The Art and Science of a Dry River

November 13, 2012
by Eric Magrane

Almost 100 years ago, the poet William Carlos Williams admonished “no ideas but in things.” A beautiful, multivocal, and hybrid new book, Ground/Water: The Art, Design, and Science of a Dry River, resonates with this statement.

Published as the first book in Beyond Boundaries, a series by the University of Arizona’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, in collaboration with UA Press, it is  edited by UA professors Ellen McMahon (School of Art), Ander Monson (Creative Writing), and Beth Weinstein (College of Architecture). Ground/Water works in multiple registers, among them art, design, poetry, science, architectural drawings, and documentation.

The ideas here are environmental challenges (sustainability, climate change, human-environment relations) and the thing here is a dry river: the Rillito River in Tucson. The book is not a representation of the river, but an engagement with the river and the environmental issues that it embodies. It draws on collaborations with the Rillito River Project, an interdisciplinary arts group; a diverse community of artists and scientists; and projects from students in an interdisciplinary seminar that was taught by McMahon and Weinstein. That seminar grew out of a collaborative UA faculty research project called “Parallel Play: Interdisciplinary Responses to a Dry River.”

Here are just a few of the things you will find in Ground/Water:

Bats and bridges; an inventory of discarded items found on a 22-mile walk of the Pantano Wash, which empties into the Rillito; reflections on boundaries and borders; a connection between the behavior of water and human behavior; Charles Darwin’s grandfather; history and context of southern Arizona’s use of Colorado River water; water bottles; charts and proposals for water conservation; drawings and “distractions” from Sweetwater Wetlands; a list of species and the dates they were last seen in the Pantano Wash; fire and monsoon; a graph showing the precipitous drop in the Tucson water table since 1945; an essay on interdisciplinarity and objects; riverbed soil and sandbags; a western yellow-billed cuckoo; and hope.

Ground/Water is “more fluid than water,” writes Javier Durán, director of the Confluencenter, in his Publisher’s Note. “It is not covalent, but rather polyvalent; it moves in and out of manifold areas which, already exceeding the bounds of traditional disciplines, cohere in a way which illuminates all of its parts but which requires a public to give it life.” It includes a foreward by Katharine L. Jacobs, director of the National Climate Assessment for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Environment and Energy Division, and a UA professor, as well as pieces from more than 20 contributors, including a piece from the UA Institute of the Environment’s Gregg Garfin. It also includes poetry by Alison Hawthorne Deming of the UA and Logan Phillips, essays by Allison Dushane of the UA and Nathaniel Brodie, and artwork by UA’s Robert Long, among many others with UA and Tucson connections.

To return to things, one of the strengths of the project is that it builds from a specific thing—in the form of the Rillito River—as its primary object, rather than from an abstract idea. Geographer Paul Robbins, in his contribution, offers: “The practical implication of this admission, that multidisciplinary groups become interdisciplinary communities primarily through their urgent and sometimes affective relationship with common things (rather than common ideas), is to worry less about socializing scientists with each other and to spend more time and resources convening conversations about specific things.”

In other words, when working on the proximities between art and environment, those proximities (like the “parallel play” of Ground/Water) are likely to be best approached in specific, embodied ways.  Both art and science build on visceral and empirical engagement with the things of the world. It is through this co-engagement where we may find the ground for new—affective and effective—arrangements to approach environmental issues.

The book, as an object, is produced with renewable energy and 100% postconsumer recycled paper. But the site of Ground/Water is much more than the book: the individual projects within it intersect with each other and go out into the world to do more work, like a rhizome—or like rainwater harvesting, in which the connections of the project are like water stored from the monsoons for the dry season to come.

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September 2013 Ground/Water events:

Water: Where Art an Science Meet, CCP Auditorium, Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 5:30pm

Reading at Antigone Books on Friday, September 27, 2013 at 7 PM

Past events:

The Book Launch for Ground/Water will be on Wednesday, November 14, 2013 from 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm at Playground, 278 E. Congress St. The event will include readings and talks by artists and authors Alison Hawthorne Deming, Javier D. Durán, Allison Dushane, Daniel Cheek, Gregg Garfin, Camden Hardy, Robert Long, Ellen McMahon, Ander Monson, and Ellen Benjoya Skotheim. Books will be available hot off the press for $32.00 (a 30 percent discount).

In addition, Ground/Water will be part of the opening reception of The Art of All Possibilities, an art installation at Biosphere 2 by members of Art Lab Border Biosphere Exploration, on Saturday, November 17, at 2 pm.

To read more about Ground/Water, see the November 9 UANews feature Exploring Water Issues Through the Arts, Humanities.