Structure and Fluidity: An Exercise in Human Intervention in the Sea


Stephanie Jordan and Amanda Thackray

The following is an excerpt from an ongoing experimental artistic practice in service of new thinking around water, climate crisis and safer futures, where environmental, social and design justice are inextricably bound. Focusing on process and aggregation, the artists, Stephanie Jordan and Amanda Thackray, write short essays (maximum 100 words) inspired by Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Kathleen Stewart and Lauren Berlant’s The Hundreds. As one writes, the other creates art, then roles are reversed and images collaged. At times, the work is explicitly in dialog, at other times not. The result is an exploration in attention: to care and protection, to breakdowns in preconceived narratives, to how technology captures and mimics nature and the resilient ways in which nature transplants and adapts, to a broadening of ecological thinking in ocean engineering, and to the boundless questions that open from the sea.


Surface Tension by Amanda Thackray
Surface Tension, hand pigmented cotton paper pulp, site specific installation.
© Amanda Thackray, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Click to enlarge.


I have never seen the ocean floor without standing on it. In my studio I draw lines in wet, fluid paper pulp, each analog pixel referencing both the largest and smallest bits of discarded immortal plastic in the ocean. I focus on water as water dries. I envision invisible specks crowding the ocean like static on a television screen, scraping from floor to photic surface. Clumps of anthropogenic debris build floating nests like mating creatures, inevitably teeming with life. These awakened assemblages threaten and coax, becoming beacons of life and death. I am searching for my place in this narrative.


Glass sea sponge in pencil by Stephanie Jordan
Glass Sea Sponge, pencil drawing.
© Stephanie Jordan, 2020.
Click twice to enlarge.


The sea is full of innumerable pilgrimages. Our journeys are just some, always carried by vessels. What do these vessels bring other than us? What particles and patterns launch from the underbellies of our ships? A cruise once transported me to where a grid of telecom wires connect ocean infrastructure built with the fantasy of a small city, sensors from seafloor to surface, innovation that redirects the waves, migration, carbon, salinity, warmth, light, that holds new capacities for dataforms as much as it does the lifeforms that will make this engineering their home, hospital, bachelor pad, birthplace, their death bed.


Sea Sponge against black background
Dark Sponge, digitally rendered pencil drawing.
© Stephanie Jordan, 2020.
Click twice to enlarge.


Glass sea sponges have long lifespans and can help teach us about climate change. Their deep silica roots store memories of the temperature of the surrounding water and can be read like rings on a tree. The relationship between these sponges and temperature is being used to tell stories about the history of the deep sea, and can provide new information about long-term changes in temperature and climate. These relationships can expand the idea of sanctuary—building parallels between physical protection or safe space and a less-tangible keeper of knowledge, a means to help us protect our future.


Big data image against a dark backdrop
Big data dark, digitally rendered pencil drawing.
© Stephanie Jordan, 2020.
Click to enlarge.


A DuckDuckGo search for “glass sea sponge” results in Ernst Haeckel. Suddenly, the writings of Sabrina Imbler swirl: of Haeckel’s violent evolutionary racism, eugenic desires for purity, the profound beauty of these images, the symbolism of the glass sea sponge as everlasting heteromonogamous love, the profoundly queer observed existence of this species. Water itself is a miscellaneous category, a diversity, contaminant as much as lifegiving, contained as much as chaotic, sacred as much as mundane. I am reminded of Stefan Helmreich’s work, “waves” of feminism, theoretical flows, currents, circulations, oceanization—metaphors where water helps us make sense of ourselves.

Marine animals form unique and generous symbiotic relationships. The glass sea sponge has a hollow core to house other living organisms, playing host to vulnerable sea creatures, employing a symbiotic relationship of mutual protection. Small crustaceans live inside its body and take care of it, cleaning it, while the sponge’s outer skeleton protects the crustaceans from larger predators. Their unique outer skeletons contain glass-like structural particles, spicules, made of silica, which fuse together in beautiful, intricate, lace-like patterns. Large colonies of glass sponges function as reef-builders, supporting the life of an incredible variety of underwater organisms.


Big Data image
Big data, digitally rendered pencil drawing.
© Amanda Thackray and Stephanie Jordan, 2020.
Click to enlarge.


Engineering regularly absorbs ancestral wisdom from the sea yet biomimicry always ends at materials and motion: humpback whales make submarine exteriors and wind turbines, sharkskin informs ship hull designs, glass sea sponges muse to heavy load bearing beams, tardigrade tun states inform vaccines. The promise of engineering is answers to grand challenge scientific questions of climate but also of culture—new capacities, new scales, new people to care, bringing into the fold of scientific practice the crips, the queers, the POC, the elderly, the unacademic—yet our engineering lessons do not concern the context and diversity of sea life.


Big Data image
Big Data Curves, digitally rendered pencil drawing.
© Stephanie Jordan and Amanda Thackray, 2020.
Click to enlarge.


Flipping through television channels, I happened upon a satirical cartoon where an anthropomorphized mountain of dirt, symbolizing the earth, was craving plastic. It urged nearby creatures to throw plastic into its mouth, proclaiming its hunger for synthetic waste. It reminded the creatures that they would soon join the plastic, as all beings come to an end in the belly of the earth. Technology is turning the ocean and the planet into cyborgian landscapes. As the earth continues ingesting natural and human-made materials it blends us all together and we become one with our creations.

It is this, a recursive conundrum in which we learn to care about our climate futures through technological interventions that in turn harm our climate: telecom cables communicating with TVs, representations, reifications. Asking of science and technology, Leigh Star often repeats cui bono? Who benefits? How can we acknowledge that privilege, intersectional oppression, white supremacy, and gendered harassment underlie the doing of climate science while holding that climate science is built for interspecies survival? Can the sea illuminate tell us of an inclusive affirmational politics that is also environmentalist? How can infrastructures exist both at once for environmental struggle and sociopolitical struggle?.


Hexactinellid Group
Hexactinellid Group, digitally rendered drawing and collage.
© Amanda Thackray, 2020.
Click to enlarge.


About the contributors