River Journey

By Richard Kingsford


River Journey will tackle one of Australia’s most pressing and ongoing environmental issues: the science of rivers. Image courtesy of UNSW.

River Journey is a “science meets art” exhibition designed to stimulate a national conversation about the importance of rivers and wetlands. Funded by Inspiring Australia as part of National Science Week 2016, the projects aims to tackle one of Australia’s most pressing and ongoing environmental issues exploring the science of rivers, deploying artists’ interpretations as a critical interface between science and the public.

Co-curated by myself and Felicity Fenner as part of Sydney Science Festival, the project combines the latest science with commissions from leading Australian contemporary artists, including Andrew Belletty, Nici Cumpston, Tamara Dean and Janet Laurence and scientists from the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW including Claire Sives and Kate Brandis.

The exhibition follows a river’s journey from source to sea, capturing its vibrancy in photography, video and sound, reflecting its incredible biodiversity but also illustrating the enormous management challenges and effects of competition for scarce water resources. The dynamic visual and audio interpretation by diverse artists of spectacular landscapes, waterbirds and organisms offers broad audiences new ways of engaging with science.

The rigorous collaboration between the disciplines capitalises on a high level understanding of the science with experimental art practice. We take a national focus to the ecology of Australian rivers, from the wetlands of Kakadu to the Murray-Darling Basin. This provides all Australians with opportunities to engage with river science through the sound, feeling and vision of rivers and wetlands. Through art, we bring life to the science of river ecology.

We deliberately call this exhibition River Journey as it describes how rivers flow through landscapes, from source to sea, with complex interactions between river ecology and people. We journey through the ecology of a river from the microscopic to the top of the food web, displaying the natural beauty of rivers using the latest river science. We use magnificent photographs and videos of microscopic crustaceans and waterbirds, haunting sounds of waterbirds, frogs calling and bats echolocating their prey.

We show how the science tackles the challenge of major human impacts to rivers of damming and over extraction. In an inter-disciplinary experimental environment, River Journey introduces ideas, poses questions and informs about rivers and wetlands on which all Australians depend, through an experiential environment.

The exhibition is planned to open at UNSW Galleries in Paddington during Sydney Science Festival in August. UNSW Galleries is a platform for experimental curatorial research and practice, staging transformative exhibitions that advance new modes of audience engagement.

The exhibition will then move to the Samstag Gallery, University of South Australia, with subsequent university and regional gallery venues to be finalised. At all venues River Journey will be accompanied by a panel discussion between participating artists and scientists, pitched at audiences from both disciplines, and an illustrated public talk by Richard Kingsford that invites attendees to see “behind the scenes” of the data and imagery featured in the exhibition.

Richard Kingsford is Professor of Environmental Science and the Director of Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences. For more information about River Journey visit the Sydney Science Festival website