The Department of Slavic and Hungarian Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin invited paper proposals for a conference on “Hydro-poetics: an Ecocritical Perspective on Eastern European Arts (1960s-1990s)”.
The conference, coordinated by Russian Ecospheres member Susanne Frank, will be held in Berlin from the 5th till 7th of October 2023.
Water as a cultural phenomenon
Water is our most precious resource but also an element of culture historically charged with diverse meanings and values. The Bible, the Qur’an, and other ancient scriptures, just like modern scientific theories, regard water as the source of all life, as that element which preceded the creation of the earth. Water is a life principle, but also a force of destruction through drought and flood, a potential instrument of erasure and obliteration of landscapes and places of culture. Whether through natural phenomena or by the hand of humanity, sunken vessels, and ancient as well as modern cities are archived and preserved at the bottom of lakes and on the ocean floor. Water is crucial in processes of cleaning, and yet it is becoming a global storage of waste and pollution.
In text and image, water circulates as a quintessential metaphor of change, linked with gestation, birth, and death. Its mirroring capacity, as in the ancient myth of Narcissus, invites figurations of duplicity, visionary sights, and hypnotic effects. Water fluidity conjoins with issues of time and transience (Heraclitus); with memory, translating into motifs of forgetting and forgiving. Water structures the Earth’s surface (oceans), connects and divides (watershed) and delimits (continents). It is used to draw boundaries (left bank vs. right bank).
In human history, water has played a central role as an inter-connecting medium as well as an ill-used material substance: a conduit of travel and war, an instigator of settlements and resettlements, and an energy resource depleted by political, industrial, and economic pursuits.
Motivation for the congress
Our urge to study water as a cultural phenomenon is driven by the current ecological crisis related to the quality and availability of water. Through the symbolic realms of philosophy, literature, film, and visual arts, which reveal the polyvalence of meanings attributed to water, we strive to understand its cultural history. Every culture’s tradition engenders their own symbolic and archetypal meanings in images of water, stemming from place-specific hopes and anxieties, from language, and from shared cultural preconceptions.
The geo-cultural focus of the conference responds to the growing interest in ecocritical interpretations of Eastern European arts in research and scholarship as well as in artistic practices. While ecocritical perspectives on arts originated in Western literary theory of the early 1970s, in the region of Eastern Europe ecocriticism as a method of interpreting and understanding culture was scarce until late 1990s (in contrast to environmental history). Nonetheless, the artistic practice of the late-socialist era holds an immense corpus of works by artists who deal with issues of nature, water (and ecology) as their essential theme.
Reconsidering Eastern European arts from an ecocritical perspective means returning agency to these diverse practices of environmental art and activism. The conference intends to further the discussion around environmental engagement of Eastern European arts in critical terms derived from the specific histories of environmentalism across the socialist states of Eastern Europe, rather than those defined by the Western-centric understanding of environmental art histories. At the same time, through invigorating the aqueous aspect of cultural theory, it is our aim to enhance recognition of water’s critical presence in all spheres of our lives and encourage sustainable eco-political practice.
Preliminary contents of the conference
Possible topics for individual presentations, that were sent in paper to the coordinators till the 31st of January, and that will be reviewed and selected until the 31st of March include
- artworks addressing transformations in the environment and exhibiting growing awareness of the ecological crisis,
- water and power: politics and energy,
- organized nature/ taming of water: reflections on invasion of the natural habitat by built environments (e.g. state-controlled hydro-engineering plans such as power plants, canal, and dam building; but also aqueducts, drainage and irrigation systems, artificial ponds, etc.) and the changing relationship between humans and nature,
- ideologization of hydrological landscape/hydrosphere in Cold War context,
- aquatic imagery, language, and symbols; figurations of ephemerality, fluidity, purification, and shapeshifting,
- hydrotext in late- and post-socialist century prose fiction,
- visual arts, cinema, animation,
- video installations, artificial immersive environments, land art, site-specific environmental installations,
- materiality of water: sounds, textures, surfaces,
- socio-cultural identities and narratives of rivers, seas, and other water bodies,
- environmental conceptualism,
- meteorological metaphors,
- environmental approaches between science and art/art as science.
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