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r&d project initiated by Urbonas Studio in collaboration with Tracey Warr
August 1st, 2012

Writing in Water – Tracey Warr

A text in progress charting and reflecting on the Urbonas Studio River Runs project at Modern Art Oxford August 2012. We are in residence at Modern Art Oxford 30 July-19 August and I am adding to and refining this text every day.


‘riverrun through Eve and Adams past bend of shore and curve of bay’ are the opening words of one of the most famous novels in the English language: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Joyce was aiming at a novel that encompassed all of life and he saw water itself as the all-emcompassing substance. He described: ‘its universality … its vastness in the ocean … the restlessness of its waves … its hydrostatic quiescence in calm … its sterility in the circumpolar ice-cap … its preponderance in 3 : 1 over the dry land of the globe … its slow erosions of peninsulas … the simplicity of its composition … its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail … its submarine fauna and flora, numerically , if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe … its ubiquity as constituting 90 per cent of the human body’. Water is the matrix of all life.

In this project we are examining our affinity with water. Why are many of us hydrophiliacs, unable to stay out of water for long? Although some of us of course are hydrophobics – perhaps because of a fearful childhood experience with water. Water has many benign characteristics but it is also something to be respected and has significant destructive capacities.

Are we going to be living with more water in the future? Are we entering a new Water Age? What are feasible future scenarios regarding climate change impacts on water levels, supplies, quality? What inspiring inventions and manifestations can artists contribute towards a future Water Age if we will be living with more water? How might we be inspired by aquatic life (fish, mammals, birds, insects, plants) and employ biomimicry to adapt to a future with more water? What role do waterways play in citizenship and belonging to place? Might we have a more amphibian lifestyle in the future and might this impact on the values that we live by?

These are some of the questions we begin with. This project is a study of water, and especially the freshwater in rivers. Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas live next to the river Charles in Cambridge and I live next to the river Thames, currently in Oxford, and previously in London where I was born. Rivers are significant in people’s lives for many reasons – we shape rivers and they shape us. For this project, Urbonas Studio consists of Nomeda and Gediminas, myself, and architect Giacomo Castagnola. We are being assisted too by many other people, who will crop up in the course of this narrative. We are interviewing people who live, work and play on and in the river. We are immersing ourselves in river cultures looking for answers to our questions.

Not only did James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake begin and end with the river, it also employed the technique of a ‘stream of consciousness’, a term invented by the psychologist and philosopher, William James. Consciousness, he wrote, is ‘continuous… without breach, crack, or division… Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself … It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life’.

Water is a unique liquid structure. Felix Franks, a leading authority on the chemistry of water, writes that, ‘water renders the earth fit as a habitat for life and is involved in life processes at all levels… Water is the only inorganic liquid that occurs naturally on earth… It existed on this planet long before any form of life evolved and life developed in water.’

The hydrologic cycle is the continuous circulation of water by evaporation from the hydrosphere and its subsequent precipitation back from the atmosphere. A fixed amount of water turns over in this cycle 37 times every year. Dramatic redistributions of the planet’s water have occurred at various points in its long history. A human being synthesizes 300g of water a day. Water presents a thermodynamic paradox and there are still unresolved mysteries about the chemistry of water and many other of its aspects. Since life on this planet first developed in water, it is not surprising that it has remained the basis for all life processes. Water appears abundant, ubiquitous, but there is a finite amount and it is hyper-sensitive to what is dissolved and thrown into it. Swimming on my back in the open air, looking up at gathering clouds I experience myself in the hydrosphere.

For several weeks before the project starts I embark on a daily immersion – first in the river Viaur in southern France and then in Barton indoor and Hinksey outdoor pools in Oxford. Swimming in the open-air is vastly superior to swimming indoors but the river is easily the most wonderful of immersions. Swimming upriver you see its green-edged channel opening onwards before you, beckoning you on into the unknown. You experience the changing of the water, the weather, the sky and the banks. I’ve discovered one advantage to being somewhat overweight – bioprene – a layer of fat is good for buoyancy and insulation in the open water.

Julie Turley is planning a Children’s Workshop with us, and has been researching the characteristics of non-human aquatic life: lilypads are waxy and repel water; otters have a long tail to balance when swimming, closable nostrils and ears, and dense fur to create a waterproof surface; ducks have a gland producing oil to preen their feathers and keep them waterproof, under the waterproof layer is a downy layer for warmth, their webbed feet help them paddle; frogs breathe and absorb water through their skin, their bulging eyes see in all directions and their sticky tongues flick out to catch insects, their skin is slimy; salmon leap out of the water over weirs and falls (see Victor Schauberger’s Trout Turbine – to follow).

We cycle down the Thames towpath to visit Will McCallum, an artist and environmental activist, living on a narrow boat and researching autonomous, sustainable, low impact living. Every day Will swims in the river. A large heron fishes from a tree stump opposite the boat. Will works part-time in London. His boat, the Tormarton, does not use electricity. Everything is self-powered. Food and other supplies have to be cycled down the towpath in a towed cart. Sewage must be pumped out at a lock and water tanks filled there. Will tells us about Dusty who plies up and down the river supplying the boat dwellers with wood and coal. Will’s fridge is a pool of cold water under a step in the boat. Use of space onboard is significant – everything has its place and is stowed away ship shape – tables fold out, every nook and cranny is used for storage. Will and his partner are growing herbs and vegetables on the boat’s roof with varying success. The boat has to fit under low bridges. They’ve learnt to fix minor problems with the engine and other practicalities of the boat. They have a stove but winters are hard, with ice rising up to the tops of the windows. One night they came home from work and the boat had disappeared – it had come lose from its mooring and drifted downriver. They recovered it with the aid of police helicopters. Will moves mooring every two weeks.

With Oxford artist, Laura Degenhardt, who is helping on the project, we visit Kingcraft Chandlery in Abingdon, excited by the materials and gadgets of river life: a magnet to retrieve things from the water, a waterproof box to keep your mobile phone in, plastic and rope fenders, ship’s bells, a lifejacket for a dog.

We meet local historian, Mark Davies, who has written several books on the Oxford Canal and the Thames including A Towpath Walk in Oxford, who also lives on a boat near the centre of town and the Isis Lock. His boat, Bill the Lizard, stays moored in the one place and he has been living here for over twenty years. ‘How did you come to live on a boat?’ I ask and he replies that he fell in love with someone who was living on a boat. Gradually he found out more and more about the river and now he is a well-known river author and tour guide. Whilst Will’s focus in terms of boat-living is to do with the practicalities of how to live in a low-impact way, the main challenges for Mark are political. The authorities’ treatment of boat-dwellers, the controversial closure of the Castle Mill Boatyard and the stalled attempts to turn it into river-front flats, the insecurity of tenure. He tells us how this lock, which is at the junction of the Oxford Canal and the Thames, was also known as Louse Lock, perhaps because of the convicts from Oxford prison who built it and many other structures on the waterways. He tells us about the Commoners of Wolvercote and the Freemen of Port Meadow who have the hereditary right to graze their cattle there since the times of King Alfred the Great, and whose honorary members include Nelson Mandela. By coincidence we meet one of the Freeman as we cross the bridge. It’s a very hot day and a group of young boys are having a ‘river rave’ with pounding dance music and throwing themselves into the river with delighted yelps.

We go down the river from Folly Bridge to Iffley Lock and back again on the Salter’s tourist river steamer, the Wargrave, talking to Salter’s staff Neil Kinch, Liam Challis and Sem Manji. Liam turns the large boat skilfully in the confined space at the lock. It is a sweltering day and we are basking in the sunlight reflected from the water. The diesel engines churn. Sem tells us how he has always had a connection with the river and enjoys it as well as working on it. Later as we cycle down the towpath we watch Sem first punt some tourists downriver and then drive another group down in Salter’s elegant small boat, the Constantia. Up and down, up and down the same stretch of river. Another of Salter’s employees call out to us as he captains the longer voyage to Abingdon, that he doesn’t know why people only want to do the short journey. If you really want to experience the river, he says, you need to go on one of the longer voyages.

I am reading about the extraordinary motility of water and Theodore Schwenk’s ‘drop picture’ experiments and method, visually manifesting how the health of water is in its movement and is immediately affected by the smallest drop of detergent for instance – the water movement flattens out, becomes ‘dead’. ‘The world of water is one of motion of becoming and of dissolution, of process. It is impossible to describe the variety of manifestations of water with static concepts.’ Water moves in eddies and vortices.

Nomeda and Gediminas are swimming most mornings at Port Meadow near The Perch in Binsey. A couple approach them when they are in the water to warn them that they will be paralysed if they catch Lymes Disease from rats’ urine. Gediminas is non-plussed, since Lymes Disease is spread by tics, not rats. There is a lot of mythology around the quality of river water. In the past rivers were used as the sewers of cities – everything from dead dogs to human and industrial waste were thrown into them. But now, English rivers are significantly cleaner.

We go on a Venetian sandola, the Serena, with Richard Bailey, the Standing Captain at City Barge Rowing Club. He rows standing up, Venetian style, and also has a gondola. Richard jive dances as well as rowing three or four times a week, and is visible proof of the healthy impacts of living with the river – both physical and psychological. He cheerfully negotiates between tourists struggling to control their punts, taking us to his favourite spot on the Cherwell – ‘this is where I usually stop for some Prosecco’ – next to the Botanical Gardens. City Barge Rowing Club’s members are as interested in rowing to lunch and socializing, as they are in racing. They are interested in the Venetian water life. Richard tells us there are 425 [check] gondolier licenses in Venice that are passed down through families and fiercely fought for. Compared to the rigour of getting a rowing eight in and out of the boathouse and then rowing it, the sandolo seems remarkably easy to handle. It slips into the water easily. Richard makes the rowing technique look simple, although he has mastered it over many years of practice.

Oxford River Cruises’ website describes ‘the otherworldliness of river life’ and the ‘beauty, peace and tranquility of the river’. On the Cherwell with Richard Bailey in his Venetian sandolo boat, we can glimpse the traffic of the High Street and Magdalen Bridge through the trees, but its stressful and inexorable noise is damped down and almost inaudible. The maximum speed of 5 miles per hour on the river means that everything slows down – you included. The green of the water matches the green of the banks and the trees and you are enclosed in a green world.

Curator and rower Rob La Frenais joins us on the river and drops his reading glasses in the water from his top shirt pocket, as he leans over. In the dark green water with a slight current, they are impossible to retrieve. Gediminas is obsessed with getting a floating cork ball key-ring which we see all the river people carrying.

We are interested in building a sculpture, a pontoon-boat, a hybrid laboratory/playground imaging the future of rivers, in the Modern Art Oxford Project Space. Yesterday I sent off a registration form to the Environment Agency to get a license for this boat that doesn’t yet exist but is emerging in our imaginations.

Emily Korchmaros, our curator at Modern Art Oxford, visits us in the Project Space with information on an Oxford archaeologist who focuses on the Thames. Many of the objects in the Ashmolean Museum have been retrieved from the Thames.

Today we are going to walk along the northern part of Port Meadow with Environment Agency Officer, Russell Robson.

At the end of the month I am organizing a pilot Wet Symposium with the Canal & River Trust, discussing future water issues IN the water with researchers on climate change, migration and aquatic life. From Archimedes to Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, immersion in water has a demonstrable track record of impacting on our creative ideas. Writing flows like water. Several years ago I did a performance at Penzance Harbour writing on a long roll of paper into the sea as the tide went out, washing the ink words away as they appeared, writing about sea voyages. If I get stuck writing, I get in the bath, my consciousness gets realigned by swishing about in water, and then words flow again. Perhaps our stream of our consciousness is beneficially realigned by immersion in water?


the ‘water magicians’ of the early 20th century  – Victor Schauberger and Theodore Schwenk who studied water.

Gaston Bachelard Water and Dreams

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Hybrids – mermaids, mermen, Vikings, portage

Light and water

Acoustics and water. Hearing through our skulls in water. The speed of sound in water.

Cloud seeding

Dowsing, geology, aquifers

Add references.

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