#10 Free, Bold and Joyous (conversations with seaweed)
March 22nd 2022
In this episode artist, curator and educator, Bryony Gillard interviews people who have found their lives or research intertwined with seaweed. Through the lens of environmental justice, marine biology, community activism and media theory, their conversations explore seaweed’s slippery relationship to place, identity, community and responsibility.
Image: Film Still from Unctuous Between Fingers, 2019, HD video, 15min, Commissioned by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter
Starting from the geography closest in, I am following a tangle of experiences with seaweed, my interactions with an archive, a place where I’m time travelling. Handling specimens that are 200 years old, fixed, pressed, flattened into neat volumes, where there is little distinction between their bodies and the page, absorbed, inscribed.
In 2019, I was commissioned by Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, to create a new work in response to their collections. Scrolling through their object database, I became bewitched by their seaweed archive, sheets of delicately pressed and dried specimens, reds, greens, browns, vivid in colour and but flat, fragile and brittle, almost disappearing like ghostly watercolour drawings into mottled paper.
After some initial research I noticed that most of the seaweeds were collected by women. Dating from the mid-19th to early 20th century, each specimen bears the collectors’ name in pencil alongside the collection date, location and latin identification. Mrs. Griffiths, Miss Cutler, Miss Mills, Miss Hutchins, Miss Cresswell. The act of collecting and pressing seaweeds, otherwise known as ’seaweeding’, was considered a gendered hobby, and a creative pastime of little importance.
However, many of the collectors made a significant contribution to marine botany, meticulously recording specimens and sharing their findings generously with the (male) scientific community, as they were unable to publish research under their own names.
Image: Film Still from Unctuous Between Fingers, 2019, HD video, 15min
Margaret Gatty described the pursuit of seaweeding as ‘free bold and joyous’ a liberating hobby for middle-class women, allowing for time alone in nature, that was otherwise forbidden. Seaweeding fostered freedom and friendship for a certain privileged class of white women; and allowed others less privileged to work towards financial independence – starting their own businesses collecting and selling pressed seaweeds to those less keen (or able to) adventure into the great outdoors.
I have begun to read these pressed bodies as a kind of writing. Seaweed inscriptions. A Marine Lover’s text that speaks from the intertidal zone with more than human voices. Tangled, multifarious, mucilage-seeping bodies, connected, floating, but tethered. Existing in contradiction, not fixed between two states, but shifting between many – what does it mean to rehydrate the archive? To move between slippery and dry?
Back at the Museum, I wanted to ask the archivist if there is a potential for the pressed specimens to be reanimated, like dried seaweed in broth. Could we take these specimens, so skilfully pressed, so carefully annotated and classified, kept in a dry, temperature controlled storage facility and return them to the ocean? But I swallow my question, as bottled water isn’t even allowed in the collection store, so hypothesising about a mass rehydration seems unlikely to go down well.
My encounters with the seaweed collection were the start of a fascination which would lead me down many different but interconnected paths. The more I looked, the more links between seaweed and gender I noticed. The more I researched it’s biology, the more I realised how complex and beguiling seaweeds are, and how much we can learn from them about multi-species futures and ecologies of care.
Seaweed breathes for us, together with its algae siblings, producing significantly more oxygen than terrestrial plants. It filters, shelters, nourishes and sustains ecologies, coastlines, communities, industries. In the past decades, seaweed and algae have entered mainstream discourse around climate change in both positive and negative lights.
Image: Film Still from Unctuous Between Fingers, 2019, HD video, 15min
Due to rising sea temperatures and changing balances in the oceans, toxic blue-green algae blooms (seaweed’s cousin) threaten entire ecosystems, absorbing sunlight and further heating the oceans. Tides of sargassum (a brown leafy seaweed) off the coast of Barbados are strangling sea life and damaging small scale fishing industries, growing in size each year, covering beaches and offending tourists’ noses. Both instances are described in western media as ‘invasions’, both are indigenous to the areas mentioned and have only become a large scale problem because of human-induced climate change.
On the other hand, seaweed is also often heralded as a tool to mitigate global warming – a way of feeding and powering economies and to even sequester or sink carbon – although this is still only possible in theory and not in practice. Seaweed has life giving, utopian and science fictional qualities, known to indigenous communities for thousands of years, but there is also the very real potential for it to be coopted by late capitalism to enable violent processes of extraction and oppression to continue.
Seaweed and it’s human and more-than-human interactions are a slipperiness of bodies in common and difference. How can seaweeds’ materiality help us to think through our own actions and activisms? What does its qualities lend to a conversation on living and caring together?
For this podcast, I had the privilege of interviewing three people who have found their lives or research intertwined with seaweed. Through the lens of environmental justice, marine biology, community activism and media theory, these conversations explore seaweed’s slippery relationship to place, identity, community and responsibility.
About Bryony Gillard
Bryony Gillard is an artist, curator and educator with an MFA from the Dutch Art Institute, School for Art Praxis.
Situated between writing, workshops, performance, video and exhibition making, her practice reflects upon events, creatures and ideas that refuse to be pinned down or categorised. Through a process of both uncovering and layering ideas, herstories and conversations, her work attempts to create a space for generations of intersectional feminist practice that are elusive, messy and entangled in contemporary concerns. She is drawn to thinking with and through the more-than-human-world and is committed to intersectional feminist and anti-colonial doings underpinning her practice and approach.
Recent projects include a solo exhibition at Jerwood Arts (London) in 2021 and a commission with the University of Bristol Doctoral College in 2022. Her work has been commissioned and presented on a variety of national and international platforms including ESTUARY (Kent), Holden Gallery (Manchester), Cinema Maison at BB15 (Linz), Ocean Archive Programme at TBA21 Academy (Venice), Arnolfini (Bristol), The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter), FLATLAND Projects (Hastings), De Pimlico Projects (London), The Arts Institute (Plymouth) and Turf Projects (Croydon). She was included in the Tate touring exhibition, ‘Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings’ and awarded the 2019 Royal Albert Memorial Museum artist commission.
She is an associate lecturer on MA Fine Art at University of Gloucestershire and BA Fine Art at University of the West of England and facilitates creative workshops with adults and young people.
Her pronouns are she/her/hers.
This podcast is part of a wider research project Bryony has been developing since 2019, entitled Unctuous Between Fingers. On the project website, you can watch the moving image work Bryony made in 2019 and 6 commissioned texts and artworks by contributors to the project.
Giovanna Di Chiro is Professor of Environmental Studies at Swarthmore College where she teaches courses on environmental justice theory, feminist political ecology, and community sustainability, and coordinates the program on Environmental Justice and Climate Resilience. Di Chiro has published widely on the intersections of environmental science, policy, and activism addressing issues of human rights, food security, and environmental and climate justice. She is co-editor of the volume Appropriating Technology: Vernacular Science and Social Power and is completing a book titled Worldmaking from the Ground Up: The Praxis of Environmental Justice.
Melody Jue is Associate Professor of English at UC Santa Barbara. She is the author of Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater (Duke 2020) and co-editor (with Rafico Ruiz) of Saturation: An Elemental Politics (Duke 2021). Her articles have appeared in Grey Room, Configurations, Media+Environment, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Resilience.
Dani Abulhawa is a British-Palestinian interdisciplinary artist who has been making work since 2005. Her background and training are in performance, movement and skateboarding. She is a co-founder of Accumulations – a collective of dance/movement artists and a supportive network for the development of experimental movement, dance, and performance. She is an ambassador for skateboarding charity, SkatePal and a director of Skate Manchester, which involves coordinating and delivering community-based skateboarding projects within the city.
Giovanna, Dani and Melody for their time and generosity and my current project contributors: Sammy Paloma, Sarah Hotchkiss, Maria Christoforidou, Kayle Brandon, Frankie Dytor, Melody Jue and past contributors: Astrid Schrader, Fern Thomas, Katherine Hall, Hannah Aspinall, Katie Orchell. This project was originally commissioned by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery.
Thank you to Rowan, Jack and Jenny at Caraboo Projects for all your work and support.
Bryony Gillard – https://www.bryonygillard.co.uk/ Instagram @bryonygillard
Music, Edit and Mix
Rowan Bishop – www.rowanbishop.co.uk/