Speculative Harbouring or How to Represent a Harbour

In the lead up to the Sustaining the Seas conference, Kate Johnston & Susanne Pratt reflect on the Speculative Harbouring postgraduate workshop, and highlight how the workshop allowed for important questions & discussions that may encourage better care for, and with, harbours.

Image via Shutterstock

How might we better care for, and with, harbours? What modes of transdisciplinary practice, within and outside academia, including art and activism, might best support this care-work? These were driving questions for the Sustaining the Seas conference’s postgraduate workshop, Speculative Harbouring, held in Blackwattle Bay in September, designed by Dr Kate Johnston and Dr Susanne Pratt. During this two-day walkshop/workshop postgraduate students produced a “Speculative Harbouring” experimental field guide. Through tangible methods of making practices of care visible (or lack of care), alongside critical questioning, the workshop created space to engage with some of the less cared for aspects of Sydney Harbour, from the microscopic underworld to the often-obscured cultural layers. It also created space to engage with the impending re-development of the area.

The format of a collaborative field guide helped to structure the workshop around noticing matters of care. Field guides have historically been used as tools for noticing. The genre of the field guide emerged in the 19th century as city guides to help travellers find their way around. These travel guides subsequently morphed into naturalist field guides for identifying natural phenomena, and then more experimental forms in the 21st Century. We loosely employed, and critiqued, the field guide genre to question privileged perspectives, modes of classification and ways of sensing. Prior to the creation of the guide (Day 2), each participant was invited to draw on their disciplinary expertise and share a method for observing matters of care in Blackwattle Bay (Day 1).

Day 1: Arts of Noticing

As boats pulled into the Bay, and tourists and seagulls gathered at Sydney Fish Market, we began day one by sharing questions about Blackwattle Bay, as an opening for discussing our research methods and disciplinary knowledges. Throughout the day we considered the relationship between noticing and caring, and the kinds of things that may go unnoticed. We reflected on the different forms of knowledge, modes of decision-making and politics, and ways of analysing and understanding that we brought to the Bay. We also endeavoured to step beyond our academic identities and personal experiences by bringing in diverse Indigenous, historical and disciplinary perspectives. Elder Uncle Mark shared with us some of his vast knowledge of the Country through his intergenerational lived experience and ongoing role caring for the Country including Blackwattle Bay. We also considered embodied knowledge, for example through observing the labour practices of oyster shuckers at the Market. And, the marine scientist, Ross Coleman, introduced biological ways of seeing and intervening into Sydney Harbour taking us through the flower pot project and encouraging us to think about the relationship between design and ecology through features such as a boardwalk. By the end of the day participates chose a particular matter of concern and returned to the site over the next few days.

Day 2: a Field Guide to Blackwattle Bay

Day two was more hands-on and focused on practices and politics of representing. We transitioned from personal acts and arts of noticing, to consider what and how we would like others to notice and how might a field guide encourage alternative modes of noticing? Inspired by contemporary field guides, many of which challenge traditional field guides and their colonial narratives, we explored a range of representational possibilities. For example, the post-naturalist field kit encouraged us to consider a field guide directed by activities to drive modes of noticing.


One month on, after collectively constructing a field guide, we are about to go to the printing press. This was an experimental workshop and what emerged was a multi-layered engagement with the senses and place. For example, one participant (a landscape architect) drew on her understanding of 21 senses incorporating movement through space. Another, explored the importance of ‘deep listening’ to design. One participant represented the embodied, physical movements of shuckers, experiencing the labour of another through repetition, leisure and labour. Another, asked us to sense in other ways by imagining being a sea/harbour organism. And finally, another participant encouraged users to sketch a map, drawing from their sensory experiences moving around the Bay. Another significant lesson learnt was the importance of tangible and material practices of making alongside questioning sited in a place, driven by questions and shared matters of care. By sharing our different disciplinary modes in relation to a tangible thing (a field guide), we had an expansive engagement with, and conversations about what Blackwattle Bay was, is and could be. Alongside walking with, and learning from, Blackwattle Bay interlocutors, the speculative guide enabled us to open a conversation about ecological and social justice futures. It encouraged us to consider how to think about, and harbour, a future that incorporates human and more-than-human justice. In bringing together a range of perspectives—a somewhat messy jumble of questions, activities, images and ideas—we hope to emphasise the partiality of noticing, and always already situated modes of caring. The speculative harbouring guide, therefore, becomes less a mechanism for identification and sorting, and more a tool for questioning how and what we notice, how we attend to places, people and more-than-human entities. In the workshop, it was a means for asking what disciplines, ideologies and politics inform our practices in the field. In its manifestation as a physical, shared guide, our hope is that it engages others in practices of learning to ask, and speculate on, important questions that may encourage better care for, and with, harbours.


Natali Jane Pearson (PhD Candidate in the Museum and Heritage Studies); Caitlin Fargher (multi-disciplinary artist/ Honours in Fine Arts at UNSW Art and Design); Jamaya Masters (Honours in Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney), Bernadette Smith (Artist, Sydney College of the Arts), Dr. Mark elliot-ranken (Artist), Kassandra Bossell (Artist/ Masters candidate in Fine Arts at UNSW Art and Design); Joseph McDonald (Honours in Government and International Relations, BA Law, University of Sydney); Daren Shi Chi Leung (PhD Candidate in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney); Kate Eager (Honours in Geography, University of Sydney); Christine Winter (PhD candidate, Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney); Louisa King (lecturer in landscape architecture at University Technology Sydney and PhD candidate at RMIT University), Professor Jakelin Troy (Ngarigu of the Snowy Mountains, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Research in the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney).

For more details on Speculative Harbouring and workshop events, click here

Kate is an organiser of the upcoming Sustaining the Seas Conference, hosted by the Sustainable Fish Lab at the University of Sydney on 11-13 December 2017. For more information on the conference, and to register for the conferences field trips and public events, click here.

Kate Johnson is a Research Associate for the Sustainable Fish Lab and holds a PhD with the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her thesis, titled Sustaining More Than Fish: tradition and transformation in environmental conflicts, analysed the discursive and material relationship between culture and sustainability through the case study of tuna and la tonnara – a tuna trap fishery used for many centuries in Southern Italy.