Rhetoric is a means of negotiating life in common.
I took an class in rhetoric this past semester. This class specifically was focused on rivers and water, and how we talk about them. We had to do something radical for it: an action project. It was expected that we would “give a shit about something,” enough that we would do something about it. That might seem to not have a lot to do with words and rhetoric, but it turns out that it has everything to do with it, since rhetoric is about understanding arguments. And of course, behind all of our projects would be an argument about, say, art and photography. And if, I, say, took some photographs of lakes and developed them in water from those lakes, that’s making an argument about lakes, and photography, and the relationship between the two. Which is rhetoric. Of course, that’s exactly what I did, but we’ll get there.
Art has always been about communicating ideas that matter in new and novel and interesting and engaging ways. To engage with art is to create a world, imaginative and placed in the future. Art and rhetoric are how we can locate ourselves in the world.
This is why art and rhetoric are so important. Beauty allows humans to orient themselves.
Control over art and its rhetoric is a path to freedom.
But art and rhetoric are complex systems that depend on inputs. The environment, and ecology, are complex systems too. Isolation is not in their nature, for ecology or art. They are both ambivalent. They are like water; they move to fill the shape of the container they are placed in; they are essential to life. Water is always alive, always interconnected with the other water around it. It courses through you. Words can do the same thing, if they’re in the right order and said at the right time in the right way. And for some people, images do the same. They can feel them in their blood. The images, and the words, can free them from this world and return them to the world of feeling, like art and words were always supposed to do. Maybe, we can create images that can change the world.
For my action project (my chance to give a shit about something) I took pictures of the lakes around Madison, but mostly Lake Mendota. This is the body of water which dominates much of life at UW- Madison — Memorial Union, arguably the heart of campus, and certainly one of the most memorable spots, sits on its shores. I have memories with friends, The identity of Memorial Union is tied to the lake. Another important part of campus is Lakeshore path. In a smaller building, located directly on the lake, is the UW Limnology Lab, otherwise known as the Hasler Lab. It is the place that studies lakes, and it’s claimed that Lake Mendota is the most studied lake in the United States. Although I did not know it at the start of the project, they have a small space in the lab to display art.
I said a little bit ago that I took pictures of Lake Mendota for my project. While that’s true, there’s a lot more to it than that. I took pictures at a bunch of different locations around the lake with a film camera. Most importantly I took samples of the water at each place that I took a picture. And then I developed the film using that water sample.
All in all, I collected about ten liters of water to develop the film in. I quite frankly had no experience in taking and developing film pictures. It’s quite scary to take a film picture and not know what it looks like and if it turned out, but I think that’s supposed to be part of the “fun.”
Each of the different containers was a different spot in the lake, or a different lake. Each of them was poured in and swilled around, before being poured out.
Starting on February 15th, 2018, they will be displayed in the Limnology Lab. Once hung up, they will be seen by the researchers who move in and out of the lab. There will also be a brief artist statement that will appear next to the photographs, to explain how they were made and what I have to say about them.
“The Making is the Meaning.”
I think sometimes as a city, Madison tends to get distant from the lakes and their condition. We like to see waterways only as a brilliant image, and not something that we can actually touch and feel and manipulate. In the same way, our natural tendency is to view images, and especially photographs (even more so with the advent of digital photography) as simply images and not as material objects. In the production of a digital photograph, it’s easy to forget the materiality of the objects that show us it, which is usually a screen that’s made out of sophisticated electronics and rare minerals. We like to think of it as pure image.
But that’s never the way that the world works. To borrow an idea from Holding History, as Professor Josh Calhoun and Sarah Marty might say, “The Making is the Meaning,” or “The Medium is the Message.” In medieval manuscripts, we can test the pages and determine the DNA of the animal that the book was made out of. Photographic film production, at least in this case, is connected to my labor and materiality when the film is developed, just the like animal is connected to the book, or a tree to paper.
Photographs are supposed to show a reality. It’s hard for us to accept that there are ways to fiddle with the veracity of photographic images. It’s hard to accept that the Instagram life of your friends is not real.
My images instead argue that photographs are instead always more complex, more contingent, and more connected than they appear. They, in short, reflect the ecology of water. It is resistant at times, and gives way at others. It cools, it heats, and it gives us life, but it can also take it away. It is filled with ecology and life in the most unexpected of places. At the same time, the images I made are filled with life and something appearing in places that aren’t expected, and they make visible the strange peculiarities of water… the way it moves to fill containers… the way it is connected to the wind… the way it moves things…
Lake Mendota, Lake Monona, and on… these are the lakes that we live on, swim in, ice skate on, interact with, and study. The making of the images has simply allowed the muck to rise to the surface and to become visible. Images always create their own environments which affect the results. My images makes this process explicitly part of the image production process. By taking the water, I not only affected the images, I changed the lakes forever.
Those lakes, of course, are those studied by the Limnology Lab, and the images are going up in that lab. This action project is going to affect the Limnology Lab, and it will remind them of the work that they do and its importance. What I hope to do there is to make the people who work there consider their own importance inside the community. I want to inspire someone who sees the images at the lab into doing something to help the lakes and the environment. And from their position, they can use their own knowledge to advance the cause of a cleaner earth and a cleaner Madison. I want to empower them to make their own change.
“But on the whole, it’s also fair to keep building and keep dreaming, and to imagine or try to create a country where the common thread of empathy is the tie that binds… There is still some glimmer of a chance that with enough work and elbow grease, my child — descended from slaves, slave masters, immigrants, and natives — will find a way to live outside of the veil. This is why I write.”
-Vann Newkirk II
Was the project itself successful? I, myself, measure success by one metric.
The first quote above is excerpted from a larger work considering the presidential election of 2016. I remember on that night going to bed very hot and very angry and very sad and very upset that I had not somehow expected it. That I had forgotten exactly what America was, despite everything that I had learned about the fundamental nature of our country. It’s so tempting in the everyday struggle that is our lives to give in to hopelessness — we will never remember to buy shampoo when we run out, and it’s so hard to fight against the forces of injustice. I almost never cried before that day. Now, perhaps, I am more grateful for the people around me, for the smaller victories and the smaller beauties that exist all around us. As Vann Newkirk says, “There is still some glimmer of a chance…”
That is why I am so evangelical about art, and its power. If there is a way for us to peek behind the veil, to glimpse the glimmer of a chance…
And maybe, someday, for someone to step outside of it…
Then I know how it will be possible to get there. It will only be possible if someone leaps into the unknown, when someone creates a new kind of beauty that we are unprepared for. When someone connects with someone else in a way we’ve never connected before.
Something so beautiful that it will remind us of the magic of loving and being loved by another human being. Something so beautiful that it reminds us that the magic of loving and being loved is why we are alive.
I am not so arrogant that I will claim that my pictures will remind someone of the magic of loving and being loved. But I do think that they remind the viewer of the materiality of the world we live in. I do think they are small, and probably don’t do all that much. But I do think they might affect, maybe, two or three people. And so that smallness is really important, because two or three people are enough to change a little corner of the world for the better.
I do not propose that these images solve the problem. But I do propose that these images are complex objects that are material, and that they are objects that show things not working how I intended them to. This is, after all, how life is. The best art is the most like life.
But I do believe they are, above all, beautiful. And in times of struggle, in times of survival, we deserve beauty beyond just beauty. We deserve beauty that means something, beauty that makes us feel violently alive, that makes us ache. We deserve art that makes us feel everything all at once.
And so did my project succeed? I think I made something beautiful. But of matters of success, I am always ambivalent. “History and hope are often at odds.” I have become too knowledgeable to blindly believe anymore, and it was always a privilege to believe anyways.
Do I think other people can see the glimmer through this work? I hope what it does is make us pay attention, and make us sensitive to the beauty around us all the time. If we are gracious enough to grateful for that, then we will have real hope at last.
P.S. I am making these pictures into a photobook. If you’re interested in getting a copy of it, please email me at email@example.com.