The River Symposium on
Art, Ecopower and the Liberation of Energy

Central European University, Budapest
3 October 2014, 14.00-19.00
Speakers: Axel Braun, Peter Coates, Ian Fairlie, Jozsef R. Juhász, Cecylia Malik, Ilona Németh, James Prosek, Martin Schmid and Nick Thorpe

The River Symposium on Art, Ecopower and the Liberation of Energy considers the political, social and ecological proportions of the river and examines it as a site of power. While appreciating the natural strength, kinetic energy and resilience of rivers, the discussion will also take into account political struggles over their use, as well as schemes to control and harness their flows. The presentations will reconstruct the environmental history of rivers and the role of human agency in shaping them, with the social, political and artistic histories of the River Danube forming a particular focus of the symposium. Along with examining critical approaches to energy policy and the ecopower associated with rivers, the symposium will also introduce innovative attempts from outside the technocratic mainstream to visualise and bring about the liberation of energy. The River Symposium provides a setting for artists, environmental historians, scientists and activists to bridge their fields and investigate the inter-streaming of ecology, energy and power. The symposium will also take a boat trip on the Danube for more fluid discussions.

Peter Coates is a leading environmental historian from Bristol University and author of A Story of Six Rivers: History, Culture and Ecology (2013), James Prosek is an artist, writer, naturalist and Yale graduate whose work focuses on biodiversity and experiencing the natural world, while Cecylia Malik is an artist and activist whose work revolves around environmental and socio-political issues in her home town of Kraków. Ian Fairlie is an independent consultant on radioactivity and former government advisor on nuclear power from London, while Axel Braun is a Düsseldorf-based artist whose work has looked at how humans are altering landscapes through large-scale technological interventions. Martin Schmid is associate professor for environmental history at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna specialising on the River Danube and Nick Thorpe is a Budapest-based BBC correspondent for Central Europe and the author of The Danube - A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (2013). Ilona Németh is a Bratislava-based artist whose practice focuses on public art and socially engaged issues, while Jozsef R. Juhász is a performance artist and poet living in Budapest, and both were involved in artistic actions over the Gabčíkovo Dam on the Danube.

Axel Braun: Technology must be Cruel in order to Assert Itself

“Large scale technologies, like reservoirs and hydro power plants, are perfect examples how humans are altering landscapes to satisfy their growing needs. This artistic research project aims to investigate the relation of power and responsibility in the context of recent discussions of energy supply...My investigation has concentrated on the understanding of technology and nature and the way the connected discourses changed throughout the last century. From the late nineteenth century to the 1960ies a strong enthusiasm for technological progress dominated the field. After numerous catastrophes had destabilised this anthropocentric view on the world ecological tendencies became more and more powerful. On the one hand I wanted to analyse which communication strategies big companies employ to maintain their power in society on the other hand I tried to figure out how much the romantic idea of nature is still influencing our perception of landscape.”

Peter Coates: Fluvio-centric currents of river history: From the Mersey to the Danube

In many environmental histories, rivers feature primarily as victims of human abuse. Environmental historian Peter Coates shifts the perspective from ‘dead’ and ‘lost’ rivers to re-made rivers, and focuses on what rivers do to us rather than what we do to them. Rivers illustrate the limits of human authority as well as our transformative abilities, and their capacity to shape and inspire us is as strong as our ability to harness and pollute them. Instead of taking a view from the bridge, he considers the view from under the bridge.As he examines the potential of a fluvio-centric version of liquid history, Coates explores notions such as the organic machine, hydro-citizenship, hydrolatory, river adaptiveness and the watershed mind. He also addresses creative engagements with rivers based on immersion in the depths of the past.

Dr Ian Fairlie: Radioactive Dangers of Nuclear Power

This lecture will discuss general issues in the energy debate including Hungary's dependence on external supplies of oil, gas, and nuclear fuel for the Pak nuclear power station. Pak’s four x 500 MWe reactors produce about 40% of Hungary’s electrical power. Two further reactors of 1,200 MWe capacity are planned to be constructed at Pak by 2023. The talk will discuss the probabilities of nuclear catastrophes, such as those at Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), and examine some effects of these disasters. It will also discuss the radioactive emissions and discharges from all nuclear reactors and the health risks to those living near nuclear reactors. Over 60 epidemiological studies have examined the increased incidences of childhood leukemias near nuclear reactors worldwide. A clear and consistent pattern of increased cancers has emerged, which has been reinforced by the results of new studies in large European countries. For example, childhood leukemia incidences have been shown to increase by 37% near almost all reactors in Germany, France, UK and Switzerland.

József R. Juhász: Human flood level indicator and the Dunasaurus

Human Flood Level Indicator, 2013, Budapest. (Online Performance)
"I stood on the river embankment during flood, in a black tie, with an umbrella. I went back four times to the same place, where I spent each time approx. 20–30 minutes. The water level grown about 120 cm in the meantime. The performance was not announced, and I did not communicate with anyone on the site. People looking around on the bank were making pictures and videos of me and they gradually loaded them up to the Facebook and various websites. The online performance started when the first comments appeared and ended when they found out who was the one standing in the water. This happened in the evening of 6th June 2013. I stood in the river for the last time on 7th June 2013 at 01:00 a.m. After that I gave an interview for a chosen online magazine (Origo), where I revealed my concept. I was interested most of all in the comments related to the action. This was the most important element of the performance. The way the online community reflects to an ”unusual” event. How the participants influence/shape each other´s opinion, how their judgment changes minute by minute, how they give title, purpose, goal and sense to something, they have no information about."

Cecylia Malik: On art and river or How to make friends with a river ? or 6 Rivers, Critical Water Mass, Białka’s Plaits

During my presentation I will talk about three artistic projects of mine related to Polish rivers: 6 rivers, Critical Water Mass and Białka’s Plaits.6 rivers consisted of a performance and a series of artistic videos documenting it. The performance encompassed artistic journeys down all the rivers of Kraków in a hand-made boat built by myself. All of them show the beauty of the unknown and wild parts of the city. 6 rivers resulted in another project - Critical Water Mass – a group performance that consisted in a communal float along the Vistula river bend by Wawel Castle. This performance, first realized in 2012 became an annual event. The third project - Białka’s Plaits– was an artistic action – a protest and an installation in public space, undertaken in order to save the Białka River from dredging. All of these projects combine elements of socially responsible art with communal activities. I will show photographs and fragments of videos that document them.

Ilona Németh: And I as a Ship

Ilona Nemeth will speak about her new film The Ship (2014), the Danube Circle environmental movement and changing attitudes to the river:
"I come from Klížska Nemá, from the banks of the Danube. I like the Danube very much. I often walked on the banks of the Danube. With a boat - in Klížska Nemá we call it a punt – so with the punt you can turn in a relatively small circle. But the ships – especially large passenger ships, they need a lot more space to turn. And for a tugboat pulling eight or ten barges – we call them barques – it is very difficult to make a turn. Usually they need to detach the barges, then make a turn, then attach the barges again - so it is not easy at all. And I as a ship pulling the barges have to realize it, otherwise I could cause a disaster."

James Prosek: The Resilience of Nature

"My work takes its inspiration from the long history of humans depicting things in nature—from paintings on cave walls 40,000 years ago to the works of Albrecht Durer, William Blake, and John James Audubon. In addition to being influenced by nature already processed by others, I also work from first hand experiences in nature, in my backyard and in distant places around the world. My work is conceptually focused on how we name and order nature, what it means to join words to the world, the limitations of language in describing biological diversity and systems we use to try to harness nature—our classifications and taxonomies. The realms that science cannot quantify or solve, the space between physical objects, the power and relevance of personal experience are my fertile ground. I have participated in collecting trips and biological expeditions to places as diverse as Suriname and Kyrgyzstan, in roles resembling scientist and artist. And although I make faithful renditions of nature in my own way, I recognize that any depiction of nature is suffused with imagination. Sometimes I let imagination play a greater role in the interpretation. As a visual artist and a writer I like to question accepted notions of how we understand and interpret the natural world. I want to make works that invite us to reflect on what the systems we use to communicate nature say about our culture, our priorities, and our values. Some of my works also highlight the loss of biodiversity and extinction. The large swordfish in the exhibition was made to show, in full size and color, the monumental creatures we are losing from our oceans. The hybrid creatures and tool creatures that I make highlight the resilience of nature—despite our best efforts to control and influence evolving life, it will continue in some form or other. The creativity in evolutionary processes is boundless—how could you not stare in wonder at the artistry of nature itself?"

Martin Schmid: The Danube as an Organic Machine: On energy, long-term legacies and the transformation of a socio-natural site since 1500

This presentation summarizes the great transformation of the Danube as a hybrid, socio-natural site over five centuries from c. 1500 to the present. It identifies two major turning points in the Danube’s environmental history - the first around 1750 and another one after World War II. There was some environmental change on the preindustrial Danube already. Early modern warfare was among the most important drivers, although usually overlooked. But from the middle of the 18th century onwards a dramatic change in societies’ relationship to the river can be observed. Legions of experts developed projects to ‘improve’ and ‘civilize’ the Danube. Many of these, partly utopian, ideas were never to be realized, but some of them have been, and they have paved the way for a new type of transformation of the riverine environment during the 19th century that even accelerated significantly after World War II. This great transformation can be described as the river's industrialization, a process in which humans changed the river so that they could use and harvest the kinetic energy of its flowing water more efficiently, through the whole year and independent of the river’s seasonal fluctuations. The results were material arrangements in the river of high energy density like high dams and big power plants. These arrangements resulted in new types of environmental legacies over the long run, particularly because they have to be maintained by later generations (even if the energy system changes again).

Nick Thorpe: The Danube A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest

"I like to see the Danube with my back to the Black Sea, looking inland, upriver, into the dark heart of Europe. That is the direction most migrants, traders, travellers and armies have travelled, throughout history. Civilisation also arrived in Europe from the East." 

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