Pulse of the Wetland: Part two of a conversation with Kim V. Goldsmith

In this second part of a conversation with my artist collaborator Kim V. Goldsmith, we look ahead at some of the outcomes from our project and themes to explore…

As you said in the earlier part of our conversation, there are all kinds of political, socio-historical issues associated with these wetland sites which inform the work, and so rather than address these directly, it could be an interesting approach to make a response that reflects the longer history of the landscape, focusing on aesthetic/sonic quality.  Might the research documentation then play a key role in provoking debate about the art works, and how could this be presented?

That’s always the dilemma, isn’t it? Research underpins every project I undertake and it’s sometimes hard to know where to go with the more contemporary issues – it can be a slippery slope. I like to maintain neutrality where I can, as I believe that the power of these creative projects is to highlight the things we have in common – the deep emotional attachment we have to the landscape, these ancient landforms with flora and fauna that has evolved with them, and sustained human life for centuries. The more important questions to address are what sort of value we put on them now for the sake of future generations and how much have we yet to learn about them?

Working with sound and video with an abstract aesthetic provides an opportunity to present the wetland in a way that even those most familiar with them won’t have experienced. I hope that provokes curiosity, a desire to understand more about these wetlands and the ecological role they play – including their aesthetic/sonic qualities. The research still sits behind this, and it’s there for people to dive into if they want to.

Gas bubble release from roots of reeds, Macquairie Marshes, June 2020

How will the project stimulate discussion about the future of wetlands and the interdependence of human and more-than-human in those landscapes?

In the age of the Anthropocene, it’s hard to imagine a landscape without the hand of humans on it. Humans have been part of the ecology of these landscapes in Australia for at least 60,000 years and in the region around the Macquarie Marshes, that existence dates back 30-36,000 years. While the wetlands are a complex and dynamic system, expanding and contracting, shifting shape and area over centuries, post-colonisation sped up the process in Australia under the influence of European farming practices.

A decade after settlement in the Marshes had already begun, introducing large numbers of hard-hooved sheep and cattle to the Marshes and floodplains, explorer and surveyor, Thomas Mitchell wrote in his journal while traveling through the Marshes (19 Feb): We cannot occupy the land without producing a change, fully as great to the aborigines, as that which took place on man’s fall and expulsion from Eden.

Strong words, yet 174 years later and we’re still grappling with the issues knowing we can’t turn back the clock. I’m hoping the works produced from our time in the wetlands will offer new perspectives and perhaps an understanding that even though there are now more stakeholders than ever, that we all essentially want the same thing.

Goanna claw markings in a River Red Gum tree, Macquaire Marshes, July 2020

It could be argued that creating nature reserves and limiting public access or simply raising these areas up as separate and worthy of conservation affects public perception of “nature”, so that we see humans as apart from it, rather than a part of it.  And this in turn, could cause people to be blind to, or more neglectful of, the more-than-human elements of everyday landscapes we live in, because these could be perceived to be tainted by human contact, not protected and therefore open to be exploited or degraded.  Is this a fair reflection?  In drawing attention to wetland landscapes, how can art strike a balance between raising these sites up as unique and critically important, whilst also encouraging people to find value and see human interconnectedness in all forms of more-than-human in the landscapes around us?  

I completely agree – how can you value something you’ve never seen or have little understanding of? There seems to be two schools of thought amongst public land managers and scientists around this – one is that the conservation value is so great that it’s too big a risk to allow the public access, and the other is that supervised access should be allowed to create that connection and understanding. I think there’s a middle ground.

Art can most definitely play a part in striking that balance, by bringing the landscape to the public in new and interesting ways – things like showing what happens under the surface of the water, what’s happening at night in the wetland or hearing the ‘pulse’ inside a tree on the floodplain. If you can trigger curiosity at this level, you would hope it might encourage people to seek out those environments for themselves or demand more access to real-time experiences.

A wet area of the Macquairie Marshes at night, September 2020

Ninety percent of the recognised Macquarie Marshes is privately owned, so there’s a lot of pressure on the remaining 10 percent of publicly managed wetland to be publicly accessible – that’s largely the Ramsar-listed area. The infrastructure work that’s being done on the trust-owned property I’ve been working on is going to provide some of the access the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service aren’t currently offering.

Water and fire are two themes which connect the UK and Australian wetlands.  How do you see these influencing your work?

These are both central to humanity – two of the fundamental elements we require to survive. But you can have too much of a good thing. In simple terms, my brief on Pulse of the Wetland was to document the recovery of the Macquarie Marshes from prolonged drought and fire (a lightning strike in late October 2019). Drought is just the absence of water over a long period, which threatens survival, even in an ephemeral wetland where the dry cycle is as important as the wet.

Fire is essential to the Australian landscape; it’s a way of resetting things. Some Australian plants only germinate after fire, just as in the wetland, some birds only breed on a big flood event. Like us, they rely on fire and water to survive and regenerate.

With the impact of climate change being a very real presence in our lives here now, water, or the lack of it, and fire have taken on greater significance than ever — in a much more sinister, life-threatening way. Either way, I’m not sure I could create a work that wasn’t influenced by water or fire in some way.

Reed regrowth after fire in the Macquairie Marshes, February 2020

There are some interesting differences and similarities between the sites.  For example, no water flows into the Mosses other than rainfall, and historically the site has been drained to various watercourses, which caused the bog to collapse.  The BogLIFE project is now to block the drains and regenerate the sphagnum moss.  Whereas the Macquarie Marshes are fed by a major river and upper system tributaries – but then how does water extraction affect the amounting of water flowing out?  The Marshes are affected hugely by seasonal changes, whereas the Mosses remain relatively unchanged.

The geomorphological, hydrological and geographical differences are quite obvious, but at the end of the day, the Mosses and Marshes are eco-systems that have evolved over centuries with humans in the mix. We have emotional attachments to them, evident in the stories we’ve been collecting, there’s quite obviously an inherent appreciation of their aesthetic value that’s often not recognised or dismissed. We’ve valued them in the past for their ability to be productive, be it as cattle country or for peat production. We’re now starting to value them for their biodiversity conservation importance. But we’re still a very long way from a position of deep ecological value — of giving worth to these landscapes regardless of what they offer to us.

Maybe that’s an ambitious objective, but there’s no reason why we can’t have the conversation if it offers up new perspectives that might preserve these environments for our kids.

If you have enjoyed reading about our project and would like to support the artists with the costs of preparing work for exhibition in the communities where the work is made, and in turn help support other artists and organisations that are involved then please make a donation by visiting the Mosses and Marshes crowdfunder campaign.

Published by andhowe

I am a visual artist, based in Shrewsbury, making paintings, photography, books and digital media inspired by walking. My artistic practice focuses on the interaction between people and places.

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