The ‘liquid gift’ illustrates creativity, change and connection.

I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries on this planet earth over the past 30 years. I have never really liked the idea of being a tourist, and whenever I have accidentally found myself in such a guise, I rush to hide it in some obscure and often hilarious (to my travelling companions, at least) way. What I really want is for any journey to give me opportunities to literally experience life and death, suffering and grief, poverty and prosperity, fear and violence, laughter and beauty, order and chaos in all their extreme forms. What a remarkable place we inhabit that carries such contrasts and yet delivers such extremes in every human emotion.

I have thought on so many occasions what it would be like to be born in a different culture, time, background, gender, economic demographic, and this childish thought alone has shaped my passion and unrelenting desire to learn more and be challenged – changed by the encounters, each day, year, month (yes, time is an area of exploration in this project) brings.

One of the almost obsessive desires I have everywhere I go, is to find water, and the question I ask first is – where is the nearest river? Specifically, I search for rivers because rivers shape lives. A river never stays the same. A body of water that stays the same is nothing – at best it is a nice pond; at worst it is a stagnant puddle.

Most of the world’s major cities were built on or around areas of fresh water. Our ancestors chose to settle near these areas as rivers were a means of supplying drinking water for their families and livestock, as a food supply, used for irrigating crops, and as a means of transport in order to aid commerce. Most of the world’s capital cities, have their respective main areas of fresh water, be it either a river, a lake, a canal or an oasis.

As transport has moved from boats to planes, trains and multiple vehicles, the geographic norm of fresh water at the heart of communities has changed, but the climate emergency is sending everyone back to simplicity, locality, sustainability and reality. Water will become the new oil and gas and its scarcity or abundance the new contention and bargaining tool of nations and cultures of the world.

Thinking across boundaries

The world’s longest river flows through Egypt’s capital city Cairo, but the river which flows through the most capital cities is Europe’s River Danube, which runs through the four cities of Belgrade, which is the capital of Serbia, Bratislava the capital of Slovakia, Budapest which is the capital of Hungary and Vienna the capital of Austria.

Rivers are remarkable illustrations of so many things. Time, rhythm, direction, strength, tranquility, rage, and so much more. They seemingly start from nothing and yet, during the course of their journey, can create whole new places, locations and landscapes. Their ability to endlessly capture our attention and to still pulsating thoughts is a remarkable phenomenon. When we are actively engaging in timeless moments in life, we are following nature’s design for rivers. Rivers seem neither rushed or bothered by holding to set patterns but can ebb and flow as they please to their own existential paradigm. They can flow gently or cut new paths and forge new places, locations and even habitats. Their unrestrained nature speaks of freedom and release, beauty and devastation, new worlds and ancient paths. Some rivers are shifted by tides in certain patterns but that is a small restraint to a larger and more profound existence. 

A river is a clear way to illustrate change

Rivers exist to change everything and to sustain everything. They turn nothing to everything. They start with rain, ice and melting snow, a trickle that can’t be called a river. Led by gravity, the trickle follows cracks and folds in the land as it descends. A river sustains and erodes. It carries sediment, soil and rocks; it deposits sediment, soil and rocks. It reshapes the land and cuts into the soil to form channels. Rivers merge and diversify, creating wider stretches of water, streams and islands. They are fast-moving and slow-moving, young and old.

The river bed, the river and the river bank are important breeding sites for many creatures. Human life, too, has gathered around rivers. Clearly, humans needed access to water for drinking and growing crops. A location near to a large body of water is also useful for transportation, communication and trade. Local access to a plethora of natural resources is obviously highly beneficial, because we need this stuff to build cities. Rivers bring life; they are designed to move and create.

Egypt’s first known settlements occurred mostly around the Nile River at around 5000 BC. Egypt’s naturally hot and arid climate drew people towards the Nile’s lush flood plains to begin farming and building a community. Its 6693 kilometres are a resource shared by 11 African countries.

Hidden rivers

Although it is often rivers that attract people, the development of that population can also make rivers a victim of the successful conurbation. Rapid industrialisation in Yonkers, New York, meant that a succession of bigger and bigger bridges were built, eventually covering the river completely. In some cities, Moscow, for example, the river has posed a threat to the city and attempts to tame it have led to intervention to divert it to a new course or force the river into tunnels. ‘Lost’ rivers like these show us how the power of a river to change the landscape has been matched by the power of humans to change the river.

In these hidden rivers we encounter paths and histories that occasionally emerge for a brief moment then hide again to take their path and their destiny in new directions. Have we lost something fundamental when a river is lost like this?

Okavango Delta

The National Geographic film ‘The Mission to Save Africa’s Okavango Delta’ charts the incredible journey of one of the world’s greatest delta regions. The filmmakers say,

The water comes almost entirely from Angola, Botswana’s complicated neighbor, two countries away. It begins in the moist highlands of Angola’s rainy center and flows toward the country’s southeast, quickly in one major drainage, the Cubango, and more slowly in another, the Cuito, where it pools into source lakes; percolates slowly through grassy floodplains, peat deposits, and underlying sand; and seeps into tributaries.

It continues:

Take away that liquid gift, rendered by Angola to Botswana each year, and the Okavango Delta would cease to exist. It would become something else, and that something would not include hippos, sitatungas, or African fish eagles. If southern Africa were a vast golf course, Okavango with the faucets closed would be one of its sand traps.

These kind of vast changes on landscapes, river systems and delta regions, change life forever. Large sections of human, ecological and living species either cease to exist or adapt to new possibilities somewhere else.

  • About 70% of the earth’s surface is made up of water
  • At least 40 major cities around the world have rivers that run through them
  • Rivers pass through not only the geographic boundaries of the related country, but often move on to cross multiple city and country borders
  • Rivers are the cross-fertilisers and boundary-crossing phenomena of the natural world.

Rivers capture a way of thinking across boundaries

At the start of this project, let’s exemplify this picture of a river as a creative channel and force. A river enables us to make connections between past and present, nature and need, gravity and generosity, artifice and repetition, wilderness and domesticity. By studying rivers we are not applauding a simpler past but celebrating how the river captures a way of thinking and acting across boundaries.

Water is an elemental root of the universe, along with fire, earth, and air, nature, ice, light and darkness. These elements are strong illustrations of very deep-rooted things in our psyche.

  • The wind is always moving, going where it likes, complex, invisible and unpredictable;
  • fire’s inability to be restrained has led to a human fascination with heat that combines its devastating power and its domestic comfort;
  • earth is the essence of who we are – 90% carbon;
  • water represents an ‘in between’ (transitional) state between ice and steam/air.

It’s not surprising that those elements fascinated early Zorastrian understanding of the planet.

Each element has incredible capacity for unleashing the power of nature. They illustrate life and the earth’s power. They all exist and co-exist as elemental parts of our planet.

Living more wild-ly

In the UK and many parts of the world, there is a move towards re-wilding. Isabella Tree in her excellent book Wilding, talks of saving her farm by a process of ecology, conservation and the reintroduction of wildlife and livestock. The Knepp estate in Sussex has turned from a semi-barren piece of farmland into 2000 acres of wild trees, plants, streams, ponds, rivers – all wonderfully connecting wildlife and multitudes of inquisitive tourists. Again, this is a metaphor of boundary-crossing; multiple and complex layers all interacting, seemingly serving one another with complimentary planting – all gifting each other to live more wild-ly and live more adventurously, to thrive and co-exist for the benefit of each other.

This might seem a rather romantic notion of how things can work but maybe it also unravels the possibility of boundary-crossing as we begin to unlock this further in this series of thoughts and observations, as we call out ‘nothing is everything’. Perhaps when we get to ‘nothing’ anything else seems a long way away out of reach, an impossibility, a dream of another world. Yet in Isabella’s case, the appearance of untamed, unfarmed ‘nothing’ – wilderness – shows us the possibility of ‘everything’.

Simon Thomas is the CEO of J49 housing, a registered social housing provider in London, UK.

Posted on Categories Creativity, Re-imaginings

Change, challenge and creativity

Art can often be seen as society’s essential irritant. It can challenge our ingrained perceptions, create emotional responses or stimulate different senses and initiate debate that often transcends our rational understanding.

All of this can be really good for us, if we embrace the challenges it can present.

One of the greatest attributes of the human mind, is being able to connect invisible dots, or to take creative leaps in the dark to explore or even create new ground. As Henry Ford famously once said ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ To me this is a great definition of binary thinking, humans acting like computers. Computers are tools, humans are individuals. The human thought process needs to be unshackled from a status of ‘what is’ to one of ‘what could be’.

New possibilities

I remember seeing and experiencing for the first time the ground-breaking conceptual sculpture ‘An Oak Tree’, by  Michael Craig-Martin, in London’s Tate Modern gallery. It was unlike anything I had come across before and I was transfixed. It was a pivotal moment for me in trying to develop my creative thinking.

For those that may have not seen the work, it’s a plain glass of water sitting on a glass shelf 253cm above the ground, with some supporting text mounted on the wall below it. The question and answer format of the text describes changing ‘a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water’, and explains that ‘the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water’.

At first sight you might feel conned! It really is a glass of water on a shelf – it is most definitely not an oak tree! This is the mind in ‘comfort thinking’ mode. However, push past first impressions and read the accompanying text and see if your perception changes. Craig-Martin considered ‘the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say’ – so if you have faith or belief, anything can be possible. A glass of water can be an oak tree!

You may agree or disagree with the artist, but it has opened a new dialogue in your mind to think about new possibilities, and that is something which is both vital and profound.


Seek out the alternatives

My professional creative work is all about generating new ideas, exploring new ways of thinking or approaching an existing problem. For any creative currency to be valid, it has to be challenged. For me it is vital to approach problem-solving from multiple, sometimes contrary, directions, if I am to produce solutions that attempt to rise above stock responses. However, relying solely on an existing reservoir of accumulated ‘comfort zone thinking’ knowledge, the pool of resources I can draw on is fairly shallow and prone to quickly drying up! To avoid this, new experiences, challenges and knowledge need to be embraced on a daily basis.

It is hard to be creatively inspired in isolation. Hence why I love working collaboratively with different people; clients, coders, printers, team members, etc. Generating an initial concept is comparatively easy, but sometimes it is all too easy to get seduced by your own ideas. Having alternative input and critique is really important to help shape and bring about a more focused solution.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded people with common interests does not challenge ‘comfort zone thinking’ or free the mind from a state of creative inertia. So instead of surrounding myself with the familiar and comforting, I try to embrace change or challenge as part of daily routines. This can be as simple as just choosing or taking different routes instead of familiar journeys. Limitation can also be a great way of providing self-initiated challenges. For example, I recently purchased a new Nikon DSLR camera, and deliberately opted for a 50mm fixed prime lens rather than the general-purpose zoom lens I have always previously used. Quite literally, I will have to change my perspective when taking pictures now! The ‘limitations’ help to push me to think more creatively about the type of shots I can and cannot take.

I also try to allow my passionate curiosity to get the better of me as it often opens the mind to different perspectives or viewpoints. Spending time with those involved in activities outside of my particular sphere of operation, or from different cultures or backgrounds, can bring huge insights and act as a real breath of creative fresh air. I recently attended a PechaKucha night at the De La War Pavillion, where speakers’ topics ranged from The Art and Neuroscience of Lucid Dreaming to Cool Knots, with lots of variety in between! These topics, although random to me, really inspired my thinking on my own current work projects.

Ask ‘Why not?’

Imagine the possibilities if painters mixed with scientists, photographers with mathematicians, linguists with engineers, musicians with sociologists, etc., or better still, they all mix together  to work collaboratively on a project! The outcome might initially be some kind of chaotic, creative cacophony! It would be very challenging to manage, but points of difference and commonality would soon be discovered and explored. Creative ideas would soon come to the surface as new thoughts or ideas were considered. Each discipline would be able to offer a unique, external objective perspective by simply asking ‘Why not?’. This in itself can bring a huge release, as accepted traditional ways of thinking within a field are challenged and developed further.

I believe this would resonate with some of the principles of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus School of Art in Germany (1919–1933), a form of education that that has proved to be hugely influential ever since.

Often comfort zone thinking is a self-imposed type of mental restriction that we create within our mind. It gives us safe boundaries, a sense of comfort, but beware, these boundaries eventually become a creative prison and ultimately, the death of an inspired mind!

In the words of writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer,

adventure_is_good crop

CreativityThis blog is contributed by Chris Hamilton Brown, an independent designer and founder of www.passion4.co.uk, producing integrated solutions for print, online, social, photographic and furniture with passion, eclecticism and vision.  


Posted on Categories Arts & media, Creativity