Guddling About: an ecological performance practice with water and other nonhuman collaborators
This interactive photo-essay is an exegesis1 of an ongoing practice research project titled Guddling About, which hinges around an evolving suite of performances with rivers and other watercourses. Guddling About uses performance2 as a means of exploring human-environmental interrelations, with a specific focus on humans’ interrelations with water. The project was initiated by artist-researcher Nick Millar and I, in collaboration with the Bow River and its tributaries, in 2013 in Alberta, Canada. The Guddling performances typically take the form of seemingly simple, playful, and often apparently foolish actions that we3 enact with watercourses, water, and other nonhuman and human participants. The essay outlines the methodology and research imperatives for the project. It evokes and reflects on some of the performances, locating them in critical conversation with a spectrum of ecological thinking and arts practices. The essay concludes by proposing some of the qualities of Guddling as a critical, ecological arts practice. An earlier version of this essay was published in GeoHumanities 5(2), December 2019 (Donald, 2019). This interactive version includes links to projects referenced in the published essay and to iterations of Guddling About that took place after the published essay was written.
METHODOLOGIES: ECOLOGICAL ARTS PRACTICE AND ‘WEAK PERFORMANCE’, EXEGESIS AND POSTHUMAN PHENOMENOLOGY
Nick and I consider Guddling, and our practice more broadly, to be an ecological practice. That is, we see it as a practice through which human-environmental interrelations are mobilised, experienced and attended to, in an attempt to understand better what it means to live and die ethically as humans in a world that we recognise as much more than human. We use the complex and contested term, ecological, in the sense meant by scholars such as Donna Haraway (2016), Jane Bennett (2008), Tim Ingold (2011), and Timothy Morton (2018). Here, ecology is understood as a way of thinking that conceives humanity as bound up within a continuously shifting network (or meshwork in Ingold’s case) of human and other-than-human stuff.4 Our ecological practice centres around the concept of performance as a more-than-human activity. That is, in our practice we foreground performance as something that humans and other-than-humans do, and do together in ways that are entangled, complex, and always in flux. Through our practice we try to negotiate these entanglements, with their inherent antagonisms, conflicts, coalescences, and accordances. We make efforts to locate ourselves as ‘mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings’ (Haraway 2016, 1) not in the belief that we can find solutions to environmental issues threatening humans and other species, but in the hope that we might become more attuned to our enmeshment within a more-than-human world that is in a state of perpetual transformation. We see our practice as ‘weak performance.’ Carl Lavery proposes this category when espousing the ecological, more-than-human potential of some contemporary theatre and performance practices (2016). Weak performance offers a challenge to the anthropocentrism of theatre and performance, which typically place humans and humanist thought at their core, certainly within European and anglophone traditions. Our foregrounding of other-than-human agency, and embrace of irresolution and uncertainty, aligns our practice with weak performance in its aspiration to ‘trouble notions of mastery and intentionality, to remain hypothetical and suspensive’ (Lavery 2016, 230). Weak performance might offer a way of acting that acknowledges that we humans ‘shouldn’t immediately know what to do,’ in the face of mass extinction and climate crises. (Morton 2018, 28)
This essay is an exegesis of practice-in-process and is, thus, both reflective and generative. That is, reflection on the performance practice generates new performance iterations, which in turn prompt fresh reflection and insights. Some commentary and reflection in the essay reiterates my previous writings about the project, revisiting and re-framing them in light of new critical interlocutions and insights gained through subsequent Guddling performances (Donald 2014, 2015, 2016). The methods I use to evoke and reflect on the performances have affinity with Astrida Neimanis’ ‘posthuman phenomenology’ (2017). She argues for a form of ‘phenomenological intuiting’ that starts with an ‘embodied attunement to the world and our own bodies.’ This ‘embodied attunement’ can be ‘amplified’ through means such as arts practices, scientific knowledge and tools, thus allowing us humans to access our connectivity within a more-than-human universe. Neimanis recognises and embraces the paradox of harnessing a phenomenological methodology – a methodology in which the experience of the embodied human subject is pivotal – to a philosophy and ethics that aspires to a posthuman, or more-than-human, dispersal of subjectivity and corporeality. The paradox of Neimanis’ posthuman phenomenology, which endorses the inescapability of ‘body-subjects’ while aspiring to inhabit a post or more-than-human world, is at the core of our performance practice and research imperatives.
Guddling is framed by four, linked research questions:
What might performing with rivers and other watercourses reveal about the potential of more-than-human performance as an ecological practice?
How might the performance tactics employed enable us to address the paradoxes of more-than-human performance: the inescapability of our human subjectivity and corporeality, our persistent recourse to human communication systems and values?
How might performing with rivers and other watercourses allow us to attend to and understand better both the commonality of human-water interrelations and the specific characteristics of human-water inter-dependency in diverse contexts?
And how might this enhanced understanding of human-water interrelations at local level help to address water-related environmental issues, such as flooding, drought, and pollution?
These questions are emergent, and subject to revisiting and revision as the project unfolds through new iterations, in new locations, and in dialogue with further critical interlocutors.
CRITICAL FRAMES AND STRUCTURE OF THE ESSAY
Guddling intersects with three overlapping fields of thinking and practice: ludic practices in art and geography; haptic and non-representational, or more-than-representational, theories and practices; and new or vital materialism and material feminism. Regarding the first frame, Guddling is closely aligned with a cluster of contemporary art practices that hinge around playfulness through valorising the absurd or seemingly pointless over the pragmatic, improvisation over planning, and somatic engagement over cognitive comprehension. These ludic arts practices find common ground with ludic geographies. They share conceptual underpinnings, for example in the work of performance scholar Richard Schechner (1993), and aspirations to explore the resistant and generative potential of playfulness. In both arts and geography practices the ludic is mobilised as a mode of being that infiltrates quotidian routines, or ‘the worknet’ (Schechner 1993, 42), unsettling or re-framing taken-for-granted behaviours and beliefs. Playfulness is proposed as means of prioritising the somatic over the cognitive, thus ‘exceed[ing] representational regimes’ (Woodyer 2012, 319) and amplifying the affective (Harker 2005, Lorimer 2007, Woodyer 2012). Some ludic practices question the privileged and discrete status of the human artist or performer, signalling that human agency is always bound up with other-than-human agencies (Hopfinger 2018). In Guddling, our ludic-but-sincere approach is an acknowledgement of the absurdity of aspiring to be more-than-human. It is intended to deflate human-exceptionalist assumptions of supremacy, which place humanity in a position of responsibility, or blame, for the other-than-human environment. Acknowledgement of this absurdity is often missing in some more direct, didactic, or moralistic eco-art and activist approaches, where calls to address specific environmental issues can serve to reinstate human-exceptionalist positions of responsibility and blame. As Timothy Morton (2018) argues, the preachy tone of some ecological arts practice and writing, which points the finger at humanity for instigating environmental crises, can simply be met with resistance or induce feelings of guilt and powerlessness that result in inaction. In the essay I cite several affiliated ludic arts practices. However, Guddling draws most explicitly on the work of Fluxus, a loose grouping of artists active predominantly during the 1960s and 1970s. Their most significant and influential legacy, arguably, is a collection of event scores, published as the Fluxus Performance Workbook (Friedman, Smith, and Sawchyn 2002). The event scores comprise a collection of instructions for actions that are often oblique or absurd, and more or less possible for humans to enact. In this essay I refer to Guddling’s co-option of the event score as ecological practice, a subject about which I have previously written at more length (Donald 2016).
I approach the second critical frame, haptic geographies and non/more-than-representational theory and practice, also from the perspective of performance studies and practice. Affinities between performance studies/practice and haptic geographies and non/more-than-representational theory are well-established (Dewsbury et al 2002, Thrift 1997). For these geographers, performance is a means of accessing sensuous and affective modes of being and expression, which can extend fieldwork possibilities and the typically scopic bias of some geographical practice by mobilising ‘the many communicative registers of the body’ (Thrift 2003). In Guddling, we use performance in a similar way: as a tactic for questioning and expanding human systems of communication, and for accentuating sensory and affective engagement. However, following Hayden Lorimer’s contention that expression is always more-than rather than non- representational (2005) we see Guddling as a more-than-representational practice. While we foreground somatic, sensuous and affective interactions with water in the Guddling performances, the pervasive metaphorical dimensions of human-water interrelations are equally present and important. Like Cecilia Chen, Janine McLeod and Astrida Neimanis (2013) we believe that ‘corporeal sensibility’ is always entwined with, shaped by, and shaping of our cultural associations with water and our understandings of its symbolic and ritual values. Guddling engages critically and generatively with water as matter and metaphor.
The final critical frame, ecological thinking emerging from the fields of new and feminist materialisms, provides the main scaffolding for the essay. We recognise that within these inter-linked philosophical movements there are varied, and sometimes conflicting, positions. For us, their most significant characteristic is a shared aim to urge us humans to take seriously the idea that stuff that we perceive as not human has vitality and force. While humans can never fully understand the vitality of other-than-human matter, attempting to acknowledge and attend to this vitality in our everyday lives might help to unsettle our ingrained sense of ourselves as exceptional, and thus enable us humans to exist in less hierarchical and arrogant relationships with the stuff that is not typically identified as human. As Jane Bennett (2010, 119) puts it, we humans need ‘everyday tactics for cultivating an ability to discern the vitality of matter.’ The reflections on the Guddling performances that constitute the middle section of the essay are structured around four key ideas proposed by a trio of critical thinkers from this field. These are: Bennett’s advocacy of strategic anthropomorphism (2010), Donna Haraway’s entreaty to ‘stay with the trouble’ and conception of ‘making kin’ (2016), and Karen Barad’s theory of ‘intra-action’ (2007). I preface the reflections on the performances with factual and contextual information about the Guddling project, and an overview of the Guddling practice, including our use of the word ‘guddle.’
THE GUDDLING ABOUT PROJECT
Since its initiation in Canada in 2013, Guddling About has had iterations in Scotland, Australia, Germany, England, Finland, and Spain. This essay focuses on four Guddling performance projects: Guddling About: Alberta, 2013; Watermeets: Nithsdale, 2015; Watermeets: Hamburg, 2016; and Watermeets: Kuopio, 2017. Guddling About: Alberta emanated from a funded artists’ residency with the City of Calgary’s Department for Utilities and Environmental Protection, Alberta, Canada.5 Watermeets: Nithsdale was commissioned by and performed at the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland, Nithsdale, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.6 Watermeets: Hamburg was performed at Kampnagel arts complex, Hamburg, Germany during the Theater der Welt Festival and funded as part of the Performance Studies international annual conference. And Watermeets: Kuopio was commissioned by and performed at ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art, Kuopio, Finland.7
Guddling is a Scots language word that means, in its verb form, to act in a playful and undirected way, or to mess about. Guddling also has watery connotations. Another definition of the word is to catch fish by hand, groping under banks and rocks in rivers where they lurk.8 Guddle is onomatopoeic. It sounds watery, suggesting the noise of water running over stones or when agitated by hand. As a noun (to be in a guddle) the word means to be in a muddle, a state of confusion, or an entanglement. Guddling connotes the ludic, the haptic, and a form of unassuming and improvisatory — ‘weak’ — activity (Lavery 2016). It seems a very apt word for our approach towards an ecological, more-than-human performance practice.
Each Guddling performance is devised in response to the particular watery context in which we are working. We typically spend time in each location, observing how water appears, moves, and disperses, and the local characteristics of human-water interaction. Often, we meet and speak to residents and experts about their relationships with water. However, while each Guddling performance is context-specific, we also repeat and adapt aspects of the performances; actions and elements may recur in each iteration of the work, in each new locale. This, we believe, reflects something of the commonality of human-water interrelations, while responding to the unique conditions in each location. Our approach recognises ‘our joint implication within a hydrocommons,’ while contending that ‘living ecologically demands more attention to difference, and any theory on the relationality of bodies of water must readily answer this demand (Neimanis 2017, 20).9
The Guddling performances generally take the form of seemingly simple, naïve and playful actions, which may appear foolish or futile, but which we undertake as earnest attempts to attend to human-water interrelations. We perform ‘silly’ actions, which do not appear to conform to the routine, taken-for-granted behavior of human adults within late capitalist systems, with serious intent. We adopt a ludic-but-sincere approach in recognition of the absurdity of trying to transcend our humanity, and as a tactic for puncturing the human-exceptionalist arrogance that sees humanity as responsible for the other-than-human environment. The unassuming style and modest scale of the public manifestations of Guddling can belie the involved negotiations and organisation required to realise them. The complexity behind the Guddling actions is not made apparent in the public experience of the work, but is left intentionally understated. The actions are typically accompanied by only scant and allusive contextual or interpretive material, and accounts of our process are not included alongside the public performances. We hope that those who witness or participate in the Guddling actions might experience them as poetic distillations that hint at complexity and intertwined relations. We hope that audience-participants will surmise, sense or imagine complexities for themselves through engaging with the actions, rather than being guided by our narration.
Each performance also exists in the form of a performance score. Some of the scores precede our performed actions, some were written after we had performed the actions, and some have subsequently been modified in response to different situations. The Guddling scores are open source: we offer them freely to be performed and adapted by any human and other-than-human collaborators.10 The Guddling performance scores owe a significant debt to the Fluxus artists’ event scores. Our Guddling scores adopt the concise style of Fluxus language. Like the Fluxus scores, they are propositions for playful actions that rarely have use value. Our Guddling practice, however, identifies and builds on latent tendencies in Fluxus as a more-than-human practice. While the ecological intent is not made explicit in Fluxus scores, some appear to be written for other-than-human performers (Donald 2016, 256). Like the Fluxus scores, our scores also function as prompts for performances that may be both physically enacted and imagined. The past, present, or future performances to which the Guddling scores refer may be realised physically, as activities actually undertaken with watercourses, but they are also intended to be imagined and performed solely through their reading.
The first Guddling action that we devised and performed was Water Carry, in collaboration with the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta.
Water Carry (v.1)
Scoop water from the Bow River with cupped hands.
Carry the water in your hands as far as possible from the river.
Stop when there is no water left in your hands.
In Water Carry (Image 2) some of the paradoxes of our ecological practice are manifested. In Water Carry, and in further Guddling performances, we purport to collaborate with water, watercourses, and other nonhuman matter. The collaboration is intended to acknowledge the vitality and agency of other-than-human stuff and to compel us to become more attentive to it. In Water Carry the water can be ascribed with agency, in that the rate it trickles through our fingers partly determines the length of each performance. The water’s agency is also read in parallel performance scores that it ‘writes’: the trails of drips left on the ground in the course of each Water Carry (Image 3). Other nonhuman collaborators have agency too, influencing the form and duration of each Water Carry performance. Among those collaborators we count steep, stony riverbanks; railings; stairways; roads; and traffic, which presented obstacles and made it difficult to hold on to the water. In one instance, silt from the bed of the Bow River formed seals between our fingers, allowing us to carry water surprising distances (Image 4). However, the agency of the other-than-human in the Guddling performances is always circumscribed by our human intent. It is we who instigate the performances and we who encapsulate them, using human language, in the performance scores. This paradox is pivotal to our practice: our desire to acknowledge and embrace the agency and liveliness of our other-than-human collaborators and to challenge our anthropocentrism, while recognising the impossibility of evading our sense of ourselves as human subjects, and our enmeshment in human societal and cultural structures and systems, such as language. Engaging with this paradox — the paradox of ‘weak performance’ (Lavery 2010) — positions our work in critical dialogue with the four key ideas cited in the introduction to this essay: Bennett’s strategic anthropomorphism (2010); Haraway’s ‘staying with the trouble’, and ‘making kin’ (2016); and Barad’s ‘intra-action’ (2007). In the following section I evoke and reflect on selected Guddling performances in relation to these ideas, and to congruent arts practices.
STRATEGIC ANTHROPOMORPHISM AND PROTO-ANIMISM
Jane Bennett’s take on anthropomorphism provides an important reference point for our practice. She seeks to recuperate anthropomorphism from the contention that it simply reinforces human exceptionalism by likening the other-than-human to the human, thus overwriting nonhuman ontologies. Bennett does not deny this allegation but argues for the value of strategic anthropomorphism.11 Rather than condemning our (inevitable) recourse to anthropomorphism, she suggests that we might embrace it as generative and necessary in our attempts to attend to the vitality of more-than-human matter. In the Guddling performances we playfully and knowingly adopt an anthropomorphic stance to acknowledge the contradictions of our ecological practice. Our strategic anthropomorphism enables us to confront the impossibility of ‘understanding’ or ‘communicating’ with the other-than-human, while opening ourselves up to the sensory and affective impact of trying to do so. For instance, in some of the Guddling experiments, such as Watermeets and Water Borrow, we anthropomorphise water and watercourses. In Watermeets, we subject water to human rituals of meeting and greeting. In Water Borrow, we ‘talk’ and ‘listen’ to rivers and watercourses.
Visit a body of water. This might be a river, lake, puddle,
drain or domestic water system. Ask the body of water for
permission to borrow some water. If you feel permission has
been granted, carefully take some water. Remember to
thank the body of water.
We first devised and performed Water Borrow in Canada in 2013, influenced by our learning about the Mother Earth Water Walkers.12 The Mother Earth Water Walk was instigated in 2003 by two Anishinawbe women who walked around the perimeter of the Great Lakes in Canada and North America to raise awareness of water pollution and to campaign for improved water conditions in areas where First Nations peoples live. It is now a national and international campaign. The Water Walkers draw on indigenous practices, where the preciousness of water is acknowledged through ritual, and permission is always sought before any water is extracted from a river or lake. Conscious and wary of the potential for glib or arrogant cultural appropriation, we wondered what we might learn through adopting what we understood as a proto-animist and heedful attitude towards water. Scholars of indigenous beliefs and practices argue that forms of animism can offer productive counters to Western ideologies. Deborah Bird Rose, for example, proposes that animism unsettles the Western dualisms of nature/culture or human/nonhuman, which separate humanity from other life-systems and support humans’ treatment of the biosphere as a resource for their exploitation (2017). We wondered how it would feel, and what we might discover, by trying on an approach towards the nonhuman that we found inspiring but that our cultural backgrounds inclined us to consider as somewhat foolish and uncomfortable. We wondered if we could find our own languages and rituals for interacting with water in this way, while acknowledging and respecting indigenous practices.
In Alberta, Canada we visited some of the tributaries that join the Bow River as it travels from its source, Bow Glacier in the Rocky Mountains, towards the City of Calgary. We greeted the rivers and creeks we visited: “hello Corral Creek, nice to meet you.” We felt a little silly and self-conscious: urban Scots alluding to what we understood to be the practices of indigenous peoples in Canada.13 But we tried to speak in a tone that felt authentic to us: playful yet sincere. We asked each creek if we could borrow some of its water. We paused and listened, aware of how attentive we were to the sounds of the water, the air temperature, the smells and textures of the rocks and trees bordering the rivers and creeks, the presence of other animate life, and the human interventions that had shaped these watercourses. After a few minutes, we stooped and scooped up some water from the creek in a bucket. We thanked the creek. Our strategic anthropomorphism here, we believe, changed our everyday relationships with rivers and other nonhuman entities, at least momentarily.14 Anthropomorphising helped us to become more attentive to the other-than-human matter, such as water, which surrounded us, and which constitutes us. It allowed us to engage seriously with the idea that stuff that is not human, like water, has vitality, force, and an agency. It urged us to consider whether rivers, water, and other nonhuman things might be seen to have rights. But anthropomorphising also revealed the inescapability of human exceptionalism. In speaking and listening to water, we treated it as if it were human: we cast it in our likeness. Our strategic anthropomorphism made manifest the paradoxes of our practice. It forced us to confront our, unavoidable, sense of ourselves as sovereign human subjects who have the power to exercise agency over nonhuman matter. Simultaneously, it functioned as a tactic that altered how we typically interact with other-than-human stuff, unsettling our taken-for-granted behaviour. We asked sincerely for permission to borrow some water and we listened attentively for a response, feeling a shift in our interrelationships with the rivers and creeks. But our requests for permission to borrow water were uttered in the belief that the question is meaningless to a river and in the knowledge that, even if it did ‘reply,’ we would neither understand, nor heed, its response (Image 5).15
STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE/TROUBLING
Donna Haraway (2016) is a second important interlocutor for Guddling, particularly in her book, Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the chthulucene. In summary, for Haraway ‘staying with the trouble’ means learning to live and die with others (including, of course, others that are not human) on a planet that she understands as having serious environmental, ethical, and political problems. Haraway opens her book by referring to the etymology of the verb to trouble, which is derived from an old French verb meaning to stir up or to disturb. Staying with the trouble, then, involves agitating or stirring things up: revealing antagonisms and contradictions, as well as seeking resolution or, as Haraway puts it, trying to ‘settle troubled waters’ (Haraway 2016, 1). Troubling seems to us to have close affinities with guddling. Guddling shares the sense of messing things up, creating disturbance that might be revelatory, embracing muddle, and unsettling the water. In our Guddling practice, our intention is partly to unsettle: to reveal and face up to the complexity of interrelations among humans and water, which may be dangerous or contentious, as well as nurturing or benign. We have guddled in some places where water appears in forms that are not appealing to humans, or where it might present risks to health, and where efforts are made to distance it from humans. For instance, drainage systems in Glasgow, Scotland and a sewage treatment plant in Kuopio, Finland.
For the performance, Watermeets: Kuopio, audience-participants joined us on a tour of the local waste water treatment plant, called Lehtoniemi. (Image 6). The plant sits on the shore of Kallavesi, a large fresh water lake surrounding the City of Kuopio, which is a popular tourist attraction, and which plays a significant role in shaping the identity and way of life in Kuopio. Kallavesi is a source of drinking water in the area, and is also the destination of treated waste water from the Lehtoniemi plant. Watermeets: Kuopio invited audience-participants to confront water in forms less spectacular and considerably less attractive than the celebrated lake where many of them regularly swim, fish, and boat. It invited them to witness the often overlooked processes and systems governing the circulation and management of water in the area, and to contemplate the infrastructure through which water is treated, tested, categorised, and segregated according to human measures of purity. At the end of the performance, audience-participants gathered around a structure of interconnecting pipes, gutters, and bowls cast in frozen water borrowed from Lake Kallavesi, and from the local fresh water treatment plant, Itkoniemmi (Image 7). Audience-participants were asked to bring with them a bottle of borrowed water from their everyday routines, or from somewhere watery that held significance for them.16 To conclude the performance we invited audience members to pour the water from their bottles into the structure, letting it interact with the ice pipes, bowls, and gutters. Some of the meetings between water and ice were surprising and dramatic, the ice shattering with sharp cracks and groans. Petri Juntunen, a water engineer in the Lehtoniemi sewage treatment plant, orchestrated a meeting of fluids that he described as ‘his worst nightmare.’ He poured a sample of water from the outflow of the waste water treatment plant into an ice gutter moulded in water from the fresh water treatment plant, allowing treated waste water to intermingle with frozen, fresh drinking water. In doing so, he transgressed the central tenet of his professional role: to provide uncontaminated potable water for Kuopio. Petri’s ludically-transgressive action, enabled by his interaction with our playful, fragile, and ephemeral system of interconnecting water pipes and vessels seemed, to us, to hint at the vulnerability and impermanence of the apparently substantial and functional infrastructure of Kuopio’s waste water treatment plant. For us, it pointed to the precarity of systems designed to manage water and other environmental resources in support of human life, and to their irrelevance in relation to Earth systems, such as the play of water itself. Petri’s action is considered by us a tactic for ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway 2016). It revealed the complexity and consequences of the processes, negotiations, and choices determining human-water interrelations in the area, alongside further encounters among humans, water, and other things that we instigated as part of Watermeets: Kuopio. These encounters occurred on modest scales and at personal levels. Any transgressions, such as Petri’s, or confrontations, such as the audiences’ exposure to the sights and smells of the waste treatment plant, were mischievous or unpleasant, rather than illegal or dangerous. Here, ‘staying with the trouble’ did not entail confronting global, water-related environmental issues directly. Rather, it worked with audience-participants, most of whom were local to Kuopio and therefore very familiar with the ‘natural’ and dominant waterscape of this region of Finland. They were invited to attend to the water that permeates their everyday routines through playful, somatic, and affective interactions. They were prompted to consider the often over-looked systems and structures through which water is managed, and the implications of regulating and categorising water in this way. In its local, indirect, and unheroic address to environmental issues, and its foregrounding of other-than-human performers, Watermeets: Kuopio can also be considered as ‘weak’ performance (Lavery 2010).
Haraway’s concept of ‘making kin’ also resonates with our approach in Guddling. For Haraway, making kin entails forging companionships among species (such as humans, dogs, pigeons, or butterflies) that extend and trouble human cultural and biological ideas of kinship. Haraway’s inter-species kinships involve choices, negotiation, challenges to our sense of identity, and mistakes. They are not necessarily harmonious or successful (Haraway 2016). While Haraway’s examples of making kin tend to suggest kinships with what are considered to be animate nonhumans (dogs, butterflies, and so on) we consider some of our Guddling activities to entail making kin with nonhuman collaborators that are not animal, or even plant-based, lifeforms. Some of our work, including Watermeets: Kuopio, seeks to explore kinship through ideas and practices of meeting: how we meet with water, how water meets water and other things, and what meets within water. We have made five versions of Watermeets: in rural Scotland; Hamburg, Germany; Devon, England; and Madrid, Spain, as well as Kuopio, Finland. As for Haraway, our meetings, or kinships, can be difficult and not necessarily benign. In Watermeets: Nithsdale, for instance, the kinships we initiated with water held unknown and risky consequences for us. In Watermeets: Nithsdale we performed a repeated action with water borrowed from the places where two streams or rivers meet in Nithsdale, southern Scotland, as part of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland. The district of Nithsdale, as its name indicates, encompasses the valley of the River Nith. It is a very watery place, with a network of tributaries feeding into the major river. The tributaries range from tiny streams to navigable watercourses, and go by local dialect names like gutter, cleuch, burn, and grain. Nithsdale is a predominantly rural area, comprising agricultural land, cultivated forests, and estates maintained for the recreational shooting of game birds. For Watermeets: Nithsdale, we undertook to visit as many of the places where waters meet as we could access by foot, radiating from the festival hub, over five days before and during the festival. At each confluence we visited, upstream of the merging waters, we greeted each stream or burn and asked it if we could borrow some water (Image 8). We collected the water in bottles, chosen because of their resemblance to whisky or spirit bottles, and wrote the name of each watercourse on the bottle (Image 9). We took this borrowed water with us to the festival site. At the site, we performed a more-than-human ritual of meeting and greeting. We removed the tops from two bottles containing water borrowed from adjoining forks of each confluence and introduced the waters, using their names: ‘Smirn Gutter, I’d like you to meet Rae Grain.’ We clinked the open bottles in a toast, and each took a mouthful of water. We kissed, exchanging the water in our mouths, and swallowing it. The untreated water met our lips, tongues, saliva, gullets, and digestive systems (Image 10).
Our forming kinships with waterbodies by ingesting water from rivers and mingling it with our own bodily fluids finds resonances in the ‘river actions’ of performance duo Lone Twin. In some of their river actions, Lone Twin (Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters) generated sweat through intense exercise. They merged this bodily fluid with the waters of various rivers by immersing themselves in the watercourses and saying, variously, ‘I am becoming The Glømma, The Kattegat, The Hull and The Dart’ (Whelan and Winters 2011, 176). In the river actions Lone Twin enact playful rituals that simultaneously acknowledge the absurdity of ‘becoming’ an other-than-human entity, while aspiring to embrace their interconnectivity in a more-than-human universe. The Watermeets rituals are intended to perform a similar function. In Watermeets, however, kinships, or becomings, occur not just among identifiable human and water bodies, but also on particulate, or even sub-molecular scales; scales not typically detected by unaugmented human senses. These microscopic kinships, becomings, or meetings can be productively considered in relation to Karen Barad’s influential concept of ‘intra-action.
INTRA-ACTION, AFFECT, AND THE INTERSECTION OF VITAL AND CULTURAL MATERIALISMS
Barad (2005) espouses the theory of intra-action in her book, Meeting the Universe Halfway. For her, the ‘meeting’ of her title entails intra-action, as distinct from the more commonplace interaction. Meeting as intra-action is an ongoing process of emergence, through which phenomena or ‘relata’ may become momentarily and partially differentiated. Meeting does not take place between existing, discrete entities but rather is a continual reconfiguration of entangled materialities. In her conception of meeting ‘we are of the universe, there is no inside, or outside. There is only intra-action from within and as part of the world in its becoming’ (Barad 2005, 396). The ethics of this position lies in its claim that ‘we (but not only we humans) are always already responsible to the others with whom or with which we are entangled, not through conscious intent but through the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails’ (Barad 2005, 393). That is, responsibility is not a matter of choice, nor is it meant in the sense of taking responsibility for (the other-than-human environment), which would reinstate human exceptionalism. Rather, responsibility entails being response-able, capable of ‘meeting each moment, being alive to the possibilities of becoming’ (Barad 2005, 396). Guddling is an attempt to be response-able. It is an attempt to become attuned to our becoming with the other-than-human stuff of the universe; to unsettle our ingrained anthropocentrism and our sense of ourselves as human agents. However, our aspiration to perceive ourselves as co-constituted and co-agential within ‘the swirling vitality of the world’ (Bennett 2010, 119) exists as we acknowledge and embrace what we understand as our (inescapable) humanity: our reliance on human systems of communication and representation; our recognition of societal, political, and cultural structures; our attachment to human-centric philosophical concepts, such as formulations of personhood or human consciousness. In Watermeets: Nithsdale we drank stream water, opening ourselves to ongoing intra-actions occurring at microbial levels and beyond our conscious comprehension, which might have adverse effects on our health; breaching what we habitually perceive as a membrane between our inside and outside.
But the narrowly material (somatic, biological, and molecular) intra-actions instigated by our ingestion of water were also affective encounters. We were repelled by the smell and appearance of some water and felt fearful putting it in our mouths. Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart argues for the potency of the affective: the value of attending to what she calls ‘ordinary affects’ (Stewart 2007). Citing Marxist scholar Raymond Williams’ influential concept, ‘structures of feeling,’ (1977, 2) Stewart argues that attending to the affective, proximate, unexceptional, and small-scale, rather than attempting to comprehend over-arching political and ideological systems, can enable more meaningful, truthful, and empowering understandings of social, cultural, and political structures: ‘meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt’ (Williams 1977, 132). For us, the affective dimensions of our meetings with the streams and rivers of southern Scotland appeared to attune us to a more extensive mesh of socio-cultural, political, and historical conditions impacting on human-water interrelations in Nithsdale. Our recoil from and trepidation about swallowing some of the untreated water prompted us to contemplate the historical-material conditions that have shaped and continue to shape the landscape and watercourses: for instance, the management of the land and water, which has been part of the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate since the fourteenth century, for agriculture, commercial forestry, rearing game birds, and recreational shooting. This management entails human interventions such as the creation of drainage channels, the use of fertilisers and pesticides, tree planting, the formation of settlements, economic structures and dependencies based on a feudal system, and so on. These entangled historical-cultural-natural-political-industrial-agricultural-chemical-biological processes determined which bacteria or chemicals were meeting within the water we ingested. In this respect, Watermeets: Nithsdale, and other iterations of Guddling, might be understood as bringing an older type of materialism into conversation with new materialism. Coterminous with our efforts to attend to human-water intra-actions occurring at microbial or sub-molecular levels (in which we might be understood as exercising a new materialist sensibility) the affective qualities of our meetings with, within, and among watercourses and other human and nonhuman stuff seemed to engender in us a sensitivity to the larger socio-cultural, political, and historical context (in which we might be considered to be adopting a cultural materialist perspective, akin to Kathleen Stewart’s). Our Guddling practice, we believe, allows us to operate across different scales and registers (molecular, somatic, societal, and political) and to bring different materialisms (new, and cultural) into play. In bringing those different materialisms into conversation, Guddling acts as a counter to critics of new or vital materialism, who caution that focussing on materiality on a molecular scale risks flattening differences and overwriting the important historical and cultural dimensions of human-environment interrelations.17
By means of material, affective, and poetic engagement with water and watercourses, the encounters instigated in all five iterations of Watermeets prompted us, and other human participants, to attend to the entangled human and other-than-human local and global networks and systems through which water circulates, and through which it is managed and manipulated (Image 11). Geographer Jamie Linton (2010) advocates for the potency of attending to the specific social, cultural, and material conditions of human-water interrelations as an important and necessary counter to what he describes as the ‘modern abstraction’ of water. Linton argues that conceptualising water as an abstract element, erroneously presented as circulating globally through the so-called universal water cycle, and described in the formula H2O, has serious and deleterious consequences. This conceptualisation separates water from its social and cultural contexts and allows it to be treated as a commodity. The commodification of water contributes significantly to world-wide water crises: drought, pollution, and flooding. Linton calls for an approach that ‘complicates the science of abstract water with the idea that we cannot have knowledge of water except in relation to our own circumstances and modes of knowing’ (Linton 2010, 223). Our Guddling performance practice with rivers and watercourses attends to human-water interrelations on a local and intimate scale, bringing affective, everyday experiences with water into conversation with the more conceptual, pragmatic, or commercially-driven approaches that often dominate professional perspectives in the fields of science, engineering, and water management.18
As coda to this exegesis of the ongoing practice research project, Guddling About, I offer some statements about our current understanding of Guddling as an evolving, ecological practice, and its relationship to other congruent theories and practices. The statements constitute a ‘weak’ manifesto for our ‘weak’ performance practice (Lavery 2016). Our weak manifesto, in contrast to typical manifestos, does not constitute a collection of unequivocal position statements, advocate for particular ways of behaving, or outline an action plan. It is not a statement of human intent, which would assume human exceptionalism, but instead foregrounds the conditionality and provisionality — the weakness — of Guddling’s value and claims.
Guddling is not heroic, spectacular or ostentatious. Its ‘troubling’ (Haraway 2016) does not entail confronting global environmental issues head-on, nor do the Guddling performances necessarily take place in the most hazardous or conflicted watery locations.
Guddling is contingent. We do not deliberately seek contexts which exemplify water-related environmental issues, or where interrelations around water are particularly contentious or dangerous. We often Guddle through invitation (at festivals or on artists’ residences), or respond to watery locations that we encounter by chance.
In Guddling, we ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway 2016) on a local and personal scale. We negotiate the entanglements, paradoxes, and antagonisms of living and dying in a more-than-human universe through being response-able within our proximate environs, while acknowledging our ‘joint implication within a hydrocommons’ (Neimanis 2017, 20).
Guddling is a gentle agitation of water, not violent stirring or splashing. In Guddling we do not disturb the water with intent to make a commotion or demonstrative action. We unsettle the water in an effort to experience what lies beneath its surface; to feel its texture and temperature.
In Guddling, the extensive planning, involved negotiations, and often considerable physical effort required to realise the work is masked by the modesty and apparent slightness of many of the public performances. We do not provide explanations, detailed contextual information, or accounts of our process to accompany the public performances. We hope that those who witness and/or participate in our performances may be intrigued by the seemingly simple, apparently pointless, and slightly idiosyncratic actions, prompting them to ask questions and make their own interpretations.
Guddling is not insistent, didactic, or directive. It is an invitation to engage in small, poetic acts, which we hope might encourage attentiveness towards the complexity, interconnectivity, and flux of the more-than-human world.
Guddling is playful. While each Guddling performance is undertaken with commitment and in earnest, levity and humour underpin our practice and ethos. Our ludic-but-sincere approach acknowledges the absurdity of trying to transcend our humanity. It is a tactic for puncturing the human-exceptionalist arrogance that places humanity in a position of responsibility, or blame, for the other-than-human environment. Our playfulness and embrace of the absurd, futile or ‘useless’ (Morton 2018, 3) offers an alternative to some more dogmatic forms of eco-art and activism.
In Guddling we try to keep different modes of being of, and with, the human and other-than-human in play. As Karen Barad and Jane Bennett urge, we endeavour to attend to our enmeshment in a more-than-human universe at particulate or even sub-molecular scales, while also remaining attentive to our entanglement in social, political, and cultural structures and systems. We try to remain response-able on multiple levels: intra-acting and interacting, bringing new or vital materialisms into conversation with cultural or historical materialisms.
Guddling is ‘weak performance.’ Weak performance is not ‘giving in to despondency or nihilism’ (Lavery 2016, 232) but an attempt to develop a performance practice that does not replicate or reinforce human hubris, particularly when addressing environmental issues. In Guddling, our approach is questioning, our discoveries conditional and tentative. We try to embrace the confusion, irresolution, contradictions, and entanglements of living and dying in a more-than-human universe.
What else can we do? We are (only) human. We continue to guddle about.
1. In line with practice research methodologies in performance (Barrett and Bolt 2007, Alleque, Jones, Kershaw and Piccini 2009, Nelson 2013) the written exegesis and performance practice are considered as two distinct items that serve different functions, operate in different registers, and are intended to be experienced in different contexts. The exegesis provides commentary that frames Guddling About as a research project, while the performance practice is intended to be experienced as independent artwork, operating in a more allusive and poetic register.
2. I use ‘performance’ in a broad sense that encompasses everyday actions carried out by humans and other-than-humans and the more specialised framing of performance as cultural activity.
3. ‘We,’ ‘our,’ and ‘us’ are used throughout the essay to denote the human subjects, Minty Donald and Nick Millar.
4. Ecological models of entangled and dispersed agency include Deleuze’s ‘assemblages’ (1987) and Bruno Latour’s ‘actor-networks’ (2005). Ingold (2011) uses the term ‘meshwork,’ in distinction from ‘network,’ to suggest a model of distributed agency that is always in process and where agential interactions take place along multi-directional trajectories, rather than between linked nodes.
5. The residency took place under the auspices of the Watershed+ project. Watershed+ ran a programme of residencies where artists were embedded within the City of Calgary’s departments of Utilities and Environmental Protection and Public Art for periods of around three months. http://watershedplus.ca/
6. The Environmental Arts Festival Scotland was a biannual festival that took place in Dumfries and Galloway in August 2013 and 2015. https://www.thestove.org/portfolio/eafs-august-2015/
9. Astrida Neimanis’ Bodies of Water: posthuman feminist phenomenology was published after the Guddling performances on which this essay reflects took place. We recognise the significance of Neimanis’ work for the Guddling project, specifically her notion of difference and commonality in human-water interrelations. We anticipate further critical and generative engagement with this notion in future iterations of Guddling.
10. While the Guddling performances are informed by research and fieldwork, including talking to local (human) residents and experts, we consider ourselves to be authors of the initial performances and performance scripts, working in inequitable partnerships with our other-than-human collaborators. We invite human co-creation through our prompts to other humans to perform, adapt, and augment the Guddling scores.
11. Bennett is not alone in her defense and acceptance of the inescapability of anthropomorphism. See, for example, Morton (2018, 111).
13. Since adopting the practice in Canada of asking for permission to borrow water we have followed this strategy on all occasions where we have used water, or other nonhuman matter, in our work: in Scotland, England, Germany, Finland and Spain. On some occasions we have also invited audience-participants to follow this strategy, always acknowledging its source and inviting them to find their own language and manner of interacting with the other-than-human.
14. Strategic anthropomorphism is a feature of other artists’ work, with which we consider Guddling About to be in conversation. For instance, Katie Paterson’s Vatnajökull (the sound of), 2007-8 http://katiepaterson.org/portfolio/vatnajokull-the-sound-of/ and Broken City Lab’s Ask the River, 2017–2018, http://www.asktheriver.info/
15. The paradoxes of our asking permission to borrow water, and proceeding as if we had received permission, are discussed at more length in Donald 2016.
16. Other artists have worked with water samples collected by invited participants. For example, Amy Sharrocks’ The Museum of Water, 2013 – http://www.museumofwater.co.uk/ and Tania Kovats’ All the Seas, 2012–2014 https://www.fruitmarket.co.uk/archive/tania-kovats/. Our work differs in our focus on the materiality and agency of the water itself and on the socio-cultural and geographical context of each water sample.
17. Jane Bennett, in particular, has been subject to criticism for this alleged tendency. See, for example, Lemke, T. 2018. “An Alternative Model of Politics? Prospects and problems of Jane Bennett’s vital materialism.” Theory, Culture and Society. 35(6): 31–54 or Schneider, R. 2015. ‘New Materialisms and Performance Studies’. The Drama Review. 59(4): 7–17.
18. The value of the Guddling practices as tools for public engagement and education were recognised by Glasgow City Council and the Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Drainage Partnership. They commissioned us to undertake a project that focussed on improving the design, integration, and maintenance of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) in Glasgow. https://www.mgsdp.org/index.aspx?articleid=20291 for the Living, Working, Playing with Water report and toolkit.
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