Sunday, 22 June 2014

Sabrina Abroad

Freshly returned from a repeat visit to the waters and islands of the Waddensee (Netherlands); there for a presentation of work-in-progress for my Sabrina Dreaming artist residency and the wider context of the Submerged (Drowned Lands) project. In the manner of previous blog-postings, I'm kicking off this report with trio of ship's names...
The first, Regina Andrea is from the harbour on Terschelling, the island-home of the amazing and adventurous Oerol festival, which I first encountered eleven years ago (more on this very soon). The second - also encountered on Terschelling - is the Morgana, a name that conjures up imaginings of nautical mirages (fata morgana) and the Arthurian and Avalonian enchantress of the celtic lands, Morgan le Fey. The Avalonian connection is most pertinent, as will become clear below. Morgan le Fay it seems is also associated with Sicily and Mt. Etna, and with sirens. (In a medieval French Arthurian romance she is called "mistress of the fairies of the salt sea"). Here on the Waddensee coast I glimpse perhaps a siren of a different nature?

The third boat in my selection above - seen a few days ago while on a kayaking excursion in myth-laden Cornwall, on the tidal Helford River (in fact, a ria...) - is the Annette Jegindo; oddly appropriate, since her crew informed me that she is named after an island on the muddy west coast of Denmark, a sweep around the coast from the Waddensee.

Annette Jegindo and Rosie the ship's dog
The context for the Dutch visit was a symposium called Sense of Place, dove-tailing with the culmination of the two-year Between The Tides coastal exchange/twinning between the Severn Estuary and the Waddensee. This has been a wonderfully expanding and enriching sharing of knowledge, methods and inspirations relating to these two coastal/tidal zones. The hope is that the twinning relationship will continue to thrive and bond.

What follows here is extracted from a couple of presentations to the extended Tides network and includes an update - together with Professor Steve Poole (UWE, Bristol) on our collaborative Submerged (Drowned Lands) process of exploration in the Somerset Levels, currently one of the two places where there is artistic research underway - both connected to the Severn Estuary and both ‘between the tides'. Both projects involve elements of reconnection; that between people and place; plus the reconnection between river/estuary and its severance from its natural floodplain zones.

I am a endless student of landscape, and these collaborative explorations are partly about developing models and methods of working with creativity and complexity in such landscapes. 

  • Submerged (Drowned Lands) - A longer term project; creative eco-geo-poetic explorations of landscapes where there are dynamic and often contentious dialogues between land, water and people. Extending perspectives and connectivities. A weaving, a tapestry. 
  • Creatively investigated through immersive sculptural installation (data-augmented spaces), sound and video. 
  • Natural and Cultural Ecosystems; the tensions within and between human and non-human realms.
  • Investigating material and intangible cultures of place, as a platform for the future.
  • Playing with time-frames, duration, journeys and juxtapositions

In addition, Submerged is suggestive of the hidden and obscured, a bringing to the surface from the depths. There is a remixing of light and dark; shadows and undercurrents; solar and lunar.

These three photographs were important in the genesis of the Sabrina Dreaming (Severn Estuary Tidelands) project, representing a complex meshing of cultural pilgrimage, ecological/estuary disconnection, social resistance and social sculpture. Their essences still resonate strongly in the process, as it moves forward.

the floodplain of the estuary...

Looming in the background of Sabrina Dreaming is the hydra-like Severn Barrage plan. The Angler’s Trust estimate that 25% of all salmonid spawning habitat in England and Wales lies upstream of the proposed barrage. The estuary is also a migratory route for sea lamprey, river lamprey, allis shad, twaite, shad and eel. In the Netherlands I've been told of an extraordinary project to aid fish migration. There is clearly some vital knowledge-sharing to be conducted here.

"The fish migration river is a nature restoration project aimed at building a fish passage through the Afsluitdijk. This passage will provide a connection so that migrating fish can swim freely between the Wadden Sea and the IJsselmeer. The 6-kilometre long river ensures a gradual transition from sea water to fresh water. This is better for migrating fish such as eel, which benefit from moving between the Wadden Sea and the Ijsselmeer."

These are some strands of a forthcoming short film, Transgression, based on three walking conversations on the estuary coast in the company of Dr Iain Biggs. We seek to interweave timescales of deep-time, ice(age)-time, human time, tide-time. The film will be part of an eco-symbolic mingling of the factual and imaginative in a sculptural installation. Selected site-specific materials serve to ground the ideas and build connection to the place. I am interested in making a connection between a 'geo' fieldwork frame-of-mind, and artistic research methods.

Recently, my hosts - the CCRI research group - accompanied me on a fact-finding excursion along the estuary coast. One of our ports of call was to a local farmer who has had intimate experience with flooding and who is leading a grass-roots campaign for justice.

Another kind of grass-roots determination - and struggle - was to be found at Newnham-on-Severn where we encountered the world of traditional fishing and the efforts being made to ensure its survival in the face of many challenges.

An increasingly important connection for the project is found further south where the River Avon meets the estuary. Here, the Learning Ships initiative is bringing school-groups on river/tide experiential boat-trips, encountering a range of perspectives on these waters - past, present and future. For me, these trips have been an opportunity to highlight topics such as the nature of the pre-urbanisation saltmarsh landscape and the richness of biodiversity that is still to be found, but of which much is unseen. On the most recent trip, I introduced the list of the 'Top 15' fish species (from the Severn, near Avonmouth), with a special emphasis on this impressive - and unsettling - mouth of the Lamprey.

Another rich strand of Sabrina Dreaming relates to the bronze figurines of the 'Aust Goddess', found at the coast at Aust near Bristol, which is also the site of the slowly crumbling ferry jetty that was one the main crossing point of the estuary. As one of the outputs emerging from the project, I'm devising a performative event - with experimental archaeologists - at a site on the coast which will re-cast these figurines.

Submerged (Drowned Lands) 2: Somerset Levels
What follows is some very brief content from the second Dutch presentation - this time exploring the Drowned Lands of the Somerset Levels (...aka Avalon Marshes).  A fuller version of this is available on my main blog site.

The possibilities here for Submerged (Drowned Lands) involve a gathering-in of diverse voices, as a platform for imagined adaptive futures. In the heightened post-flooding/flood-recovery context, the pairing of an historical researcher and an environmental artist-researcher can - to some extent - harmonise and interweave the official channels, institutional views, local voices, campaigning voices etc.

Getting up close and personal: a direct multi-sensorial contact with the materials and dynamics of the landscape, with strong echoes of historical and pre-historical being-in-this-place. This in-betweeness, in a liminal space, extracts us temporarily from the empiricism of maps and strategies, and from the everyday, into a realm of timelessness...

video still: dredging on the banks of the River Parrett
And finally, below - Avalon lands meet the Severn Estuary at Burnham-on-Sea, as seen from the heights of Brean Down.

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