To some, the Water City Bristol project with its four apparently disparate projects around ‘daylighting’ culverted, hidden or forgotten rivers; hidden ecologies; tidal reaches; and care for infrastructure, may seem oddly random, even given the overall sense of an ecological orientation. In my view this is not the case, particularly if we start to think about it in the expanded context I want to suggest here.
In her recent blog on this site, Lindsey McEwen writes about our “working with local people in South Bristol to explore creative engagements with culverted and ‘hidden or forgotten rivers’ in Bristol”. This process of ‘daylighting’ is highly resonant for somebody like myself with an interest in the joined-up thinking/doing that academics call ‘connectivity’ and Felix Guattari called ‘ecosophy’; and in social psychology. Resonant because it is suggestive of the psychoanalytical processes by which repressed unconscious material is once again brought to the surface, to the attention of the collective mind or culture.
This analogy fits well with Lindsey’s equating the exposure of “long-buried” rivers with a process akin to their ‘being exposed to fresh air after decades of burial’. So my sense of context for what WCB is trying to do can be understood in this sense; as a lifting of repression. What needs to be brought into the light of day, in our case, is the long discarded or repressed animist mode of thinking that once allowed humans to see ourselves as simply one kind of living organism within the mesh of vibrant matter that has been called Gaia, an ecosophical understanding that side-steps the usual sharp distinctions between human and non-human modes of being in the world. Instead it thinks in terms of the all-togetherness of three interwoven yet distinct fields - the constellation of identities that makes up a self, the social, and the environment.
In her blog Lindsey also points out that:
The activities of collective walking - to trace a particular route or honour a place - and storytelling (understood as the sharing of significant narratives) come close to being our culture’s best equivalents to ritual participation in the active social maintenance of place found in most cultures other than our own. Traditionally, walking as pilgrimage and storytelling grounded in the local landscape were two ways in which a sense of the numinous quality of place, its physical and cultural sense of depth (even of spirituality in a pagan sense), were maintained.
Consequently I would argue that, under the growing pressure of socio-ecological upheaval, we are now increasingly seeing a re-emergence of an ‘open’ or ‘non-aligned form of spirituality in that animist or pagan sense. Also that, at least in certain respects, this brings us closer to a fuller sense of place found in animist cultures.
I’m by no means the only person to notice this shift or re-emergence. While in my view it’s necessary to set aside the all-too-often often rather puerile reductivism of ‘New Age’ thinking, there is plenty of more nuanced evidence even within the academic sphere.
The art commentator and anarchist thinker Rebecca Solnit writes in As Eve Said To The Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (2001) about alternatives to the still dominant assumptions about the relationship between linear temporality, creation and place that flows from the traditions of the three monotheistic Religions of the Book (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). Solnit notes that certain artists adopt an alternative approach to time that echoes that in “Native American creation stories”, evoking ”a worldview in which creation of the world is often continual and sometimes comic improvisation, without initial perfection or a subsequent fall” (Solnit 2001:12). That, it seems to me, is close enough to what is going on – psycho-socially speaking - with the walks and the storytelling that Lindsey refers to.
Mainstream academic thinking, which is still conditioned by assumptions that Enlightenment thinking inherited from the monotheism of the three great Religions of the Book is not comfortable with any talk of either non-aligned spirituality or of neo-animism, both of which it regards as relics of a pre-modern era. None-the-less, the perspectives on the world that these invite are now being taken seriously at the creative edges of academic work, for example by respected thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers. Furthermore, the consequences of taking those perspectives seriously are being put into practice in everyday contexts by a variety of creative individuals and groups.
A good example of this practical work is a recent doctoral project undertaken by Ciara Healy, a PhD student at UWE, Bristol who teaches at Reading University. Earlier this year Ciara organized a multi-faceted project to draw attention to these perspectives as part of a doctoral project. This led to the Thin Place exhibition, together with an accompanying symposium and a series of education events, involving the Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. Without going into great detail about Ciara's project here (a description can be found at: http://orielmyrddingallery.co.uk/event/thin-place/) - it seems to me that in drawing attention to these perspectives and in various other respects the aims, range and scope of her project model the kind of inclusive, ‘ecosophical’ approach that, personally speaking, I hope Water City Bristol is aiming to demonstrate in practice.
There is always a concern that re-introducing such perspectives is somehow a sign of a ‘mystical’ or ‘anti-scientific’ bias. Yet the Thin Place exhibition catalogue included commissioned texts by astrophysicist Haley Gomez, as well as the astrologer Mark Jones, Franciscan Brother Joseph MacMahon, and the poet Cherry Smyth; while the symposium speakers included a transformational therapist, a cultural ethnographer, artists, a lecturer in art and philosophy, an archaeologist specialized in prehistoric ritual sites in Wales, and myself as an artist/researcher/teacher interested in matters of place. It’s also indicative that the educational aspect of the project included, among other events, a critical writing competition and story-telling event for primary school children.
There may be no very easily discerned links between daylighting culverted, hidden or forgotten rivers, exploring hidden ecologies and tidal reaches, and care for the urban infrastructure, at least if these topics are seen from the usual instrumental and disciplinary perspectives. However, once we choose to see them in an expanded, ecosophical light, as resonant with open metaphorical as well as literal meanings and concerns, they each start to resonate with each other via tropes that relate to our psycho-social need to address issues of loss, change, flux, and care. Issues that are ultimately bound up with that sense of meaning and purpose that has traditionally been thought of as the domain of religion, of spirituality. To address, that is, the concerns traditionally referred to as those that preoccupy the ‘thought of the heart’, concerns that form bridges between our constellated selves, society and the environment.
Iain Biggs is part of NOVA, the creative collective advising and co-creating Water City Bristol. He can also be found blogging on his personal website at: