Pepeha - Places of Reference for the Soul

“The most beautiful clothing I can wear is the river.”
Those words have lingered in my mind after our waka voyage on the Whanganui River last Friday. Spoken by Hemi our barrel-chested young Maori guide as he welcomed us to “our river”.

The voyage began at the Putiki boat ramp, a couple of kilometres up from the mouth of the Whanganui River. We were welcomed with karakia and hongi to keep us safe, give thanks and bring us together as one.

Paddling down a river seemed an unlikely way to begin a symposium on digital arts and no mention was made about the connection – just a brief lesson on waka paddling and we were off…

water
wind
rustling trees
Hemi’s shouts
birds
paddle stroke
paddle stroke
salt water splashing,
salt on lips,
stretching muscles,
paddle stroke
paddle stroke
paddling together
coming into unison.

The day was windy and the water rough. We had to work hard against the tide and wind. I could feel the blood flowing through my body, my muscles working. To our right we crept past an industrial region – factories, concrete, trucks. Ahead of us a pink cement mixer passed over the motorway bridge, one way, then back again.

paddle stroke
paddle stroke
against the wind and tide
the scene slowly transforming

Finally we passed underneath the bridge into a calm stretch of water sheltered by a little island in the river. We came to rest by the bank - three wakas huddled together under a  tree… listening to stories of the river from our three Maori guides.

Michael, a longhaired Maori man with calm demeanour and laughing eyes, asked us to put our hands in the water as we listened. He spoke about “our river” and “our mountain”, pointing up the valley to Mount Ruapehu covered in snow. He used the Maori word, pepeha to describe these “places of reference for the soul”. He asked us to think of our places of reference – it could be an actual place, a far away friend or family; places or people that give our lives meaning, that we belong to and navigate by.

Hanna spoke about the ecology of the river, describing species of fish, crayfish, fresh water muscles, birds, native plants. As she spoke the scene around us came to life – an intricate network of relationships and personalities. The river is sick, she explained. See how cloudy it is? That’s soil. It runs off from farmland into the river and prevents fish from seeing and breathing. The water is so warm this year that fish are dying. It heats up in streams running over bare farmland. Hemi pointed out a white residue on the side of our waka. “You can thank the meat factory down the river for that,” he said. “They dump their waste from fatty meat patties straight in the river.” A dairy factory wanted to dump their waste in the river too. They figured it was already dirty so it wouldn’t make much difference. They presented statistics and economic arguments but forgot about the real significance and importance of the river.

Sitting there in the waka, with the river flowing through my fingers, I thought about my pepeha; my points of reference for the soul – Island Bay, the south coast of Wellington; how I used to stare out of the back window of the car when I was little, till the last peep of ocean disappeared behind the hill; how my heart came to rest when I arrived home and settled on that same coast after three years in London. The feeling of standing on Traverse pass in the Nelson lakes listening to the ancient mountain quiet all around; sitting by a fire at Makara beach watching the sun go down.

These are the reasons I came back to New Zealand. These are places I feel most myself – creative and connected. Space, land, sea, quiet reverence. Through this journey I wanted to discover the magic of Aotearoa. But as I sat in the waka I realised that I’ve spent most of my journey staring at a computer screen. I’ve been hooking into social networks, reading blogs, tweets, connecting with people and ideas, taking more in, producing less and doing less physical activity. I have been viewing New Zealand from the fixed perspective of the seat in front of my computer – my little portal on the world.

This sense of contradiction was bubbling into a feeling crisis. Social networking is connecting me with inspiring new worlds of people and ideas but it’s pushing me to spend more and more time at my computer, less time face to face and less time in the environments that inspire my own creativity and groundedness. I realised I haven’t been happy sitting at my desk all day. I’ve felt overwhelmed by this techno-social virtual world.

In the waka everything is real. The point where the paddles meet the water – that’s real. Physical transformation of energy from chemical potential in our muscles to kinetic energy and heat. The splash of the oar. The connection is real.  The scenery is three dimensional. The smells are real. The taste of salt is real. The connection with the people around me is real.

The experience was transformative for the whole group. After the waka journey the atmosphere had completely changed…

One participant reflected on how her dominant self had less extra energy in the waka.
“There’s a power shift,” she said, “from the self to the collective.”
“We’ve been reclothed. It’s a very tender reclothing that happens on the river – Collective reclothing. There’s a like-mindedness that comes from that.”

“How do we hold that space?” she asked.

In the afternoon we retreated to a gallery in town to discuss our experience. Immediately the atmosphere shifted to an intellectual and analyticial realm.

John Hopkins, the American artist facilitating the workshop, spoke about changing our point of view to focus on energy and flows rather than objects. Could we centre our identity on the flows and interactions with the people and environment around us, rather than our personal selves?

He suggested that encounters with other people are one of the central purposes of life and that technology emerges as soon as you have an encounter with ‘the other’.

“Language,” he suggested, “was one of the first technologies.”

Like all technologies it allows for both communication and misunderstanding.

“You always lose some energy across the gap when you dialogue with the other,” he asserted.

He spoke about how, over the last 150 years, the techno-social system has become more and more layered, complicated and global; how technology intervenes in almost all our encounters. Now, to engage with each other, we have to spend time and energy on computers and cell phones, in planes and cars. He suggested that the more complex the techno-social system, the more energy and resources it needs to keep it going - that means more oil, coal and minerals – more extractive industries that upset local environmental systems and flows.

“If you want to depower that system you take your life energy and time away from those things,” he suggests.

By sheer contrast our experience on the river had exposed the quality of our daily lives, our unconscious habits and lack of groundedness. It posed a deep sense of questioning in the room: What are we using technology for?  How can we find more balance and groundedness in our work? How do we reconcile the burdens of technology with the benefits of communication and connection?

It seemed a bizarre way to begin a symposium on digital arts at first but in retrospect it was perfect. Our experience on the river had given us a fresh perspective – a new space in which to meet and view our work, our technology and our selves.

A poem inspired by the meeting of Art and Science

A couple of nights ago I arrived home from the Aotearoa Digital Arts Symposium in Wanganui. I never expected the experience to catalyse such a shift in me. Whether it was the constant presence of the river, our waka journey, conversation, reflection, I'm not sure. But I've returned with a longing to write poetry and to connect with the flow of the natural world around me; to step back from rational arguments and intellectual discussion for a momentI feel the artist, or poet, in me waking up. This first poem was inspired by a growing sense of commonality between art and science.

 

An artist

A scientist

Two explorers

who walk outside and in the shards of light filtering through cloud

see more

see layers

of meaning, of mystery

subterranean worlds to burrow

for hidden treasure - barely seen

but intuitively known

connections beneath perception

 

Scientist

 

Artist

 

Awake to things

The world is asleep to

Awakening dreams –

 

of molecules

a billionth the width of a human

hair

poised in vast space –

turning, vibrating


 dreams


of atomic nuclei

smaller than imagination - spinning

like tops

engaged in eternal dance

 

dreams of light

transforming particles of water

into gold

evoking dimensions of human

metaphor

and memory

 

I have always been

a scientist

and an artist

yearning to live in a living world

with no edges

where I move from moment to moment

feeling for depth

seeing in falling leaves

a dance of gravity, friction, form

and mass

 

and a metaphor

for surrender

a lesson for life – how to be

gentle and flexible

 

I have always been

an artist

and a scientist

happiest away from the crowd

burrowing down some new hole

having found something more compelling

than money

or friends

following a sense

of intuition

connection

paradox

rummaging through structures of reason

for hidden assumptions –

exact points of contradiction

 

glitches

 

in the system we live in – fashion, money, belief

the matter we stand on – solid, energy, space

 

I am always

longing

for the illusion of reality to dissolve

 

so we stand

in the presence of life itself

 

cracked open

 

wide eyed 

 

Waka Workshop on the Wanganui, Energy, Information and the Possibilites of Digital Arts


Tomorrow morning I'm off to Wanganui with Jaime Campbell and Sophie Jerram. We're going to board a boat and explore the endless possibilities of the river with American artist John Hopkins. This waka-workshop is part of the Aotearoa Digital Arts Symposium. I don’t know a great deal about it yet – just that I have to bring a hat, sunscreen and river clothes and that Sophie told me I have to come because it will be brilliant. 
The symposium goes from Friday till Sunday and we’re going to be exploring the relationship between energy and information; asking such questions as: 
How sustainable is the technology that supports media art?
What new forms of practice are developing at the intersection of energy conservation and production, technology, and art?
How can we balance a global arts practice with the ethical complexities of global air travel, and the social complexities of remote participation?
Digital Art is foreign territory for me. I'm going along because I want to learn more about the ways artists explore and explain ideas. I want to immerse myself in the culture some more. I'm thinking that digital art could be an awesome medium to explore and communicate science. I recently met a VJ who got me all excited about the possibilites of mixing scientific images with music and performance. I'm hoping to meet some more cool people and create some possibility bubbles with them.

How could digital art help bring alive the magical worlds of nanotechnology or biomimicry, for example?

or help connect scientists with the wider community??

I'll ask people questions and see what emerges...

I've met with lots of people in the last month and I really really want to tell you about them... The meetings have been so encouraging and inspiring. There's been lots and lots going in and not nearly enough coming out! But I'll get there! All will be revealed... 

Crowd funding science - a new type of social and ethical investment

I've just been having a really interesting conversation with Ben Wallace on Intersect about how to encourage more collaboration between the science community and the wider world.

"Perhaps more scientists need to join social networks?" Ben suggested.

He’d noticed that there seem to be very few academics on the LinkedIn Network and speculated that maybe academics don’t feel like they need to join a wider network.

One scientist I met suggested that being part of an academic institution is a bit like being in a nice cushy nest that doesn’t lend itself to leaving. And if this is the case – if our scientists and academics are sitting in their own roosts, how do we encourage them to fly out and engage with the vast world beyond? Surely life is far more interesting once you leave the nest you were raised in?

LinkedIn, as Ben said, is particularly good for discussion groups. If our academics foraged around such online networks, they could find themselves bumping minds with entrepreneurs, sustainability experts, designers, community advocates etc – who would lap up their ideas and expertise. Ideas could start to cross-pollinate naturally.

From my experience, working closely with academics as a science writer, I don’t think social networking has filtered into academic culture yet. Academics haven’t realised what could be gained from launching into this kind of social interaction. Given the framework and structures they work within, this is very understandable - academics are so busy with teaching, writing funding applications, admin and research they don't have time for much else. Social networking won't help them get more money for research (most of that comes from government). It won't boost their academic ranking either (that's all calculated according to the number of papers they produce and the quality of the journals they publish in). So the only incentive to engage with broader social networks is a sense of social concern, which often doesn't hold much sway against their more pressing concerns.

This leads me to assert that:

The academic system they are locked into is outdated. It encourages competition rather than collaboration and knowledge sharing which is counteractive to growth, innovation and progress.

In the current model scientists apply for funding either from Government or industry (although there’s not much industry funding in NZ). But, what if we had a new way of funding science, which incentivises broader social engagement?

Imagine if we could introduce a third stream of funding that responds to the burning needs and concerns of the community and environment and creates financial incentives for scientists to engage in broader social dialogue.

What if we could introduce collective funding?

This idea emerged when Jaime Campbell and I went to see James Samuel on Waiheke Island a couple of weeks ago. We spoke about the characteristics and empowerment of people in this day and age – How the power struggle is shifting from a central control of resources and media to more of a collective governance model made possible by large networks of individuals. James told us about some innovations in finance enabled by new technology that source large amounts of funding from collectives of people. For example Kiva, which crowd-sources loans for humanitarian projects and Zopa that facilitates peer to peer lending and has lent more than £100 million to 25,000 borrowers.

Imagine if we could harness the will of a growing collective of people who want to see positive change in the world. Imagine a new type of social and ethical investment that funds science and innovation – one that responds to real world problems without the immediate goal of making more money. Using a system like Kiva, a little contribution from a large number of people could go a long way.

If scientists had to convince the public of the value of their research to secure funding what better way than engaging in social networking? Maybe it would also help in breaking down the stereotypes and language barriers that currently inhibit communication of ideas and research. Imagine if the new Ministry for Science and Innovation used online forums that facilitated dialogue between scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, sustainability experts and others. Imagine if such a dialogue became an integral tool for deciding which research programs are funded

I can almost hear the objections coming from scientists as I type.

Writing funding applications to panels of scientists is hard enough. How are they supposed to convince the lay public of the vital importance of understanding nuclear spin interactions or the mathematics of electromagnetic pulses? How is this fundamental research going to compete against cures for cancer or solutions to climate change? Non-scientists may not realise that fundamental research is the engine of innovation and underpins every technological breakthrough.

What about the scientists that follow a pure sense of inquiry and discovery? - they may not consider practical applications but their work expands and enriches our view of the world. Every scientist knows that research doesn’t go in straight lines. You never know what you’re going to discover until you start exploring and the best discoveries and innovations often pop up in the most unlikely areas.

The answer is simple. I’m not suggesting we cut down the established funding system and plant a brand new one. I’m simply suggesting we diversify -sow new seeds that will become part of a funding ecosystem where government and collective thought are intertwined in the development and direction of innovative solutions.

Science needs to engage with society.
It needs connections that reach beyond its current limits.

I’m not suggesting that every scientist should turn into a social networker or that all research should be funded by popular choice. But I do think the general public is capable of grasping the excitement and importance of fundamental science. There is something about the spirit of science that resonates with the pioneering, practical, rule-breaking spirit of New Zealand. Non-scientists may not understand the jargon and mathematics but they can appreciate that fundamental science is key to our future health and prosperity.


In the past the media has let science down – publicised only the ‘Big Breakthroughs’, ‘cures’ for diseases and quirky sex habits of animals. It’s presented stereotypes of scientists as evil, mad, geeks and know-it-alls. It’s distanced science from society. Social media has the potential to do the opposite – to allow scientists to set the record straight. It allows scientists to develop personal connections with people. They can write a blog at the pace of scientific research - bit by bit over years. They can be genuine rather than sensational. They can convey the process of science; show what they really love about their work and why they believe it is essential for society. I know from experience that scientists have a lot to say about this.

And people out there are interested. Everyone I have spoken to – entrepreneurs, environmental activists, teenagers, economists, art curators, and business folk – has been surprised and delighted to hear what’s going on in the NZ science community – nanotechnology; biomimicry; biomaterials etc. People have been really keen to find out more. There is so much vision out there and people aching for the science to help find the solutions.