Life’s sacred and secular fundament: clean water

By David Green 

The UN Agenda for Sustainable Development includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the dictum “leaving no one behind”.  Whereas SDG #6 (“Ensure access to water and sanitation for all”) explicitly addresses this issue, underpinning all 17 goals lies the global demand for a radical change in our individual and collective relationship with water.  

In the same way, the four cornerstones of Te Whare Tapa Whā rest on our inalienable requirement for clean fresh water.  There can be no physical, spiritual, family, or mental health without robust systems and agreements in place that guard and uphold this fundament. Water is the life force: orthodox or atheist, we can all agree that water is sacred; no life can stir without water in its liquid form.  At this moment, across the planet, people are fraught with anxiety over water issues; every day we find ourselves confronted — in real-time — with our absolute reliance upon enough and our utter vulnerability to too much. Water quality, something until now we in Aotearoa/New Zealand have had the luxury of taking for granted, is slipping through our fingers. Once lost, the remediation of waterways becomes intensely problematical.

To our European forebearers the Earth felt virtually limitless, well able to absorb the shock of anything and everything we could throw at it, a world filled with boundless opportunities. Seeing the  Earthrise in 1968 made us feel that although we may be alone in the Universe, the Earth is still colossal.  Since 1991 Bruno Latour has been quietly working to reset the way we conceptualise our planet.  From the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean, life’s playground is as slight as the skin of an apple relative to our planet. Environmental scientists now refer to the fragile soap bubble that surrounds our sun orbiting rock, the “critical zone”: 

“At the scale of the usual planetary view, the thin surface of the critical zone is barely visible, it being only a few kilometres up and a few kilometres down at most. It is no more than a varnish, a thin mat, a film, a bio film. And yet, pending the discovery and contact with other worlds, it is the only site that living beings have ever experienced. It is the totality of our limited world. We have to imagine it as a skin, the skin of the Earth, sensitive, complex, ticklish, reactive.” 

Bruno Latour on Critical Zones 

I am currently designing a site-specific video art installation I call Bruno’s Thin Skin.  It is built on observations and lessons learned from earlier projects I have installed in commercial retail spaces on George Street through the Dunedin Dream Brokerage with support from the Otago Polytechnic research office. This work is intended to speak to our lively biofilm, our water bubble: our precarious niche on this fine planetary skin that has made life as we know it possible. My design primarily features organic motion dynamics such as tree leaves in the wind, zooplankton, bull kelp flowing in the tide, cataracts, and other small fragments of digital video captured around Te Waipounamu. The digital projections will spill out of the shopfront windows and onto the street, image fragments interacting with interior and exterior architectures, cars, trucks, buses, and pedestrians.    

People who might not normally visit an art gallery, while making their way home along George Street on an early winter evening, can sometimes find the non-commercial use of a commercial space intriguing. Public artworks like Bruno’s Thin Skin invite a relational aesthetic; walkers encountering a video art installation in an unexpected public setting seem more inclined to engage in casual conversation about it, sometimes wanting to know if this is “art”, or to discuss its meanings or the intentions behind the work, but sometimes they just want to share how seeing it makes them feel.   

Perhaps the time has finally come to pause, have a good think about our relationship with water, and take a few hard decisions. 

Image: Bruno’s Thin Skin, David Green, 2021, Site-Specific Video Installation (all rights reserved)

The installation Bruno’s Thin Skin can be seen at 343 George Street, Dunedin evenings from 5pm, 29 July – 10 August 2021. 

David Green is a video installation artist with a background in film production and visual effects. He teaches at the Dunedin School of Art and is a PhD candidate in the department of Media, Film, and Communication at Otago University. His written thesis conducts an interdisciplinary dialogue between ideas of film spectatorship, video art, and embodied cognition.  


Latour, Bruno (2020). On Critical Zones, Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 

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