Algologies: the study of seaweed or the study of pain?

The chalk rock pools by the Undercliff path at low tide 8pm 30th May 2021. Photo by Anna Dumitriu

I was born and bred on the Sussex Coast and spend my childhood exploring the alien world of the rock pools that litter the pebbly and sandy shoreline here, getting stuck on the slippery seaweed covered rocks or cutting my feet and knees on the scratchy barnacles that also encrusted them – and frequently needing to be rescued by a parent or teacher.

As an adult I looked less into our British rock pools, preferring the more exotic ones I found in California or Greece, with their giant goose barnacles or eels, and pink or white sand. These moments in nature became a way to take a breath and find peace during busy art residencies in laboratories or exhibition installs.

All the time I barely noticed the seaweed…

…but then came the global trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A huge focus of my artistic practice is microbiology and in particular the study of infectious diseases. Though I work mainly with bacteria, synthetic biology and the existential issue of antibiotic resistance, I was plunged into a world of endless online meetings, cancellations and contingency plans from the start of the pandemic. My last in-person lecture on my artwork, in early March 2020, took place at the headquarters of Public Health England in Colindale in London where I hold an ongoing artist-in-residence post with the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC), the oldest collection of pathogenic bacteria in the world. It was the celebration of their centenary and I remember discussing with colleagues how I might create future work with the RNA of this faraway novel coronavirus in the future, after it was all dealt with. No-one I spoke to at that conference expected what happened next.

I left Vienna on the night before the Austria locked down, two weeks later the UK (perhaps belatedly) followed suit. When the first lockdown came in England we were told we could go out to exercise once a day. I think we forget how strict and shocking that first lockdown was and how our worlds caved in on themselves, and I think being in nature became a huge form of solace for many of us. The Undercliff Path between Brighton Marina and Peacehaven is the closest nature to my home and qualified as my ‘local area’, so I walked there almost everyday since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study of algae (which includes seaweed, which are species of microalgae) was known in its Victorian heyday as algology but this was a linguistic error because in fact algology, from the Greek algos, means the branch of medicine concerned with the study and medical treatment of pain. The study of seaweed is more correctly called phycology from the Greek φῦκος, phykos, “seaweed”; and -λογία, -logia.

The cover of “Algology” by C.F. Durant (1850)

C. F. Durant, was an obsessive seaweed collector from Jersey City in New Jersey, USA who published fifteen copies “Algology” in New York in 1850, it has this wonderful cover (above). Each of these albums contained three hundred actual specimens he collected from around the New York bay area.

Bleached Chondrus crispus (Irish Moss) in a tangle of other seaweeds on the beach at the Undercliff 8pm 30th May 2021 Photo by Anna Dumitriu

In “Algology” Durant describes looking at seaweed under the microscope and observing it moving: “the first discovery of this motion produced a sympathetic shock, that caused me to close the eye, and suddenly withdraw it from the microscope; the sensation was akin to that experienced when unexpectedly witnessing the accidental maiming or killing a fellow-creature.” Durant believed the movements of the plants’ was “caused by pain,” because after “several hours out of their element,” they might “have felt the agonies of death.” Durant thought that seaweed was an animal rather than a plant and it was able to feel pain – like a human can. You can read more about C.F. Durant’s work in this excellent article here.

It seems timely to reflect on these various ‘algologies’ and their intertwined stories – and that is what I aim to do through this project.

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