Walking the Water Strata

Roni Horn, an American artist who has worked in Iceland on various projects for 3 decades, created a permanent installation in an old library in the town of Stykkisholmur, on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Western Iceland. Vatnasafn/Library of Water consists of 24 glass columns containing water collected from ice from 24 glaciers in Iceland. On the floor, is another project You are the Weather, a text based project listing weather related words, descriptions, and poetic metaphors (in Icelandic, English and German). As one moves between the water filled columns, light reflects onto the floor, and the glass columns reflect and warp the landscape. Often Iceland feels like its composed entirely of weather.

On the ground floor of the building is a writer’s studio. American writer Rebecca Solnit – whose work on walking and the environment has influenced many walking researchers – was the inaugural writer-in-residence.

WalkingLab has developed a series of water walks in Iceland. While Horn’s library archived glacial ice-water, WalkingLab’s walking research is interested in walking-with the geothermal water strata of Iceland.

Water walks took us through Horn’s exhibition and then onto Deildartunguhver, the largest hot spring in Iceland. In Deildartunguhver the 100°C water bubbles from the ground at 180 litres per second. This hot water is piped 74 kilometers south and is a main source of heating in Iceland. From there, the water walks lead us to the oldest ‘hot pot’ in Iceland – an outdoor hot pool – in Reykolt. It was built by medieval poet and historian Snorri Sturluson in the 1100s.

Stratigraphy is the study of layers of matter accumulated through geological and biological processes. Strata walks creatively re-interpret topological information to imagine how humans and nonhumans will move-with and engage-with, in this case, water. Toxins, air pollution, radiation, and micro-particles of water mark strata layers of the Anthropocene.

Water walks mapped the strata of Iceland’s geothermal water. In Myvatn the ‘hot springs’ are human-made. The water comes from the National Power Company station in Bjarnarflag. The water has a temperature of about 130°C when it arrives to the huge basin beside the lagoon itself forming an impressive, man-made hot spring. Altogether, the lagoon and the basin contain around 3.5 million litres of water with a temperature of 36 – 40°C.

Human-made ‘hot pots,’ as they are often called, are an important feature of Icelandic culture. Some, like the lagoon in Fludir and the hot river in the Reykjadalur valley are ‘natural.’ The lagoon in Fludir is one of the oldest bathing spots in Iceland dating from 1851. Fludir was one of the first places for swimming lessons in the early 1900s. Today, the lagoon has changing rooms and a café, making it a popular spot for tourists and locals. The sulfuric water typical in hot pots is considered therapeutic.

Water walks also mapped a steam spring called a fumarole. These volcanic hot springs in the Hveraröndor Hverir region in North Iceland emit steam and gases. The steam forms when superheated water vaporizes as its pressure drops when it emerges from the ground. Here the land is utterly sterile and acidic, too toxic for any vegetation to grow. In the geothermal field in Haukadalur we walked-with the geyser Strokkur who spouts every few minutes, sometimes to a height of 40 meters.

Astrida Neimanis’ hydro-logics are ethically-politically attuned to how water – as power – flows through, across, and between human and more-than-human bodies politically, socially, and environmentally. Neimanis (2009) writes, “our bodies of water open up to and intertwine with the other bodies of water with whom we share this planet—those bodies in which we bathe, from which we drink, into which we excrete, which grace our gardens and constitute our multitudinous companion species” (p. 162-163).

Water – hot, glacial, fresh, or gaseous – is an extractable resource in Iceland. The glaciers and rivers of the interior of the country are harnessed to generate 80% of the country’s electricity needs through hydropower, while the geothermal fields provide up to 20% of the country’s electricity needs. Harnessing the energy comes via the remarkably simple method of sticking a drill in the ground near one of the country’s 600 hot spring areas, and using the steam that is released to turn the turbines and pump up water that is then piped to nearby settlements.

Walking-with the geothermal water in Iceland WalkingLab’s stratigraphy maps the flow of water between bodies. As an ethico-political tending walking demands that we respond beyond systems of management, containment, and concealment, to think-with the affective entanglements of which we are all apart.