Citing the Site
Carolyn Lewens, Monash University

Citing the Site
: referencing scientific data (from geomorphology, biology, physics, chemistry etc.) in the production of a series of exhibitions about water: Watermarks.

In this paper I want to raise issues of art practice and ecological perspectives particularly those that relate to the site and place of water in the landscape - to connect with the seasonability and fluidity of the wetlandscape. First I need to untangle my understanding of place: to unstill time and dislocate place, to cite eye-sight and place/site in order to re-vision experience. There is a dialectical relationship in contemporary spatiotemporal experience between increasing technological mediations of life, abstractions of space and time through virtual reality and cyberspace and our desire for being-in-place, for authenticity and belonging. This is not to suggest a return to some romantic pre-modern mythic past, nature as primordial etc., but to remember that life is embedded in systems that are complex and paradoxical.

My art practice can be described as post-photographic. I work on a variety of projects and collaborate with other artists, scientists, writers, musicians and community organisations to produce complex ensembles of image, sound, data and text. I use multimedia, both analogue and digital image capture; direct traces of reality via photogram and scanning; ‘unseen’ raw data derived from information systems and sound recording devices. Various digital processes of image capture and manipulation, together with multimedia, allow for the emergence of more fluid and transient aspects of understanding our relationships with the world; for interactivity, for fluid meanings and levels of truth. These media flows eventually become installations, sensory frameworks and staged scenarios that re-construct real places. Installation demands viewer engagement in a phenomenological way. I like the potency for interaction and questioning of experience that this affords.

Context, site and location are ways of interrogating meanings about place and place-making. The tangibility and uniqueness of places - their physicality and phenomenology, become more important as our experiences are mediated via technology. We are ‘out of place’, displaced and alienated from nature. Our sense of place has become homogenised as ‘one place after another’ [Kwon, 2002.168]. The interface between ourselves, our identity and the environment is becoming increasingly digitised and mediated by information technologies. Artists imagine place into being through their vision. However, terms such as space and time are in themselves problematic – we create spaces and make [as well as lose] time. Both are terms that help us understand the world but now our experiences in time and space are mediated through technology.

Our relationship with the natural world is at the crossroads. The underlying metaphor of how we are placed in the world has undergone huge change: largely from a perception of the world as living organism of which we are a part, an ontology of being, to one of becoming [Grosz, 1999.7]. Such a change of perception has led to our current ecological crisis. Much re-construction, de- construction and destruction of the natural environment into a cultural environment has further alienated us from nature. Our sense of place, once grounded in the physical, the organic and the communal has become displaced. Places are now virtual. Our maps contain geographic coordinates that once referred to real places but are now replaced by abstract data. We no longer need to go out, we can go online. The bit has replaced the atom in the same way the pixel has replaced photographic grain with a resulting loss of detail and the indexical trace of the real. Or has it? Are the virtual and the physical separate realms? Are materiality and information really separate? What does it mean if location becomes something less stable, multiple and more fluid, where adjacencies, links, connections and even networks push through boundaries and borders? I can belong in a network. Information in the form of data both describes and disguises. Understanding forms relationships out of the symbols and codes, meaning resides in contexts. Representations of representations create digital distance.

Information technologies, virtual reality and cyberspace are re- determining geographical and physical space. Humans are on a ride to reinvent and rediscover the world through electronic means. However some traces of the physical world remain if we care to notice them! There is still some residual sense of belonging. Many people still manage to connect with their local natural environment, particularly at the grassroots level and they also surf on the net. There is still a desire to stay in touch with nature, but the distance between ourselves and nature is fast becoming a divide. All places everywhere are undergoing exponential change. Our concept of place is no longer singular, it is less grounded in the physical, the organic and the communal, it too has become a set of coordinates. For many of us, particularly those who live in cities, nature is viewed as ‘out there’, away from the city centre and remote from daily life except for the organised ‘nature’ of our parks and gardens. Paradoxically the more nature is lost to us the more we are displaced without that connection. We are both connected to a greater unity, embedded in place, and simultaneously we are apart, displaced and alienated.

The underlying metaphor of the world has changed from a living organism that we are a part of, to a thing that we consume - hence our ecological crisis. It is timely to exercise some co-operative ethic of care if the natural world is to survive beyond isolated pockets of wilderness. Nature has traditionally been perceived on the level of the physical realm and as other, as wild places, places where nature is left to be and become, to grow and to die.

Issues of geographic location and site-specificity, along with such relevant issues as perception, process and participation, require new critical frameworks and methodologies in order to deal with the complexities of contemporary life. Further questions regarding the death of nature, the triumph of technology over nature, displacement, the relevance of the physicality of sight and site need to be aired. What visual and conceptual metaphors are appropriate for such new spatial situations and experiences? Mobile devices such as cell phones, and portable, networked, global positioning systems, as well as location-aware computers and satellite photography have forced a redefinition of the ways in which our identity is ‘placed’ the world. Such a challenge to our sense of being, our identity, as grounded in physical place, requires a reassessment and revisioning of ways of representing space, place, nature and our embodiment - our movement through and relationship to places in the world. Can we live without a body? Can we live without nature? These are ethical as well as representational issues for they foreground such notions as who we are... embodiment, belonging, ownership.

Water has become a big political issue with a high media profile. Stories about water or the drought now seek attention and get high ratings. For a long time water has been a sleeper: an urgent issue that did not get the media attention it warranted. Nobody wanted to know. Now there is debate but little redress. There is talk of money but it is a trickle rather than a mighty flow. The problems remain the same or have actually got worse.

Watermarks is a concept about water that travels. Rather than one exhibition that tours to various locations, it comprises an ongoing series of collaborative exhibitions that raise the profile of water through photomedia installations in regional contexts. Watermarks installations have so far focussed on wetlands, the confluence of rivers with the sea, drought and salinity affected rivers, bodies of water and river crossings. A re-siting occurs with each exhibition being located in close proximity to the specific landscape to which it refers.

Watermarks projects include:

Watermarks: Confluence at Warrnambool Art Gallery 1999 Watermarks: Crossings at Geelong Gallery 2000
Watermarks: Channels at Albury Regional Gallery in 2000
Watermarks: Cornered at The Royal Society, Melbourne 2004 Watermarks: Swamped at Sale Regional Gallery 2005

Each has been developed in relation to local water conditions and adapted to those ends via community involvement and consultation. Participation can mean juggling the interests of ordinary people, professional and grassroots greenies, CMA’s, farmers, politicians, arts bureaucrats etc. with those of the art. However such research is a fundamental process. Studio practice evolves through the fieldwork. Spending time in local places, both the physical and the social landscape is necessary in order to make sense of raw materials and sets of relationships between things. An experience of the physical environment on a phenomenological level is crucial to understanding the local eco-system - its history, geography and geomorphology. Environmental politics and art practice become catalysts for poetic visions and ecological dialogue.

Space, location and site have emerged as central concerns in the
Watermarks project. The geographical ‘space’ of both the topic as well as the physical location and context of the exhibitions have become part of the artistic canvas. The actual ‘site’ of water has varied with each exhibition as has the ‘sighting’ of the work, the way it is to be seen. Referencing site-specificity, geographical location, and fluid conditions are crucial to each project. Water offers a fluidity of meanings in regard to site and place-making - one can never step into the same river twice. It is moving, flowing, and multi-located. Watermarks deals with water as both abstract concept, as data and as living eco-systems of fluidity, flux and flow, seasonal systems that exist in time and space.

Watermarks uses the artistic process to generate critical debate on water issues both in local contexts as well as the broader ecological front. Its collaborative nature, foremost with media artist Neil Stanyer, but also with ‘experts’ – scientists, historians, geographers as well as the agency of local people make for open-ended projects and uncertain outcomes. However Watermarks is a curated project where such research is a starting point for artistic revisioning - where information, data, local know-how etc. is brought together for examination and education, for reflection and synthesis, where the role of the artist/curator is to listen as well as to act. The artworks are made by direct photographic traces via photogram and scanning techniques alongside multimedia, both analogue and digital image capture, sound, text and ‘unseen’ raw data derived from information systems and sound recording devices. These media flows eventually become installation pieces using sensory frameworks and staged scenarios that re-construct real places, issues or events. The installations are designed to engage the viewer in a phenomenological way. They have a potency for interaction and for questioning of experience.

Watermarks is not so much a case of modelling artistic concepts on the data of science but of using scientific data to further a broader artistic comprehension made evident via the artworks and installation. Watermarks: Swamped was such a project where engagement with the poetic dimension and wonderment of natural phenomena and processes was imperative. The call for complexity in our understanding of the wetlandscape, whether through artistic production or measurement of scientific data or by just being there, was alluded to through interaction with materials and examination of concepts such as nature, place, technology and representation. Meaning was destabilised through processes of immersion in motion and materiality, of fluidity and flux. The suitability of relying on eye- sight was questioned when dealing with sites such as wetlands, installation practice and information networks. A different kind of experience is needed, one perhaps that questions information and site. Surfaces and depths of both natural and semiotic systems need to be mapped in new ways so that new potentialities can unfold.

“Watermarks” promotes such new perspectives on the wetlandscape. Wetlands are rich and complex places where humans can find nourishment and also be challenged. They are places of beauty as well as danger, seasonal places of renewal of life through death. Ultimately we need to acknowledge our need to reconnect with these places and recognise the complexities of what they provide for us.

I want to highlight the way we interact with a fluid and sensate world to suggest that perhaps, like water, we flow through places rather than experience them as displacement. Scientific systems of measurement and mapping help us to understand the terrain, but now there is an excess of data. Turbulent global information flows require new skills of navigation, comprehension and connectivity in order to bridge the gap between the physicality of our existence and the devices which provide our interface with it – be they camera, computer, microscope, telescope or television or telephone. To negotiate these continuities and displacements of time and space we must allow for fluid possibilities that will unstill our sense of time and dislocate our sense of place.
Watermarks is an artistic vehicle which explores and champions these concerns.

Carolyn Lewens. Department of Fine Arts, Monash University. Bibliography

Grosz, E. (ed)
Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures, New York, Cornell University Press, 1999

Kwon, M. One Place After Another: site-specific art and locational identity, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2002