If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I gave a short presentation last week, along with fellow artist Anne Bevan, at the Orkney Research and Innovation Campus (ORIC) in Stromness. I asked how we might stay afloat together in these turbulent times. 

Samantha Clark and Anne Bevan

Stromness may seem to the casual visitor like a sleepy little port in a remote island archipelago that only comes to life when the tourists arrive, but appearances can deceive. Though small, the town is an internationally significant centre for research into marine renewable energy. The ORIC campus is a major hub for this research and development, hosting the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) , environmental consultancy Aquatera Ltdthe Islands Centre for Net Zero, Heriot-Watt University’s International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT)Solo Energy and Robert Gordon University among others. Anne and I are both keen to deepen our existing relationships and conversations with the people who work in these areas, and we’ve had some of our work in display in the buildings for a few months now. So, it was great to see a good turnout for our lunchtime talk.

Anne Bevan and Samantha Clark in front of ‘River Flow’

My own contribution was intended to open up some questions, starting conversations about water, time and connectedness, and I’d love to open that conversation with you too. If you’re interested, read on…

The flow of time

I began by talking about the large multi-panel drawing ‘River Flow’ that’s currently installed in the foyer of the building. The drawing originated with a residency at Timespan in Helmsdale, where I looked out every day at the black river, heavy with snowmelt. I was struck by the way the river’s complex flow was mostly invisible, except where revealed by the froth on the surface. It seemed akin to the way the events of our lives are mostly lost to memory, except a few moments we remember.

The drawing took about three years to complete, off and on. Each tiny circle is drawn by hand in white ink on black paper, a repeated gesture that became a kind of meditation on time, water and the act of drawing.

‘River Flow’, pigment ink on Arches paper, detail

These preoccupations shaped my writing too. In 2020 I was commissioned by the National Library of Scotland to write a piece in response to my experience of the events of that year, of lockdown in Orkney, and again it was the observation of water’s movements in, around and above me that offered ways to think about how, for many of us, time felt different during that year of pandemic.
Drawing and writing are ways in which it feels like I can hold a moment of time still enough to get a proper look at it. Whether it’s film, photographs, visual art, literature, music, the manipulations of time that art offers us, allow us to see that time isn’t separate from the events that unfold in it. Time isn’t just a line. It has depth and amplitude. We are involved in it. These questions are evolving into what I’m exploring now, questions that I would welcome conversation around in the months and perhaps years to come. I’m still interested in how water helps us to think about time, specifically, in the context of the climate emergency, when we feel a growing sense of urgency, that time is running out and that the future is frightening and uncertain.

River Froth

Time doesn’t run out

Many philosophies, and now science too, tell us that time isn’t like a pot with a hole in it. It can’t run out. Nor is it a river. It isn’t a neutral, separate, uniform dimension in which events occur. Time is, we are told, multiple and varied, affected by mass. Time at the bottom of a deep ocean trench unfolds more slowly than it does among the clouds.

So, I’m interested in how reframing the ways we tend to think about time can offer us more space for uncertainty, possibility and hope, and my hunch is that water, in its very familiarity and ubiquity, will be our best and wisest teacher if we can learn to heed it.

Time is not like a river. And it turns out a river isn’t like a river either. In reality a river is not a single, linear entity. It’s rather a gathering of wetness, a confluence that’s replenished by rainfall, dews, mists, springs, meltings, seepings, oozings, that accumulate from a whole field of moisture.

A river is not a line, and a coast is even less so. Stand at the sea’s edge and you will see that the shore is where the land, that extends continuously beneath the water, emerges from beneath it and is resubmerged periodically, according to the rhythms of waves, tides, weathers and sea level. The time of the sea is cyclical, lunar, sedimentary.

Sunset at Birsay

The soil we stand on is also full of water, that’s drawn up by plants and released again to the air through the leaves, so the air’s full of invisible water vapour and, here in Orkney, it’s often full of rain, haar and salt spray. The clear liquid we tend to think of as water’s proper state is only a small part of the hydrological cycle that includes vapour, clouds, dews, leaves, and also our own tears, sweat, piss and blood, our eyeballs, bones, brains and bowels. We are involved in water. We are water.

Rain on the Sea

We are water

Here in Orkney, the story of water, time and connectedness is around us everywhere. Daily tides beat at the feet of cliffs 400 million years old. We walk the street daily over flagstones that hold the imprint of rain showers and wavelets from a single fleeting moment in the Devonian along a street that opens to piers built for vanished herring fleets, speaking placenames brought on Viking longships.

Water shaped Orkney’s deep past. But the research going on here also shows us that the water in which we are immersed, contested space as it may be, offers the hope that a deep future may also be possible.

It’s a common claim that being near water makes us happy, and we are certainly drawn to it. But in a world where sea level rise, flood and drought are already causing destruction that is predicted to intensify, we all know it’s not so simple.

But water’s true nature isn’t so simple either. An energy source and a spiritual symbol, water is both familiar and strange, everyday and extra-terrestrial, changeable and eternal. Its diffuse omnipresence in the world and in ourselves shows us, I think, better ways to think about time, the self and community. Water is, as any islander knows, not how we are separated, but how we are connected.

How might water teach us how to stay afloat together, in increasingly turbulent times?

What do you think? Drop me an email. Let’s build our watery connections.