This project has changed how I experience my local environment hugely and I hope that it will help others to think differently about seaweed, microbiology and the Living Coast. The journey has been hard, I but worthwhile, there was so much research to be done and I wanted to give it my all, despite it being a very short residency.
But this is not the end. Next I want to explore how I can take this research forward to develop a new artwork or body of works, the issues of climate change and of agar security are very important, and reflecting on how seaweed collecting changed opportunities for women who wanted to work scientifically in the Victorian era and the situation of women in science globally. With access to new cheaper tools perhaps it’s almost in the grip of citizen/garage/kitchen scientists to apply portable whole genome sequencing technologies (such as nanopore technologies) actually at the beach, or on a more basic level searching for fluorescent seaweed using a UV torch, such as the one I found below, is great fun. I would also like to make a larger textile work with botanically printed silk, perhaps a quilt or dress as I’ve worked a lot with those forms previously.
Finally I want to give a huge thanks to Liz Whitehead and Laura London at Fabrica Gallery for supporting this project and to Sarah Stewart, Jane Freeman, Kerrie Davies, John Paul, Stephen Forsythe and Ella Garrud for participating in interviews for the blog.
I’m so pleased to conclude my blog posts with an interview with Ella Garrud, the Living Seas officer of Sussex Wildlife Trust. We discuss the ecosystem of the Sussex coast, and in particular the Undercliff area. She also explains to important project to re-wild the damaged kelp forest off the Sussex coast, it’s potential for carbon capture.
These works on silk I have created using seaweed from the Undercliff are also inspired by Anna Atkins, who was an English botanical artist, collector and photographer, and was the first person ever to illustrate a book with photographic images. Sir John Herschel, a friend of Atkins, invented the cyanotype photographic process in 1842 and within a year, she applied the process to algae – specifically, seaweed – making cyanotype photograms that were contact printed “by placing the unmounted dried-algae original directly on the cyanotype paper” (Atkins, 1843). Her book is in the Natural History Museum in London but I haven’t seen it in real life yet because of reduced museum access during the pandemic but there are images from the book available in their digital collection here.
I am very happy that the silk works also reference the classic Regency style of Brighton. Maria Fitzherbert (the Catholic widow wife of the Prince Regent (unrecognised by the English State) was also an amateur botanist (as alluded to in my Infective Textiles (2011) piece) but I have no idea if she had an interest in seaweed.
A more recent technique is to print directly on to paper or cloth using a technique called either eco-printing or botanical printing. Eco-printing (pioneered by India Flint) tends to avoid the use of chemical mordants to make the prints ‘bite’ into the cloth but for a deeper print and long lasting effect. I prefer to use alum (aluminium potassium sulphate) 10% in relation to weight of the dry fabric. I used silk. Plus as it’s an animal fibre I use 5% cream of tartar. I dissolved the alum and cream of tartar in boiling water, added the fabric and simmered for 1 hour, leaving overnight. Then I rolled and bound the silk with the seaweed on a piece of tubing. Some bits of the seaweed had I pre-soaked in plant dyes such as matter, safflower, turmeric, oak gall, or ferrous sulphate to bring out the forms. The bundled silk was then steamed for an hour and a half. Dipped briefly in ferrous sulphate 1% in relation to the dry fabric weight to bring out the design, and then left for 20 minutes in water with bicarbonate of soda (1 teaspoon per 500ml of water). Then ironed when damp to fix the design more.
I’ve been working with a lot with botanically printing medicinal plants to silks to tell the story of the history of disease and am currently making a ‘Cholera Dress” as part of my “Collateral Effects” project using this method. It builds on lots of past work but here, with the seaweed, this link to the female scientists and botanical artists of the past seems even more explicit.
Images showing the various steps can be viewed below.
When I first experimented with botanical printing with seaweed I noticed that some kinds of seaweed turned completely to jelly in the steamer. I had accidentally stumbled upon Chondrus crispus, commonly called Irish moss, which was one of the British seaweeds tested in WW2 as a possible source of agar. I decided to try and create my own agar from scratch using these methods. Images of the experiments are below.
I filmed this video in a rock pool on the Undercliff filled with Sargassum muticum (Japanese wireweed). It is an invasive seaweed species that can grow up to 10 cm per day during this season and can form a dense canopy in the water blocking out the other species.
The Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic was so named because it has so much of this genus of seaweed. It was feared by early explorers because they thought their ships would get trapped in the weed. When Christopher Columbus’s Santa María sailed to the Canary Island through the Sargasso Sea, he noted in the ship’s log that the weed was “so thick that it actually held back the ships.”
In the late 4th century the Latin poet Avienus made the first mention of the Sargassum in the Sargasso sea. This section of the poem is shown in translation below (the full poem is here).
And the sluggish water of the inert sea stands still. He adds this comment too: among the currents, There is a lot of seaweed, and often, in the manner of a bush, It checks a ship. He says that nonetheless here The surface of the sea does not extend to a great depth, And the seabed is scarcely covered with a little water. Here and there sea creatures meet, and sea monsters Swim amid the slow ships sluggishly crawling along.
He mentions seamonsters too and it is believed that perhaps sailors mistook thick beds of Sargassum weed for monsters holding their ships tight.
Incidentally the bladders are apparently edible and are said to taste of caviar. Similarly the green sea lettuce at the start of the video is said to be great in salads.
I was lucky enough to speak to Stephen Forsythe about his article British Seaweed – The Hunt for Agar in World War Two and learn more about how the rare and historic report featured in the previous post came into his possession and the story behind it. It turned into a long and rambling conversation and just goes to show how interconnected many of the subjects I am interested in are. Professor Forsythe also provide these interesting links on the production of agar, here and here.
During WW2 the Ministry of Supply in Britain became concerned about the supply of agar for microbiology, due to the fact that it was primarily sourced from Japan, so volunteers and researchers (including Sea Scouts) where roped in to collect large quantities of seaweed and ‘certain’ species were evaluated for use in the preparation of agar.
This was especially important for the development of penicillin which was first trialed in human patients in 1941 (and which I have previously explored at length in my project Make Do and Mend). I worked with the History of Science Museum at the University of Oxford which holds a wonderful collection from Florey and Chain, the University Oxford Professors who won the Nobel Prize for the development for penicillin with the more famous Alexander Fleming. The collection includes excellent examples of ‘biohacked’ equipment for the culture of penicillin, including biscuit tins with cans welded to them for culture vessels for the famous mould. These kinds of DIY methodologies employed by the pioneers of microbiology are hugely inspiring to me.
These are a series of experiments made using my own microscope (which is normally used for looking at samples of bacteria). The seaweed samples were collected from the Undercliff, rinsed in warm water and the put in water in a Petri dish (as shown below). Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, one of the fathers of microscopy is believed to have first observed algae in 1674, using a tiny handheld microscope. I have a replica one but it’s not possible to capture the images from it with a camera. It’s not exactly possible identify all the images but I believe the samples were Ulva, Coralina officinalis, and the invasive species Sargassum muticum but it’s hard to be sure as I’m still a beginner and mainly using the book “Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland” which seems the best resource I’ve found.
Reflecting on the life and work of the Brighton-based Victorian algologist Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804 – 1884), a pioneering female scientist who published in many leading publications, and Fanny Hesse, the woman behind the use of agar in microbiology. I wanted to explore the situation for women in science today and the benefits of diversity in the field. I spoke to healthcare scientists Jane Freeman and Kerrie Davies about their experiences and views.