Simon Pope: Discussion Island

Artist Simon Pope introduces his post-doctoral project at Goldsmiths, University of London – a participatory artwork that explores a lakeshore community’s social relationships to rising water-levels in Lake Ontario.

In the spring of 2017 the Toronto Islands were flooded by exceptionally high water-levels in Lake Ontario. Residents, many of whom took part in the campaign against the city council in the 1980s and ‘90s to remove them from the island, were faced with a new adversary: slowly-rising lake water. Initially brought together by their twenty-year fight to establish a residential lease, island residents are now a close-knit community, bound together by a shared a history of organization of resistence, but also through their relationship to a specific geographic area, and the friend and family ties (Freeman, 1999) developed before and after “the struggle.”  This is a community whose “resilience” is understood in terms of its resistance to, and victory over, a dominant “urbanized” culture – the island has no private vehicular traffic, and residents now live in what has been designated public parkland. In its struggle, the community of island residents has resolutely sided with “nature” against the incursion of the city.

Their ability to organize and engage in politics with the city also contributes to a sense of preparedness for, and ability to survive, changes in political climate. However, recent events present a new challenge to the community, and arguably, “nature” – their former ally –  has turned against them. The lake has always been a decisive factor in the history of the islands: it was formed by a storm that severed a spit of sand from the lakeshore to form the islands in 1858; in 1954 Hurricane Hazel threatened the integrity of the islands, largely by the kind of lateral wave-action that such storms bring with them. Rising water-levels and the incursion of water upwards, through the sandy-soil of the island itself, is a new and unimagined threat to the land on which they live (Casey, 2017; Keenan, 2017), and to the coherence of their community.

This is a material change in the islanders’ life: the earth becoming unstable, where shoring-up against water no longer works; the earth becomes liquified. The largest of the island’s willow and poplar trees become dislodged from the sodden sandy soil, crawl spaces underneath houses fill with water threatening electric and gas-fuelled heating equipment; post and pillars of fences and houses come loose. The arrival of the Canadian Red Cross further contributed to islanders’ feelings that the flooding places their very health and wellbeing in jeopardy.

Local news media has reported on the possibilities of an engineering solution to this problem – city-wide solutions similar to those undertaken in Seoul, South Korea (Boisvert, 2017) or the  “floating houses” built on barges that accommodate the rise and fall of a tide in the Netherlands (Slessor, 2013). Yet some islanders are also at ease with “nature” continuing the process of reclaiming the island that has been underway since the flooding; bird-life is abundant, frogs thrive in newly-formed swamps, carp breed in the flooded baseball diamond. Others, calculating risk to human life over a longer-term, and foreseeing further ‘disaster,’ recommend that all residents abandon the island sooner rather than later (Thompson, 2017).

The level of Lake Ontario began to stabilize once the dam was opened in late May 2017, at Cornwall where the St. Lawrence river meets Lake Ontario. It took until early August for the water-levels to decrease to such an extent that pumps could be switched-off on low-lying areas of the main residential areas of the islands. Islanders are left to work out how to live with this quantity and type of water should it return – as it is predicted to do, given changes in global temperatures, jet streams, patterns and locations of precipitation, that are typical indicators of climate change.

Photographs: Sean Tamblyn, 2017,

I’m writing this from the Toronto Islands, where I live for part of the year. My project aims to grapple with the problematics of the islanders’ situation – indeed, my own situation – and to contribute directly to the thinking and practice of how we live with the waters of Lake Ontario now that they have made ‘decisive contact’ with us, which, as Timothy Morton claims (2013, p. 179), marks an epochal shift in human-nonhuman relations.

The project establishes a ‘platform’ for conversations that explore the social worlds formed by the islanders changing relationship to Lake Ontario’s rising water. This platform is a floating sculpture where people gather and enter into conversation – with each other and with the Lake. This echoes the function, and indeed the title, of artist Liam Gillick’s ‘Discussion Islands’ (Gillick, 1996) – plexiglass and aluminum sculptures, hanging at above-head-height (1987 – 1999 – Liam Gillick, no date). In this instance, the platform will be a structure that enables a small group of people to sit or stand together on swampy/flooded land, or in shallow water.

The design, construction and installation of the platform is intrinsic to the research process, providing events through which community members can articulate their thoughts on the ambition of such a technical endeavour, as well as their thoughts and feelings about the recent floods. Once installed the platform will be the venue for further conversations about the islanders’ relationships to the rising-water, the forms of community that are formed through resilience to this and past events, and the potential of new and hybrid social worlds and political processes, that are made possible by the recent floods. It also offers an opportunity for thinking about how such “platforms” figure as a trope of participatory and relational art, and the problematics of the form of politics that they promote.

The platform will be a simple construction that will aim to bring ‘the functional application of the legacy of applied modernism’ (‘Discussion Bench Platforms, A “Volvo” Bar + Everything Good Goes | Casey Kaplan’, no date) into conversation with current thinking in a range of sub-disciplines: environmental history, environmental philosophy, environmental anthropology and sociology, political ecology, posthuman geographies and ecocriticism (among others) that Bird Rose et al recognize as the environmental humanities (Rose et al., 2012)

The platform will be a proxy for the ambitions of the modernist project, expressed as an attempt to solve the problem of “nature” through engineering and design at a time of ecological crisis and climate change – exemplified by Marlies Rohmer Architects’ “floating houses” in Amsterdam. As anthropologist Stefan Helmreich notes in his study of Thomas Kuhn’s house (2012), modernism’s archetype of the ‘inflexible box’ has long been vulnerable to watery incursion. He reminds us of Kuhn’s own thesis: that science struggles to accommodate the swell of unruly information that ‘floats on fluids.’ Science is forced to “mop-up” this excess as its ongoing project. Water becomes the metaphorical ‘outside’ of science and of modernism (2012, p. 523). Water makes its incursion in many forms, defying any simple chemical notation: as ‘ground water, pond water, drinking water, salt water, waste water.’ Helmreich suggests, each of these ‘species of water’ requires different ‘adjustments’ from us (2012, p. 526). This project will attend to these very particular ‘species’ of water encountered by the islanders and to the ‘adjustments’ that we are implored to make. In this sense, the platform will stand in for both an ambition to “solve the problem” of climate change through science and technology – from sandbags and sump-pumps, to dredging, diverting rivers, ‘greening’ the roofs of downtown buildings to decrease the rate of water run-off, and so on – as well as the more conciliatory mode of human-nonhuman relationship based on ‘rethinking the ontological exceptionality of the human’ through posthumanism (Rose et al., 2012) and an ethics of responsibility for nonhuman others (Plumwood, 1991). In this sense, the platform also places ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ forms of ecological thinking in conversation (Naess, 1973), and emphasizes the ontological politics at work in relation to issues related to climate change. In doing so it also promotes the possibility of political processes that are substantively different than those conducted among humans alone. It joins with others in its ambition to bring together humans with their nonhuman co-constituents (Latour, 1993, p. 142; Serres, 2012).

The “resilience” of the Toronto Island community is understood to have been formed by a singular event – the threat of eviction. This resilience is thought to be mobilized here as a set of generalized capabilities to face the hardships brought by rising water-levels. However, as Ben Anderson cautions, ‘resilience is multiple’ rather than singular, in that it ‘becomes with’ different kinds of realities as they unfold. One of the objectives of this project will therefore involve a process of ‘carefully teasing out differences in the sites and interventions that make up various but partially connected resiliences’ that contribute to this situation (2016, p. 20). This project will attend to the relationships of islanders, as a social group or community, and specific ‘species’ of water, technologies, policies, environmental narratives in an attempt to understand how these resiliences are articulated through ‘the technologies and techniques that bring them into being, the experimental apparatus, ecologies and technologies which generate more-or-less resilient subjects and object’ (Greenhough, 2016, p. 39). This will draw attention to the complex relationships between humans, technology, water, other animal species, architectures, city planning policy, environmental regulation and controls and so on, to explore the actual and potential hybrid social worlds that their interactions produce.

Standing on the platform, just offshore, in the shallows of Ward’s beach, conversations will turn to “modern” approaches to human relations with water and the possibilities of thinking otherwise, through the environmental (post)humanities, and with other places in mind, where this thinking is equally urgent and immediate. And in hauling the platform from land, into the water, balancing themselves as they climb aboard, feeling the platform rise and fall with the waves, participants will be brought into affective, material relationships with their newly-assertive neighbour. What social worlds do they take part in with water? What kinds of politics can be done with the water from here on?



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