Moniek Driesse
Written on water: Heritage as
a navigational tool to experience
the city in time and space

My research emerges from letting water attract my attention. Not any particular body or type of water, but water as an entity that has drawn and continues to draw maps of cities. Not maps as in the pieces of paper with dots and lines drawn on them, but maps understood as the phenomena that guide human orientations in time and space. The goal of my research is to reach an understanding of this cartographic reasoning of water in order to curate care in the city. The seven pamphlets here can be used to initiate conversations on urban waters and interrelationality in time and space, while they also detail the theoretical and methodological pillars on which my research rests.

From the perspective of a lake, a river and a sea, on which Mexico City, Belgrade and Gothenburg, respectively, are located, I reveal the role waters play as mnemonic devices, shaping political iconographies that are simultaneously produced by and reproduce systems of extraction and domination. It is by letting water guide my inquiry, that I reveal how aspirations of collective care and solidarity are betrayed by limited imaginations.

So: What happens when we, like water, allow our imagination to flow across time and space?

Permeation, or re-orienting ourselves in the urban landscape from the perspective of other entities, compels us to reconsider what matters matter in the long duration of the city. What happens when tectonic plates make a lakebed tremble, awakening mnemonic layers of social divisions? Who cares when water is denied its function as a communicating and connecting matter and becomes a substance of segregation? Which insights can be drawn out of water’s long journey across time and space?

Although we long have subordinated water in the urban environment through technocratic paradigms, I suggest that it is more fruitful to apply Aleida Assmann’s assertion that: “We are now experiencing that the past is constantly changing and the future proves to be heavily determined by the past. The past appears to be no longer written in granite but rather in water (…)”. (Assmann 2008:57) So, let’s, for a moment, accept that it is true that the past is malleable and that our horizon of expectations changes with its fluctuations. Heritage, then, becomes a perspective on change in time and space that can be used as a tool to imagine alternative urban realities in the past, present and future. In other words, heritage becomes a metonym: a navigational system that allows us to read metaphorical maps of historical time.

Drips and drops become bodies of water. Multitudes of voices make up the chorus of our aquatic understanding, each talking from their viewpoint, thinking in different scales of time and space, resulting in murky messiness. In an investigation of a sum of parts that makes up the city, the reality of each individual voice should not get lost in cacophony. Therefore, I propose that the waters of Mexico City, Belgrade and Gothenburg, however different in many aspects, all play a significant role in the narration of their cities, as they serve as a foundation of the cartographical reasoning of multifaceted urban imaginaries.

This rearrangement of existing epistemologies emphasises the need for narrative apparatuses and venues for storytelling that alter generic practices with which we articulate places in time and space. What follows is the idea of a space-in-between where we can question conventional subject-object divisions and linear time perspectives of development and decay. In that sense, an understanding of water as a connecting matter, flowing across time and space, gives us room to cultivate care and solidarity with alternative tools for (re-)imagining the past, present and future of the city.

As a natural spring erupts, I should declare I am aware that water cannot actually speak. It does not have a voice in the human sense in that it has no lungs, vocal cords, tongue, lips to produce the words it needs to say. It is also safe to say that, affectively, water does not care about life in the city. However, while it may not be possible for us to build a dictionary, I do insist on the necessity of a parlour that facilitates understanding. Water is not human, but it does have an agency of its own in the urban imaginary. After the eruption, it finds a way through space and time. When the liquid space becomes a centre stage and water a narrator of its own reality, relational narrative lines of power transform through the agency of the imaginary inherent in its fluctuating nature.

In order to understand the agency of the non-human, the language of that which has no speech, I explore new forms of knowledge production by searching for a confrontation with material realities of the urban environment. As water flows in multiple rhythms, scales and time trajectories, through its meetings with divergent ways of life, following its traces becomes an exercise in recognising narrative lines and mapping their movements. In that sense, paying attention to water is not only related to developing an understanding of its aesthetic values – in its cognitive sense – but also an understanding of the modes of worldmaking – in time and space – that water is capable of engaging in.

Experiencing a flood of stories is, however, not enough. I walked across Mexico City, along lines drawn by water through the present day megalopolitan desert on a drained lake basin. In Belgrade, activists behind the movement ‘Don’t let Belgrade Drown’ draw strategic lines between occupied spaces, with the aim to create a critical mass to confront regimes of exploitation of the river bed. Additionally, in Gothenburg, artists have begun to expose hidden narratives by exploring the city’s colonial past, revealing lines that go through rivers from exploited lands in Scandinavia and reach across the sea, as far as the Caribbean. These engagements emphasise how we constantly need to switch our perceptions and conceptualisations of urban waters in order to cultivate care in the city. If watery places can resonate with each other by making articulations in time and space on multiple scales, metonymic ripples expand through imaginary cartographies. The act of storytelling becomes a tool to engage these. Exchanging stories reveals commonalities.

Mist and evaporation emerge when solid structures dissolve. Crucial for the curated narration of water is that it forms part of a meaningful exchange. By situating acts of storytelling in settings that stimulate dialogue, my methodology creates causal relations of call and response beyond the chorus of disciplinary knowledge. It is there, outside of the established machinery of knowledge production, that we can create narrative apparatuses that question conventional subject-object divisions and linear time perspectives of development and decay. To get there, we mobilize the agency of the imaginary.

When evaporated mists coalesce into drops of rain, distilled into new knowledge, water draws new maps. It enacts its agency drawing lines of power through the imaginary of the city across time and space. The metaphor is turned around and the map has become the territory. Metonymic relations between places in time and space draw lines. This is a cartography of becoming, in which water is an active agent in the production of narratives, agency is imaginary, the imaginary has agency, heritage is a navigational system and mapping the city a performative and thus cultural, social and political act.

The book “This morning, I caught you in a drop on my finger” serves as a stepping stone for Moniek Driesse to further explore the transdisciplinary nature of critical heritage studies and frame a regime of collective care.

Moniek Driesse

Moniek Driesse is a design researcher who, although born in a tiny village in the Netherlands, lived in the megalopolis Mexico City for quite some years, before moving to Sweden to start her PhD at the Department of Conservation of the University of Gothenburg. Her design research arises from a reaction to the social, cultural and political conditions of urban contexts. For the last twelve years, she has been working on diverse projects focused on public space in vulnerable urban areas (mostly in the Netherlands and Latin America) and the development of tools for dialogue and knowledge exchange. She collaborated with fellow professionals, foundations, cultural institutions, universities, and, most of all, inhabitants. Her design research embraces the subjective nature of human experience in order to understand it in its context and to promote socio-cultural change through her work on the agency of imaginaries.