A small disaster has spilled quietly in the corner. Waxed grey objects drown in a steady flow of coarse salt crystals. Among mostly anonymous shapes, I spy bone fragments, a boot, a flattened tool. There’s mystery and melancholy in this scattering: a catastrophe is ongoing but all too slowly for us to perceive. Consisting of cast sculptures buried in heaps of spoil, Joanne Matthews’ Assorted Kipple excavates our present moment of ecological grief. A storm propels us backwards, and we can only watch ‘the pile of debris grows skyward’.[i]
‘Kipple’ is borrowed from Philip K Dick’s term that describes the habit of discarded objects and materials to accumulate over time. It implies that the things we call waste have a kind of agential life: detritus develops a will of its own. In the post-apocalyptic universe of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? kipple reproduces exponentially when attention is not paid to it.[ii] It is why a messy room becomes untidier, and why a rubbish-strewn street can become a junkyard. When the work of care can no longer be sustained, kipple is what gathers at the edges of things.
I seek out more Assorted Kipple on Joppa’s promenade steps, where the waves have risen high enough to wash most of the sculptures away. I find instead, along the water’s edge, little sheltering birds, white bellies waiting out the storm. Mayweed, ragwort, fireweed and sea plantain grow feral, alongside the unnatural blue-purple of sea aster and the pink spurs of kiss-me-quick, a garden escapee. A bent and gnarled elder, sea whipped and burned black, bears salty berries. Everything that grows here is shaped by its proximity to the sea and its salinity. Derek Jarman, whose beach-kempt garden was constantly battered by spray, wrote ‘I view my world through windows thick with salt.’[iii]
Sometime in the locked-down winter of 2020, I decided to tackle a new 700-page translation of Gilbert Simondon’s Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information.[iv] The text is a refusal of hylomorphism, the Aristotelian doctrine that every thing is formed as a compound of form and matter. Observing the spontaneous growth of crystals in a metastable liquid, Simondon imagines a different model of becoming, one in which matter itself is inventive and creative. As I read the text, I stirred copper sulphate powder in water, and trailed a thread through the thick aquamarine solution. In a day or two, a sharp, bright and fierce crystal had formed from its mother water. I plucked my shimmering new gem from its pale ocean and promptly forgot about the jar and its lingering liquids. Weeks later, I opened a cupboard to find a profusion of tiny crystalline growths, pallid and creeping, had—in interminable slow motion—shattered the glass which contained them. Like an advancing army, they had reached the pages of a nearby book, prying apart the pages. The container will not hold; a crystal is never complete.
That following spring, I cycled daily beside a railway embankment, and watched mutant and bloody shoots of willow emerge from sawn stumps that had been poisoned with capsules of copper sulphate. At night, I dreamed of that incessant stream of crystals flowing into branches, reaching and growing and tearing through the cambium layer and rupturing plant cells. I never finished the book—it too sits on a shelf in the room where I sleep, growing secretly outside of itself. There is no grand design nor brute matter, no individuals or endings: only lively, beautiful and violent becomings.
If Assorted Kipple promised deliquescence by melting back into the sea, the accompanying pamphlet, I looked out and saw plumes of salty air, is a thickening, congealing a new lifeworld around those jettisoned objects. Matthews weaves speculative snippets of a future when sea and salt have invaded the land, a not unlikely scenario in somewhere like Portobello. In response, creatures must evolve ‘a new skin’, composed of a dry crust and beneath, an oozing slime, to protect the body from salt poisoning. This new bodily experience is both repulsive and sublime: ‘sometimes / too much slime / seeping / over skin / smells / fecund / like flowering / gorse.’ It’s equally erotic and abject: the slime makes for ‘a good natural lubricant’ while organisms are ‘gestating with saline’.
I once lived in a house with walls coated in those crystalline comrades, salt and sand, battered and fried by a west coast wind. Some days we were left by a harried parent to bathe in a rockpool in front of the house, wriggling in the shallows with the crabs and the periwinkles and the darting blennies. I wonder how long our fascination lasted, and if we had paddled just a little longer would our skin have taken on the soft slime coating of the anemones, those frilly little creatures we prodded and probed, or become glossy, like slick fronds of kelp? Might sand hoppers have leapt and buried their wriggling segments in our legs and arms, and lugworms emerge from their burrows to have a taste? Would our flesh have sloughed off like crabmeat or would we have grown ourselves a slick blubber? A thick skin, smooth and deflective, soft and hard all at once. A new protection, a new barrier between in and out.
The closest I came to drowning was at a party where I took too many pills. That night, I experienced a biblically unquenchable thirst. I drank and drank and drank and no-one intervened. With no time for my kidneys to percolate, my vital salts swished in no bloodstream but a gaping ocean of fluid. I was an ‘unshapely sack of skin’, my brain a forlorn goldfish in a bag of wet glory.[i] Body sodden, sweating, pissing, dancing, drinking, drinking, drinking and drowning on the inside. I longed to drink more: to disappear, to dissolve. There is such a promise of freedom in dissolution, floating in fluid. A molecular fantasy: becoming truly imperceptible and utterly ungovernable.[ii] At some point, when the demonic urge to drink subsided, I excreted and secreted, and my blood rebalanced its salts. I lived, I remained perceptible. My skin looked great for at least a week.
In the sauna, I’m in the habit of licking my fingers, my arm, the underside of my elbow: a tender tongue seeking the residue, with all the attentiveness that cattle pay to their salt licks. It’s a habit of maintenance as much as pleasure: I want to know that my skin is doing its job of filtering, letting some of my insides leak out and thereby allowing other things in. Salt is the flavour of porosity; a barometer of what’s going on beneath. It is the powder trail on a cheek that reminds me I have been crying, and the fine crusting under my knees which tells me I’ve walked in the sun long enough. These surreptitious licks also bring me into sensory contact with the sea inside my body. A salty species, we, like other land-lumbering animals, inherited an internal ocean from our first ancestors to crawl out of the water. As Rachel Carson notes: ‘each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water’.[iii]
Becoming terrestrial and sustaining a life out of the sea, entails the constant work of sourcing, balancing and clasping close the waters and salts in which we were once immersed. As well as semi-permeable skins for containment, terrestriality also demands technologies of hardness to defend our fragile fluids.[iv] Indeed, with so much talk of watery bodies, it’s easy to forget we’re profoundly crystalline in structure. Bones formed—a hardening, a crusting—layers of lithic imagination, to manage the threat of desiccation. Nature’s oldest technology is one whose primary function is containment with variable porosity: the egg, letting oxygen in, allowing water out. Eggs are also a crystalline invention for dry land dwellers: a bird’s eggshell is mostly calcium carbonate, while creatures who insist on a return to water, like frogs, need only lay eggs with gelatinous coatings.
In the closing pages of I looked out and saw plumes of salty air, a character picks golden samphire, a salt-tolerant coast-dweller with medicinal properties. Like other plants which experience and survive salt stress, samphire has numerous adaptations that allow it to thrive in saline environments. Not so much the people of Matthews’ imagined future, who must blindfold themselves to keep salt from their eyes. A storm approaches—‘a salted cloud is moving towards us / swirls in all directions’—and the humans retreat beneath ground. But there is still beauty, companionship, love in this place. It is a story of walking on a damaged shore, caring for a wounded planet, living in a changing body. It is a world that glitters: brackish, beautiful and deadly.
In Undrowned, Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes: ‘We will all be marine mammals soon’.[v] In between what could feel like pessimism oozes the promise of some kind of return. Not a return to origins exactly, but a return in the way that evolution is always involution: twisted, tangled, cyclical, queer. As the waters rise around us, a different life and death is crystallising. How do things taste when vision is futile? What new substances might seep from skin? And in refuge from the storm, with whom might we find shelter?
I have a new piercing, a new opening in my skin. I spray the wound diligently, daily, with salty water. The liquid pools in my navel, and evaporates, leaving pretty but itchy crystals sparkling all over my abdomen. I am wounded, I am punctured, but I shimmer.[vi]
Rowan Lear is an artist, writer and researcher, currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Working across photography, writing, sculpture, moving image and installation, Rowan has exhibited, participated in artist residencies and presented their research throughout Europe and North America. In 2018-19, Rowan organised Planetary Processing, a peer-led forum for artists concerned with ecology, geology and the bodily at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. In 2021, Rowan was awarded a PhD for a project studying the embodiment of the photographer, combining archival research and media archaeology with posthumanist and new materialist philosophy.
This text is one of a series of new writing commissions in response to SALT, Art Walk Projects’ ongoing season of artist residencies. It also forms part of a new editorial partnership between Art Walk Projects and MAP, working together to support contemporary art writing through experimental approaches to commissioning and publishing. SALT culminates in the publication of a book in spring 2023.
[i] Watching ocean-adapted seals with admiration, Alphonso Lingis once described humans as ‘…a hundred and seventy pounds, of salty brine mostly, in an unshapely sack of skin. When we watch the seals glide up and down the rocks and into the sea, we feel the tedium of the bodies we had to evolve when we left the ocean.’ See Lingis, A. Dangerous Emotions, 2000.
[ii] Becoming imperceptible is what Deleuze and Guattari describe as ‘…the immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formula [by which one might slip] between molecules, to become an unfindable particle in infinite meditation on the infinite.’ It is the destination of a journey that includes becoming-woman and becoming-animal. See Deleuze, G.; Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus, 1987.
[iii] Carson writes, ‘…this is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestors having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea’. See Carson, R. The Sea Around Us, 1951.
[iv] Michel Serres suggests that technologies emerged materially when we left our soft shells behind: ‘Did technology begin from the Cambrian explosion, that Paleozoic Era in which hard parts appeared? Didn’t these hard parts invent the exterior of an interior, a framework and protective walls for the soft and fragile parts, as it were? I dream of this antiquity—a half billion years—for the advent of technology.’ See Serres, M. Branches. 2020.
[v] See Gumbs, A. P. Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. 2020.
[vi] For Eliza Steinbock, shimmering is a concept for ‘change in its emergent, flickering form’. See Eliza Steinbock, E. Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change, 2019.
[i] Walter Benjamin describes the angel in a Paul Klee print: ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet […] a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.’ See Benjamin, W. On the Concept of History, 1942.
[ii] See Dick, P. K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968.
[iii] Salt embodies desire and death in Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature. Pyramidal bushes of elder are ‘easily burnt by the salt spray but apart from that seem happy’; young Jarman and his first lover spend a summer ‘rubbing ourselves all over each other’s bronzed and salty bodies, such was our happy garden state’, his fascinating babysitter Miss Pilkington pursued slugs with salt, dealing them a ‘fizzy saline death’, and more than one precious plant is lost, like the iris whose ‘mass of buds have been bruised and scorched by the salt spray’. See Jarman, D. Modern Nature, 1992.
[iv] Gilbert Simondon’s ideas around individuation were profoundly influential on later thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers. See Simondon, G. Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information. 2020.