Estuary / Phase III
What is an Estuary?
Estuaries are found where rivers run into seas. They are characterized by a mix of fresh and salt water, and are tidal (the water level rises and falls with the tides). Estuaries are places where the land mingles with the water and the boundary between solid ground and open water is marshy, muddy, and in flux. This nutrient-rich soup makes estuaries unique, vital and vulnerable ecosystems. They are home to complex webs of life including several endangered species. They are favored nesting and resting spots for migratory birds. The mud of wetlands acts as a filter for chemical runoff from commercial agriculture. Wetlands are often near bays and inlets, and therefore often close to urban areas. They are subject to development because they are misperceived as wasteland. Tomales Bay (and SF Bay also) is one large estuary, not a true bay.
One day on Grizzly Island in 2001, I fell in love with marshes, and committed myself to their study. In 2003 I invited Barbara and Joan to join me in a collaborative project inspired by estuaries. We began by kayaking in sloughs and tidelands all around the San Francisco Bay to explore the unique environment of wetlands. We then applied qualities of estuaries to our creative process in the studio. These include: flow, meandering pathways, exchange between two materials, and cycles of change. We are also working with these questions: What, in the body, is like an estuary? What is the language of estuaries? We have studied our own physiology through awareness practices to learn how our bodies are estuarine. The capillary beds are like marshlands with their osmotic exchange. The intestines are like the muddy waters of sloughs, with their rich microbial and nutrient content. The lungs are rhythmic, cyclical organs, reflecting tidal exchange. The kidneys filter and process a steady flow of minerals, waste, and water, similar to estuaries. Each cell breathes fluid like tidelands. The exploration is open. What do you see and feel?
This installation is site-specific in its content and its execution. We explored the local environment, including Tomales Bay, Whitehouse Creek, Walker Creek, and Drakes Estero. The installation itself took its shape within the space of Gallery Route One. This specific installation has never existed before and never will be again. The space offered the possibility of entering in the center, with two different worlds at either end. I imagined that with light and darkness we could speak about high tide and low tide and about the world of land and the world of water, with both mingling in the center. There is an existing three-dimensional figure 8 in the space which lent itself to a cyclic tidal flow within the confines of this small room. I left many decisions open until we hung the show so that it would continue to evolve as it took form.
This installation is designed for a whole-body experience. The artwork hanging from the ceiling allows one to meander amongst the images and perceive them kinesthetically as well as visually. The layering of video images with drawings creates a dynamic between moving and stable forms – like shifting tides with the land. These drawings are body maps drawn from any random experience inside my body that is like an estuary. The video layers images from deep physiology: blood cells moving through blood vessels, and local microbiology: the critters that thrive in wetlands, with views recorded in local marshes. The sound layers recorded voices and rhythms from the marsh with composed cello reflecting a deep internal rhythm. The pieces on the floor invite the viewer to look down and step carefully. The aquarium windows invite a close and careful looking. We are exploring the reflective nature of estuaries, not seeking a literal translation, but more a revelatory aspect that mirrors our own internal physiological knowing.
The mud walls are painted with mud from Tomales Bay, collected in Inverness. It’s not a literal picture (mudflats are usually flat…) but is combined with the experience of shifting tides. Estuary water is saturated with mud and the mud is saturated with water. Each shapes the other. We are tidal and we are mud. To truly experience this can cause a kind of disequilibrium along with a deep familiarity. To explore wetlands, one can sink up to the knee in mud, get stuck at low tide, be pushed by the flood tide and sucked into the ebb tide. Kayaking these waterways is a study in watchfulness, waiting, timing, and a vulnerability to larger rhythms and processes. It’s an exploration of not being in control. Tides and mud are metaphors for basic elements of our lives – cycles and micro-organic life – that are invisible yet essential to our existence.
The color pieces explore flow, sedimentation, and evaporation with colored ink poured onto mylar and left for days to evaporate. Each puddle had its own way of disappearing. The remaining images reflect both flow and collecting — each involves the passage of time. Water always makes an edge, and this is clear when something is dissolved in it. The multiple edges turn time into shape or a record of movement. This fluid edge is one of the primary structures in any living body – we are formed out of flow.
The intent with this project is to touch a place of recognition, and to raise questions about who we are and how we are in relation to nature. My work is inquiry-based and seems to yield more questions. How can we go deeper as human beings? How have we cut ourselves off from our sources of knowing, creativity, curiosity, and coexistence? Can we be changed by perception? The images can be read in many ways, both inner and outer, and remain open.
The video that is projected over the ink and pencil drawings seeks to evoke that other reality that lies beneath the surface of the estuary: the network of microscopic organisms and connective systems that form the fabric of the estuary itself. Its likeness to the workings of the human body is suggested in the interplay of images of blood cells, microscopic organisms, veins, arteries, and lymphatic systems that are superimposed and fade in and out of the estuary footage.
Tide Studies (sidebar monitor) is a study of time and tides: time moving along a continuum of shifting shores, patterns that are constant, yet every-changing. The images were recorded with a Super 8 camera equipped with an intervalometer, of device which can capture time in 1/18th of a second every 10 seconds, and with a video camera programmed to record two seconds of time every five minutes. Much as the impressionist painters froze moments of color and light, these devices capture segments of time in intervals of changing landscape and light. There is something unique about film: it can convey multiple perspectives of time frozen in a single moment. People and objects come and go. Tides come and go. Earth is mud, is water, is mud again. Every twelve hours the cycle repeats, the same, but different.
Over the 37 years I have played my instrument, the cello, I have been a performer, then improviser, arranger and composer, I am interested in the sound world my instrument can inhabit as well as the visual and conceptual presentation of music. I often perform music written for me by composers in addition to my own material that involves electronics, multi-media or performance art.
For the original sound installation of Estuary I used three sound sources in three different locations. This somewhat replicated the feeling I have when in an estuary and am surrounded by all sorts of noise and levels of sound from a bird next to me to airplanes above me and to the water lapping against the shore. The three sound sources I used to create the whole are crickets and birds I recorded at Lake Merced and in Napa, and the cello. In each case I edited the material heavily and pieced it together again looping it to create a texture that is constantly changing yet always the same. This seemed to me the rhythm of the estuary system that is constantly in flux but is recognizable the same.