14 November 2017

Foreword and Poem by Tanya Davis

By Tanya Davis

In 2016, I was Artist in Residence in Medical Humanities at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Upon completing my term, and after giving a short presentation (poem) on my observations thereof, I was approached by medical anthropologist Janice Graham to join a working group comprised of scholars and artists from various countries, disciplines, and backgrounds. The common link between their work, and mine, was a shared interest in the crossover of arts, humanities, social justice, and health. The Arts and Ethics Research Group (AERG) was formed to generate scholarly knowledge, artistic creations, and broader social debate around ethical, legal, and social aspects of the practice and governance of medical research and healthcare.

My interest piqued, I attended a local meeting in Halifax, Canada, eager to learn more about the people involved and in hopes to better understand the concept itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept itself was as vast as the ocean and therefore difficult, initially, to grasp. Regardless, or perhaps because of this, I was keen to join the working committee, one of 4 comprising the AERG (the focus of this one being on social justice and global health). I was curious how scholars and artists would collaborate, how we might use our respective skill sets to produce relevant and complementary work. Our Halifax-based component consisted of myself, Janice Graham (Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Diseases) and Medical Anthropology), Shawn Harmon (Reader in Law at the University of Edinburgh), and Author/Artist Emma Fitzgerald.

Initially, we circled around the wider issues of health and justice, seeking a landing place in which to house our common ideas. I craved concrete objectives and deadlines. Word counts. Parameters. As a self-directed artist, unattached to institution or team, my work is often circuitous and fickle; I relish opportunities to be a part of something clearly defined, confined even. Contrary to stereotypes of creative workers, I love to be boxed in (once in awhile).

And so I was eager for our small group to identify a clear direction and point of focus under the larger mandate of the AERG. But medical ethics are not clear and concise, not neat and tidy. Neither are the humanities, nor the arts, nor the scope of social justice, science, or governance. It was fitting, then, that our discussions meandered like rivers, ebbed and flowed like ocean tides.

In any case, we soon began to notice a pattern in our conversations—no matter what disparate but complementary topic we touched upon, the notion of water weaved its way through our words. Whether global health or localized care, governmental shortfall, pharmaceutical windfall, or community resistance, access to safe and clean water stood firm as an indisputable need, a pillar of global health and justice, and a basic human right. Resoundingly, we agreed upon this tenet and thus placed it at the fore, thereafter guiding our discussions, our objectives, and our work.

In anticipation of an AERG meeting in Edinburgh this past spring, I summarized a fraction of our notes and thoughts in the poem that follows. It is an attempt to rouse further dialogue on the importance of water to global health, to the planet and all life upon it. This piece hopes to highlight not only the basic, physical need we have for water and safe access to it, but also the soulful and emotional ways in which we are connected. It seeks, as do we, a meeting place between arts and ethics.

For the Water
Tanya Davis, for AERG, 2017

In the beginning we are in it
from it
kept warm and comforted
we don't question it
we float and
we rest in it
connection is no effort
it just is

But fissures begin
they start little
we hardly feel them
but there are reasons we keep drifting
there are consequences, too

We saunter off
slowly, so we
hardly notice
we start to wander
we wonder less
or no longer
and with no awe for the water
we show it no honour
bonds break
divisions grow stronger

If we stayed there...
enthralled with it
in unison with all of it
would we still call it a product
and bottle it?

Would we see water as commodity
and make dollars off of it
molecules as tools to profit with
would we fence in fountains
and block access
drain rivers to fuel progress
would we inject noxious gases
into the ground that's always had us
leaving sources poisoned
one less well to which we shall return

Water is a nexus issue
connected to all we do
it is not the next big issue
in a long long of issues
awaiting patiently it's turn to concern us
—it is current
and alarming
like cures owned by big pharma
and guarded

Water under crisis
water bargained, siphoned
and all bought up
water under lock and key, hoarded
and bottled up
by corporations and leaders
exchanging land for litres
thirsty people
empty cups

Water treated, mistreated
saving us from / delivering diseases
dirty water in gorgeous places  
water unfit to drink on reserves, for first nations
water tainted or unavailable
in whole neighbourhoods
in hospitals
policy, bureaucracy as obstacles
or governments with pocketfuls of cash

Water as an access way
water as a right
water as a privilege for the rich and for the white

Wars waged over waterways
on the way to water people die
lacking water people cross vast waters and also die
people stay behind
fighting over wilting beds
and drying wells
in short supply

If you're watching certain news
in which water is clean and endless
in which there isn't yet a crisis
change the channel

It is better to know and tremble
than ignore and gamble             

Put your hand up
if ever you drank a glass of water
and acknowledged
how essential
it was to your survival

Put your head down
for all the times that all the people can't get it
for the sullied streams and crooked schemes that take it
take a minute to consider your place in it
it's place in us
the significance of water to the fate of us

Water is a basic human need
and a right
any debate of this is futile
in the chain of birth to death it connects us to the people
to the planet we inhabit
it is seamless
we are of it
there is never any gonna be healing without it

Every disease treated
every public policy stamped and applauded
all the dreams of justice never finished

If world-wide health is an objective
universal wellness a target
then water must be a freely-flowing part of it

In fact, it is
even if we hardly notice
even if we drift slowly from old knowledge                 
where water is power, real and symbolic
even if we don't talk about it                             
it is the current continuing through us
it is current news inherent to us
it needs our fervent care
a certain courage
of the innermost kind

In the beginning we are in, of it
and as any heart will tell us
and as we may notice:
water is life. 

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