A few metres from my front door runs a creek which was restored as part of a residential development proposal granted by the city. The creek benefits from ongoing remediation work and it’s a pleasure to see critters enjoying the newly restored watershed which had previously been culverted for decades. At various points along the creek, little signs have been put up. ‘Protect your resource’, they read.
The Language of Water
While, I don’t disagree with the sentiment of wanting to protect the watercourse and all that it flows with, I’ve often felt that it seems overly simple and convenient to reduce the value of water to ‘a resource’. This simplification allows water to be governed, controlled or managed within a legal framework, sometimes as a subject of human agency but often in the name of particular groups of humans under the umbrella of colonialism or capitalism, or both. At the same time, it excludes disparate ontologies that fall outside of this classification leaving no space for emotional and spiritual approaches to water.
Water is a life-generating and life-connecting source; it spatially and temporally permeates all organic and inorganic forms, and is essential to all ecosystem processes whether in a gaseous, liquid or solid state, or anything in between. In Western cultures, water is often categorised in such a way that implies its behaviour can be contained in a static or stable way, limited and defined by boundaries. Language is an important consideration; after all, culture emerges from our use of language. English is generally considered to be noun-centred, so the language (and therefore, the culture) tends to objectify things. However, others, including most Indigenous languages, are verb-centred and they prioritise the relationality between things. Therefore, the culture also tends to concern itself more with how these things relate to each other. Of course, the connections between language and culture are more complex and nuanced than this simplified explanation but nevertheless, language influences how we shape our thoughts and how we perceive our environment. Narratives where water is essentialised to a resource, highlight a conceptual, and often gendered, bifurcation between nature and culture where ‘civilisation’ has separated humans from interdependence with ecological processes.
Given the ubiquity of water and the way it flows between, connecting the human with more-than-human on manifold systemic scales, it is unsurprising that water is ideal for artists, poets, anthropologists, ecofeminists and social scientists (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list) to think with, both literally and metaphorically. Thinking with water helps us to see beyond the limits of familiar perceptions, inviting new relational imaginations and concepts into our consciousness.
Experiencing fast flowing glacial water as it courses through time-space is invigorating. And thought-provoking. Landscape-shaping rivers reveal and conceal in equal measure. The micro-moments in which I spend time with other bodies of water helps me to unravel the entanglements and complexities of human relationships with water including my own. Thinking with water enriches analytical, metaphorical, and methodological approaches to the ecological, the technoscientific, and the political in an ever-shifting world.
While doing my own thinking with water, I have also found the work of other visual artists who tell stories of water through other media hugely inspirational to my own photographic practices. Based on Orkney where she is surrounded by many forms of water in constant motion, Samantha Clark explores water and the way the surface interacts with shifting light. Her body of work is exceptional and the slow, meditative approach to her practice of art resonates strongly with me. I would encourage you to visit her website and read some of her own musings. I have followed Marianthi Lainas's work for a number of years now. She is based on the Dee Estuary in Northwest England, very close to where I studied and worked for seven years. Here, she explores the tidal patterns and changes in this dynamically shifting environment. I love her creative use of cyanotype and mixed media work to showcase the littoral landscape, which I feel so strongly connected to through her art. TJ Thorne is a photographer whose water images really draw me in, to think about the magic of water and how light dances with it. I always appreciate those short video clips he posts of moving water bringing with them a wave of calm and peacefulness.
Human-environmental relationships are built on interactions between material and social processes which are shifting and mutually constitutive. However you explore your own place in the world, whether through photography or otherwise, understanding this concept on a deeper level helps pave the way for recognition of diverse ontologies and agency of more-than-human species and inorganic beings, including water. Material agency represents a potential to shift the balance of power. The agency of ‘the other’, and the extent to which other-than-human interests are upheld, are important themes in debates about ecological justice. Some of the most interesting pieces of art are often those that ask more questions than they answer, and I would argue that the same can be said of how we approach our processes and practices.
Book recommendations: Thinking with Water - Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod & Astrida Neimanis
Becoming Water Black Memory in Slavery’s Afterlives - Makshya Tolbert