As part of the Ramsar Culture Network/ecoartscotland #art4wetlands story Tim Acott (Principal Investigator for WetlandLIFE) and David Edwards (Forest Research) here unpack their thinking behind involving artists in the WetlandLIFE project (part of the Natural Environment Research Council‘s Valuing Nature Programme). WetlandLIFE is focused on managing mosquitoes and the socio-economic value of wetlands for wellbeing.
On Sunday 28th October (18.15 in Room 7) the WetlandLIFE team will host a side event at the Ramsar Intergovernmental Convention on Wetlands‘ 13th COP in Dubai. The event focuses on ‘Sense of Place & Wellbeing in Wetlands: Using Film & the Arts to achieve SDG3’.
We’ll be posting pieces by the artists over the coming days.
Wetlands are ever-changing and dynamic, as water makes its presence felt through its association with a myriad of entities – plants, animals, humans, technology, legislation, economy and climate – all acting in diverse ways to co-create (mostly) watery places, both in reality and in our minds. For some, wetlands are bountiful lively precious places, to be celebrated and protected. For others, they are wastelands, disease ridden swamps that should be improved; ‘remove the water, build a dyke, drain the land’, might run the call, ‘we don’t want our landscape to be a mosquito infested swamp’ interjects another. From liminal locations in coasts and estuaries to the urban heartland of our cities and towns, places with too much water to be land, and too little water to be a lake, can be received with mixed emotions.
Places are constituted through competing ideas and practices: the physical reality of the wetland is shaped by both the mechanical digger and the imagination. In the UK policy makers view the environment through the idea of ecosystem services. Here nature is reconfigured through the dominant perspectives of natural science, social science and economics to help decision makers ‘capture’ the value of the landscape. However, this approach can reinforce a utilitarian attitude towards nature that the arts can reframe or challenge, at times with unpredictable and potentially transformative effects.
With a particular focus on mosquitoes, WetlandLIFE (a three year interdisciplinary project funded by the UK Research Councils through the Valuing Nature Programme) explores how new knowledge about the values of wetlands can be used to inform their use and management. However, arriving at an understanding of wetland values is a fraught task. Competing epistemologies seek to provide authoritative accounts of value, but the competition is not on an even playing field. Scientific perspectives hold a dominant position, with even the qualitative social sciences, and especially the arts and humanities, having to argue hard for their case to be heard. Yet, in evoking science and economics as the privileged arbitrators of value – and of the frameworks through which values are understood – to what extent are other voices being closed out of the conversation? Is not one of the most insidious forms of power to control the rules by which debates, and hence decisions, are framed?
WetlandLIFE has sought to widen the lens through which we consider the value of wetlands and challenge the broader assumptions which shape and constrain land-use decisions. Listening to multiple voices is helping the project to engage with wetlands in a deep, critical and imaginative way. Two artists, Helmut Lemke, Kerry Morrison, and a fiction writer, Victoria Leslie, have been recruited to help the project team navigate the boundary of value elicitation and value creation. Working alongside local communities, economists, entomologists, human geographers, historians and environmental social scientists, they were invited to help shape the narrative around wetlands and mosquitoes. Within the project a position of epistemological equality is being adopted, whereby the contributions of all team members are being combined to co-create a place based narrative of wetland and mosquito values.
As the project progresses towards its final year it is becoming clear that artists are having a major contribution by helping to trace and create relational associations that underpin a tapestry of meanings and values. For instance, a walking poem by Helmut, capturing the feeling of being out on the marshes, creates an almost tangible sense of place, revealing something not normally expressed about relations between disparate entities such as wind, sheep, birds, mosquitoes, pylons, ships and other actors beyond the immediate wetland. Such a document can be a seed around which narratives are formed and coalesce. Another example is how Victoria is writing new stories about wetlands and helping the team to explore how narratology can develop reflections on discourses around science and arts. Is there science in art and art in science that could help shape what we are producing and how we judge outcomes? In a creative exchange of ideas, as the team members reflect on their individual roles in contributing to emergent wetland narratives, artists are spending time in science laboratories and scientists are picking up paintbrushes and pens to reflect on their practices.
In conclusion, in WetlandLIFE the project team has sought to create an open and dynamic partnership between natural science, social science, economics, the arts and humanities. The result is an attempt to demonstrate how disciplinary boundaries can be overcome to develop a holistic interdisciplinary narrative of wetland values that does not give authority to one voice but critically engages with dominant narratives about the value of nature and helps celebrate the wonder that is our wetland habitat in all its diverse forms.
Tim Acott is Reader in Human Geography in the Department of History, Politics & Social Sciences at the University of Greenwich. His research is increasingly concerned with ways to understand the social and cultural value of ecosystems through concepts including sense of place, cultural ecosystem services and wellbeing, adopting arts and social science based approaches. He is the Director of the Greenwich Maritime Centre and is Principal Investigator on the WetlandLIFE project.
David Edwards is Programme Manager and Senior Social Scientist in the Social & Economic Research Group at Forest Research. David leads initiatives to understand and enhance interdisciplinary working, knowledge exchange and research impact across the environmental sector. He has a particular interest in the role of the arts and humanities in transformative learning and the co-production of knowledge.