bathing in the elements by susan best
"I need a ship to begin my journey. Your eyes will do" Peter Lyssiotis
"It's the liquidity of our eyes that makes us dream." Gaston Bachelard
These exquisite quotes from Gaston Bachelard and Peter Lyssiotis appeared on the opening panel of Harbourings, an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney about Sydney Harbour's disused industrial sites. Read together the quotes extend the popular trope of the sea voyage--outer journeys paralleled by inner voyages of self discovery--by making our bodies, and those of others, into the medium and the means of transport to other realms. Discovery can be accomplished in the infinite sea of the other's eyes, there is no need to leave home.
The powers of such dreamy evocations of watery transport are intensified when read against the backdrop of the harsh realities of a postindustrial maritime landscape. Flights of imagination are not a luxury in such a bleak context, on the contrary, they are necessary to think forwards, to think otherwise. Indeed, the Harbourings exhibition highlighted the need to reimagine the battered, scarred and neglected harbour sites rather than to simply lament their all too evident redundancy and wasteful superfluity. The harbour and this state of being, caught between redundancy and reimagining, play key roles in the latest work of Robyn Backen, Littoral. Taking our cue from the title of this work we could see redundancy and reimagining as the outer limits of a highly fluid zone: the littoral zone sits between (and accommodates) the high tide of new visions, firing imaginative powers, optimism, and hope, and the low tide of pessimism, lament, stasis, and slow decay.
"Littoral" thus names the zone that lies just beyond the walls of Artspace--a small segment of the wavering shoreline of Sydney Harbour--and an approach or attitude to change. The change in question is both geographical and technological. The technological change is perhaps best described as a change in technologies of communication. Littoral shows us a redundant system of communication, the dot/dash of morse code, caught in the flickering filaments of the new carrier of messages: fibre optics. A (nearly) dead digital language is thus carried by the newly ascendent technology of the digital.
Changes to geography enter somewhat obliquely here. The popular wisdom is that geography as such has been transformed by the advent of new technologies. According to writers such as Paul Virilio the new digital sea of communication has swamped traditional notions of space and place: . . . the old vis-a -vis of streets and avenues is effaced and disappears. Thus, differences between positions blur, resulting in unavoidable fusion and confusion. . . . From this moment on, no one can be considered as separated by obstacles or by significant "˜time distances." With the interface of monitors and control screens, "elsewhere" begins here and vice versa. There is something of this digital overrun of the landscape in Backen's work: the morse code of the adjacent military shoreline has been rerouted along more contemporary lines, and markers of safe anchorage--maritime buoys--have turned into luminous balls of optical fibre. But the effect of these transformations is not so much a sense of flooding or drowning--the metaphors of deluge and destruction mobilised to wash away all the old or obsolete obstacles in the pathway of change--rather, these intertwinings of new and old demonstrate what we should now call the "littoral sensibility." The shoreline presents us with a model for being in the world, a fluid and inclusive comportment towards events. To be littoral is to try to take account of the high moral ground of condemnation of change (nostalgia is simply a gentler form of this judgement) and the low moral ground eagerly occupied by avant-gardists with their desire for destruction (often characterised quite simply by disregard for what exists). Littoral steers through these extremes while also extending the complex play between us and water that Bachelardâ€™s elemental philosophy insisted upon. Indeed it is precisely the references to water that allow the middle course to be steered. Water is a vital (if unnoticed) aspect of the social imagining of new digital technologies. Not only are we flooded with a deluge of information, drowning in the endless sea of communications, but we also speak more positively of steady flows of data, and most importantly for the exhibition considered here, the immersive experience of new technologies. It is surely this feeling of immersion, the idea of continuity with all things in a shared element, that allows theorists like Virilio to presume the dissolution of sharp boundaries: the end of the face to face and vis-a-vis of discrete entities confronting the clear contours of one another. In Littoral the immersive experience is not a removal from the real world, a retreat into the solipsistic bubble of technologically-induced imagining. On the contrary, we are drawn back outside ourselves, back out into the harbour beyond the walls. The dim light of the exhibition suggests the spatiality of night, with the buoys bobbing alongside us we must be in the harbour, participants in the magic of night swimming when reduced visibility accentuates the tactility of buoyancy, the touch of water upon skin becomes a caress. This experience of bathing is at once real and literal--once part of the possibilities of the immediate environs of Artspace--while also having more metaphorical resonances.
The bathing metaphor can be used to describes our movements in the electronic matrix, movements which do not need to deny or destroy a concrete and particular location, watery or otherwise. Most importantly, the very insistence and prevalence of electronic bathing is a provocation to reimagine our relation to our environment in general: the milieu of bathing is not an environment held at arm's length, but one in which we are immersed, we are but part of its continuous extension.
It is precisely this continuous mode of human being/dwelling that is described by Emmanuel Levinas as having the character of bathing: it is a kind of floating in a realm of sustenance from which our individuated existence issues. Such an image takes us home: recalling not only our natal home but also inner, more metaphorical shores--those indeterminate zones of the imagination where we and water meet. At last we return to the shore, but where exactly is that?