Queer River, Wet Land: Part 1 – Walking with Minty Donald

I’ve just been in Glasgow for a few days, at the invitation of The University of Glasgow, and as part of The Dear Green Bothy. You can read more about The Dear Green Bothy in this previous post.

Whilst in Glasgow I met, walked, talked and made with collaborators suggested by the University. This was my first experience of the Clyde and Kelvin, and these are my first impressions of those rivers. I’m continuing to process my experiences and develop further artwork as a result. These walks, plus the writing and artwork that emerges from them, form Part 1 of the Queer River Wet Land project.

On the first day of my Glasgow visit, I walked with Artist and Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice Minty Donald. Minty has worked extensively with rivers and performance, as a form of ecological practice, and it’s been brilliant to be able to collaborate with her on this project:

‘My definition of ecological entails an aspiration for a way of being in/with the universe that dissolves nature/culture and human/nonhuman binaries, but which acknowledges differences, antagonisms and contradictions, rather than seeking resolution or transcendence..’

Minty Donald, The performance apparatus: performance and its
documentation as ecological practice

Together, we followed a route Minty had devised in advance, with a container of chalk from my home valley in Witshire, and a simple pad that I’d made of black and white paper, to record our conversations and what we noticed.

We met at The Snow Bridge, a pedestrain bridge over the River Kelvin at the edge of Kelvingrove Park, in heavy rain. Although we did get a bit wet, it was a perfect opportunity to observe the path of water through the city. The project was named Queer River, Wet Land as we wanted to focus on the interrelationship between land and water, river and substrate. I was keen that we continue to queer the idea of what a river is, to blur the boundaries between river and city, moving away from the blue line on the map with clearly drawn edges.

The river, of course, doesn’t just stop at its banks, the flow of water and the wider water cycle connects the river with the streets, buildings, animals, sky and so on, and after recent walks exploring how my own local rivers the Avon and Kennet, sit on/flow within a bed of chalk, I was keen to explore further the behaviour of a river whose path has been altered through urbanisation and industry.

Minty’s own work for The Dear Green Bothy makes use of rocks and silt to explore this relationship of river to city. In her project Erratic Drift with Nick Millar, Minty works, ‘in collaboration with the rocks, stones, and silt of Glasgow’, as well as human collaborators. Alluvial Drift, one of three actions that take place as part of the project, uses a performance score to invite the performer to ‘Borrow some silt (mud) from the River Clyde. Dry the silt until it is a fine powder. Walk along the geological drift line marking the extent of the river’s alluvial plain, which lies underneath parts of the city centre. Sprinkle silt along the line as you walk…’

The River Kelvin as it runs through Kelvingrove Park to the bridge where we met, has a leafy, ‘natural’ look at first glance, although as I waited for Minty and watched it flow beneath me I soon started to notice the takeaway cups and other litter flowing along with the water, and the non-native plants crowding its banks (this is someting I’ll return to, whilst reflecting on what I learned from my time with Botanist Mark Spencer). From talking with Minty I also started to understand the impact of sewage on both the Kelvin and the Clyde, which the Kelvin flows into further down.

‘To stop sewage backing up into homes, the storm water and waste that would ordinarily go to Scottish Water treatment centres is released into seas or rivers through the 3,697 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) dotted across the country…. But Scottish Water is only required to monitor less than 3% of these CSOs for pollution, so the true scale of how much water waste is discharged is unknown. Simon Parsons, a director with Scottish Water, said CSOs “remain a vital relief mechanism to safely relieve the pressure on the sewer network” Citing the impact of climate change on the intensity of rainfall in Scotland, he continued: “We have to stop that surface water getting into our systems.”‘

Scotland’s Growing Sewage Spill Problem – BBC

At the confluence of the Kelvin and the Clyde, we made use of one of the few places where you can reach the water, and stood at the water’s edge, looking across to Govan. I took some chalk from my bag and started to experiment with making chalk marks at the water’s edge. As we made our marks we noticed how quickly they became submerged, a sign of the incoming tide, chalk from one river marking the ebb and flow of another.

I’ve attached some images of the chalk lines that James and I made (tracing the rapidly incoming tideline) on our Thursday walk as they appeared underwater when we visited the slipway on Friday. I found tracing the line between water and land very satisfying, while pondering how weird it was to draw hard lines between water and land (as the city centre architecture of the Clyde does).’

Minty Donald

As we walked on along the Clyde and past the Riverside Museum, we noticed ship mooring bollards and flood defense walls, Minty described an earlier work of hers (Bridging Part 1 and Bridging Part 2010 – 2014), which involved attaching ropes across the Clyde. When the ropes were pulled tight after sinking to the bottom of the river, they re-emerged covered in various ‘sanitary products’, which had gethered unseen on the river bed.

The sewage mixes with heavy metals and other chemical contaminants from the Clyde’s industrial past. New buildings pop up on its banks and the occassional gull or cormorant passes by, but there is relatively little life. Boats are a rare enough occurrance to cause people to stop and watch, and the number of low bridges that have been built over time, now present a barrier to larger ships. The river feels uncared for and neglected, still and grey, at least along stretch where we walked.

In contrast to the Kelvin at Kelvingrove Park, this stretch of the much wider Clyde has high, straight banks, free of vegetation apart from the occassional Buddleia clinging onto the walls. The river was narrowed and deepened in the past in order to build and transport bigger ships. Today only one shipbuilder remains, building ships for the military, but the city’s shipbuilding history still looms large.

Minty described how the new buildings that are springing up along the Clyde’s banks feel disconnected the river itself. Available space on the riverbank is made use of with an eye on ‘regeneration’ and economic development, but with little or no connection to the living river. When other cities are prioritising the clean up of rivers, increasing access to riverfronts for leisure and tourism, and reintroducing native planting, it seems a missed opportunty, and without such a focus on the health of the river, the Clyde feels strangely dead.

The canalised form that the Clyde takes now, is at odds with what rivers will need from us in the future, as we try to find ways to coexist with dynamic river systems, and increasingly fluctuating water levels. This conflict between the form that the river takes now, and the need to think differently in the future, was brought home even more as we walked on past the riverside contruction site at The Scottish Event Campus (SEC) where preparations are underway for COP26.

On our journey along to our finishing point, where the Molendinar Burn (a largely hidden river that flows under the streets of the city) meets the Clyde, at the site of Glasgow Green, we also discussed Queer River from a performance perspective. Minty’s work began in set design. which informed her journey into performance:

I sometimes describe my research in theatre and performance as an attempt to put the stuff that is not human centre stage. I might perhaps trace this to my training and background in scenography… A focus on the other-than-human in theatre/performance informs my interlinking research interests: more-than-human performance, site-based and critical spatial practice and expanded scenography.’

Minty Donald, Performance, Ecology, Heritage

With my own previous experience laying in museum and gallery education, art/ecology and outdoor learning, I’ve had less reason to explore the relationship of performance to my practice. I had thought that performance implied a pre-planned agenda, But in recent projects, where I have focused on embodied experience, walking, talking and dialogue, I’ve started to consider what might happen if I were to change the way I describe these areas of my practice, and consider them as performance pieces.

Advocates of performance, in its expanded sense, argue that it might lead us towards an
understanding of our place in a more-than-human universe that troubles habitual and,
arguably inescapable, anthropocentricism. It does so in several ways. First, performance
offers a challenge to representationalism. As Karen Barad puts it, ‘the move towards
performative alternatives to representationalism shifts the focus from questions of
correspondence between descriptions and reality […] to matters of practices/doings/actions. Second, performance is not exclusively human. It is a more-than-human practice in which both human and nonhuman actors engage alongside and are intermingled with each other…’

Minty Donald, The performance apparatus: performance and its
documentation as ecological practice.

This first walk of the Queer River Wet land project was a way to get to know Glasgow through its rivers, and the rivers through walking and talking with Minty. Our second walk with artist/researcher Rachel Clive, archaeologist/Heritage Engagement Officer Ingrid Shearer and Professor in Environmental Innovation Cecilia Tortajada gathered together a wider range of perspectives, which I’ll be starting to explore in my next post.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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