In January 2014, a tidal storm surge caused massive damage to Aberystwyth sea front, flooding properties and leading to evacuation of the seafront homes and university halls of residence. In a neat dramatic twist, all this played out on and opposite the town’s north beach where I had first conceived the idea of Drop in the Ocean – as a performance piece that was intended to address our fundamental (dis)connection to and perception of water in a changing climate – with my friend and collaborator Sara and her then 4-year-old son Celyn back in April 2011.
Returning to survey the damage – tons of the same shingle that we had shovelled into buckets just a few months previously to construct the installation labyrinth, now hurled by the sea into dunes on the road; railings and benches torn up and smashed; the old shelter collapsed – with Sara and her one-year old son Siôn, she took these images (below) as we talked about what and how this all made us feel. (Mostly, sad-numb-shocked, as you can see.)
For two Aberystwyth-based artists and life-long environmentalists who have been addressing climate/environmental change in our respective (and latterly collaborative) practices, it was a visceral reminder of the vulnerability of what even we – aware as we are of what is happening globally – tend to assume is ‘safe’ locally. A violation by inundation: a recognition that, being an eco-activist and having a conscience or a consciousness doesn’t bring some sort of diplomatic climate immunity to one’s own doorstep.
But perversely, at the same time it was also an (albeit un-hoped for) vindication of what we are doing – or trying to do – as activists. I write to Sara in a later email:
It makes me feel so much, though it’s also so complicated – it feels like it’s easy, as environmentalists, to appropriate these events as ‘evidence’ of climate change (& so in some ways a vindication of what one is trying to communicate) but equally there is also awe & wonder at the sheer power of the natural world which is so much more than us… And then somewhere in between that there’s the idea that ‘it’s so much more than we are AND yet we are still capable of disrupting it cataclysmically…’
(Whether this particular storm could be specifically attributed to climate change at this time or not is of course completely academic, given that it is widely acknowledged that these are just the kind of events we are going to experience with increasing regularity. And in fact, the considered as a whole, the extreme weather events that followed throughout January can only be regarded, collectively, as (pretty much) irrefutable evidence of something fundamentally bigger, as articulated by Aberystwyth University’s Professor Alun Hubbard in this short video (including footage by Sara):
It is difficult to know how to respond to all this through my practice as an artist-activist – and maybe that response will need to percolate through with time. But I am eager to bring Drop in the Ocean ‘back’ to Aber, where it was conceived. And I wonder what people’s wishes for water might be here, now…
Meanwhile, just two weeks before this storm event, I had begun what was to become a two-month exchange of water, writing and (filmed) movement as part of a collaboration with Canadian ecological performance artist Bronwyn Preece, culminating in our split-screen film Dropped in the Ocean. Eerily, the last line of the message-in-a-bottle text written (to accompany the water I was posting to Canada) in Aber on 21st December was: ‘we won’t see it [sea level] rising, until we feel it sucking at our feet’…