26 Feb 2014

Water and the Geo-Imaginarium

Undeniably - in the case of England - the predominant theme, to date, in 2014 has been water/flooding/storms. There are strong indications that climate instability is ushering in periods of global extreme weather, with potentially very significant social and landscape implications.

Coastal landscape change, and adaptation, are themes explored in my new film-poem, produced with Dr Iain Biggs. After a long gestation, this work will be shown publicly in March, and marks the first completed element of my long-term Submerged (Drowned Lands) project. With all and sundry now wading in to the subject of watery inundations, inevitably one has to ask the question 'What does an eco-arts-based approach bring to the (water)table?'

To help answer this question, I am revisiting a useful, hybrid term: geopoetic. For me, the geopoetic describes a form of mycelial, rhizomic, geological imagining, helping to bridge the gaps between art, science, ecology and landscape. To some extent, it captures what may be excluded by the rigidity of science - the happy accident, the mythic and the sensuous. At the same time, it could be said to have  common ground with scientific investigation - such as conjecture and experiment. The term has its origins (as does my own 'grounding') in the geosciences, apparently being first coined by a geologist, Harry Hess, in the 1960s to introduce the then novel idea of plate tectonics. When Hess first published his theories in ‘History of Ocean Basins’ (1962), he called it ‘an essay in geopoetry’.
"[Hess] described his speculations as geopoetry in order to induce his readers (mostly other geologists) to suspend their disbelief long enough for his observations about seafloor spreading, driven by magma rising continuously from the mantle, to catch on. He needed his audience, in the absence of much hard data, to speculate imaginatively, as if reading poetry. Now that so much evidence is in, and no one disbelieves in plate tectonics anymore (at least no one who does not also disbelieve in evolution), the term might be allowed to lapse, a marriage of convenience whose raison d'ĂȘtre had evaporated. But, as you can see, I don’t think it ought to be. I think that Harry Hess, like Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, or any other creative scientist, enters a mental space beyond ordinary analysis, where conjecture and imaginative play are needed and legitimate, and that this is a mental space shared with poets. But even more than this poetic license, I would say, the practice of geopoetry promotes astonishment as part of the acceptable perceptual frame. Geopoetry makes it legitimate for the natural historian or scientist to speculate and gawk, and equally legitimate for the poet to benefit from close observation, and from some of the amazing facts that science turns up. It provides a crossing point, a bridge over the infamous gulf separating scientific from poetic frames of mind, a gulf which has not served us well, nor the planet we inhabit with so little reverence or grace. Geopoetry, I am tempted to say, is the place where materialism and mysticism, those ancient enemies, finally come together, have a conversation in which each hearkens to the other, then go out for a drink." 
Don McKay, Prairie Fire, 2008

Importantly, I think, this doesn't set up a polarity between imagination and (geo)science; instead it is an example of intuitive 'activation', in advance of the hard evidence. The geopoetic is therefore not in opposition, but is a vanguard, a path-finding opening up. A geopoetic approach can then - ideally - be characterised by: broadenings and nuances of information-interpretation and translation; stories, conceptual framings and contextualisations; research that is open to chance, sudden shifts, paradoxes and even mystery/strangeness/alchemy; interweaving of imagery and (eco-)symbolic associations; play and politics; alternative paradigms of time and space relationships. In another analogy, the approach can be about landscape acupuncture, or acupressure; scratching away, fossicking, uncovering. Also, it is the cooking up of new recipes - through fusion and experimentation.

In place of written poetry, what may emerge includes performative works, immersive installation spaces and intermedia sculpture. There is much in common with the ethos of intimate science, as proposed by Roger Malina, of Leonardo. In former times, a fusion of 'earth knowledge' and 'poetics' could also be said to reside within traditions such as shamanism, Dreamtime, Greek philosophy, Taoism, Goethe, Steiner and the Jungian psychology of the subconscious.

This then is the idea of the Imaginarium, or the Geo-Imaginarium of the title of this blog-post. In using this term, I am influenced by Richard Layzell's idea of the Visionaire. What interests me is the potential for a (geo)imaginaire/visionaire to investigate and help reframe some of our current  - and complex - eco-social concerns; the 'super wicked problems' of the Anthropocene. An example is the recent flooding situation in the Somerset Levels and Severn Estuary. These areas are intimately connected of course, as the Levels were once tidal/salt marshland and, in effect, formed the wider floodplain of the Severn. A major causative factor on the Somerset flooding - along with extreme rainfall - was the Severn tidal flow (or surge) which pushed up the River Parrett and spilled over into the lower-lying lands of the Levels. There are now suggestions of building a barrage at the mouth of the Parrett to try to prevent re-occurrances. Such a structure would however be an ineffective defence against a huge storm-surge, as evidenced along this coast in 1607.

(As an aside, the dog in the final image above reminds me of the powerful image of the dog in Tarkovsky's film, Stalker. One commentator has this to say about the character of The Stalker: "Unlike the Professor, who seeks to control or destroy what he doesn't understand, he embraces otherness and uncertainty. He is a mystic, but this mysticism is located as much in the ordinary details of his domestic life - its material poverties and emotional richnesses - as it is in his quests to the Zone... but all the time the black dog is trotting towards us, across the glittering waters where we dream...
... A sense of the "true measure of things", that is what Tarkovsky gives me, with a grave simplicity that illuminates the mysteries of being alive. He is indeed a poet for a destitute time, and I am thankful for his restless struggle.")

Returning to the floodwaters, an imaginative - and deep-time - perspective on this would examine long-term scenarios and conjectures, including the need to accommodate events such as the 1607 flood, and to adapt to the increasing presence of the sea. In the case of the River Parrett (and other rivers such as the Bristol Avon), keeping the sea at bay seems but a temporary fix. In my current stint as artist-in-residence at the CCRI in Gloucester - a project called Sabrina Dreaming - I've had the opportunity to observe, at close hand, some of the impacts of flooding in the upper reaches of the Severn Estuary. My sense - from these visits, and from the media coverage - is that these areas (Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Worcester etc), having experienced many bouts of flooding in recent years, now meet their re-occurrence with a degree of calm resignation?

The reports of a Gloucester family who have raised their house on stilts caught my attention, as it resonates strongly with one of the themes of my architectually-related recent film-poem, Transgression (Rising Waters), which also has some connectivity to the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild, set in the Gulf Coast of the USA. For me, these films both display geopoetic qualities, in their engagement with landscapes and their acceptance of surreal/dream intrusions or eruptions (of deep-time) that disrupt the everyday experience. This juxtaposition of the facts (rational, objective) with personal truths (subjective, subconscious) helps communicate a more holistic, rounded reality.

My artist residency at CCRI is concerned with the Severn Estuary Coast, and some of its many, ever-shifting, environmental and ecological issues - including adaptations to increasing coastal flooding, and even the idea of a shifting coastline. I'm now in the scoping stage of the project, and starting to make interesting links both within and beyond the university. As ever, it is the encounters at the printer/water-cooler/canteen that offer the most promising, unpredictable possibilities for involvement and collaboration. Recently, I had a chat with Rob Jarman, who I'd first met years ago when he was sustainability director at the National Trust. Rob is now conducting a Phd at the University of Gloucestershire's Centre for Environmental Change and Quaternary Research (CECQR), investigating the genetics and palaeoecology of sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) in the Forest of Dean. He is using soil pollen and tree genetics to date and give provenance, and is also seeking archaeological and historical evidence. Rob also has a keen professional interest in all aspects of water environments, and especially relating to the Severn Estuary.

In a slightly different vein, I recently had cause to revisit the the clay-mining area of Cornwall (above), where I have begun a new strand of creative investigation. On the OS maps, these extraction zones are blank white spaces, so for now, I am naming this venture, Geopoetics of the White Spaces. The white space is blank; a tabula rasa. My initial experience of the attempt to get to grips with this landscape (i.e. its historical topography, access, orientation, patterns, politics, power dynamics, stories, tensions, layers, precesses, possibilities etc), is of encountering resistance and elusiveness. For me - the amalgam of the 'geo' and 'poetics is not likely to be easy to arrive at, the latter being tending towards erasure, dissolution, emptiness. Even the the materials themselves reflect this? The granite - as magma - was once a mixed molten wholeness; then came fractionation and crystallisation - a separation into (predominantly) quartz, feldspar and mica; then the weathering and feldspar-breakdown to kaolin, and the refinement/extraction of commercial China Clay. The poetic, deep-time pull in this landscape is maybe back to this magma-origin?; but also towards the possibilities of alchemy in this space-place?; the possibilities of wonder, and new beginnings on a bed of of clayey softness. Out of the voids come visions, conjectures. New mappings for the territory and a place for experimentation. Chronicles of exploitation?

These 'mappings' (maybe deep mappings) will be about rewilding, or new-wilding; a re-balancing framed in the context of the new commons, climate change/instability, Occupy 'mobilisations' and environmental justice. There will be new roles for both newly inundated lands and landscapes of extraction (once stripped bare...). One may speculate about a kind of rewilding that can embrace cultural heritage and legacies (tangible and intangible). This is about adaptive eco-social futures. Additions, subtractions; insider and outsider views. Journeys.
More on this soon.

"Subvert the dominant paradigm"
Notice pinned up in the Friends of the Earth office kitchen in London in the late 80s

Thirst drove me down to the water where I drank the moon’s reflection.