Body, ritual, and erasure

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, 'swims,' 2014. All images by Nick Burnett.

My current writing project, swims, exemplifies a kind of Conceptual writing that employs ritual and bodily practice to explore environmental activism. A long poem documenting wild swims across the UK, it starts and ends in Devon, my home county, taking in rivers through Somerset, Surrey, London, Kent, Herefordshire, and the Lake District. Each swim is conceived of as environmental action, which questions how (or whether) individuals can effect environmental change, while also foregrounding the importance of pleasure, leisure, and optimism in the undertaking.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett,
swims, 2014.

Swim IV, (the River Ouse, Surrey), arose as a result of the following email sent to participants:

I’ll be doing a swim wearing a swimsuit on which I’ve written some hopes and fears on current environmental issues. I’m inviting you to write your own hopes and fears on my swimsuit which I will take with me as I swim, writing the water with our collective thoughts. Your writing can be as brief or long as you like, as the space of the swimsuit permits. You may have a few lines, or a single word. I may sink with the weight of them or rise with their purpose.[1]

I transcribed the text that appeared on the swimsuit before the swim and what was left on it afterwards. The resulting poem has three text columns: on the left, the text before the swim; on the right, the text after the swim; and in the middle, a text composed in dialogue with the process. It has also been displayed in a gallery context as part of The Trembling Grass, an exhibition I curated in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World (CCANW).[2] This form of the piece uses images documenting different stages of the swim (before, during, and after), while the text version uses the space of the page (left, middle, right) to enact these stages.

Ritual is present in the sense of the swim — I use this action to engage materially with the natural world (entering my body into water), gaining a sense of enlarged corporeality and porous subjectivity in which the self is not isolated from nature, as the preface to the overall project states:

To not end where you thought you did,
not with skin but water
not with arms but meadow
of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort,
against all odds to be buoyant. (lines 9–13)

Yet this action also always takes place within an awareness of its temporality — knowing that the intensity of the sensation of immersion and emancipation is temporary and confined to the swim, although there is also the capacity for more lasting cognitive and affective shifts. There is also the presiding knowledge of the limitations of the action in an activist sense. Will the environmental fears expressed on the swimsuit be solved by my swim? Doubtful. But can the swim have a relational and energising function that gives renewed momentum in the face of a precarious environmental situation? Hopeful.

Many of the swims evolve from invitations to correspondents or other collaborators, using Bourriaud’s sense of the artwork as “a programme to be carried out”[3] to produce relational exchanges. I also identify this relational ritual as “poethical,”[4] in Retallack’s sense of a poetic practice that impacts everyday life, beyond the parameters of the gallery space. I gesture with these swims towards an integration of art and everyday life where my actions have resonances that continue long after the swims have finished.[5]  

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett,
swims, 2014.

There is also a sense of guilt (environmental and humanitarian), whereby the pleasure experienced in swimming is counterbalanced by a lament at the degradation of the environment in which it takes place. In the preface and Swim I (The Teign), pollutants and inhumane fishing practices are charted, “metal onto clay, / acid onto wire, / electrified chicken wire to keep the salmon in” (preface, lines 27–29), while Swim II (The Barle) muses on disasters further afield, “as in Fukushima, fishermen / record radioactive caesium in fish,” (lines 12–13), a situation discussed “a year on from the earthquake” (Swim II, line 14) and returned to four years later in Swim IX (Grasmere). The pleasure involved in the swim is a necessary part of the ritual, which serves to energise both the swimmer and (it is hoped) the correspondents in the projects, and the readers of/audience for the poems, to provide them with the renewed vigour required to live with environmental degradation without losing faith in the possibilities of agency. This pleasure is always in the context of a larger pain and in this sense, as the closing lines of Swim II assert: “Though we leave the water, there is no emergence” (lines 27–28).

1. Email from author, sent June 8, 2014.

2. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, The Trembling Grass, the Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, displayed September–November 2014.

3. Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presse Du Reel, 1998), 70.

4. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Los Angeles: University of California Press), 2003.

5. Though these swims could also be seen to occur within the kind of holiday space that Bourriaud outlines — these ideas of temporality, leisure, commerce, and the everyday invite further discussion beyond the scope of the current word count.