I imagine myself at the ORTA Food-Water-Life exhibition in Zilkha (yet to open as I write this piece). I am standing in the gallery’s luminous space, the high ceilings accentuating the feeling of space. I know myself to be surrounded. There is room in every direction around me, room that allows me to change my perspective on the pieces by moving closer or further away or by walking around. Through floor-to-ceiling windows along one of the walls I see the stark and lacy outline of trees in their winter garb and glimpses of dark earth and frozen grass peeking through patches of snow. The vault above me is textured limestone. The vault outside is an expanse of thick cotton, greyish white this afternoon. I stand enclosed, inside. Nature outside is not enclosed, or so it seems to me as I look out across the panes of glass. Inside/outside, enclosed/unenclosed: a play on perspective, I might think, and find my thoughts echoed, for example, in ORTAWATER – Fluviale Intervention Unit. Here is a canoe suspended in what looks like a section of garage shelving but rigged in such a way that depending on the angle of approach, the canoe is coming at me parting waters forcefully or gently floating past, or is a lifeboat suspended in its rig waiting to rescue me from my sinking boat. My world perhaps? Other things on the unit confound the sense of inside/outside, and of function: water drums, an audio mp3, a life vest, industrial size light projectors, faucets, plastic and metal tubing circulating in and out, sparkling clean empty bottles you might store in a kitchen cabinet, a collection of very long blue and grey rubber gloves. Is this a work station? Where are the humans to work it? Perhaps us, the onlookers whose world is sinking? In its debut, the piece was a self-contained water system, a metaphor for the earth’s water networks and the water networks of our own bodies. It interacted with its audiences inside the gallery space to make a point about our interactions with water on the outside of the gallery space. Inside/outside, body/earth, and isomorphism in between. As a cultural anthropologist, I have the deepest respect for the conjoined power of metaphor and action to bring about new awareness, or alternatively to trap us in ways of seeing and experiencing that do not serve us, or our world. Aesthetics matter; the forms we create even mundanely in our everyday hold meaning and move us to action though too often often of the habitual and unconscious kind. I imagine myself standing amidst the ORTA pieces next to others standing amidst the ORTA pieces next to the panes of glass and walls of textured cement that carve out the insides and outsides of this moment. I might think things are of a piece and that it matters, very much, how I am made to see.
Gillian Goslinga is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and the Science in Society Program at Wesleyan University. She is also affiliated with the College of the Environment.