Fred Carter recently completed a doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh and currently holds a position as a Saltire Emerging Researcher at the University of Amsterdam, where he is co-director of FieldARTS. In addition to his postdoctoral research on poetry, energy, and crisis after 1973, he is co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of Green Letters on militant ecologies and an incoming Landhaus Fellow at the Rachel Carson Centre in 2023.
Host HEI: ASCA, University of Amsterdam
SFC Saltire Emerging Researcher project: FieldARTS: Transitional Waters
FieldARTS is an annual residency programme for scholars and artists engaged in practice-based environmental research. Situated by the maritime, logistical, and estuarine terrains of the North Sea coastline, FieldARTS responds to an emerging epistemic challenge posed by interdisciplinary methodologies in the environmental humanities: how do researchers learn with and develop methods responsive to the semiotic, material, and historical specificity of “the field” in their thinking, writing, and practice?
Co-founded by Fred Carter and Jeff Diamanti, the inaugural instalment of FieldARTS was made possible by the support of the Saltire Exchange programme. Around the theme of ‘Transitional Waters,’ participants in this year’s residency took part in extended field trips to Texel Island and Port Amsterdam, attended keynote lectures and screenings by leading theorists in the field of environmental humanities, and contributed to collaborative writing workshops and roundtable discussions. In addition to this public programme, outcomes include a forthcoming creative–critical publication and transmedia platform collating artistic research conducted during the residency. The long-term aim of FieldARTS is to develop a lasting research infrastructure to support environmental humanities research with an interdisciplinary focus on practice-based methods, critical hydrology, and infrastructural critique in the North Sea region.
In hydrological terms, estuaries are always transitional waters. At the confluence of logistical, ecological, and capital flows, the IJ estuary and the Port of Amsterdam occupy a brackish ecotone in which freshwaters commingle with saline currents and a transitional energy scape shaped by the alluvial sediments of economic and metabolic circulation. Thinking through and across these shifting estuarine environments, the FieldARTS residency was conceived in response to an emerging epistemic and methodological challenge posed by fieldwork in the environmental humanities: how can researchers and artists learn with and develop methods responsive to the semiotic, material, and historical specificity of ‘the field’ in their thinking, writing, and practice?
Combining practice-based research, field philosophy, critical hydrology, and critiques of logistical capital, FieldARTS takes up this question of situated inquiry as an opportunity to undermine and unlearn traditions that delineate or bound the field of study. Working at the intersection of cultural, logistical, and hydrological fields that often frustrate epistemic capture, participants were invited to take part in developing experimental and immersive methods of reading the lived and lively ecologies of the IJ’s transitional waters, turning the studio, the lab, and the field brackish. To this end, FieldARTS 2022 offered an intensive programme structured around the littoral dune ecologies of Texel Island, home to the National Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), and the neo-colonial infrastructures of the Port of Amsterdam at Ijmuiden, now the site of the world’s largest sea lock and offshore wind farm development.
Unfolding over a week in late July, the inaugural residency programme combined keynote talks by artists and researchers, collaborative study sessions, and a three-day foray into our two field sites led by an interdisciplinary team of artistic and scientific practitioners, culminating in a public-facing screening and roundtable event. Over the coming months, we will be working collaboratively on a creative-critical ‘field guide,’ as well as a transmedia platform collating artistic research, recordings, and moving-image work produced by participants during the week. Sited by these estuarine and offshore fields, FieldARTS is an attempt to build an annual residency and research infrastructure through which students, scholars, and artists co-create experimental approaches to situated research in the environmental humanities. On the FieldARTS page, you can read more about our events programme, participants’ projects, and forthcoming publications.
In what follows, though, I want to give a brief sketch of the material and ecological specificity of this field, tracing the flows of tidal waters and maritime logistics that have shaped these transition waters and how those waters have, in turn, come to shape and inform the modes of inquiry that we have come to call brackish methods. Engaging brackish water – the transition zone where the ocean’s salt tongue meets freshwater – as a condition of thought, FieldARTS is grounded by the promise and provocation of what Melody Jue calls ‘milieu-specific analysis’ in her account of oceanic methods, Wild Blue Media: Thinking through Seawater. In other words, it is an attempt to reckon with the many ways in which the estuarine field reorients our practice. How do the brackish waters of the IJ – this confluence of sweet and saline water, estuarine ecologies and port infrastructures, hydrologic and logistical flows – demand undisciplined or brackish methodologies that are responsive to the field itself?
In The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies & Decolonial Perspectives, Macarena Gómez-Barris articulates this question another way. How, she asks, might we ‘confuse the normative boundaries of academic study by wading into what lies below the surface of late capitalism?’ To plunge into these waters, as Gómez-Barris writes, is to insist that thinking through hydrologic relations requires a situated mode of ‘reckoning with the thick opacity’ of the field. In our encounters with the IJ estuary during the residency, this crosshatching of ecotonal and infrastructural space compels us to think beneath and beyond constructs of the field as a bounded site of study or resource from which knowledge is extracted. Where Gómez-Barris describes the embodied and ‘submerged perspectives’ that shape her work as ‘a viewpoint that came from within – rather than from above, in relation to, near – the thick water,’ I want to suggest that the brackish water of the IJ enacts a material and methodological reorientation of this hydrological perspective from below.
Brackish water emerges through the subsurface turbulence of the estuary’s transition waters, circulating according to saline density as the salt front collides with the outflow of riverine freshwater. Likewise, the partially submergent mode of inquiry that we have called brackish methods also manifests at the troubled, and often troubling, confluence of disciplinary fields. Our commitment to ‘open-plan fieldwork,’ sited by the estuary and the port, leads us to the intersection of infrastructural critique, decolonial hydro-feminism, and situated methodologies. For Krista Geneviève Lynes and the practice-based research collective World of Matter, the proposition of open-plan fieldwork across the arts and humanities ‘is not about crossing into “other” territories but rather about identifying the shifting territories and borders that define a field within a play of forces.’ In other words, it is a methodology which refuses to ‘presume the field’s boundaries’ before entering its milieu. Taking up the shifting boundaries of the estuarine ecotone as both a field of study and an epistemic disposition, brackish methods ask us to reckon with the ways in which an oceanic field overwritten by colonial cartography and shipping infrastructures can still reorient and rewrite our epistemologies, our politics, and our artistic practices. To return to Gómez-Barris, going beneath the two-dimensional surface of maritime cartography or beyond the disciplined boundaries of the ethnographic field-site ‘reveals a differently perceivable world […] where rivers converge into the flow and the muck of life otherwise.’
But the flows of the IJ estuary are multiple, from alluvial sediment and saltwater intrusions to the unloading and transhipment of liquid and dry bulk that forms a crucial transition zone between global supply chains and land-based logistical networks that stretch across Europe. If, as Julian Spahr and Joshua Clover suggest, the circulation of maritime capitalism both exploits and disrupts the ecotonal differentials of the coast, then the brackish waters of the IJ are a paradigmatic instance of this littoral ecotone as ‘the meeting point of two ecologies across which value flows.’ Engineered in the nineteenth century to create a direct channel from the North Sea to the City of Amsterdam, the Nordzeekanaal feeds into the IJ river as an artificial estuary solely intended for the circulation of value in the form of fossil fuels, commodities, and raw material resources through the Port of Amsterdam. The port now ranks among the largest gas terminals in the world, and since the decline of the city’s docks as central nexus in colonial supply chains, the banks of the IJ have remained a major logistics hub for the transhipment of coal, phosphorous, sand, and other bulk materials. Nonetheless, the Port Authority increasingly narrates the estuary as a critical site of energy transition within the boundaries of green capitalism. On an industry tour of the Port, the pre-recorded voiceover invites us to turn our attention to a vast expanse of crude oil storage facilities run entirely on renewable energy. These gas terminals are, eventually, envisaged as future storage siloes for biofuels while the construction of the Vattenfall wind farm offshore in the North Sea accelerates in the face of a mounting energy crisis. At IJmuiden, though, these ecological and economic flows are constantly, and often tangibly, in tension.
Since the excavation of the Noordzeekanal in 1865, the incursion of seawater into the IJ estuary has affected the salinity levels of agricultural groundwater and drinking water supplies, necessitating the successive construction of sea walls and culminating in the completion of the world’s longest sea lock, Zeesluis IJmuiden, in January 2022. Disrupting the otherwise continuous estuarine circulation that mixes brackish waters to produce biodiverse ecoclines, this defensive infrastructure draws a sharp line through this littoral boundary. At this juncture of onshore and offshore infrastructures, the unfettered circulation and exchange of capital in the form of oil, coal, phosphorous, or other dry bulk commodities is materially underwritten by the disruption of hydrological and estuarine exchanges necessary for brackish ecologies to flourish. The abrupt blockage of the sea lock restricts the circulation of sedimentary and saline flows, while terminals along the port mix crude oil and gas into petroleum commodities as a ‘valued-added’ service in the movement of fuels across this otherwise lively estuarine ecotone. Arie Vonk, a benthic ecologist from the University of Amsterdam who joined us among the dunes at IJmuiden, could hardly overemphasise the devastating effects of the sea lock expansion for life on the seafloor of the IJ’s transitional waters. As Charmaine Chua writes, if logistics names the intersection of ‘instruments, strategies, and technologies aimed at optimizing circulation,’ then this drive to eradicate the brackish turbulence of estuary produces a socioecological metabolism in which ‘human and nonhuman lives are rendered subordinate to the imperative of smooth, efficient circulation.’
On an offshore tour of the sea locks, we were struck to find that the brackish water of the IJ was enacting its own form of disruption within the circuitries of what our keynote speakers Alejandro Colas and Liam Campling have called ‘maritime capital.’ Since its completion earlier this year, the lock has been unable to function at capacity due to the quantity of saltwater released upstream into the estuary with each container ship that passes. The circulation of brackish water proves recalcitrant still, slowing the incessant and self-valorising movement of capital through these logistical networks. While engineers envision the ‘selective abstraction’ of sweet from saltwater in the locks, allowing cargo to flow again from the North Sea to the Port of Amsterdam, the saline ecologies of estuary continue to refuse this abstract vision of littoral space as a frictionless plane of maritime mobility and exchange. Just as the transitional waters of the estuarine environment disrupt the logistical field, we found our methods adjusting to the sulphuric milieu of the Texel Island mudflats or the production of maritime space at IJmuiden. We sank our feet into the blackened sediment, swam in brackish waters, and cast hydrophones into the water to record the sound of shifting saline densities across the sea lock. Responsive to the situated apparatuses of the body, the recording device, or the marine laboratory, our conceptual categories also emerged transformed – or in states of transitional attunement – from this week spent immersed in the field. Habituated terms in my own work on fossil capital and energy infrastructures – circulation, abstraction, and transition – appeared defamiliarized across these disciplinary and material fields. More than anything, responding to the concrete specificity of these sites requires methods commensurate with the turbulence of brackish waters; methods attentive to both the situated ecologies of littoral transitional zones and the infrastructural forms through which the logistical circulation of capital inscribed across this estuarine field.