“Cities thrive on movement, flux, mixture and confluence, all the qualities of a river” – Artist, swimmer and Londoner Amy Sharrocks talks about her work and why it’s so important people swim in their cities.
I think about people and water. A lot.
I have floated boats on swimming pools up and down the country, inviting people to step off dry land, to feel the motion of the water and see what that does to our thinking. I have dowsed seven of the 22 rivers under London; dowsed them in groups so that as you walk through the streets, at times all your dowsing rods move together in one direction, pointing you to a different understanding of London’s geography and history, hurtling you back in time and place, re-orienting you in streets you thought knew well.
In 2007 I invited people to swim across London. 50 people joined me for SWIM, an adventure that started at Tooting Bec Lido at 5.30 in the morning, and traced a wobbly blue line across the brown cityscape to Hampstead Heath Ponds. SWIM was a journey to gain access to the water in this city, to open up the lakes, the private and the public pools to a tide of more and less competent swimmers, from all parts of the world and all walks of life. It was open invitation, as much as possible a free for all.
Do you know the Swimmer? SWIM was a British response to Burt Lancaster’s odyssey across the American landscape of Frank Perry’s film, John Cheever’s short story. Fifty swimmers dashing and stumbling across the capital with strokes and costumes of varying style and competence – as Gormley’s Event Horizon looked down on us from the roof tops, just as Martin Creed’s runners took to Tate Britain – we took a human measure of this city in the wide strokes of our dripping arms. Throwing off our usual uniform and routine, we ran out into the capital in only a swimsuit, putting our rolls of fat on display, skin that hadn’t seen the sunlight for too long, all swimming home. Someone called it a flesh mobbing.
Since then I have spent many years travelling across Britain, Europe and Western Australia, gathering water for Museum of Water, a live artwork that invites you to consider water, to spend time with it, to really notice it as it moves through our days. The public collections now hold over 1217 bottles. These are 1217 creative acts by people from all around the world, ways of reaching out to nature with our bodies and minds and cherishing what we love about it.
Museum of Water explores a different economy of care in the world, where people might listen carefully, where large institutions are able even to treasure evaporation. It traces the movement of water around the world, the very molecules, considers each bottle’s boundaries, connecting us all through the movement of water molecules. It reminds us that we all have permeable boundaries, that we are all connected through water that is slipping through our fingers, in constant process with our bodies, the constructs of our days and our built environment.
Last year I organised a swim for 80 people in the Thames at Reading, supported by the Outdoor Swimming Society. The Fry’s Island Swim was a short 1km swim around an island in the centre of Reading, which brought to a close the first Reading on Thames festival. Accompanying the swim was a weekend of talks in collaboration with Reading University, entitled, What’s the point of Rivers, anyway? We explored the shifting meanings of water from ancient Greek hybrid river gods through to Victorian England, when the rivers began to be seen as a space for the eradication of identity, a method of concealment. We began to understand how the qualities of obscurity in a river are opposite to the fixed clarity of land.
Swimming offers us a change of perspective of course, and as we slipped into the waters of Reading we were lower than the city, lower than the usual horizon, swimming under the people waving from the bridge, rolling around in the water like the otters people have sighted along this stretch of the river. We followed the glitter path through the waters of Reading. With careful safety support we made a safe way in for swimmers of all abilities; the swimmers each weighed up the risks and decided that staying out of the water was more dangerous than going in, that dry city lives are missing a crucial ingredient for health and happiness.
If we each have responsibility for our own safety, we also have responsibility for our own adventure. Each time we swim in a city river, we re-imagine our city from the inside. I have written a lot about skin as a permeable boundary, letting in the water and the city, feeling the soft impact of the seasons and the water. We brought the vulnerable edges of our bodies to bear witness on city life and found it wanting.
Afterwards many people commented on the good naturedness of this swim, the deep joy of it, a swim that was just for itself, alive to the seasons and the draw of the water, to the pleasures and interconnectedness of existence, not a race, competition nor endurance test of any kind. A gift. This was a swim that looked at a different understanding of city life. It saw our imagined dominance over water and longed for a different relationship.
In Australia indigenous elders described the waterhole as the ‘epicentre of social cohesion’, how it isn’t just about the water, but also the reeds, the dragonflies, the birds, the earth: they described it as a community of water. Their ideas of community, sharing and responsibility combat the singular experience of modern city life.
Over the past months I have been working with the architect and swimming enthusiast Chris Romer-Lee on a plan to open up the waters of London to swimmers for one day a year. In May we launch our plans for Open City Open Water, to take place on the Open City weekend annually, and every year we aim to open up more of the waters of London.
Open House was conceived in a spirit of openness and welcome, and in that same spirit we are proposing to open up these spaces in between the houses to allow new understandings of the city. For one weekend we are proposing to steward the fountains, open up the rivers for mass swims, walk the ‘lost’ rivers and celebrate the pools, lakes and lidos of our capital. This is a commitment to the quality of life in our capital, and a glorious, heartfelt opportunity to access and enjoy the different waters of London. Open City Open Water launches at Green Sky Thinking on 11 May.
And of course, for many years now, I have been proposing an annual swim across the Thames in central London. Swim the Thames lays out a plan for shipping lanes on the Thames to close for an hour and trade to pause so that a swimming lane can open up across the river, enabling hundreds of people to live the dream of swimming London, putting humans back at the heart of our city. Every month hundreds of people click on the site, and many of them sign up for the swim. I have had many meetings over the years, with institutions up and down the river. Cities across Europe and America have city swims in rivers far larger and faster than ours but it has been surprisingly difficult at times to make headway on our river. This is only ‘a little width’, as Chris Dalton who runs the OSS Thames once described it. But things are changing.
In the Swimmers’ Manifesto that we made on Cottesloe Beach in Perth – a three-hour speaker’s corner for swimmers of all ages to speak publicly about what they loved about swimming – an Aboriginal man Ron Bradfield talked about swimming in this way:
“You are sitting in a suspension of all that country
This is the centre of our being
There’s something about being in that… water that connects you to place”
Why do we live in London?
What’s the point of cities, anyway?
London is a community. We often think we are so modern, with our glass towers (with their glass ceilings) but somewhere somehow we have learnt to prize concrete and bricks over skin and bone. I am proposing a new narrative for London, with us at the centre of it. We can forge a new connection with the land and the water here.
Growing up in London, I never thought I could influence this city – it is so much bigger than me – but who are cities for? This city is built for 10 million, but experienced by each one of us. What do we want from our city? Can you imagine it differently, and if so, what would that look like?
It is up to each one of us to help shape the city in ways that appreciate people. Every day we confront the concrete of this cityscape with our vulnerable bodies, our soft skin. I don’t want to encourage people just to jump in – the river is dangerous, the flow is strong – I do want to organize a swim across the Thames that makes it safe for people to jump in once a year, to put people back at the heart of our city.
It is our water. It’s public commons. What do we want for its future?
For more information about Amy Sharrocks’ work visit: