From knowledge about plastics pollution to global water shortages, science has made us increasingly aware of water’s relatedness to other environmental systems and the impact of human industry on its health. Whilst it has changed what we know about the world’s water, science has also changed the meaning of water in the public imagination as evidenced by the emergence of new ecologically-driven narratives, images and practices in many areas of cultural life.

This shift in the way we think about water acknowledges it first and foremost as a vulnerable resource, generating a desire to protect it and a broad-scale call for sustainable and restorative practices to meet its needs. Developing practices that address these concerns is not simply a matter of good science, but also requires us to engage with water on social and emotional levels, and build new ways of understanding its meaning in our daily lives and our cultural environment.

Over four days in September at GASP, Swimmable! Reading the River Arts Lab provided a creative platform for thinking about the impact of science on our changing relationship with water and the role of artists in navigating this terrain. Focused specifically on Hobart’s Derwent Estuary and the Elwick Bay site, the Lab invited artists and scientists to explore questions relating to the river’s health, its cultural utility and how art and science might collaborate to develop greater community awareness of the river’s value.

As an initiative closely allied with the interests of the local community and the project title ‘Swimmable’ emerging from the articulation of a community desire to swim in Elwick Bay (something currently restricted due to health risks), the Lab explored the different approaches of art and science to the meanings of the river, with a particular focus on art’s role in destabilising assumptions, challenging perceptions and perhaps most importantly, responding to the imaginative potential of the science and the site. Through a mix of formal and informal processes including presentations, conversations, and walks along the 4km site, the foundations of the project were built on a curiosity about the combination of beauty and pollution in the river and how ‘data-driven’ art might respond to this – is it simply a matter of putting data into visual forms through demonstration, illustration, communication? How can art give meaningful dimension to data and engage the public’s imagination in space and time? What is data, and how might artists define it and use it to produce empathy and wonder?

From the first day of presentations the Lab unfolded as a series of provocations and propositions. The conversation at times grappled with territorial questions about the converging terrains of art and science and the objectives of each, but mostly it put empathy into practice, resisting the demarcation of disciplinary territories and addressing knowledge as a living system that ebbed and flowed with as much uncertainty as observable fact. Through sharing knowledge of such things as the heartbeat of oysters or the Indigenous histories of the riverbank, and perspectives on the river as a catchment, a system or a line within a sphere, it explored ideas that could not only generate intrigue and curiosity, but also activate a sense of communal attachment and empathic engagement. Driven by an awareness of the power of combining the interests of artists, scientists, business and community the Lab began the work of thinking about public art as a field for fostering an agency of care, encouraging nurture as a social practice and asking viewers to reflect on the changing relations between themselves and their local marine environment.

Through such an openly provocative framework, ideas that felt submerged in the river gradually came to the surface, forming conceptual pools around the following themes: the river’s source, its containment and/or continuity as a vein, a dividing line, a threshold that is both opaque and transparent depending on how you look at it; water quality and the material processes of filtering and erosion, absorption and release, the build-up of heavy metals in sediment and the shallowing of the bay; the underwater community of plants and marine life and their invisible intelligence; the ideal of a pure environment as irrecoverable and the politics of claimed and unclaimed land; the relatedness between our bodies and water – our blood has the same salinity as the ocean; water as a dumping ground, a dead-zone, haunted space and/or extraction site.

After four days of discussion around these themes, the Lab had generated a deep respect for the different approaches artists and scientists brought to the site and for water as a medium of connection, a fluid material and symbolic element that occupies a unique imaginative space. The exciting task for the Swimmable! project now lies in nurturing these ideas formed in the Lab and engaging the public in the process, first as its audience but ultimately, perhaps, as swimmers in the bay.