By Katherine Jones
Two years ago an arts collective called Artists Project Earth (APE) came up with the idea of a whale sculpture in Bristol's Millennium Square. This year, thanks to Arts Council Funding and an arts organisation called Codsteaks, Millennium Square is proudly hosting not one but two incredible whales made of steel and locally sourced (Somerset) willow, beautifully woven into the fluid dynamic shapes. The whales are surrounded by a vibrant sea, constructed from 100,000 plastic bottles, collected from 10K running events in Bristol and Bath. One of the whales is breaching, it's shiny eye gleaming in the light, and every so often, to the surprise and excitement of onlookers, it spouts! The other is present only in the form of a tail, disappearing into the plastic sea.
Yesterday evening I attended an event held at @Bristol, behind where the whales are, which involved a series of films and talks about whales, the oceans, and the effects of human activities (mostly horrendous, but there were some happy stories too).
The evening began with a short film about the making of the whales. Codsteaks is a truly amazing Bristol arts organisation specialising in 3D design. It was great to get an insight into the making of the incredible whale sculptures and my fondness for them was increased by hearing about their construction, particularly the use of willow and the way in which this meant that the sculpture was not the kind of even, predictable, uniform thing that might be made in a mould or by casting. Instead it was the work of many hands weaving, sometimes in quite distinctive ways (so that the organiser would move people around so that patches were not too different from others). As a sculpture then, this was co-created by many people, a beautiful testimony to cooperation. Inspiring I thought.
A bit of a diversion, but this comes to mind now. Some time ago I watched a documentary about different types of primate, our closest animal relatives. The documentary focused on two in particular, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Chimpanzees have long been thought of as human's closest relatives. As a society they are aggressive, hierarchical, competitive, male-dominated and violent. Bonobos on the other hand, equally related to humans, form into matriarchal societies and display a great deal of cooperation and peacefulness. Rather than fighting with other groups of bonobos for instance, they get together and groom and then the two bands may travel together for a while. The naturalists talking about these species suggested that the way we perceive our relationship to the other animals affects how we see ourselves. If we see ourselves like the chimpanzees we think that violence and competition is our default or most natural behaviour. Seeing ourselves as more like the bonobos however, changes that narrative. Furthermore, one commentator suggested that the history of humans is far more a history of cooperation than it is one of conflict. Why is it that our history books are filled with accounts of conflict then? Perhaps because in fact this is out of the ordinary, fascinating in how badly things went wrong... However even accounts of war are filled with accounts of cooperation and people helping each other... But I digress. My musings on this are to do with my impression of the building of the whales, as a cooperative activity in which people put their egos aside and worked together. If we could extend such cooperation to our environmental problems we would be on the right track.
Following Codsteaks, we heard from Doug Allen, underwater cameraman. My favourite presentation of the evening involved incredible still and moving images, as well as sound recordings of incredible animals. I was transported into an underwater world - and world is the correct term, an almost altogether alien place for most of us, and full of wonders. We saw humpback whales come face-to-face with Doug, trying to get a better look; their immense bodies vertical in the water, to come eye-to-eye. A gathering of curious beluga whales whose collective calls sound like a flock of canaries! And a mass of narwhals fishing between moving ice in Iceland, and becoming momentarily trapped so that they all have to surface in a small space, their amazing tusks slicing the air in a kind of dance. The sight and sounds were nothing short of magical and I felt transported and moved to these wonderful places, wonderful creatures. I was struck too by Doug himself, the way he spoke of his interactions. The way he seemed to listen to them. When you get in the water with these creatures, he said, you have to get on their wavelength.
Doug was followed by another film-maker. This time producer Adam White pre-viewing an upcoming BBC programme about Monterey Bay, a success story in conservation terms. The footage here again was amazing, and from a story that began with the decimation of habitats and species, it ended with a hopeful return and a message that the oceans were resilient, and there was still time to undo some of the damage. Not all, mind. Ocean acidification and global warming are having serious impacts on coral ecosystems and beyond, but it was positive that in some cases, such as with the creation of a marine conservation zone (the first) in Monterey Bay, that ecosystems can sometimes recover. [I did wonder however what the impact of the recent oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast might mean for this ecosystem]. There will be several live broadcasts on BBC from Monterey Bay about this success story in late August.
After seeing all these beautiful and amazing creatures, we were then in for some harsh truths about our current human world and where it is going terribly wrong. Plastics.
Two presenters talked about plastics in the ocean. Jo Ruxton, who for three-years has been making a film about plastics in the ocean showed some clips from this. We saw a shearwater being cut open, it's guts absolutely full of little bits of plastic, clearly the cause of its death. A seal with its head trapped in plastic fishing net. And the results of a trawl through the 'great garbage patch' in the Pacific Ocean, showing how the bits of plastic were broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. Worst of all the plastic beads which are how plastic is transported before it is melted down and moulded into shapes, are exactly the size of fish eggs. When these find their way into the system, as they often do (we are shown someone holding handfuls of them mixed with beach debris), birds and small sea creatures eat them in large quantities. And we now know that plankton are ingesting tiny bits of plastic, and plankton are then eaten by fish, and fish, by humans. So we are literally eating our rubbish.
The film clips and Jo's talk gave a very balanced view I thought on the subject of plastics. She recognised the huge value they have to our lives, showing an image of a premature baby being kept alive thanks to lots of plastic tubes. The main issue she pointed to, was single-use plastics. And I whole-heartedly agree with this. I think it is truly ludicrous that we are producing in such massive quantities, using so much energy, and oil, items that will be used one time and then thrown away. There is something seriously wrong with this and we need to make a big change. One option would be to make the manufacturers and users (e.g. drinks companies) responsible for the plastic waste in the ocean. Jo suggested that one good step would be to at least have plastic waste in the oceans classified as hazardous waste. Amazingly, it is currently not. If it was, existing regulations would go some way to dealing with the problem.
To bring things closer to home (and I have deliberately put these out of sequence in my write-up), Natalie from City to Sea showed a couple of clips, filmed on her iPhone of plastic collected on the banks of the River Avon. A shocking amount of plastic. It starts here people. We all have a responsibility. We can all do something. Interestingly for our project, the first film she showed was from the high tide in March, when we were having our World Water Day event and she made reference to the fact that just upstream people were admiring the high tide, while from where she was standing she was watching masses of plastic debris floating out to sea. Perhaps our next participatory event should be a litter pick on our own river?
The evening ended with an overview of APE projects. Again, hugely inspirational. Through producing albums with musicians from around the world, the project is raising money to fund recover projects in areas hit by disasters, and multiple projects to help mitigate environmental damage. I highly recommend looking them up.
It was a moving evening. I won't lie, there were tears, but also a huge amount of wonder, and indeed hope. I left feeling I knew more, because I had felt more. There is some difference between knowing something intellectually, and feeling something. Feeling empathy, wonder, the joy of an encounter with another species, looking into the eye of a huge whale and hearing them singing and chattering, and the sadness of connecting a careless action with harm to another being...