Transforming Waterways

(Short paper I gave at the ‘Transforming Waterways’ session of the Global Ecologies – Local Impacts conference, Sydney University, 23-25 November 2016)

The question that I want to address in this paper is that of transformation, particularly art’s capacity to transform.

Here we are talking about waterways. How are waterways to be transformed and what role does art play in their transformation?

While I have no wish to insist upon some strict, old-fashioned sense of art as field set apart from ordinary action, I can’t help noticing that the problem of transformative action – of art’s space of action and capacity for action – remains a vital issue within contemporary art. Art regularly intervenes these days. So called ‘Socially Engaged Art’ (SEA) moves beyond galleries and conventional artworks to intervene in social processes and stage models for alternative social action and interaction. At its most radical, it dispenses with the ‘art’ word altogether and describes itself simply as ‘social practice’. Yet it is never quite social action as ordinarily conceived. It both engages with and struggles to slip free of conventional modes of social intervention. It celebrates a capacity to unsettle standard forms of socially remedial action – to frame them differently and to enable new possibilities to emerge. Social work, community work, ethnography, ecology and activism are mined as radical, non-art forms of practice, but are also made strange through their contextual repositioning within the framework of radical art.

This leads me to suggest that SEA moves beyond the contradictory inaction of modern art, but in a way that also disengages practice from itself – that renders it poised uncertainly between action and reflection.

My aim here is to examine the paradoxes of artistic action in relation to a particular project. Waterways of the Illawarra is an ongoing collaborative project involving artists, Kim Williams, Lucas Ihlein and myself. The project involves walking up the neglected waterways of the Illawarra region, chiefly around Wollongong, but extending south to Minnamurra and north to Helensburgh. We start at the sea and then walk inland along the waterways as far as we can – or until we run out of time or energy. We’d ideally like to make it all the way up to the top of the escarpment – to some creek flowing off a sandstone cliff, but have never made it that far. The waterways disappear beneath all kinds of infrastructure – roads, railway lines, factories and suburbs. If they miraculously make it to the lower reaches of the escarpment, then they quickly vanish into a steep and non-specific catchment.

The waterways disappear rapidly because they are only minor. There are no rivers, just a series of small, often rain dependent creeks. They once provided vital corridors for all kinds of life – and in ways they still do – but they now typically appear as neglected and disregarded spaces. They may be walked, but only occasionally take shape as pathways. More often there is the experience of impediments – of walks blocked by walls, fences, dense lantana and the transmogrification of broad serpentine corridors into focused and linear underground drains.

Why do we walk these creeks? I guess it is about physically navigating the implications of prosaic environmental change. The minor nature of these creeks, their ready disappearance, provides precisely the rationale for our walking them. It is about noticing that the creeks are still there despite what has happened to them. It is about discovering their implicit curves and reflecting upon everything that renders them so opaque – so nearly invisible, so marginally evident. So we walk along them. And other people join us. And we talk about all kinds of things, not necessarily just about the waterways. And we pick up plastic bongs and laugh at obscene graffiti. Sometimes we draw maps. We often take photographs. And somebody usually writes an account of the walk for the WOTI blog.

All of this sounds very much like art – walking, observing, collecting, representing, etc. – but recently we have been joined by people who would like to do more, who would like, for instance, to return sections of creeks to their ‘original’ pre-colonial state, or to create alternative transport corridors that link people to the beach and community facilities in lightweight and environmentally sensitive ways. We have discussed the project with local Bushcare groups and independent ecologists and environmental scientists who are interested in intervening practically in the waterways – cleaning them up, replanting them, submitting plans to Council to build signposted paths, etc. This is another order of encounter and intervention that raises issues in terms of how we conceive our project – its identity and scope for action.

At one level, however, it presents no issues for us. WOTI was always conceived as a dialogic project. It has aimed to mobilise discussion and social interaction around our local waterways. As a meta-level means of fostering engagement and action, the success of the project is evident precisely in its capacity to move beyond standard conceptual-reflective art practices and to encourage forms of action that shift the focus into other terrains of action.

But still there is the issue of how we can maintain that slight distance that allows all of these new relationships and possibilities for action to emerge. My suggestion is that this involves reflecting upon the limits of everything that we attempt to do (and are being drawn into doing). Art is vestigially evident as an internal critique or hesitation within the space of action itself. Art’s action is to both to set action in play and to suspend it.

Why this double movement? Here the complex history of the notion of the aesthetic is evident. The aesthetic is cast within Enlightenment philosophy (Kant, Schiller, Hegel) as opposed to utility and desire – to all forms of causally, instrumentally and subjectively motivated action. Struck outside the ordinary frames of active social being, it is nonetheless fundamentally concerned with grounding our basis in the world – with reconciling dimensions of understanding and experience and with manifesting a potential for human freedom. Later, from a jaundiced modern perspective, it comes to manifest contradictions – the impossibility of reconciliation between fact and value and between the rhetoric of freedom and its endless historical ruin. Despite his awareness of the contradictory status of art and the aesthetic, the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno draws hope from the very texture of these antagonisms. In its alienation from action, in its endlessly belittled and compromised state, art retains a capacity to convey the truth – not so much the truth of any particular work of art, but the truth of a fragmentation of existence generally.

But surely this pessimistic modernist vision is not characteristic of contemporary SEA? Instead, as I mentioned earlier, SEA revels in its powers to intervene within the social – to overturn the alienation of the aesthetic, to return to art a capacity to meaningfully connect and act. Nonetheless, I wish to argue that if SEA hesitates, if it encounters moments of awkwardness and uncertainty, it is precisely in terms of its difficult relation to the possibility and sufficiency of action.

Consider, for instance, the actions that we are contemplating. We could wander along waterways collecting garbage. We could assist in cleaning up creeks and restoring them to some nostalgic-imaginary green state. We could build nature walks, lined with sculptures and Indigenous signage. But what would this actually accomplish? Arguably it may provide a useful model for artistically fostered local environmental practice, but it would also – at least to some extent – represent an evasion of the particularity of these creek environments and the broader crisis that they represent. It would provide the consolation of action, but the action itself would ultimately be inadequate. Art loses all its force, of its capacity to manifest contradictions, if it imagines that it can literally ameliorate, so it must step back somehow – in no matter how small a way – from its social and ecological interventions. It must find means of acknowledging their inadequacy and limitations.

None of this provides an excuse for avoiding action altogether. None of this means we should break off our dialogue with groups who wish to clean up waterways and reclaim them as sustainable natural corridors, but the art in all this does not lie in the ‘success’ of the actions themselves, but in their capacity to render particular tensions and uncertainties, to honestly address and engage with the complexity of contemporary circumstances. Our art lies in retaining an aspect of critical, imaginative and reflective reticence within the space of any action that we attempt.

Postscript A (scribbled note to self)

To act is not possible because no action is adequate, but since action is always inadequate – always falling short, always revealing new contradictions, it retains its aesthetic possibility, which involves a dimension of revealing. Inaction is a means of revealing the shortcomings of action – and it can occur within the space of action itself.

Postscript B (some quick notes written on the train up to give my paper. They address the issue of aesthetic uselessness, which had been raised the previous day in the artist’s roundtable.)

Paradox: art obtains its use value precisely through its uselessness. So what is this obscure uselessness that makes art socially useful? It is actually by advocating a space of value that is quite closely linked to our concerns here – in this conference that is concerned with how artists, social scientists and activists can effectively respond to the global environmental crisis.

We need to be clear about this – uselessness is not about denying the use value of art per se, but rather of conceiving a non-appetitive and non-exploitative relation to things. Rather than perceiving something as desirable or instrumentally useful – as something that can serve your own interests – it is perceived in terms of its capacity to enable an experience of recognition (an alignment of the apriori and the sensible world). Unlike ordinary cognition, the particular thing is not subsumed beneath a general concept/idea. Unlike ordinary social action, the particular thing is not engaged with in terms of purposive, means-end action. In this manner the notion of the aesthetic – of aesthetic uselessness – is profoundly about trying to conceive a non-destructive relation to the world. The difficulty, of course, is that this can only be conceived in terms of a necessary disengagement from anything conventionally conceptual or practical. A non-exploitative relation to particularity and otherness is envisaged, but only in the basis that interaction is suspended in a moment of recognition.

This recognition is allocated crucial value. It establishes the sensible basis for human community. It is the quiet, demarcated, separate space that grounds every other realm of human thinking, value and activity.

Despite our protestations, I don’t see that any of us have really given up on this paradox. We say art is useful, but precisely in terms of its playful relation to existing forms of social agency. Art loses its value if it becomes neatly instrumental. It loses its capacity to unsettle standard modes of experience and action. This unsettling is clearly useful in all kinds of ways. It becomes useful precisely by unsettling our ordinary ‘useful’ relation to the world.

Finally – and drifting slightly away from the issue of uselessness – I can’t help wondering about this work of unsettling? Is it really what defines our radicalism?

We heard yesterday that artists work to unbalance inertial social forces, but what is at rest and what is in play? And is art as essentially radically progressive as we imagine? From another perspective, we could say that art is just as much conservative as progressive. Perhaps it is most progressive in its conservatism.

Art has traditionally always been about the performance and maintenance of culture through space and time. This is the major concern of primarily oral cultures, where the entropic forces of forgetting and cultural disintegration are constantly evident. As many have argued, it is perhaps global capital that is the most radical and disintegrative force, changing our social experience and the contours of the global ecosystem in the most blindly forceful and unsustainable ways. If art now becomes focused on environmental crisis, it does so less to innovate precisely than to stress crucial dimensions of traditional value that have become lost. It becomes conservative in the best sense of the term. So art works to make strange the far more radical making strange that global capital is enacting.

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