hard?; slow or instant?; a fluid dance or a rigid activity?; is the process-design able to adapt, to learn? The topic of 'control' is relevant (especially when one is encountering 'flood-control' measures, 'water control structures', 'impoundments', dams etc.).

Does 'participation' necessarily involve dialogue?, response?, reaction? conversation? If so, is it possible to say there is (or can be) a conversation with water (or a water body?), without delving into the realms of the mystical or metaphysical; or alternatively into science fiction? I'm thinking here of the situation suggested in Solaris, (the novel by Lem and the two film adaptations) where the 'ocean' in question was - apparently - an organism that could interact at a distance with the consciousnesses, or at least the dreams, of the observing scientists. However it is never clear whether this implies any true consciousness of the planetary 'ocean', or possibly a passive 'strange' effect or amplification unknown to science? In the original novel, Lem writes: "Was thinking without consciousness possible?" Essentially the story is about man’s anthropomorphic and cognitive limitations, and in the end, the researchers simply learn more about themselves.

[A comment on this via Iain Biggs: For me this touches on the whole question of listening – both in its literal and metaphorical dimensions. So much academic research is concerned to “talk about” its subject matter, with little or no time spent 'listening' (even to the other people involved in the talking). Listening to somebody is essentially a commitment to actively paying attention to that person. We are told that as much as 90% of face-to-face communication between people is non-verbal – based on gesture, posture, facial expression, etc. This maybe puts the idea of a ‘conversation’ with water into another perspective?]

Water surfaces reflect; this is part of the material's essence. The many-facetted metaphor of such watery (self-)reflection is unavoidable and runs deep. Some interesting manifestations include:
The Narcissus myth (incidentally he was the offspring of a river-god and a fountain-nymph) 
Bill Viola's body of work, in particular the 1979 video piece, The Reflecting Pool. Viola repeatedly uses water as a motif in his practice.

How would we converse with water bodies without anthropomorphising them? We commonly apply human qualities and behaviour to water bodies - 'raging floods' in rivers, lakes as 'placid'; the sea as 'treacherous', perhaps 'troubled waters' and even the use here of the word 'body'. But could a water-body 'speak' to us in any way that not a reflection? Or is this binary perspective (human/non-human) simply missing the point?

We are water...
WaterBody and BodyWater: our bodies are 60% water; our brains are 70% water; as embryos we are 98% water. As the moon's gravitation influences water bodies (ocean dynamics, tides etc.), it also surely influences our human 'watery bodies'. It is therefore maybe not a question of a conversation with the 'other'; it could framed as a conversation with our own essential make-up (Solaris again?). Are we - in mind and body - in close relationship with water in ways that we can't currently gauge or detect?

                                                                                                                                                                      Still from my film 'Sacred Ways'
To elaborate on this, I propose to make connections by introducing some watery soundings that I have encountered over the years. Firstly I turn to the work of Theodor Schwenk, who founded the Institute of Flow Sciences in 1960, and whose influential book Sensitive Chaos built on the rich tradition of Goethe, Blake, Steiner and others in ascribing subtle metaphysical qualities to the dynamism of water. According to Schwenk, people no longer look “at the being of water but merely at its physical value". Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1965

Schwenk talks about the need for "water consciousness"and concluded that the essence of water's movement is found in the tension between the linear tug of gravity and water's inherent tendency to draw itself into a sphere. Schwenk demonstrated that water reconciles this tension in three characteristic ways: the meander, the wave, and the vortex.

Sculptor John Wilkes (1930-2011) pioneered the design of Flowforms - cascading vessels through which water flows in rhythmic lemniscate motion ('vortical meandering'). In his Flowform research, Wilkes was influenced by Schwenk, and examined how these patterns of water can be incorporated in designed environments so that human-made channels and vessels can support and enhance the essential movements of water. Following this lineage, Herbert Dreiseitl - a former assistant of Wilkes - has sensitively integrated water into many inspiring design projects in urban and other public spaces throughout the world.

Also richly deserving of mention in these watery wanderings - from my perspective - is Ivan Illich, author of the thoughtful exploration of dualism and water, H2O and the Water of Forgetfulness - a book given to me long ago by the amazingly dedicated environmental campaigner Andrew Lees
“water, throughout history, has been perceived as the stuff which radiates purity: H2O is the new stuff, on whose purification human survival now depends. H2O and water have become opposites: H2O, is a social creation of modern times, a resource that is scarce and calls for technical management.” Illich

And another reference point is The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram. More recently, there are the writings of Jane Bennett, whose vibrant materialism aims to “think slowly” and challenge “the idea of matter as passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert”. She talks of matter having a "nonhuman vitality” which “arrives through humans but not entirely because of them...Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption." Vibrant Matter, 2010

As historian James Smith writes (in New Bachelards? Reveries, Elements and Twenty-First Century Materialism', 2012) "Bennett presents a world of intimate liveliness and distributed agency. By dwelling within a world in which matter has affect, behaviour, vitality and agency, the us and the it become intertwined. Rather than exhibiting “passive intractability”, Bennett’s non-human actors have the ability to produce effects, to make things happen..."

Smith's paper also discusses the ideas of David Macauley, who writes on 'elemental aesthetics' (and sees ecological restoration as an attempt at re-story-ation)
In turn, here is Macauley on the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy:
"Goldsworthy's aesthetic approach is premised on an intimate two-way "dialogue" with the landscape - where there exists a kind of co-existence, communion, and perhaps even communication - that revealed a deep reverence for and celebration of the particularities of a given place..."
"...in the elemental world, we can conceivably discover a foreign or feral realm of being, a bewildered order, or a kind of chaotic cosmos - a chaosmos, to use James Joyce's term"
Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire and Water as Elemental Ideas by David Macauley, 2010

Linking these threads to Gaston Bachelard's classic 1942 essay 'Water and Dreams', Smith continues "Water, within this system, engages in a material poetics of reflection and flow, purity and impurity, moving through and infusing all. Macauley adds an ecological dimension to this image suggesting that “it is undoubtedly wise to adopt the environmental axiom that in a very real sense ‘we all live downstream’”. Material essence, then, is intrinsic to poetics and environmental interconnectivity in equal measure."

And here I quote from that font of watery wisdom - Bachelard
"My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of flowing water, the water that leads life towards the next village...The stream doesn't have to be ours; the water doesn't have to be ours. the anonymous water knows all my secrets. and the same memory issues from every spring" Water and Dreams

Continuing on this trail through some of my enduring aquatic influences, there is Lawrence Buell (ecocritic) who has written of "watershed consciousness", "watershed aesthetics" and "watershed imagination". At the end of his book 'Writings for an Endangered World' (2001), he quotes James Joyce, who gives a voice to Dublin's (female) River Liffey, shouting out to the (male) hill overlooking the estuary: "Rise up, man of the hooths [Howth], you have slept so long!" Finnegans Wake
The 'river-woman' flows through the whole of this  work, which is cyclical in nature: the last sentence recirculates to the beginning sentence: "a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." 

The subject of the estuary brings us back down to earth (or water…and 'designing-with-water'); back to a focus on the River Torridge and some of the practical issues within the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (such as flood-defence, soil run-off, water quality, biodiversity support, sustainability etc.), and the ways in which creative and 'more-than-human' participatory approaches might influence, integrate with - and possibly reframe - these issues. On the back of the meandering reflections above, I'm tempted to subtitle the hands-on exploratory workshop 'From Flowforms to Floodplains'. In the realm of 'ecological water design', some important close encounters for me have been with individuals such as the dedicated pioneer John Todd (who has had a long-term relationship with the Bristol-based Schumacher Society); another pioneer Uwe Burka (inspiring early designs for reedbed sewage treatment); the artist-designer Christine Bauemler and significant others.

Closer in time - and a very relevant port-of-call for me - is an upcoming trans-disciplinary series of workshops called Activating the gap between knowledge and imagination, addressing, in particular, water and flood risk management. These workshops are the result of a partnership between the Department of Fine Art, Middlesex University, the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University and Chelsea College of Art.

In the link-up between the North Devon Biosphere Reserve's operations and the group of 'more-than-human' researchers, there is a need to contextually ground the exploration - possibly via some of the following approaches: 

a) Encountering the 'water-body' (the river) as a whole; looking at ways in which the health, or 'aliveness', of this body is embraced - in policy, action and direct encounter. The managerial notion of 'stewardship' versus a participatory reciprocity. In 2012, working in the River Torridge River valley, I found that a real feeling of connection and wonder for the river only emerged during a kayak trip along part of it. This was intimate contact with the flows, the sensations, the moods and the endless subtle changes - spatial and temporal.
b) Looking at the biodynamic/flowform ideas of natural water movement - on a range of scales, from the (bio-)regional catchment to the microscopic. The relationship between 'aliveness' and 'flow' (including the idea of 'living water' that exists in Christian and Jewish baptism/tevilah rites, and in other religions). These 'flow' investigations may also include the dynamics of the tidal zone of the Torridge.
c) Listening to water in various ways. Experiments with microphones and 'translation' devices.
c) Designing: here we may delve into the physical alterations/restorations that have been put in place, or that are planned for the River Torridge. Re-alignment, re-wilding, sustainable drainage, ecological design for flood adaptation etc. How might this be influenced by flowform-related thinking?; and the concept of a 'water body?
d) Exploring - using the example of the Whanganui River in New Zealand - the idea of 'personhood' rights being legally enshrined for a river, and how that might relate to the idea that 'we are water; therefore we are also the river'. To what extent does an ecological approach embrace the idea of 'the culture of the river'. This may include other perspectives such as Native American (e.g. the bdote of the Dakota, as introduced to me by Mona Smith; the tribal relationships to the River Colorado - explained to me in detail by Martha Hahn); indigenous Australian 'dreaming' perspectives; and possibly the twinned UNESCO Malindi-Watamu Biosphere Reserve in Kenya? Also, if "we are water", in what way is self-exploration part of the task or challenge of the workshop?
e) Time passing: 'deep-time, water-time, tidal-time, hydrograph-time, solar-time, human-time' - past, present and conjectured futures of the water-body. To what extent is time-frame a relevant factor when seeking to connect to water as an 'element'?...and linked to this, the idea of the impermanence of the fluid moment/shape/form?
f) 'Ecosystem Services'. Are these relationships a form of 'conversation'...as well being a trade-off?

Finally - for now - I quote Owain Jones, who contributed this comment to the discussion on  the earlier 'bees' workshop (in the 'more-than-human research series')

"In essence I think if we are to conduct conversations with bees we need the intermediaries of the experienced, empathetic, and open minded bee keepers. They are the ‘spokespersons’ that Latour feels are needed in the  ‘parliament of things’. But they are not ‘representing' fixed positions or facts, but conjectures and possibilities...such a redefined ecological form of politics (and science) requires the development of new ways of listening, as well as new channels of speaking."

I feel this may be relevant in relation both to 'water' and 'ecological art practice'. Increasingly one finds reference to the roles of artist-as-mediator, artist-as-bridge (e.g. between the rational and the imagination), even artist-as-shaman - much of this harking back to Joseph Beuys. According to Latour, people and things have 'spokespersons', situated in the liminal zones - between science, society, nature, ecology, art..). Latour is "a piper leading us out of Plato's cave where the West's view of 'science and society' was born...His most recent philosophy cum metaphysics...is more like the story-telling he advised as an alternative to explanation early in his career”. 
Maybe this is also one role for contemporary creative practice?

"Take time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean - the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams."
Rachel Carson, 1957