Hyperrhiz 12

Fluid Pixels: Communicating Water Sustainability through Digital Art

Alys Longley

James Hutchinson

Charlotte Šunde

Sasha Matthewman

Karen Fisher

Citation: Longley, Alys, et. al. “Fluid Pixels: Communicating Water Sustainability through Digital Art.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 12, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/012.mm01

Abstract: The fluid city project is an art-science-education project in which digital art plays a key role. Through a series of interactive public art installations this work aims to highlight the intangible and tangible values of water in the City of Auckland, New Zealand. Digital art work provides a focus for bringing together different understandings of water in the city through a provocative visual language that merges the abstract and literal, the everyday and the spectacular. Our contribution to Hyperrhiz presents a video animation alongside fragments of experimental/critical writing that whimsically place viewers/participants within hydrological ways of thinking. Such works may be seen as kinds of 'poetic maps' charting ecologies of the everyday, allowing us to appreciate ephemeral interactions between bodies and places in subtle ways, framing potentials for living in and understanding our world differently, guided by Deleuze's concept of 'liquid perception.'

1. Context

Let's start with the film.
A flow of images stitched together.
A loop.

We also have this text, which stitches together a series of poetic and written fragments and concepts. It contextualises and reflects on the fluid city project out of which the film emerged. This text is less linear than one might expect of an academic article, and deliberately so. It finishes with a list of questions that evolved out of the research – this article is not an attempt to 'answer' or provide conclusions to these questions, rather, we are considering these questions as interesting points of departure between the text and moving image. The poetic fragments laced throughout this article create a poem – each poetic line of writing is a reference to a specific moment in the film-work, a poetic translation between media highlighting the non-linear and affective logics in creative research.

stitch together the roots of mangrove trees in the silty earth / and the city expanding around itself

James Hutchinson created the fluid city film work, in collaboration with researchers Alys Longley and Charlotte Šunde, as part of the art-science-education project fluid city, which is developed in a place surrounded by sea, in suburbs streaked with rivers. Water is a defining environmental and cultural element of life in Auckland City; one that is becoming increasingly both prized and threatened due to issues of global warming and urban expansion. It is this environmental context that frames fluid city, in which public art seeks to communicate important water sustainability issues to diverse publics.

fluid city explores ways of communicating research on water sustainability to the public through a series of artistic installations or 'vessels' – a vessel for writing and sharing stories, a mobile water-testing laboratory, and a fluid cinema aiming to bring to attention the centrality of water in the life of the city. These vessels were designed by architect Kathy Waghorn for the first iteration of fluid city for UN World Water Day in 2012 (Šunde and Longley, 2013; Longley et al., 2013). The film loop that partners with this writing is both a document and an artwork – it gives a visual context for the mobile installations, and then cuts to the film playing inside one vessel, which was created for an iteration of fluid city at James Cook High School in Auckland City.

everything made of light / everything made of water

In this later iteration of the fluid city project we worked with around 120 students to approach water issues through different investigatory modes; through metaphor and imagery at a poetry workshop; through studying patterns via camera lenses at a photography workshop; through looking at and making maps that help us think about where our drinking water comes from and how dependent on it we are; and through movement, choreographing water structures and considering the affect of water on our bodies through space and time. We are considering different artistic practices and their artistic outcomes as ways of mapping – that is – ways in which to see and understand our local water ecosystems through both the micro and macro scale, through different academic disciplinary perspectives, sensory approaches and societal values. Our thinking in terms of sustainability research is that we need a range of maps (both cartographical and conceptual) that help us to see the world anew in order to enable the possiblity of imagining our futures with an ecological focus.

chapters of the city tell of each other / the body swimming

Mapping can be considered a colonising, territorial practice, yet it can also be a way of undoing languages of territory and privatisation (Carter, 2009). Maps can articulate minor worlds as well as major ones and they can articulate ways of understanding cities that provide alternatives to the majoritarian, neo-liberal assumptions embedded in so many city plans and political framings of the worth of place. We are thinking of maps that might enable a 'gentling of space' (Phipps and Saunders, 2009) and recognise diverse conceptualisations of value – to allow intangible worth such as belonging and holistic wellbeing.

Historian, philosopher and artist Paul Carter's book Dark Writing discusses the importance of including non-linear logics in mapping practices. He writes that, "it doesn't matter how maps are redrawn unless they are drawn differently" (Carter, 2009: 7). The visual document which this writing partners with incorporates still and moving images – historical and contemporary maps, archival and contemporary photographs, and video footage of the Manukau Harbour, beaches and waterways within close proximity to James Cook High School in the south of Auckland, where our project took place. The film shows native fish species, particularly the tuna or longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachia), and wading and migratory bird species. It was created to encourage project participants (specifically, secondary school students) to consider the sources of water in their everyday lives and to make connections between different kinds of watery space (from physical water bodies to the essential properties of water as the fluid of life). Its 'drawing differently' lies in the overlapping of perspectives and histories, of affective and informative registers, to interweave poetic and scientific ways of seeing.

the hose leaking / the cup held to body

Psychologist Niki Harré (2011) emphasises the need for sustainability education to capture the imagination and to be dynamic, playful and lively. She emphasises that the ways in which science is translated from specialised to everyday language, and the tropes chosen to communicate environmental research, have significant implications on whether or not communities respond optimistically and productively to environmental challenges. Our research team is interested in how spaces between the actual and the imagined, the conceptual and the pragmatic, between information and behaviour, flow across and into each other. The fluid city project aims to make visible everyday ecological relationships that are often taken for granted, despite their being central and formative in daily life. In the fluid cinema, this is evident in the way images are intercut, for example, the Hunua Dam is intercut with images of taps being turned on, and rarely-seen native fish species transposed onto the seas in which they live.

the fingerprint / the road

Denis Wood's book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas (2010) maps the poetic affects of one neighbourhood. He maps light and shade, smell and soundscape, holiday decorations, the routes of rubbish collection and postal delivery as intimate choreographies between various forms of life. In mapping the rhythmic interfaces between events and how they are experienced, Wood documents the specificities of life and texture in a particular place and the ecological relationships between landscapes and life forms. He does so in such a way that his maps also have relevance to us in other places, as they crystallize the way that ordinary occurrences have extraordinary patterns and qualities, making, "our world seem fragile and very precious" (Glass, 2013: 11). In fluid city we seek for students to explore their local environment as a sort of 'water narrative atlas,' drawing their eye to both the abstract and concrete forms of water, as well as the larger urban scale and private encounters with water.

Following Gregory Bateson (1972), an 'ecology of mind' considers the interrelationships of material and conceptual forms wherein all elements in an ecosystem impact on all others. As such, the style or form through which ideas move, such as the styles of this text and video work, could be considered to have ecological impact in terms of the travel of affects and the modes of thinking they engender (Longley et al., 2013). Deleuze coined the term 'liquid perception' in his first book of cinema and philosophy as "a perception that no longer has the solid as object, condition or milieu" (1986: 80). Hence fluid city embraces the notion and actuality of water as more than the material substance of H2O, but as an ontological state that works with flows rather than fixed forms, movement rather than objects and relationship rather than ownership.

2. Questions

everything creates a surface &

How do we encourage diverse communities in our cities to appreciate and value water in its myriad forms and uses?

How might we give voice to water in all its expressions of vulnerability and necessity?

How can the digital technologies of cinema and animation contribute to methodologies for cultural mapping?

How might we place 'liquid perception' at the centre of our research methodology and its articulation? What do the digital arts allow in doing so?

What are the potentials for new media in mapping ecological thinking across disciplinary borders, merging spaces between information and imagination to value the importance of life forms beyond our own?

to know a city you need to note the currents beneath its skin

VIEW Fluid Pixels


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Carter, P. Dark Writing: Geography, Performance, Design. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009.

Deleuze, G. Cinema 1. London and New York: Continuum, 1986.

Harré, N. Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability. Auckland: University of Auckland Department of Psychology, 2011.

Glass, I. "Forward" in Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, ed. D. Wood. Los Angeles: Siglio, 2013.

Longley, A., Fitzpatrick, K., Martin, R., Brown, C., Šunde, C., Ehlers, C., Brierley, G., and Waghorn, K. "Imagining a Fluid City," Qualitative Inquiry 19(9) (2013): 736-740. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1077800413500936

Phipps, A. and Saunders, L. "The sound of violets: the ethnographic potency of poetry?" Ethnography and Education 4(3) (2009): 357-387. Print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17457820903170168

Šunde, C. and Longley, A. "fluid city/ Water in the Sustainable City" in Animation of Public Space through the Arts: Toward More Sustainable Communities, ed. N. Duxbury. Coimbra: Almedina, 2013.

Wood, D. Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas. Los Angeles: Siglio, 2010.