The residency focussed on the study of seaweed (known as algology), as well as its scientific, economic and social history, and how this resonates locally through specific people, places, and work of the Living Coast. The blog features Anna’s personal reflections, interviews with experts and extensive research.
“Algologies” explores the entangled relationships between seaweed, women and science. The project draws links between Victorian seaweed collectors, the use of seaweed-based agar jelly in contemporary biology, and seaweed growth as a barometer of climate change and the environment as well as a strategy for carbon capture. The work fuses botanical printing techniques, DIY microbiology/biohacking, textile work, embroidery and installation.
In Victorian Britain seaweed collecting was considered a respectable interest for women interested in scientific enquiry and even Queen Victoria participated. In Brighton, Mary Merrifield made important contributions to colour and pigment research, history of fashion and importantly in the field of algology, the study of algae – in the form of seaweed, notably in her 1864 book “A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton and its Vicinity”.
Born just 5 years prior to Merrifield, Anna Atkins was a pioneer in both botany and early photographic techniques using cyanotypes, and is considered the first person to have ever published a book of photographs, entitled “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” in October 1843.
In 1882 Fannie Hesse was working as a technician in the laboratory of the microbiology pioneer Robert Koch who was struggling to grow bacteria on solid rather than liquid media. The gelatine he was trying to use melted at the temperatures needed to grow the kinds of bacteria that cause disease in humans, and she suggested that he try agar, a Chinese dessert made from red seaweeds she had been using to make fruit jellies, it can be heated to more than 50 degrees Celsius without melting. It is now used in practically every microbiology lab in the world.
Nowadays, seaweed farming actually helps counter climate-change, while deforestation decimates rainforests and other crucial carbon sinks. Fast-growing oceanic jungles of kelp and other macroalgae are highly efficient at storing carbon. Since the recent passing of a new bylaw preventing inshore trawling the kelp forests in the Living Coast Region are finally beginning a process of regeneration.
Elements of the project were originally conceived through participation in a series of online conversations facilitated during the COVID-19 lockdown by Brighton Artists Network as part of their urBAN project.