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Confluence - Play
October 2018
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Longwood Gardens fountain at night
I’ve spent little time in the mountains this year, but inquiries on water, the ecology of places and how we understand them are continuing. I sat in on the Designing Water conference at Longwood Gardens celebrating the renovation of their fountain court. With its robotic jets and sensurround sound, the 'finest performance fountain in the world' expressed to me the empovershment of wonder and of our capacity to connect to elemental nature -- foregrounding instead the command/control attitude that now, across social- and ecosystems, seems so problematic. Moonlight anyone?

Just prior to that conference I'd met Tim Stott, a theorist of play in art, at his UC Berkeley presentation. Combining pleasure and risk, play uses what is at hand to extend the scope of experience. I like the definition of play as a loose fit – as in ‘the key plays in the lock.’ Too tight a fit and there is no risk, no opportunity for play; too loose and the relationship dissipates. (See also my Risk and Certainty post.)
 
Convict Stream above Convict Lake
In the 1980’s my art school painting teacher Stanley Whitney urged students to "keep it alive", encouraging us to make each effort reveal gaps, suggest opportunities, hover short of completion and so invite new investigations. Resolution in creative work is only so good as the questions it raises.
 
Without a sense for cycles, transformations, distant or hidden sources and renewal, one cannot approach a relationship with water. Reorienting the question to water’s points of view, by what generosity or stubbornness does water hold to itself through changes so profound – while remaining the wetness it is? And more broadly, what are the arcs of matter?
 
Horsehair Worm
In settling limits within which processes may be called normal, we express legacies of physicality, culture and history. Most of the world moves beyond our grasp (see my December 2016 post) yet will open to inquiry from almost any direction. To engage, we've developed specialist languages and other tools, like standard measurements and academic disciplines, which promote communication but also impose boundaries and orders. The classic description of boundary-defining processes in science is Khun’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions; in art one of my favorites is Kubler’s Shape of Time. Both open up the processes of transformation, describing within each of their topics something like a mountain landscape of converging ecologies.

Horsehair worms are also lessons in formal transformation: at turns free living and obligate parasites, aquatic and terrestrial, not to mention the calligraphic gymnastics of adult worms.  I photographed this one, scooped from the water during field work for the Sentinel Streams Project in 2017.
Convict Lake, East Sierra Nevada
Exploring liquid process in landscape has perhaps made me more attentive to ambiguous or mercurial identities. How much is that my own predilection? Am I registering the effects of 20th Century industrialization that Marshall Berman described with a phrase from Marx, All that is Solid Melts Into Air? Is it that climate changes are now undercutting the predictability we expect from nature? Are we moving into a paradigm of cohesive exchange where liquids, solids and gases form and reform what is experienced, and experience itself finds continuity through transformation?
 
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All images by Todd Gilens unless noted otherwise.

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