Tracey Warr: Posts from an Island

Tracey Warr: Posts from an Island

January – February 2015


January 28, 2015

I am currently writer in residence for Frontiers in Retreat on Suomenlinna island, off Helsinki, in Finland, where I am working on a novel, set 200 years in the future, called The Water Age. My working process is embodied and sited: writing on this snow and ice bound island contrasts in interesting ways with earlier writing for the novel I worked on last summer on the Carmarthen Bay triple river estuary at Llansteffan and Caldey Island in south west Wales. Here on this Nordic winter island, water is viscous, blooming ice, turning to solidity, more thinglike.

Researching the novel, I am working with a diversity of sources: predictions for future climate, sea levels and future society; the characteristics and properties of water; inspirations from aquatic flora and fauna. My writing process includes action research with a young people’s art group and their teacher Elsa Hessle at Annantalo in Helsinki.

I am looking at science fiction by Ballard, Le Guin, Lessing, Robinson and others, contemplating questions of utopia and dystopia. In focussing on rising water levels and writing about drowned settlements and infrastructures, I want to approach, as Gerry Canavan puts it in Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, ‘the shocking inadequacy of our response to global warming thus far’, however I am also a hydrophiliac, committed to swimming and gongoozling (a word meaning staring at life as it passes by on water). If I see water I want to get in it. I’m with John Cheever’s character in the short story, ‘The Swimmer’: ‘That he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence … To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.’ Water, itself, will be a kind of character in my novel. I’ve been reading the ‘water magicians’, Victor Schauberger and Theodore Schwenk. I’m interested in aqua-hybrids – mermaids and Vikings, and in the liminal space of the coast – between solid ground and water. I’m trying to write with a perspective turned inside out: a blue infrastructure instead of a grey tarmacked one; looking up from underneath the surface of the water, as well as across its surface and into its depths. I’m trying to imagine a different future relationship with the hydrosphere that is not dystopic.

We are a story addicted species. Our fictions are our life maps. We tell ourselves stories about the past and about the future as models or anti-models for our present lives. I will be unfolding these ideas further over the next few days in a series of daily blogposts from Suomenlinna.

Utopias and Dystopias

January 29, 2015


Trying to figure out what kind of a future world I might be writing about I came up with this diagram via, and adapted from, W.H. Auden, Samuel R. Delany and Gerry Canavan (see Delaney’s interview and Canavan & Robinson’s Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, 2014).

I’m not interested in writing dystopic or apocalyptic fiction but rather utopian fiction as defined by novelist Kim Stanley Robinson – fiction with a vision of trying to make a more just society (and trying to avoid the repressions that utopias often wind up in). These binaries – utopias and dystopias, city and country – are in play in most future fictions. In the Techno Super City scientific and technological developments have solved all problems, or in Arcadia there is a rural idyll of self-sufficiency and benevolent sentient nature. Sometimes there is a relationship between city and countryside – but Delany points out people tend to lean towards the city or the country and to see the other as necessarily ‘bad’.

The flip side of these utopias are the dystopian versions: the Bad Cities of 1984, Brave New World and Blade Runner, where an all powerful state uses technology to surveil its citizens and chronically curtail their rights and freedom, or the dystopian countryside full of natural disasters, diseases and human savagery. The Hunger Games and many other future fictions use these city/country dystopias or city/country oppositions in tandem. The countryside sometimes functions as a place of escape or of temporary retreat where a way to overcome corruption is discovered enabling a triumphant return to the newly utopian city.

Canavan identifies a fictional city somewhere between utopia and dystopia – Junk City – an adapted, hacked urban-techno chaos that people nevertheless find ways to flourish within (see William Gibson for example). He also discusses a toxic, polluted countryside admired for its decadent beauty, naming this rural dystopia in fiction ‘The Culture of the Afternoon’. Many of J.G. Ballard’s future fictions such as Vermilion Sands and The Drowned World, with their beachcomber heroes and their languid desire for the collapse of ‘civilization’, could fall into this category. Then there is ‘Quiet Earth’ where human activity has led to the destruction or near-destruction of most species including homo sapiens. I am trying to write an Anthropocene Arcadia, focussed on a watery future – coastal, riverine, estuarine – and imagining some relationship with Junk City.

Writing future fiction is a new direction for me after having written two historical novels but they have similarities in that both estrange readers from the present. Canavan argues that in SF estrangement is a ‘flexible artistic tool for disorienting and defamiliarizing the conditions of everyday life, opening up the mind to previously unimagined possibilities … SF distances us from the contemporary world-system only to return us to it, as aliens, so that we can see it with fresh eyes’, and historical fiction, in part, does the same thing.

All novels grapple with the landscape of the mind and emotions, and a novelist has to ask themselves what is the story, the quest the protagonist is undertaking? I am dealing with my characters’ choice, hope and agency – all key questions for ecological thinking now. I’m imagining the partial breakdown of capitalism and its ‘economy of unpaid costs’ as K. William Kapp put it, because that’s what I want to imagine. I’m imagining new ways of living and surviving that draw on old ways, thrown back on the technologies of the body, of husbandry, of a post-peak oil world, because that’s what I want to imagine. I’m imagining living in conjunction with other forms of life – aquatic flora and fauna, and with the natural rhythms of tides, seasons, moon, day and night, sleep, waking and hibernation. To make things happen we first have to imagine them.

Thanks for all your interesting responses yesterday. Keep them coming. Another post from me on Frontiers and Islands tomorrow.

The Interspecies Frontier

February 3, 2015

Last night I saw a large urban hare in Helsinki, bounding across tramlines and main roads to the port, perhaps heading for the ferry to the island where I am staying.

An island is a distinct thing, it has parameters, water borders, it has by necessity to be a microcosm. I am writing within a project called Frontiers in Retreat. We have used the idea of the frontier as a horizon of expansive possibility – first into the supposedly empty lands beyond the West, across the seas, then into space and the galaxy. The frontier metaphor has been concerned with exploration, conquest and colonisation. But now there is no new frontier for expansion, frontiers are in retreat – now we are on Earth, in the biosphere, and really looking at that instead of evading doing so or taking it for granted (or at least we should be). Instead of endless new frontiers for expansion, there are limits – the limits of Planet Earth, and islands are both an actuality and a metaphor for those limits.
To me, Frontiers in Retreat, speaks to this: no new horizon for the human quest (a species characteristic), no new place for exploration, colonisation, exploitation, previously fulfilled by the New World, the Wild West, and Space. Instead our new quest is to confront the limits of Planet Earth in a time of global warming and the Anthropocene, to search for environmentally sound future technologies and lifestyles, to search for new types of knowledge – perhaps interspecies knowledge. In my own practice I am employing two principle research methods to address this quest: fiction writing and interspecies proximities.

By interspecies proximities I mean the knowledge of another species that zookeepers, or farmers, or hunters, or foresters, or animal behaviour therapists, or pet owners have. So a knowledge from durational familiarity rather than (or as well as) scientific study. I am interested in the body technologies of other species – octopus ink, spitting fish, flying fish, poisonous frogs. I am interested in parasitism across species, mutualism between species, and how other species are colonising human urban spaces and adapting us. See artist Pinar Yoldas‘s vision of aquatic life adapting to plastic infested waters, An Ecosystem of Excess.

See the Jutempus Frontiers in Retreat project, Zooetics.

Citizen Science

February 3, 2015

BioStrike are an international collective of artists and scientists working on citizen science with a hacker ethos. I visited them yesterday at the Biofilia art and science lab at Aalto University where they are currently giving art students a crash course in manipulating genes to create bioluminescent plants, as well as undertaking their own open science research on antibiotics. They aim to teach microbiology that can be done in your own backyard and kitchen. See the Peer to Peer Foundation and Hackteria.


February 4, 2015

Water is essential to all life and around 67% of the human body is water. Although 71% of the planet’s surface is water, only 2.5% is fresh drinking water. The total amount of water in the planet’s water cycle always stays the same but since water has three states: gas, liquid and solid, changes in climate cause changes in water levels. Global warming means the oceans are getting warmer and warmer water expands. Aquatic life forms either don’t survive in changed environmental conditions or they have to move (if they can) to new habitats and water temperatures that suit them. Melting ice caps have also been expanding the liquid water in the oceans. The IPCC predicts sea level changes for 70% of coastlines worldwide. How much they will rise is debated but when tides and winter storm surges are factored in significant changes are very likely for low-lying coastal settlements such as Netherlands, east coast of US, coastal UK, Bangladesh, low-lying islands such as Tuvalu. Many people will be displaced by rising sea levels and coastal retreat inland is only a partial solution. Sea-steading, people living on water in communities and floating cities is another possible solution.

In the unlikely event that all the ice-caps melt the UK would look like an archipelago of small islands with many major cities, including London, Bristol and Norwich, underwater. Unlikely events can be the stuff of fiction so for the novel I am working on I’m imagining the coastal area of south west Wales 200 years in the future with a significant sea level rise and infrastructure and coastal settlements drowned. My heroine is more amphibian than terrestrial. She is hydrophiliac, more familiar with the properties and characteristics of water and aquatic flora and fauna than she is with the land. She knows about sound, light and gravity in water, the health of water, its motility, its eddies and vortices, and how fish use fluid dynamics and water structure. Perhaps we could say that they are swum by the water rather than swimming through and against it.
To help me imagine the fictional world I am creating I ran three Water Workshops at Annantalo Art School in Helsinki with young people (11-13) and their teacher, Elsa Hessle. We looked at how lilypads are waxy and repel water, how otters have long tails to balance when swimming, closable nostrils and ears, and dense fur creating a waterproof surface. We considered that one in 2000 people have syndactyly – webbed toes or fingers. And we considered historical and contemporary peoples who have adapted to semi-amphibian lifestyles, such as the Vikings.

After discussing how we felt about water, islands, and aquatic life we created two water landscapes – one from a bird’s eye view: Archipelago, and one from a fish eye view: Under Water World. A picture diary of the workshops follows.
Many thanks to Annantalo, Elsa Hessle and her fabulous group of young artists, and to HIAP for supporting the workshops, especially Tomasz Szrama and Jenni Nurmenniemi. And thanks to Julie Turley and Urbonas Studio for the inspiration of the Water Workshop we previously organised at Modern Art Oxford.