Rowena Harris: 2023

This interview took place in context of Rowena’s  joint residency between Elan Valley, Powys, Wales and the Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham.

The work they developed and produced in response is entitled A Crip Body of Water (pacing is vital for energy flows), 2023, and explores the water and energy management systems of Elan Valley in relation to chronic fatigue, crip and disability.

The artwork spans two formats - an accessible, public audio trail available at Elan Valley, and a moving-image work. The moving-image work is currently on view at the group show Watershed at  MAC, with an online screening and in person screening in November 2023.


     ​​Let’s begin with a bit of discussion around you, your practice and your journey so far.Where are you speaking to me from today? 

    I am in my home studio which I enjoy very much, hanging out with my dog Mabel. 

    I first started working at home rather than an external studio during lockdown, like most people. It works very well for me so I have kept my studio at home. Because I have an energy-limiting chronic illness ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) as well as long-covid, working at home makes more efficient use of my energy. I also don’t have to deal with freezing cold, draughty and leaky spaces, which is how artist studios tend to be, and which will make me feel worse. 

    I think a lot of sick artists work from home, and I think of it like a radical, alternate, material reality - a bit like feminist art of the 70s: textiles, weaving etc.. vs the concrete and metal of the male minimalists .s a place of thinking and making, not necessarily the artwork itself.  

  • Let’s talk about mediums and materials. Your works encompass so many mediums - CGI, installation, sculpture, moving image, writing…

    Writing has always been an important part of my practice, where the words or thoughts are not necessarily contained texts in themselves,  but seep through artworks in different ways. I am very interested in exploring different forms and structures around what writing with artwork can be, or how writing and artworks can move and take form together. 

    I am currently working on the last stage of my PhD, so perhaps this is why writing is at the top of my mind at this moment. Lately writing and words as a more consolidated narrative has become a key in my moving-image as well as audio work. Though I have been interested in moving-image and video for a long time, in 2019 I made a very considered shift in my work away from the physicality of sculpture to focus on moving-image. It was part of coming to terms with how my body is, and that making sculpture was not practical. Moving-image - particularly computer-based creation like CGI - was much more suited, as well as a rich area that I was really keen to explore. Thinking about the physicality of video and audio stay with me, equally about installation through thinking about the audience as bodies with diverse human needs, where a video or audio, as digital files, might be able to respond differently.  

    Much of your work is informed, as with all artists, from your personal perspective as an artist and an individual. How has your experience, particularly that of energy limiting disabilities informed your current focus?

    My own health conditions definitely inform the way I look at the world, but learning about the social history around ME in particular - a place where a whole disease was gaslit as psychological due to its predominance in women, and as a culture in medical practice that is still very much rife today with long-covid too - really opened me to the radical spaces of sick, crip and disability justice. For me these ideas are close, and an ally with queer principles and concerns, another area close to my heart. That the idea of ‘normal’ is something that is constructed by society to produce ‘not-normal’, or queer as well as disabled. 

    I want to challenge the idea that being an able-bodied, healthy person (and heterosexual) is somehow normal, and anything else, is not.

    I want to challenge the idea that being an able-bodied, healthy person (and heterosexual) is somehow normal, and anything else, is not. Academic and Author Alison Kafer has a great way of explaining the pervasiveness of this in society, she calls it ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’ - the idea that the non-disabled bodymind is the default position to imagine what is human in society, and as if bodymind variation were not a common and ordinary occurrence. For me, I think that everyone I meet is sick or invisibly disabled, if they are not visibly when I meet them, and I genuinely find this to be true. This compulsory able-bodiedness structures both how the world gets materially built, but also how we conceive and form the non-material things - like our concepts of time, or concepts of ‘the outdoors’. 

    I am really interested in undoing compulsory able-bodiedness, and exploring sick and crip ways of looking at the world. This is different from trying to communicate how one’s sick or crip body is, or feels, t but about unlocking the creative potential in seeing the world from a different place. 

    Thinking about time in terms of ‘crip time’ has been amazing for thinking about editing film in new ways, for example. Crip time is a huge category, it means every experience or concept of time that is not constructed from an able-bodied or able-minded point of view. Somebody with a memory impairment and somebody with a physical impairment will probably have very different things they mean by the term crip time, for example. For me, I have been interested in the type or version of crip time that comes with ME and possibly long-covid, where the past social history continually returns in the culture of the present, as a kind of past-present-future re-ordering. This is something quite difficult to express from my singular human body here in the present that we inhabit in time space together, but film or video offers a different potential. A filmic body can leap over time through editing, pulling the past social history into the present, into one narrative that speaks or expresses a sense of time, of crip time, that for me resonants with ME and long-covid.

    Your residency has a focus on our relationship with the natural environment?

    Yes, the residency with Elan Links and MAC, Birmingham has been amazing for new directional thinking with the environment. I have been trying to explore concepts of outdoors and the environment, how these may be tied to compulsory able-bodied or able-minded-ness, and to open out new concepts, new narratives, and alternative ways of thinking with environment that come from sick or crip perspectives. 

    The term ‘eco-crip’ has been emerging lately, and I think that what I have been up to is related to that. I am interested in how crip knowledge and perspectives can help us think in new ways about the ecology in what might be below ground politics,  in partnership with making positive changes in above ground politics through expanding narratives for crip humans to be a part of,  to be able to access, or to be included practically.      

    When speaking about the environment here, I am very careful not to say ‘natural’ without complicating it, because concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ when it comes to the environment are often inherited from a colonial imaginary, and are problematic for disability, as well in terms of race, gender. But also because what drew me to the residency was that Elan Valley is a landscape is actually highly engineered. The landscape is formed of a series of reservoirs and dams that were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s to provide clean drinking water to the city of Birmingham, eradicating cholera, typhoid and similar, and bringing health to the city, and which is still the case today. It is also the reason you can’t get a better brew than one in Brum. At Elan Valley, what looks like lakes and waterfalls in this awe inspiring beauty, is also extraordinarily controlled water and its energy, carefully engineered to continually flow at a steady, unceasing, 2.5 mile an hour pace to Birmingham. A rate that also works out to be 65 heart beats a minute - which is a resting heart rate, a heart rate of controlling energy. For me Elan Valley is this unique setting that is a very unnatural, highly engineered, and carefully controlled environment that generates health, and somehow at the same time, perhaps because of its spectacular beauty, also feels tightly woven to the concept of the ‘natural’ environment as well. For me it seemed an ideal setting to explore a sick or crip way of thinking about the environment, and spend my time on the residency unfolding a new narrative in collaboration with the landscape. 

    In particular I was thinking about chronic fatigue in relation to the landscape of Elan Valley. Chronic fatigue has become a defining feature of long-covid, as well ME before.t is something I know well and I think a lot of people do at this stage in the pandemic. I should explain that chronic fatigue has nothing to do with tiredness, nor is it recovered from by sleeping well. It’s much more like having a depleted battery that never really charges properly, and that physically affects how much or how little you are able to do. For me it’s something I feel in my muscles, and before I knew how to manage it well, sometimes I didn’t have the strength to hold my body upright in chair, and I would slump forward planting my face on my desk, not being able to do anything at all about it except slip off the chair and lie down. Nothing at all like being tired. Managing chronic fatigue is a case of carefully planning your energy so you never go over your limit and end up in a crash. The practices of managing fatigue are known as ‘pacing’. It is almost like engineering your life around the energy resource so it never runs out, but flows slowly and very steadily. And in many ways  there seemed to be parallels with the engineered landscape of Elan. So I spent my time on the residency at Elan exploring the landscape, engineering my own energy using pacing, and unfolding a new narrative from a sick or crip perspective about bodies at different scales managing energy - spectacular bodies of water and human bodies with fatigue. 

    Coming from the sick/crip perspective of chronic fatigue to this unique landscape, and avoiding compulsory able-bodied concepts, also threw up really important ideas and concerns about what the environment means, or what ‘the outdoors’ means. Instead of hiking, climbing, mountain biking or other ways that seem to push or exhaust the human body in what are somehow linked to what it means to experience the environment or outdoors, thinking with fatigue calls instead to a slow, steady, calm relationship that incorporates resting with the landscape as frequently as possible.  

  • Perhaps we can further discuss the idea of water? Including Universality of water. Connectedness.

    Yes, definitely. Astrida Gundega Neimanis’ book Bodies of Water has become really popular in recent years, and I am also a fan. I really enjoy the power that water has as a concept, to unite us, that water in all its forms is endlessly connected, bound in continuing cycles that flow through oceans, rivers (dams and reservoirs!), past our lips and throughout our bodies. 

    Though water is universal, it is, much like we saw in the pandemic, very unequal. It can be poisonous and full of toxins, affecting certain populations, whilst pure, healthy water may be reserved for more privileged populations. I was definitely thinking about these ideas throughout the residency, alongside some other aspects to water that intrigued me and resonated with the water of Elan. I became quite fascinated with the social history around how the valley was flooded by Birmingham Corporation, which was felt quite brutal through my research, and, as I spent more time there, I began to build a relation to what was below the reservoir - or one reservoir called Caban Coch in particular. From above, the sparkling, spectacular reservoir seems to reject the idea that there could be anything horrible, or brutal related to that water. But as I returned to these places, resting and reflecting on the view, I began to appreciate that the water had depth. Seems silly to say, but that the bottom of the water was still brushing past the social history, still shifting its particles and matter, of what had been flooded below. Still absorbing. Also being sipped and drunk, and taken into bodies. I thought of Elan’s water as a kind of archive - one that is to be drunk - an archival drink. It is a little bit like crip time that I spoke about before, where the past is carried into the present. 

    The other idea around water that I was interested in, is its continual movement, a steady journey, continual flow. This was something I was thinking about in terms of a sound or texture or a poetic kind of quality. I had been reading Etel Adnan’s ‘The Sea and The Fog’. You can really feel the rhythm of the waves as they roll in and roll out in her poem ‘The Sea’, and the ocean gets darker and stormier, and lighter again. 

    I was searching for a way to capture and express the specificity of the water of Elan - this continual steady flow through the reservoir all the way through syphons and pipes to Birmingham. I came across this idea of using two voices and two languages - English and Welsh - in translation, passing the translation back and forth, one leading one following, in an organic flow. It formed this continuous stream of narrative that really felt like being carried by the water/ A slow and steady movement, a continual journey. I wrote it all in English through the residency, and then worked with a translator, Delyth Huw Thomas, for the Welsh language. I didn’t learn to speak Welsh but my Mum and my maternal side are Welsh, and I feel a connection to the sound, the musicality and the rhythm. Welsh as a language, really prioritises musicality, a flowing sense from one word to the next. It so much feels like the water, the landscape of Elan, that I wanted to work with it. When English and Welsh are brought together the Welsh feels like fluid movement, and the English, it’s more staccato sense,feels like the peaks, ripples, and sparkles of the water. I am also thinking about translation as a way to highlight the social history of the flooding, and the politics of power that were played. Thinking about the bottom water flowing over the flooded land.I thought of the rocks, and homes and flooded buildings as these impasses to water flow. I thought about those moments as historical pauses. And explored only using English to talk about the way it was flooded, as a poetic way to express the power dynamics that were at play.       

    You are working to achieve an alternate trail for the Elan Valley focused on access and inclusivity for people with disabilities. A big part of that is rest? Could you tell me a bit more about this?

    Yes, that’s right. As I mentioned opening out a sick/crip perspective with the landscape and environment, also opened out a new set of considerations about how an artwork about this landscape entwined with chronic fatigue, could be available for audiences and folk that have chronic fatigue. I developed what I was thinking about as a kind of hybrid work, or a work existing in two partnering formats - an audio format that I designed as an accessible trail at Elan Valley specifically for folk with fatigue, and then a moving-image work. Both audio trail and moving-image work share the same narrative, but offer access to the landscape in different ways. I aimed this as a creative response to accessibility, specific to chronic fatigue.

    Exploring and finding an accessible trail that would work for fatigue really structured how I explored the landscape on my residency, I eventually settled on route near Caban Coch Dam. I was really inspired by groups like ‘Disabled Hikers’ - a US group that seek disability justice in the outdoors, and go about forming accessible guides to hiking and walking routes. I want to form one for fatigue at Elan, not least for myself, but also to flesh the potential of what this could be, as fatigue is very often overlooked when it comes to accessible considerations.The audio trail is firstly permanent and public, so people can come on their own schedule, as and when they feel able, and it is downloadable to a smartphone. I decided to create two locations as options to listen to the work. One is a slow 30 min walk approaching the base of Caban Coch Dam, where Welsh Water amazingly and very generously placed seating along the route, offering multiple opportunities to rest. The second location is viewing Caban Coch from above, where you can sit throughout, and look out at the view. The walking and the sitting location offer different access points for different bodies. I also wrote a guide that details what is to be expected, so you can plan your energy, along with the other aspects needed for accessibility like parking, and disabled loos. really a fun, creative experience to think about this, and it felt like designing what I always wish would be there when I plan a trip outdoors. The audio trail is also not only for folk with fatigue, I hope that it will also be accessible for disabled folk more broadly.

    The moving-image work I was thinking about was this remote connection, in a way that we are now familiar with making Zoom calls, through the pandemic. But also in a way that is part of the experience of chronic illness, to be at home and find meaningful connections through virtual means. The moving-image work is currently on show in the Watershed show at MAC, and shortly we also make a virtual screening for audiences at home as well.      

  • How has your 4 weeks at Elan Valley and your 4 weeks in Birmingham compared?

    They are worlds apart, and both amazing in very different ways. Obviously I know Birmingham well, but the residency gave me the opportunity to work at the MAC, which is an amazing place with amazing people. I worked in the MAC’s brilliant recording studio, with wonderful sound technician Chris Less, and was able to collaborate with two amazing voice artists - Sam Frankie Fox and Jack Trow. The facilities and professional skills and equipment the MAC was able to provide, really augmented the texture and sound of the work in ways I hadn’t imagined or appreciated. 

    Elan Valley, is very much other worldly coming from the city. The dams and reservoirs are awesome and spectacular, and when I was there around Easter time, all the ground was swallowed by this soft green moss. There is water oozing and gushing, from dams and waterfalls, but also seemingly springy out of the ground, and tumbling down the hillside in little rivulets. It really feels like a mythical place. I think the landscape in this way really absorbed me, and rubbed into me.I’m both very happy with the work I made and the narrative I wrote.It really allowed me to take my work somewhere new, and really get somewhere with those ideas. 

    What did you hope to get out of this amazing programme when you applied?

    I was looking to open my practice in a new direction toward thinking about the environment with sick and crip ideas. Even more, I looked for a way to develop new methods that incorporated engaging with the environment with my practice, in ways that fitted and supported my body in the way that it is. It really has done that, and I am brimming with excitement and ideas for new work.