Going with the flow

Tue, 29/08/2017 - 04:01 -- eyeline
Art, Science, History and the Sydney Harbour

Art, science and history are becoming increasingly focused on locality. Yet, in a globalised context, such locality expresses questions of universal importance. As such, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and Sydney harbour itself are among the most identifiable features of Australia and thereby become metonymic of how to integrate the urban with the ecological. Part of the success of the Opera House is that its design complements the sails of boats as well as waves. But at the same time, given overdevelopment and pollution, the harbour has had to be cleansed and is a subject of scientific study and artistic generation.

On the 28th April 2017, the Sydney Environment Institute held a conference entitled Sydney Harbour: Intersections of the arts, sciences and humanities. As the name suggests the conference explored broad themes relating to science, art and history—themes at the forefront of inter-disciplinary research. The conference focused not merely on the various risks facing the harbour, but the planet and its inhabitants, from micro flora and fauna to fish and, of course, us.

The conference showcased both scientific research and works of art. The art included work by Robyn Backen, Frederico Câmara, David Watson, and the collaborative public sculptures by Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford. This article will explore these artworks against the analyses of ecology. Such entwining, reverberating shifts within and between discourses bespeak an idea of art as a type of flow; its constant movement being shaped by and shaping its environs. As art theorist Boris Groys has argued, flow is pronounced in our contemporary world where paradigms change and shift based on technologies. Flow, he maintains, is antithetical to boundaries and stasis and is characterised by movement and interaction. Yet, such changes as waves form a poetics not only of the current state of modernity but also of the waterways.

This notion of flow was particularly apparent in Jennifer Turpin’s presentation on her work with Michaelie Crawford—their kinetic public art sculpture, Tied to Tide (1999). The work consists of red ladders attached, in a sense, to other ladders that also resemble oars and shift with the tides, literally changing with the tide. The work is installed near Pirrama Park, where one can see Sydney’s harbour including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, thus creating an interaction of sculptural and architectural space. The work was made not only to interact but to complement the environment. In Turpin’s words, they ‘took the built language and transformed it into movement’ with ladders that move like ‘a Mexican wave or just straight like soldiers’. As she went on to explain, the work was not merely about their artistry over the environment but was rather a ‘collaboration of everyday random movements of nature and chaotic energies’ to produce a ‘symphony of movement that is choreographed by the harbour’. (You can watch a video of the public sculpture here: https://vimeo.com/25382174)

While the idea of flow was not always framed overtly in the presentations, I felt that there was something of a flow between the ideas. The areas explored seemed markedly distinct: science education, investigations of marine animals, the technological imagination, and the theme of invasion and colonisation. Yet what was lucidly expressed in every one of these workshop presentations was the idea of how every field connects to other fields. As they made clear, part of science and the way we understand the rhythms of history and the adaptability of art to its environs, depends on interaction. For instance, the scientists Will Figueira and Ross Coleman opened up concerns regarding ‘citizen science’, where the community gets involved in reporting and documenting their environs, participating in science outside of the laboratory. But the implications of a science that takes place outside of the laboratory are still being mapped.

In her impassioned presentation, Monica Gagliano began to explore the ethics of scientific observation. Gagliano is currently a Research Associate Professor of Evolutionary Ecology and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and is a former fellow of the Australian Research Council. Detailing her research into fish, she spoke of how a connection between her and her finned friends was established and how they adapted to her being in their space. Nevertheless, by the end of the experiment she was required to kill them for her scientific studies. She hoped that the exposure of this cruelty in science would change science’s current operations. She advocated for a science that was not divorced or isolated from compassion. Indeed, the cross-flowing interconnected quality of science became ever more important during the workshop. Coleman, for example, discussed how he had placed pots and receptacles along sea walls to collect marine flora and fauna. His research involved getting feedback from the public and he was surprised to learn that members of the community favoured methods of retaining flora and fauna that were aesthetic.

One nevertheless got the impression—perhaps a wrong impression— that science was only now starting to be conceived in a manner that was based on the interlinking themes of aesthetics and locality. Pauline Ross, a Professor of Biology and Teaching Principal for Life, Earth and Environmental Science, talked about science being a creative force and the need for science education to use technology to further human understanding. That said, with other presentations the impression was that citizen science or community science still had a sense of being suspect and an unknown entity. However, this impression was not so with the artists. Intersectional concerns and the implications of art going beyond the gallery have long been traversed.

In his book In the Flow (2016), Groys explores how in the age of the internet, art ceases to be ‘fictionalised’ as it is when placed in the gallery space. Instead art becomes part of a data flow. Art in this context functions as an art event and is based on a document, which therefore de-fictionalises it. Art becomes part of the flow of life, rather than removed from life as fiction is and as art used to be. In short, de-institutionalising a discipline like art means de-fictionalisation or as Groys succinctly puts it, ‘Traditional art produced art objects. Contemporary art produces information about art events’. The very fact that art documentation was displayed as part of PowerPoint presentations suggests the truth of Groys’s claim about documentation, where art becomes part of the flow, included in displays of other kinds.

Indeed, a perfect example of an art event was provided by David Watson, who discussed his art project Swimming Home (2011), where he swam down the Parramatta river, from Ermington to Rozelle in New South Wales. The idea behind the travel was of journeying home and an investigation of what that means. The journey was also one way to establish what place is, where the image of the map contrasts with the actual experience of swimming. In Watson’s words ‘nine benign blue centimetres’ as represented on a map translated to an estimated fourteen kilometres. Such an act involved great endurance. Watson had lost his mother in 2009 and so for him the swim was in part a memorial, but he discovered that it was ‘not only an ode, a memorial to all that has passed, but an immersive cleansing, a renewal, an in-the-moment celebration, and a meditation upon all that might follow’. We see that art events then have a flowing meaning of associations. But I wonder if Watson, whose works often entail photography, would contest Groys’s claim that art documents were not the art itself. Photography and video, after all, remove an object from its context but also bring the context, thus are viewed as both art document and art event.

Robyn Backen’s art works that formed the show Catching…the harbour (2002), draw attention to the role of documentation as an expression of the flow of life. One of the videos that form part of the work expresses the notion of the ghostly and the living, where we see old black and white archival footage of the harbour, sometimes with people playing in it, juxtaposed with the superimposition of colour underwater footage of fish. As the video progresses we see images of fish with names of Aboriginal peoples, such as the Wangal people of the Eora nation, reminding us of Indigenous fishing but also of the violence done to Indigenous people. The work is deeply haunting and we begin to see old colour footage of dead fish against images of living fish, thereby rendering the video work a complicated flow of history going from life to death to life. The video was part of a larger exhibition, with installations and containers of dead fish demonstrating again the sense of flow. There was a great sense of life being haunted by death and death by life, and the powerful video particularly evoked this atmosphere.

Arguably, a similar haunting occurred with Frederico Câmara’s photographs that captured scenes from abandoned zoos and aquariums. In a remark that almost seemed to accidentally echo Theodor Adorno’s celebrated essay the ‘Valéry Proust Museum’ (1967), he claims that zoos and aquariums are museums: at once generating vitality and whimsy and also signifying the emptying of authentic nature and animality. According to Adorno, Valéry and Proust offer two alternative visions: for Valéry, the museum is a dead space and for Proust the museum provides a source of new life and meaning. For Adorno the museum must be viewed through an either/or optic as no mediation is possible between these two vantages. However, I think that Câmara’s photographs capture a flow between the two. We see in the photographs a sense of life amidst ruin and decay, a glimpse of old life, but also new life through the photographic restoration that allows for a new interpretive meaning. His artworks are thereby art documents of, well, a type of documentation. He describes a panorama in an aquarium that he photographed as a type of palimpsest, where one can read an image and overlapping texts, the local natural landscape as depicted by the scene, the Colonial European reference and a sense of contemporary Australia. In the frame at first we see the natural environment and then we see the signs of colonial Australia, the bridge and then modern Australia—the city. What was missing from the frame, however, was any sign of Indigenous culture. Câmara has photographed many closed zoos and aquariums and only the minority of them allude, in their exhibits, to Indigenous cultures. Câmara’s presentation was a wonderful reminder of the emptiness of abandoned worlds and the various limitations inscribed in representation. In some respects, the zoo or aquarium scene is utopian, but it can also appear self-negatingly artificial.

This conference was a utopian exercise in bringing together different approaches to art and science with respect to the harbour. Nevertheless, utopias very often appear as flashes. We still do not know whether utopianism can help avoid ecological catastrophes and shift course. Yet even there, there may be hope.

Jakelin Troy’s analysis of Indigenous ways of life spoke to concerns of adaptability, especially in respect to the cultural and ecological disaster of the Invasion and white colonisation. Troy, herself an Ngarigu woman of the Snowy Mountains, South Eastern Australia, investigated pre- and post-Invasion Indigenous relationship with the harbour. In her paper, she emphasised the inventiveness of Indigenous cultures, by drawing attention to fishing methods which included the sophisticated use of hooks to catch fish which could then, remarkably, be cooked on the canoes. Such adaptability had not disappeared, she stressed, as it could be witnessed through Indigenous interventions in popular culture, highlighting that the harbour, and indeed the continent of Australia, was and always will be Aboriginal land. Troy makes the point persuasively that non-Indigenous people can learn from Indigenous philosophies and technologies.

Given the insights generated, it is clear that we owe those who convened the event: Ann Elias, Iain McCalman and Will Figueira a debt of thanks. The conference/symposium/workshop, and in a sense exhibition, successfully framed how questions of local importance are also questions of global importance in this age of flow.

Robyn Backen with Ichthyologist, Brooke Carson-Ewert, Fishing the Spirit house, from Catching…the harbour, 2001. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Photograph Ian Hobbs.
Collection the artist and Australian Museum.

Frederico Câmara, Sea Life, 2014. Sydney Aquarium, Sydney.

Anne Ferran, David Watson: swimming home, Drummoyne, 2011.

Robyn Backen, from Catching…the harbour, 2001. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Media editing Josh Raymond and Sound by Minit. Photograph Ian Hobbs. Collection the artist and Australian Museum.

Aleksandr Andreas Wansbrough is a Lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts.