HETEROTOPIA ON THE WATER: THE LYRA ART SPACE
In any given society, there are utopias that do exist in a real and precise location, places that we can locate on a physical map. Among all the spaces that we go through, there are some that are absolutely different: Foucault called them “heterotopias”. Spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space impossible. Heterotopias are “worlds within worlds, mirroring and yet upsetting what is outside”…
Musicians, dancers, painters, writers and many more need to access a form of retreat at affordable costs in order to cope with stress, trauma, and exhaustion. It is also crucial to offer spaces that directly challenge our living habits and make our environmental impact more visible. On the LYRA, water and electricity consumption become immediately more important. Life on the water is shared with many other species –birds, fish and amphibians as well as insects.
So for me, the LYRA is a heterotopia: an other kind of space, whose physical, social and political characters divulge something about modes of living in the bay. At the core of this project is the premise that putting one’s body in a particular kind of situation can draw interesting observations. First of all, living on the Bucht is a deeply political act; it resists the model of land property and finds a niche in the grey zones of urban planning. Second, the material realities of living on a boat, off-grid, reveal new constraints and new liberties for artistic research (and life in general). Finally, the sonic experience of the Bucht is defined by the absence of land, which switches paradigms and acts as an amplifying mirror for co-habitation between humans and non-humans. Nothing can be hidden there, and everything –waste especially– has to be dealt with.
A few months ago, I impulsively invested all my savings into a small, shabby, wobbly house that floats on the bay of Rummelsburg, in the centre of Berlin. I was supposed to pay my university tuition with that, but something diverted me here. I bought it from a self-described hippie who lived there in the winter. He forgot to tell me that the roof was leaking, and in fact, that most of the ceiling was rotting, and needed to be replaced. So the urgency of the situation was prioritized: I had to take off the tarp, the styrofoam and the rotten wood planks, and replace the whole construction with a new one. It took about a month of Youtube video research, trips to various construction stores across the city, rental vans and labor to eventually fix it. At that time, the houseboat was docked on the Stralauerufer, a public pier which is managed by the city. Specifically, it is managed by an irascible man called Arthur Fischer, an architect who has attempted to build luxury hotels and touristic floating resorts on the pier; his projects were turned down by the city, but he still manages the pier, and has the power of deciding who may and may not get a contract to anchor their boats on the shore. When I bought the houseboat, it was stationed on the dock, but my request to extend the contract for two weeks was furiously declined. Fischer hated my project, because the houseboat had been parked there illegally at first; the previous owner forced him to give them a contract. So, he hated me, too. On the phone, he vociferated that he didn’t care about my issues, and never wanted to hear from me again. It was my first encounter with some of the political conflicts which crystalise around the bay of Rummelsburg. I managed to finish the roof and leave the dock in time.
The very presence of boats and houseboats on the bay has been a dispute between the communities living on the water and the residents of the new condos on the shore. In 2019, a petition was devised by many land neighbours who claimed that the floating structures were a disruption of their views; that many of the “water people” were dumping their trash and their waste in the bay; some of them were even pirates and drug lords. They requested that the right to anchor on the bay be revoked. Already, the city declared a mooring ban on the shores of the Lichtenberg district, on the eastern and northern parts of the bay. But anchoring in the middle of the water is not a municipal issue; the bay is a federal water body, and the right to anchor is a federal right. The German Constitutional Court turned the petition down, but the sentiment remains: alternative modes of living are not welcome by many of the wealthy property owners on the shore. They feel that their view is hindered by the dirty boats that float, year long, on the Rummelsburger Bucht. Interesting how many urban conflicts revolve around the notion of cleanliness.
THE BODY IN THE WORLD
To me, the small bay of Rummelsburg has always represented a counter-space in Berlin. Water acts a mirror for many different kinds of realities. One of them is physical: stepping onto a kayak to meet my destination effectively displaces my body into a new mode of gravity. I am on board, floating. My body becomes a weight; moving around means that the objects that support this weight –boats, hulls, pontoons– immediately rock and react to new arrangements of matter. Once I have left the shore, the possibilities are different. The absence of ground defines new modes of existing: there is no running here, no walking. Legs become quite useless on a kayak; I sit down, the boat floats, and I start paddling. Instead of stepping, I glide; my movements are loaded with inertia, and a simple push will make me drift until friction or some obstacle stops me.
This new mode of movement reveals something about compression and silence in the soundscape of the Bucht. With each stroke of the paddle, the gurgle of the water becomes prevalent, then fades away, and other sounds begin to reach me: birds in the distance, cracking and squeaking of boats and buoys, engines, voices. And it all disappears again with the next stroke of paddle. It is as if the landscape can be generated, created between the sounds that I produce and the ones that come drifting toward me. As Salomé Voegelin puts it:
What I hear is discovered not received, and this discovery is generative, a fantasy: always different and subjective and continually, presently now. Sound narrates, outlines and fills, but it is always ephemeral and doubtful. Between my heard and the sonic object/phenomenon I will never know its truth but can only invent it, producing a knowing for me. This knowing is the experience of sound as temporal relationship. This ‘relationship’ is not between things but is the thing, is sound itself.
Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence, p. 5
Being on the water situates me in and on a particular plane of listening. It is, of course, immersive in the sense that I cannot contemplate an object. I cannot forget that my body is an active, thinking whole which actively represents the world around me. I constantly need to move and negotiate my weight, my balance, my direction. There is no stillness and no separation of the mind and the body, the inside and the outside. In fact, the interweaving of me and the world is precisely what Voegelin calls the “heard distance”: what I hear is the “here” of the sounding world.
Many of the illusions of our modern lifestyles vanish when living on the water. There are no land titles and no property rights here. Anchoring is a negotiation between human and non-human neighbours. The Bucht effectively is a commons in Berlin, since no one can declare a certain “plot” of the bay their own. Of course, some boats have anchored in the same spot, more or less, for over a decade. But with every storm, every anchor drifts a bit. Choosing where one can leave their boat means discussing with the other boaters, evaluating distances and swing radii. On windy days, there is not much risk of a collision, since all the boats align in the same direction. But when it is windstill, every island turns randomly, and can bump into another.
Adaptation to changing conditions is a primary mode of thinking on the water. I constantly deal with uncertainty: about the weather, particularly the wind; about energy consumption and battery cycles; about the neighbours’ activities and the tourists who sometimes think it is OK to “borrow” boats or climb on the terraces. Believing that I am in control is delusional, much more so than on land. Thinking with the Bucht, in a state of flux, requires a deep shift in mental paradigms where the acceptance of forthcoming trouble is key. It is about knowing that it is coming and staying with it, to borrow Donna Haraway’s term, rather than trying to predict the risk and avoid it.
Cyclicality and repetition also become apparent in the often underestimated material realities of the human body and its discharges. When do urine and solid waste go when living on a floating house? There are readymade ways to deal with excrements on land, whether they are holes in the ground or water closets connected to hundreds of meters of pipes and filters. But on a boat, everything created needs to be either transformed or evacuated somehow, day after day. Knowing, therefore, than I have to paddle to the compost toilet on the shore every morning to avoid contaminating the water of the bay is a practice which influences my relationship to this floating house and this area in general. The freedoms granted by the absence of property titles and the DIY spirit of the bay also imply a range of responsibilities which were previously only abstract.
In Gaston Bachelard’s study of the material imagination of water, he notes that this medium often acts as a paste, a sticky substance, a kind of glue where the symbols of dreams and rêverie coalesce. After months of experiencing buoyancy on the Bucht, I observed that water links and glues things together in the invisible realm as much as in the physical world. A recent study showed that the concentration of organic and inorganic pollutants in the sediments of the Bucht has remained very high. After decades of gathering the waste of the nearby coal-burning Klingenberg heating factory, the bay is now home to heavy metals and PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, which come from residues of coal and oil. These molecules are toxic to virtually all life forms and, as they get glued in water bodies, they simply don’t go away. They fall to the bottom of the Bucht, creating a stinky black mud, and with every stroke of paddle, they come swirling to the surface, reminding me of the thousands of hectares of land that were excavated in the Lausitz area to dig for the brown coal. So we must stay with the trouble again.
Living in the Bucht is humbling. The commodities of modern urban life –toilets, garbage bins and running water– no longer exist here, and the social contract needs to be constantly negotiated. This awareness, which is both physical and conceptual, means that artistic practices here are finally fully situated. Shifting the way I move and think, I become more aware of my body and its secretions, of my noise and its relations. The Bucht is, in ways that are more obvious and immediate than other places, in constant flux but it retains in its waters the memories of a century of human activities. Defined by absence –of ground, of walls, of evacuation systems– it is a place where nothing can hide and everything remains. The signs are all there, representative of the way we –humans and non humans– have evolved together.
The goal of this artistic research project was, and still is, to embed my practice of field recording, to situate a long research project about the sonic qualities of water, and to merge reflections on urbanism in Berlin with sound art at large. The only way to defamiliarise my established conventions was, eventually, to immerse myself… in a place where politics, semiotics and everyday life could shift.
Gaston Bachelard, L’Eau et les Rêves, Editions Corti, 1942.
Bölscher et al. Dynamik, Schadstoffbelastung und Ökotoxizität der Sedimente in der Rummelsburger Bucht, Refurbium – Freie Universität Berlin Repository, 2017.
Michel Foucault, “Hétérotopies: Des espaces autres” in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, n°5, octobre 1984, pp. 46-49.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016
Robert Klages, “Berlins Senat geht gegen Hausboote auf dem Rummelsburger See vor“. in Der Tagesspiegel, 26 June 2019. Accessible online.