Water is my element.
I grew up in a beachside suburb on the east coast of Australia where respect for the Pacific ocean is tantamount. Largely in thanks to the surfing subculture which reveres water and treats the ocean as an element with its own agency, as opposed to a part of the environment to commodify, dominate and tame. The influence of this cultural upbringing is still present within me, as even after years of living far away from my hometown, swimming in the Pacific ocean still feels comfortable and familiar – like an old friend.
This essay has been born out of my enduring love for and fascination with water. However, since leaving Australia and settling in cities with less obvious ties to bodies of water, I have begun to feel detached from the element. Therefore, I decided to undertake a mini research project investigating the ways in which performance could be used to foster and promote positive relationships between water and urban dwellers.
The agency of water
New materialism is a term coined in the 1990s to describe a cultural theory that radically rethinks the dualism central to humanity’s modern thinking; matter vs. mind or human vs. inhuman, for example (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012). In new materialist thought humanity is a small part of a much wider life-world, a world where all things are of equal inherent worth (Smith, 2016) and matter is in itself a transformative force (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012). This is the theoretical underpinning on which I have based this essay and my point of departure when thinking about, discussing or interacting with water. Within the context of this research, water is always treated as a non passive, life-force element with its own agential qualities. Qualities that allow water to be simultaneously life-sustaining and life threatening, a means of transport, a generator of power, a source of inspiration, a spiritual vessel and a site of political tension (Krause & Strang, 2016), amongst other things.
It is my belief, supported by Betsy Damon (n.d.), Minty Donald (2016), James L. Smith (2016) and Franz Krause and Veronica Strang (2016), that in order for positive relationships between urban dwellers and water to exist, people need to first acknowledge and embrace water as a force that greatly influences and impacts their lives, as opposed to a banal substance for drinking and washing.
Water as a co-performer
Performative ethnography is a social science methodology that uses performance as a way of interacting with, researching and forming knowledge about the world and its phenomena. Performative social science aims to relay research through artistic modes, not just in terms of results but during the research process too (Roberts, 2008).
By combining performative ethnography and new materialist theory, water becomes more than just an element but a co-performer in our lives. Following the lead of Donald (2017), I acknowledge performance as not only something humans do but as a more-than-human activity. A space in which humans and other-than-humans interact. Because when you think about it – human beings and water interact naturally everyday! Everytime we take a shower, get caught in the rain or have a refreshing summer swim, we are partaking in an interaction with water. But how often are we consciously aware of these interactions and the way they shape our lives?
For this project I wanted to specifically focus on the minutiae of daily life and the countless times we interact with water without noticing. Thus, interactions with oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, ponds etc. have not been included. Instead I have identified day-to-day moments and routines, where a person living in a city would normally come in contact with water, and used these as the basis of the performances. By designing five playful performative interactions with urban water, I aim to disrupt a human centric way of being in the world and encourage, in the words of Donald, “Us (humans) to take seriously the idea that stuff which is not human has a liveliness or vitality and force,” (2017, p. 7).
Playful performative interactions with urban water:
Below is a copy of the instructions followed by research participants.
- Before/after these interactions please take a few seconds to acknowledge how privileged you are to have reliable access to clean water for drinking and bathing. As well as appreciating the water for playing with you.
- Please follow the instructions below and then describe your experiences, and please include somewhere in your documentation the city/town where you performed the interactions.
- You do not have to perform all the interactions or answer all the questions I have listed, they are simply meant as a prompt or guide.
- These playful performative interactions are inspired by Minty Donald and Nick Millars’ on going research project Guddling About. Donald, M. (2014) Guddling about: experiments in vital materialism with particular regard to water. Goose: A Journal of Arts, Culture and the Environment in Canada, 13(1), Art 35.
- Shower power: (If you take showers) Get into the shower and begin washing yourself in your usual way. Then disrupt your routine – turn the water off for 5 seconds. Turn it back on but leave it cold for 5 seconds. Cup your hands and let them fill with water and then pour that water over your head. Crouch down into a squat and let the water run over you for 5 seconds. Finish your shower routine. Was it difficult to remember to disrupt your routine? How did it feel to turn off the shower halfway through? How did it feel to stand under the cold water – irritating/frustrating/invigorating/refreshing etc.? How did the water sound when it poured from your cupped hands over your head? How does the water feel on your body? What emotional state are you in after the shower – happy/content/sleepy/annoyed/curious etc.?
- Coffee/tea timeout: Brew your cup of tea or coffee and place your hands around it – obviously being careful not to burn yourself. Take your hands off the cup and place them above – let the steam from the drink waft around your hands and through your open fingers (once again, careful not to burn yourself). Repeat the placing of hands on and above the cup as many times as desired. Afterward, enjoy your drink and appreciate the water. How does the warmth make your hands/body/emotional state feel? How does the steam look encircling your hands and through your fingers?
- Twirling in the rain: Wait for a very rainy day. Take an umbrella and venture out into the rain. Walk/ride/public transport/drive to your favourite part of your city – it can be a park or a street, wherever. Begin to twirl your umbrella in the (preferably) heavy rain. How do the raindrops look flying off your umbrella? How does the heavy rain sound against your umbrella? Are you getting wet? How does the rain feel against your skin or clothing? Do you notice if you are happy/curious/frustrated/melancholic etc.?
- Puddleducks: Wait until after a very rainy day. Put on a pair of wellies/waterproof shoes or barefoot and go out into the street. Find a hearty puddle – preferably large with a little depth. Begin to splash in the puddle – stamp your feet, jump up and down, kick the water around. How does the water look splashing all over the place? How does the water sound against your boots? How does the water feel between your boots/feet and the ground? How do you feel in this moment – happy/playful/curious/nostalgic etc.?
- Stiff drink: Next time you have a drink of water – either from the tap or a bottle, sparkling or still, swirl the water around your mouth as if you are rinsing at the dentist. You can then spit the water out if you would prefer, but if you are comfortable – swallow it. Does the water taste different after it has been swished around your mouth? Does it seem less appealing to swallow the water after rinsing? How does the “rinse” water feel in your mouth as opposed to water straight from the glass – warmer/less bubbly etc.? Are you more aware of the substance you are drinking after you have performed the rinsing?
Finally, during the playful interactions were you more mindful of water than usual in your day-to-day life? And after interacting with water in this playful way, do you see yourself becoming more mindful of other interactions between yourself and water in the future?
A somewhat worrying occurrence
Originally I identified 12 potential participants, spread out across seven cities, and sent them a copy of the above instructions for playful performative interactions. However, less than one quarter responded. I then tried to reach a wider and more random selection of potential participants by making the interactions accessible online. But still I had no luck and received a minimal amount of responses. This lack of interest and motivation toward my research concerns me. Of course, I acknowledge that as the facilitator of the project the responsibility to ensure the research is interesting and engaging falls on me, so any ensuing research needs to address this problem. Irregardless, apathy toward water research does not bode well for the future state of the world’s waterways in general and supports my original hypothesis that – urban dwellers in particular, are detached from the vitality and preciousness of water.
A few insightful results
Nevertheless, I did receive a handful of responses and among them were a few noticeable trends and insights. Primarily, no one attempted the Twirling in the rain or Puddleducks performances due to the record heat and low rainfall across Europe throughout summer 2018. The upside to this blazing hot summer was that all participants reported thinking more actively about water and their use of it due to the abnormal scarcity of rain.
There is usually an abundance of water in Helsinki, either as rainfall or easily accessible via the turn of a tap. This might be a reason why I have been, and to be honest probably to some degree will continue to, take water for granted. I will say however that, because of the record heat this summer and the lack of rainfall as a result, I have been more appreciative of having access to water, whether it is rainfall from the sky, or clean drinkable water. (Participant).
All participants reported finding the motivation to perform Shower power difficult and feeling almost afraid of the interaction, in particular the prospect of being doused with cold water. This leads me to believe that urban dwellers from affluent countries with reliable access to clean water have ingrained water consumption habits. Habits which are comfortable and unconscious but do not necessarily nurture positive relationships with water.
This task was extremely difficult to remember to perform and also find motivation to perform. As I shower once every two days in the morning before work, I generally maximise efficiency and try not to waste time in the shower. Suffice to say it was very difficult to remember to disrupt my routine; even though I had reminded myself just before hopping in that I would perform the interaction. (Participant).
In the morning I find myself much more hesitant to change the routine, especially changing to cold water. There was fear just before changing the routine to add colder water, but once the fear in the mind was overcome, it actually felt like a small, but not insignificant battle against fear was won. I don’t feel as hesitant to change my shower routines having done this experiment. (Participant).
Interestingly, all participants also reported a more mindful attitude toward water after completing a portion of the interactions.
During the interactions I was definitely more mindful of water on a day-to-day basis. It really hit me how abundant and easily accessed water is in Western Europe. I am not sure if the interactions have triggered a change in my water consumption habits, as I believe I am already quite mindful of water conservation, however they certainly made me more cognizant of the role water plays in urban life and how difficult my affluent Western European life would be without unfettered access to clean water for drinking and household usage. (Participant).
I have begun to realize that I could leave the faucet on for a shorter time and be smarter with my water consumption […] The fact that I can just turn on a faucet and drinkable water appears is a bloody miracle in some ways. These tasks were gratifying to perform, because I’m feeling very appreciative of the infrastructure put in place in Helsinki and the hardworking communal effort it takes to make everything run smoothly. It’s not mundane to turn on water, it’s magic! (Participant).
This trend outlines the possibility of performance to, “Unsettle habitual behaviour,” (Donald, 2017, p. 14) and encourage more reciprocal and positive relationships between city-based human beings and water.
Due to the small number of research participants, it is my opinion that this essay can not offer any conclusive results. However, there exists the potential for using performative ethnography (or other artistic based methods) to research and support the interconnectedness of human beings and water, in the future.
Damon, B. (n.d.). The way of water. Retrieved from https://www.humansandnature.org/the-way-of-water
Dolphijn, R., & van der Tuin, I. (2012). New materialism: Interviews and cartographies. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/ohp.11515701.0001.001
Donald, M. (2017). Guddling about: performing with water and other more-than-human collaborators. Paper presented at the Environmental humanities conference, Alcalá, Spain.
Krause, F., & Strang, V. (2016). Thinking relationships through water. Society & Natural Resources, 29(6), 633-638. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2016.1151714
Roberts, B. (2008). Performative social science: A consideration of skills, purpose and context. FQS, 9(2), 1-45. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/openview/291de443e877a4ce6e81026ad25a3dbc/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=556354
Smith, J.L. (2016). I, River?: New materialism, riparian non-human agency and the scale of democratic reform. asia pacific viewpoint, 58(1), 99-111. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/apv.12140
Featured Image: Ishan, see from the sky