Photo Essays

A Symposium for Sea Kelp

At Norway’s Lofoten International Art Festival, seaweed took center stage as subject and material for artists and researchers as part of their “Kelp Congress.” 

Julia Lohmann, “Sea Ceremony” (2019), performance (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SVOLVÆR, NORWAY – A Kelp Congress is nothing new. In Europe, there were ‘seaweed symposiums’ as long ago as the 1890s. And yet a recent two-day conference, as part of  Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF), may be the first occasion on which the artistic possibilities of this aquatic plant have been widely and systematically explored. 

The event began with three lectures: an environmentalist call to arms by author and academic Cecilia Åsberg, a recorded lecture about the poetics of kelp and of our oceans by author Astrida Neimanis; and a performative lecture by artist Sabine Popp, which featured projected footage of marine biologists with her own parallel commentary. I soon gleaned that considerations of kelp touch on feminist issues, that kelp is a post-human planetary ally and that it can encourage us to care for one another. Within the academy, the plant has become a tool for thinking, with more active agency than common sense would suggest, but my theoretical grip on it, at least, remained slippery.

Tangible facts do exist: kelp growth is explosive, and plants can enlarge by 2cm a day, which makes it a potentially plentiful (and sustainable) biofuel; kelp is also a source of iodine, and can be used to treat radiation sickness; burnt kelp was used as fertiliser in Ireland; and undersea kelp forests, like one on the coast of Tasmania, are under threat of vanishing completely. Artist Signe Johannessen even staged a cheerful procession from the town square to the local library, where she presented kelp with a medal for heroism (the intertidal zone concealed her great uncle from marauding German soldiers during Norway’s occupation in WWII).

Detail of an artwork by Anne Cecilie Caroline Brunborg Lie (2019), sound installation with kelp and headphones, photo by author

There was also more tangible, Kelp-inspired art on view. The Kunstnerhuset housed an entire strand of research around kelp curing. It offered the chance to try artist Tiina Arjukka Hirvonen’s slimy, claw-like kelp gloves and artist Anne Cecilie Caroline Brunborg Lie’s murky kelp headpiece complete with a coastal soundtrack. An array of kelp snacks and kelp kombucha further ensured that taste, smell, and touch also played a role. By now I felt quite immersed, partly due to the kelp spa performance, staged earlier by artist duo Devil’s Apron. 

While still most widely used as seasoning, kelp’s ability to absorb CO2 provides much food for thought. In her keynote lecture, Professor Åsberg deemed many terms ‘speculative’ — feminism, Posthumanism, environmentalism — as they applied to the plant: suggesting we get beyond appearances to know the material world from within. Since the Kelp Congress, I’ve come to fully appreciate kelp as an artistic material, but gathered we must still speculate, with urgency, about its future practical and concrete uses.

Future Farmers (Amy Franceschini and Lode Vranken), “Wind Theater” (2018-19), multi-strand artwork with improvised performance
Tiina Hirvonen, detail from Kelp Curing research strand (2019), interactive artwork with kelp gloves and bucket of water
Signe Johannessen, “Kelp Medal of Honour Ceremony” (2019), performance
Devil’s Apron (Kåre Grundvåg and Trond Ansten), “Intertidal Shelter Part II”, artistic intervention

The Kelp Congress took place between 20 and 22 September, as part  of the 2019 Lofoten International Art Festival in Norway’s Lofoten Archipelago. The festival was held from August 30 to September 28, and was curated by Hilda Methi, Neal Cahoon, Karolin Tampere and Torill Østby Haaland.

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