Water is a loyal silence: an essay on swimming
Swimming offers an individual exercise that is transformative—you leave the pool and you are different. The suspension you experience in the water is absorbed into your body and continues once you are out of the pool. Still floating, you are energized; the rhythm of the swim persists. You take those waves with you.
“… swimming as a rite of passage a crossing of boundaries…you go through the looking glass surface and enter a new world…” Waterlog
Swimming beckons you to an adventure in a different world, a lonely meditative state inside your head, an evasion that connects you to your unconscious. Lap swimming can seem a bit repetitive, lap after lap, flip turn, return - like a mouse in a running wheel, in continuous movement, in a confined space. But pools are safe enclosed spaces that can provide great peace.
“Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb.” … Waterlog
Looping is one of the formal characteristics of Structural films from the 60’s. In Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass, sequences of an argument between a young couple play and replay on loop. “The dialogue keeps bouncing off and not being able to resolve itself.” It seems that the film itself is stuttering, and the effect is simultaneously fascinating and absurd “Look, this is going absolutely no place. We’re going in a circle.” Going nowhere, like Sisyphus; lacking progress and direction, caught in a pattern of repetition, a cycle of futility. (Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass Analysis)
"The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."—Albert Camus
Swimming, like all exercise, is about repetitive movement. Running nowhere on a treadmill, chasing a ball up and down the field, or loading and lifting; all involve both physical challenge and a mind game you play with yourself. Seeing other people doing exercise can remind us of how absurd the situation is. But repetition is a fundamental part of our lives; it is our pulse. Simultaneously monotonous and meditative, it creates compelling patterns. The strokes of swimming remind me of the music of Steve Reich whose compositions consist of seemingly endless, trance inducing, repetitions with subtle gradations of change. Of the writings of Gertrude Stein in which repetition is the rhetorical device that allows each word repeated to be treated as a new experience. Or, the work of video artist Paul Pfeiffer who uses repetition to comment about what he sees as the inherently compelling aspects of sports, the sky or the sunset over the ocean—all of which encourage prolonged staring, to the point of absorption.
“Water caused men to fall in love with their own reflections…”
Haunts of the Black Masseur
Swimming brings me a moment of great peace. Water rejuvenates with the power of rebirth: in Christian Baptism, immersion in water symbolizes the end of an old way of living, and a new start, a rejuvenating of the spirit. Like prayer beads that mark the repetitions of verses and pleas or the prayer wheels that spread spiritual blessings and wellbeing. Aesthetic experiences similarly enrich our world. Art achieves the suspension of our attention to the world around us and brings us into another reality.
“If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter” —Oscar Wilde
Finding patterns in very narrow slices of experiences – by using a kind of scanning vision—is what Malcolm Gladwell talks about as “thin slicing”. This idea of intensified experience is not new, we have seen it in haiku, in advertising and experimental film, but a shift in recent years in our ability to read images has now made it the rule rather than the exception. The short form lends itself to fast reading - it clarifies perception. And, the short form has recently gained a more serious place in culture since the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Canadian writer Alice Munro, recognizing her as a "master of the contemporary short story". It was the first time a Nobel Prize was awarded to a short story writer and commentators observed that the short form is closer to poetry than the novel. The valorization of the short form is a sign of our times; it offers us the fragment as itself a whole.
“Once in the sea, though, you begin to relax and lose yourself in the rhythm, feeling the texture of water, opening up your lungs and breathing deeper, becoming aquatic…” Haunts of the Black Masseur
In 2012, on my way to Iceland I bought a GoPro camera and filmed for the first time while swimming - doing laps. Looking at the footage, I found that the experience of swimming was engaging and decided that it was the beginning of a new project. Almost anything looks good with a GoPro, it sensationalizes the ordinary and makes it spectacular. GoPro’s are often associated with extreme sports. I had been looking at these new tools for a while and thought it was time to start to do something different, something more poetic and quotidian with the camera.
Besides my regular pool at Ryerson, the places I swim are random. I swim sometimes in lakes, rivers but mostly in public swimming pools as I travel –a dousing in water offers the best cure for jetlag. I envisage all my swims as one, like Burt Lancaster in the movie The Swimmer, whose journey home involves swimming from pool to pool across the entire valley in order to create an imaginary river. Aren’t we always swimming home?
In May 2016, I presented twelve of my short films in the space of an empty swimming pool, at Ryerson University where I teach. The resonance with something real is important and engaging in any project. In that way, I decided to associate two different aspects of my life which didn’t initially seem to relate but which both had an important place in my time – my art practice and one of my regular activities, swimming.
Art is a ritual that the artist imposes on himself to change his life - Gilles Morrissette
The Pools project was curated by Sara Knelman.