Liquid Forms: Floating Land 2011

Floating Land: Water Culture
Sunshine Coast, Queensland

The theme for the most recent Floating Land festival— Water Culture—turned out to be more than apt for a Green Art event held in a state that acquired more than a passing acquaintance with large volumes of water over 2011. Floating Land has grown from its humble beginnings as an outdoor sculpture festival to become a large-scale ten day art event boasting an impressive line-up of international artists working in cutting-edge interdisciplinary forms, as well as a diverse range of local, community and indigenous practitioners whose practice runs the gamut from experimental performance to traditional craft. The festival’s aquatic theme formed the thread of connection between all the works, with some works made using water, others referring to fluid phenomena, and a few taking place within water.

Boreen Point at Lake Cootharaba served as the festival’s ‘base camp’. Along the shoreline of the lake, located deep in the UNESCO-listed Noosa biosphere, Sue Ryan (Cairns), Marion Gaemers (Townsville), Angela Torenbeek and Flora Jo Taylor (Moa Island) weaved and knotted a series of colourfully complex webs. These objects are products of the Ghost Nets project, a creative community art response to the problem of the phantom fishing nets that choke our oceans. The prevailing currents circulate lost and discarded nets which drift throughout the ocean depths, indiscriminately snaring and suffocating a host of marine creatures, including dugongs and turtles. On land, the remoteness of northern Australia limits access to plastic recycling plants, and consequently, the disposal of rubbish on beaches throughout Far North Queensland, the Torres Strait and the Northern Territory, places an enormous burden on local refuse systems, and the environment. This project involves the gleaning of these nets and their transformation from death traps into intricate kaleidoscopic woven artworks. GhostNets Australia marries traditional weaving and fibre techniques with modern refuse materials, innovatively repurposing waste into artworks and ‘upcycled’ utility items such as carry-bags.

In addition to the workshops and installations along the edge of the lake at Boreen Point, the festival staged an exhibition of artworks at the Butter Factory in the nearby Sunshine Coast town of Cooroy, the second of the Floating Land locations. The Butter Factory space also housed two other Floating Land projects: Krishna Nahow-Ryall’s long a…long sugar… ca…cane immersive audiovisual installation, and the ‘My Island Homes’ cultural heritage exhibition, the outcome of a fruitful partnership between the Sunshine Coast City Council and the Queensland Museum. ‘My Island Homes’ focused on the lives of the South Sea Islander workers who were brought to Queensland, from Vanuatu and the South Sea Islands between 1860 to 1906 as indentured labour; many were brought through deception and sometimes outright kidnapping (an historical practice once referred to as ‘blackbirding’, a term that today causes offence). The exhibition explored the stories of these sugar cane workers through a variety of forms of testimony, including archival material, photographs and poignant artefactual material from local and State collections, including now-rusted cane farming implements like picks, mattocks and scythes. Along with inspiring a deeper awareness of the local South Sea Islander community, the exhibition provoked a timely reflection on the complicated and politically vexed history of sugar cane farming, which—with its well-known consequences of land degradation and chemical run-off sabotaging the Great Barrier Reef—is also very much a part of the State’s complex ‘water culture’.

The lake’s edge abounded with diverse creative workshops: one by the Maori artist Jo Tito, who painted rocks with local ochre; and others on Gubbi Gubbi totem stories and culture; on ‘deep ecology’ and on Butoh and Korean traditional dance. Jo Tito’s practice brings together kohatu (rock) and wai (water), with digital storytelling. In her workshops, which offered opportunities to discuss and meditate on the relationships between human consciousness, earth and water, Tito explained the significance of rocks in the light of the Maori concept of water. She explained that ‘the rocks are shaped by water, and where I come from on the West Coast we have a mountain—Taranaki—so the rocks are volcanic and they are shaped by water; as the water falls from the sky, over the mountain, down the rivers over the landscape and out to sea, the rocks take this journey too, so they tumble and flow with the water and when they end up out at sea, most are smooth and shaped by the flowing water … so there is always connection there between the two, rocks and water’. In addition to sharing with participants some of her painting techniques using local stones, Tito brought with her to Floating Land an eight kilogram mauri stone, which she described as ‘sharing the energy from my people with the people at Boreen Point’.

Dancer, composer and performance artist Jeremy Neideck, and the creative team behind his Hidden Land performances, staged the Butoh and Korean traditional dance workshops. These workshops explored the specific, refined movements of Korean dance, as well as the more severe, transformative gestures of Butoh, responding to the themes and images of the local landscape, and providing a key introduction to techniques used later in the Hidden Land Butoh performances. With their imaginative, at times anguished contortions emphasised by experimental lighting and costume designs, these latter performances epitomised the expressive legacy of Butoh as artistic commentary on the kinesics of emotion.

A different kind of lakeshore dance, the Gubbi Gubbi traditional indigenous dance performances at dusk, which opened and closed the festival against the dramatic backdrop of The Firings, Quixoica Kilns (floating fiery kilns by Rowley Drysdale), have come to symbolise the Floating Land festival, supplying the striking iconography that adorns its program and draws large throngs of admiring crowds.

The alternation between old and new art on the lake foreshore was repeated in Prambudi Hartono’s batiks and Hong Kong artist Samson Young’s new media and electronics project. Javanese batik artist Hartono installed a series of graceful batiks whose delicate flowing forms highlighted the role of water in the creative process and aesthetic language of this textile tradition. In contrast, Young’s new media practice encompasses sound art, electronics and performance, all of which featured in his performance at Floating Land. Via a head-mounted brainwaves-monitoring system, Young processed electrical signals (his thoughts about the lapping waves of the lake) into sonified data, which was expressed as a live sound composition through the particular tones assigned to rapidly switching thoughts, and different tones which designated deeper concentration. Using his body as a kind of bio-interface, Young generated a humorous recursivity—as he would contemplate the lake, hear the representation of his thoughts settle, and then become distracted (‘I’d think, “oh wow, I’m concentrating really well now!”’, he says)—which of course would then disrupt the rhythmic flow, resulting in a change back to the more distracted thought-tones. Along with some insights into the regrettably, now standard state of fragmented attention, Young’s work drew to our notice the spatial logics of the act of hearing, which, as sound art writer David Toop notes, ‘allows us constant access to a less stable world, omni-directional, always in a state of becoming and receding, known and unknown. This is the world that surrounds us and flows through us, in all its uncertainty’.

Two other media-based artworks also used the waters of the lake as their ‘ground’: the Ship of

Fools (James Muller and Kris Martin), a submerged sailing vessel featuring projections of water-based imagery video-mapped onto sails; and Kirsty Boyle, Tega Brain and Ramon Guardans’s electronic sensing balloon project. The high-tech collaboration between Boyle (Australia), an innovative roboticist, Brain (Australia) an environmental engineer and media artist, and Guardans (Spain), a United Nations climate scientist, created one of the most arresting images of the festival: that of the pixieish Boyle and elegant Guardans wading out, fully clothed, into the blue waters of the lake in the dying afternoon light, and manoeuvring a huge plastic helium-filled weather balloon up into the air above. Their project, Oceans of Air, deploys electronic sensors and tiny video cameras to monitor and report from the huge mass of air that, like water, connects all the beings on earth. All the artworks at Floating Land, in one way or another, work to deepen and intensify our experience of the unique space of the biosphere, but Oceans of Air goes further, urging the spectator to revise and expand the scope of their individual perception via a radical—if slightly dizzying—perspective on the phenomena of the lake in the context of its surrounds; and, through these technical revelations, an opportunity to speculate on the construction of scientific narratives in high-tech discourses. The expansion of Floating Land to include contemporary cutting edge works such as Boyle, Brain and Guardan’s ‘measurement as performance’ practice, is testimony to guest curator Leah Barclay’s fine-grained contemporary art sensibilities, and the maturation of the festival into a major art event.

At the third main exhibition site for the festival, the Sunshine Coast township of Coolum Beach, local artists group The Catchment Collective engaged with the issues of climate change refugees, and Australia’s general mistreatment of asylum seekers (Wendy McGrath’s The Red Shoes – The Next Wave), and the disgrace of bottled plastic water (Corrie Wright’s Wipeout, Elizabeth Poole’s Warning Bells). In addition to these grassroots activities, the festival included outreach activities and workshops for school children, street performances, screenings of environmental documentaries and two all-day public symposia (‘Water Lab’). The inclusion of these forums is laudable, since they created a space for discourse and analysis of the role of ecological art.

However, there are critical limitations in some streams of environmental discussion—namely, the kind of ‘catastrophic’ thinking that dominated Floating Land’s public symposia. Prominent in well-meaning popular-environmental and ‘deep’ ecology circles alike, this mode of thinking emphasises the tropology of calamity, the direness of disaster—what Slavoj Žižek calls ‘the ecology of fear’. Of course, when it comes to the environment, there is plenty to be legitimately distressed about, to put it mildly, and there can be political value in fear, as a motivating force. Arguments denying the enormous violence wrought by industry (particularly mining), development and overconsumption, tend to automatically place the speaker in the unenviable rhetorical terrain—and therefore service—of the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. However, as Žižek and other philosophers point out, within environmental discourses, constant catastrophising can have an unintended oppressive effect, enfeebling rather than stimulating action, and thus generating a permanent state of exception that ultimately serves the ecocidal capitalism it rails against. As the leading environmental philosopher Timothy Morton says, ‘Like a deer in the headlights, thinking is paralysed by disaster’. To think what Morton calls the ecological thought today is to disturb conventional ‘catastrophic’ wisdom, and query its functions (as in Adam Curtis’s deconstruction of the invented concept of a ‘balanced ecosystem’ in his 2011 documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace). Morton suggests we need ‘to recalibrate what we mean by disaster, such that ecological thinking and practice must entail dropping the imminence of disaster, with its resulting states of exception. This thinking would be non-disastrous both in content and in form’. Given the power of a festival like Floating Land to deepen understanding and foster new ways of seeing and hearing the world that are open in their thinking, a discursive intervention at the level of symposia, and art practice explicitly geared towards emergent non-disastrous modes of thinking the environment would be a natural next step. The recently-announced theme of the 2013 festival, Nature in Dialogue, resonates with the potential to do just that.

notes: 

Morton, Timothy, The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press, Boston, 2010.

Morton, Timothy, ‘Romantic Disaster Ecology: Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth’, Romanticism and Disaster: Romantic Circles Praxis Series, January 2012, http://www.rc.umd.edu/ praxis/disaster/HTML/praxis.2012.morton.html

Toop, David, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, Continuum Books, London, 2010.

Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses’, 2007, http://www.lacan.com/ zizecology1.htm

‘Floating Land’ has been supported by the following partners: Sunshine Coast Council, Noosa Biosphere, Sustainable Event Alliance and Noosa Regional Gallery. See www.floatingland.org.au