Contain / Control





















Contain / Control is a site specific piece, which floated temporarily on the surface of the River Mur (Austrian) / Mura (Slovenian). The piece was commissioned for Transborders festival 2019, which took place along the section of the river that forms the border between Austria and Slovenia. The festival marked 100 years of the border between the two countries being drawn, and the various ways it has since been transgressed. After the intervention took place, I used various features of Contain / Control as starting points to further explore the idea of containment and control. This is a brief summary of that research so far. 


Contain / Control was able to float in place on the rivers surface, because of the speed of the river, which pulled the fabric downstream from the installation mechanism with sufficient force. At the same time, the speed of the river also ensured that Contain / Control could only be installed temporarily, as there was a limited amount of time that both the installation mechanism and the stitching that held the piece together, could withstand the fast-flowing water, particularly on the Control side of the river. This speed, which enabled the piece to float for a limited time period, is itself the result of human attempts to contain and control the river, particularly since the end of the 19th century: draining its flood plains, cutting off channels, straightening its course [1]. When the river flooded increasingly at the start of the 20th Century, it was further regulated, which increased its rate of flow even more, and lead to the need for more regulation. This exemplifies the ‘problem-solution-problem’ cycle that is characteristic of Western humans’ efforts to contain and control the natural world in general: a desire for dominance that can be traced back to Western Enlightenment thinking, which saw humans as separate from and superior to nature [2]. The problem-solution-problem cycle lays bare the arrogance and futility of this deep rooted perception of our relationship to the natural world, as it emphasises how temporary human containment and control of nature really is, as each “solution” leads to further problems. In this way the brevity of Contain/ Control’s installation due to the speed of the river can be seen as symbolic of the temporary nature of human efforts to contain and control the natural world, including its rivers. 


The site of Contain / Control’s installation, on the river that serves as a national border between Austria and Slovenia, emphasised by the use of each country’s national flags as the main material, makes a clear reference to borders and nations as phenomena that contain and control human populations. Rivers that serve as borders, such as the Mur, often change their course (both as a result of and in spite of human intervention), and this complicates and highlights borders as social facts that are manifested spatially [3], resonating with a wider conversation about the nation state as an abstract and imagined form of community [4][5][6]. Whilst a history of human engineering of the river Mur for political reasons [7] further contributes to the problem-solution-problem cycle, the cycle itself might also be applied more widely to situations where humans seek to contain, control and dominate, including the nation state, which may itself be considered a ‘solution’ that creates further problems [8]. 


The words Contain and Control come from lyrics that I wrote for a song called Big Mouth, which developed from researching punk and volume as a way of resisting the sonic containment of marginalised people under hegemony. We also performed Big Mouth as part of Petrol Girls’ set at Transborders festival. Installed in the water, with Control battling the current in the faster section of the river, and Contain rippling more serenely in the shallows, the piece worked as a kind of cartoon of Stuart Hall’s definition of hegemony, which is strongest when it is able to contain marginals and deviants in a subordinate position, and weakest when it must resort to coercion (or control) to maintain dominance. Contain / Control could then invite this concept to be applied both to the Nation State, through the words being constructed from national flags, and to Western humans’ relationship to nature, through the words being temporarily enabled to float in the fast flowing river. Arguably the Nation State is at its weakest when it has to intensify its efforts to control the movement of people, and similarly the more vehemently humans attempt to control the natural world, regulating rivers for example, the more problems we are likely to create. 


[1] Heinz Peter Paar and Reinhold Turk, Inner-alpine river basement management on the upper River Mur. Life-Upper Mur. mur[er]leben 2003-206. Accessed 13.04.2020, 



[2] Kristan Cockerill, Melanie Armstrong, Jennifer Richter and Jordan G. Okie, Environmental Realism: Challenging Solutions, (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 1, 27-44. 


[3] Marko Zajc, The Border River Phenomenon: the Example of the River Mura. Accessed 13.04.2020, Available:


[4] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (London: Vintage, 2014.) 406


[5] Abdullah Öcalan, Democratic Nation. (Cologne: International Initiative, 2016) 12-16


[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. (London: Verso, 3rd Edition, 2006)


[7] Marko Zajc, op. cit. 


[8] Abdullah Öcalan op. cit. 

[9] Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016) p.155-179



Ren Aldridge