No. 109: Water
Deadline April 1, 2023

Water is the very source of life. It both defines us and is vital to us, even though, paradoxically, it is currently threatening the survival of humankind. As climate change gains momentum, unprecedented rises in water levels and flooding are putting the lives of almost half the people living on Earth in peril, as 60 percent of the world’s population now live less than a hundred kilometres from a coastline. A paint company has named its 2023 colour of the year “Melt Water,” and the irony of this label quickly becomes apparent given the sad reality that, around the world, seven people die every minute for lack of access to potable water. Bottled in the very plastics that pollute it and strangle its ecosystems, what has been dubbed “blue gold” is now the prize in global conflicts. Access to it is negotiated behind the closed doors of multinationals and governments, to the detriment of the most fundamental rights of those who live on its shores and who, too often, pay the price of an insatiable thirst for power and wealth with their health, and their lives.

Recent history has shown, once again, that Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of struggles to defend and safeguard water, as its integrity is closely linked to Indigenous self-determination, sovereignty, culture, and autonomy. Drawing on ancient knowledge regarding the curative properties and sacred nature of water, certain Indigenous traditions ask us to honour it, reminding us of our responsibility to protect it and to come up with creative and powerful responses to the oft-demonstrated inertia of legal, governmental, and corporate measures. This is so for Indigenous—and other—artists who reflect on the relations among ancestral knowledge, memory, and the sacredness of water. They reverse the hierarchical and extractivist relations between human beings and the land to propose embodied ways of being with nature and return agency to rivers and oceans despoiled by centuries of colonialism.

For water holds within itself an energy that is indomitable and mysterious. Covering 70 percent of Earth’s surface, water conceals secrets in the darkness of inaccessible ocean trenches, and memory of the very history of humanity is preserved in the froth and backwash of its waves. Today, perhaps more than ever, the seas and oceans are the crucible for migratory flows, both human and nonhuman—millions of lifeforms negotiating the future of civilizations on and under their surface. As the sociologist and historian Paul Gilroy tells us, taking the Atlantic Ocean as his theoretical and practical underpinning, water is also a privileged space of creation and resistance, a site of reinvention and of connection with the self and the other. In response to the looming rise of fascist politics and forms of nationalism that harden senses of identity, Gilroy proposes, rather, that the ocean be apprehended as a fertile space for an intrinsically intermixed and plural culture, a place where hybrid and poetic thought is articulated, connected, in a way, by water. This desire to reflect from a fluid position is also at the heart of “tidalectics,” a transversal and postcolonial philosophy proposed by the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite that abandons a dialectic of fixity, linearity, and appropriationism for a transformative, interrelated body of thought that flattens the hierarchy of knowledges.

If “we are bodies of water,” as the ecofeminist philosopher Astrida Neimanis so aptly puts it, reflecting on water through art is, above all, invoking a poetry of embodied critical thought. In continuity with research already launched by Blue Humanities, an emerging area of research that shifts cultural history from a terrestrial context into an oceanic one, Neimanis’s hydrofeminism promotes our familial connection with water and proposes trans-corporeal and trans-species alliances, combining different currents of wisdom to better respond to the intersectional challenges facing the future of humanity. Esse arts + opinions therefore invites authors and artists to submit texts that explore these intricacies of the aquatic world and reflect its infiltration into recent art practices. To what extent does water—as material, political subject, or philosophical entity—encourage us to rethink our relationships with the body, the environment, colonialism, and capitalism, and even with representation itself? Its multiple, unstable, and ephemeral states make its exhibition impossible or, at least, complexifies mechanisms by engaging both museums and spectators in forging new alliances. How does water irrigate the development of a new body of critical thought based on care, decolonization, and feminisms? All of these questions, and others, will be featured in this thematic section.