Opinion

Exploring the Intersections of the arts, sciences, and humanities

How is current research and thinking about the Harbour adapting to environmental change?

Human-generated environmental impact on Sydney Harbour was the topic of inquiry at a workshop hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute on Friday 28 April 2017. Artists, scientists, humanities scholars provided an interdisciplinary platform to air issues of wider public concern related to human interference and intervention in the ecological realm of Sydney Harbour.

Two questions were of particular interest: How is current research and thinking about the Harbour adapting to environmental change? How are the University’s scientists, artists, and humanities scholars responding to human-generated environmental problems?

Associate Professor William Figueira, whose research involves marine fish populations and global climate change, proposed the idea of the workshop and teamed up with Professor Pauline Ross who works with the impact of climate change on molluscs, and Associate Professor Ross Coleman who works with marine biodiversity and climate change, to represent the science of the Harbour. Speaking alongside the scientists were artists from Sydney College of the Arts, the Visual Arts Faculty of Sydney University who work in the field of environmental aesthetics: Robyn Backen, David Watson, collaborators Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford, and Frederico Câmara.  Some have worked for over twenty years with the water, plants, animals, people, geology, and histories of the Harbour, creating sculptural pieces, performances, and photography for public exhibition.

It was wholly fitting, for a workshop about the environmental alteration to an iconic Australian place, that the Keynote Speaker, Professor Jakelin Troy, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island research at the University of Sydney, addressed the Harbour as a significant site for Aboriginal people. She called it a memorial site, a place that ‘always was, always will be Aboriginal,’ and a site destroyed physically, spiritually and politically by European invasion. Jaky discussed the relationship between the ecology of the Harbour and human rights, bringing into her talk consideration of the loss of Aboriginal languages, the subsequent loss of traditional ecological knowledge, and the connection of the loss of traditional knowledge and language with extinctions of species of plants and animals from the Harbour region.

How to eradicate the blind spot that prevents human beings seeing themselves as one among all entities on the planet? Dr Monica Gagliano whose edited book, The Language of Plants (Minnesota University Press) is forthcoming in 2017, and who has pioneered the new research field of plant bioacoustics and extended the concept of cognition to plants, provoked participants to reconsider the usefulness of the term ‘Anthropocene’ which, she argued, intimidates and scares the public into inaction over environmental impact rather than action. Instead, she proposed that changes occur through close-up interspecies encounters of the micro scale. The question of empathy and the failure of empathy was argued passionately by Monica who argued against the divisive understanding of non-human beings as the Other. Instead she – and William Figueira too in his presentation –explained what it is like to be the object of a fish’s gaze.

Artists Jenny Turpin and Michaelie Crawford have been highly successful in drawing public attention to the physical environment and social history of the Harbour. Their public sculpture, Tied to Tide, which is installed permanently at PyrmontPoint Park, has, since 1999, enriched cultural life and raised awareness of the energies of the tide, the wind, and the waves. It ‘plays’ with nature and collaborates with it, rather than stands against it. Creating empathy, they argue, is natural to the artist. How have local aquatic animals adapted to the installation? Barnacles like it very much; they are constantly in the process of recolonising the industrial harbour as their own place.

Sculptures that create empathy for oceans, animals with resilience to ocean acidification, artificial caves for biodiverse seashores, invasions of tropical fish in Harbour habitats, and

Aboriginal names for Harbour places: the workshop’s topics were based on research that is concerned with change and action.


Ann Elias is Associate Professor of Critical Studies at Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney. She has published two monographs, one on the subject of camouflage, the other about flowers and Australian art, and is currently writing a third book on coral reefs and underwater photography for Duke University Press.

Image: ‘Tied to tide’ 1999 Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford. Photo by City of Sydney, Paul Patterson