We Are All at Sea: Practice, Ethics, and Poetics of “Hydrocommons” Astrida Neimanis, RIBOCA2—2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020
Eva L’Hoest, The Inmost Cell, 2020, installation view at and suddenly it all blossoms the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, RIBOCA2. Commissioned by the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, RIBOCA2. Courtesy: the artist and the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Photo: Hedi Jaansoo
RIBOCA2, the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, titled and suddenly it all blossoms and curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, looks to reenchantment as a frame for building desirable futures—reimagining ways of being human in a context of deep ecological, economic, and social mutation. Against cynicism and political despair, transforming fear into possibility and peril into exuberance, the biennial seeks alternative actions, thoughts, and narratives for alternative futures. Initially planned to open on May 16, 2020, with a five-month duration and weekly talks, performances, and poetry imagined with Sofia Lemos, RIBOCA2 associate curator of public programs, RIBOCA2 was reformatted into a feature-length film introduced by a series of weekly online talks and conversations available on RIBOCA’s website.
Mousse will publish a range of contributions over the upcoming months, offering readers abridged versions of selected talks.
SOFIA LEMOS: Throughout the history of navigation, our experience of time has never been an accurate affair. Clocks would lag and lose their minutes to magnetic forces; tides would change perception of when, where, and how deep one was; timepieces and navigational instruments mapped how to make time, and how to ship it from place to place. In this deeply narrative time, a continuous, finite, and stable time scale was used to map much of the world and divide it into borders. From oil spills to sewage discharges to microplastics and the by-products of industrial and agricultural processes washing up in coastal waters, from deep-sea mining and fracking to illegal overfishing and rising temperatures that threaten the ocean’s chemistry and biodiversity, our marine ecosystems are rapidly changing, and so do our bodies in relation to them.
In the following conversation, Astrida Neimanis—feminist scholar and environmental humanities thinker, and currently a senior lecturer in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney—suggests a we that has a common history in our watery beginnings, although we are not all equally adrift. Neimanis proposes a framework for negotiating these relations: a practice, ethics, and poetics of “hydrocommons” that also acts as a framework for rethinking environmental justice claims that support more thoughtful and just relations with more-than-human worlds.
ASTRIDA NEIMANIS: I would like to begin with a quote:
We are all bodies of water. To think embodiment as watery belies the understanding of bodies that we have inherited from the dominant Western metaphysical tradition. As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities, and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation. The space between ourselves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin—the traces of those same oceanic beginnings still cycling through us, just pausing as this bodily thing we call mine. Water is between bodies, and of bodies, before us and beyond us, but also very presently this body, too. Our comfortable categories of thought begin to dissolve. Water entangles our bodies in relations of gift, debt, theft, complicity, difference, and relation.1
I wrote these words about a decade ago. They comprise the opening section of a short experimental essay titled “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water.” My proposal was simple: that understanding our own human bodies—these sacks of blood, guts, and bone that are mostly made of water—as bodies of water connected to, coming from, and flowing into other more-than-human bodies of water, would place us in a different kind of relation to other bodies of water.
We imagine ourselves distributed and connected across space: human bodies ingest reservoir bodies, while reservoir bodies are slaked by rain bodies, rain bodies fall into ocean bodies, ocean bodies aspirate fish bodies, fish bodies are consumed by whale bodies—which eventually pass on, and sink to the seafloor as marine snow, a kind of weather underwater, to rot and be swallowed up again by the ocean’s dark belly.2
This different kind of hydrological cycle insists that we relinquish any lingering illusion of nature as separate from culture, or of humans as separate from the world around us.
These relations also extend through deep time, and connect us to all the strange bodies of water that flow into us across epochs and generations.
As Charles Darwin once quipped: “Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull, and was undoubtedly a hermaphrodite!”3 Darwin’s “pleasant genealogy” reminds us of our evolutionary fishy beginnings whereby all terrestrial life came from the sea, folding that marine habitat inside of itself as it learned to stand on its own two feet. The story also reminds us that all watery bodies are “carrier bags,” to use feminist sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s term.4 She suggested that the first tool that humans took up was not a sharp pointy weapon but rather a carrier bag: a net, a basket, a bottle, a sling.
Riffing on Le Guin, I wonder: If we really did suck the ocean up inside of us, then might we not also consider our own bodies as carrier bags—sloshy sacks of matter that hold the possibility for other kinds of bodies still to come—delivering us into futures that will in turn carry us, as a drop of water beneath a new tongue?
Thinking about ourselves as aqueously extending through both time and space confirms that we humans have always been (and will always be) more than human. Might this imaginary also encourage us to open to a different ethic of relation and care between humans and the planetary waters that are increasingly in crisis? As the seas become breathless and warm, as rivers no longer make it to the sea, as drinking water is commodified, as the seabed is mined, as all of the multitudes of life forms that depend on these waters are made increasingly precarious, caring better for other bodies of water seems more urgent than ever.
Bodies of water as a feminist figuration is thus about relationship and care. It is about sustaining and holding other kinds of bodies, and bathing new kinds of bodies into being. In this sense, bodies of water as figuration is necessarily about difference, too. Even as waters hold us together in a kind of deep-time hydrocommons, aqueous connection is not about assimilation, or even a universal confluence. As I wrote in the aforementioned essay:
Water flows through and across difference. Water does not ask us to confirm either the irreducibility of alterity or material connection. Water flows between, as both: a new hydro-logic. What sort of ethics and politics could I cultivate if I were to acknowledge that the unknowability of the other nonetheless courses through me—just as I do through her? Water is of the species of alterity, or what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak once called “planetarity”—it is both of us and beyond us.5
All of the water that ever was on this planet is still here—no more, no less—but it is the wet heart of a wild gestational system that produces endless, unfathomable, unknowable difference. In Elizabeth Povinelli’s words, we could understand our watery relation thus, as a “different kind of touching, not the contact between difference, but an entanglement of substances that produces difference.”6 This uncontainable gestational impulse is moreover held in wondrous tension with water’s insistent perpetuity: to understand the “always time” of water, even in its circulations of difference and repetition, is also to consider what water remembers.
Water is retentive, writes cultural theorist Janine MacLeod: “The water we drink and touch is the same water that erupted as a stream at the origins of the earth. All of the moments of the past have this same water as their witness.”7
Novelist Toni Morrison parses this phenomenon a bit differently: “Everything is now. It is all now.”8
Water, an archive of matter and feeling, thus reminds us that there is no such thing as “away.” Sinking to the seafloor, we discover all manner of our dumped desires: SPAM cans, car tires, chemical traces, carbon takeovers Indeed, our role as evolutionary “carrier bags” for other bodies of water has become uncannily material, as our carrier-bag ontology has literalized itself: nonbiodegradable white petroleum hauntings, masquerading as sad two-handled jellyfish, floating on a gyre of deep futures later to be pulled in the form of hundreds of kilos of plastic bag guts from the belly of a whale washed up on a beach. The gifts of our bodies to other bodies of water is not necessarily a welcome gesture.
Moreover, the water also holds traces of all the other differences that water has made.
For example, Black feminist scholar Christina Sharpe, among others, draws our attention to the archive that is the Middle Atlantic Passage, an ocean still animated by slavery and the antiblackness that persists in its wake. She writes: “Because nutrients cycle through the ocean, and the process of organisms eating organisms is the cycling of nutrients through the ocean, the atoms of the [enslaved] people who were thrown overboard are out there in the ocean even today.”9
Imagining ourselves as bodies of water is also about attending to the different manners in which bodies have been carried, or not. We do not all thirst, or flow, equally. We are not all gestating the same futures. I think about these lessons when the breaking of relations seems in some ways increasingly unbearable. The ice caps melt and the Amazon burns, but no matter how hard we pull, we cannot press a pleat into the planet’s surface so that the now-gushing glacial waters might connect with that scorched earth to soothe it. Corporations so large or so mystified that you can no longer see where they start or stop profit from the wet, and then from the dry.
We are all bodies of water, with pumped-up vulnerabilities, leaking, sponging, sloshing, dripping, sipping. But these days, my body of water is mostly feeling like a liquid hot mess.
I worry that we carrier bags are forgetting how to hold things. In the English language, “to be at sea” is an idiom that suggests that you are discombobulated or confused. You have lost your bearings. To be alive as bodies of water, in these times, some of us might feel tetherless. But what if for others, tetherless was another way to say: getting free?
I am thinking again about the whale. When Charles Darwin wrote his theories of evolution, the origin stories of whales were something of a mystery, although he did muse that a “race of bears” could have conceivably evolved into whales. While his speculations were for the most part laughed right out of subsequent printings of On the Origin of Species (1859), we now know that his suggestion is not as ludicrous as it once sounded. Recent scientific discoveries suggest that a close terrestrial relative to the whale was Indohyus, a fox-size, deer-like land mammal that didn’t like meat at all, and spent much of its time in the water. Indohyus gradually developed a taste for fish, and for a more aquatic lifestyle all around. Indoyus became Pakicetus, Pakicetus became Kutchicetus, became Rodhocetus, became Dorudon. The early land-dwelling whales learned to swim deeper. Their legs grew shorter, their feet grew webbing. All of these bodies of water are part of a genealogy in which walking and swimming whales lived side by side. Eventually the walkers died out, and by about forty million years ago, whales were thriving—tetherless and at sea.
What if for some, tetherless meant stepping up, speaking out, saying no, letting go, lifting up, stepping back? What if tetherless meant refusing the false compass points that directed us to this place? What if tetherless meant learning new tricks of navigation from those who have long been swimming, diving, floating, submerging, growing different kinds of worlds? In the words of poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “who do you think thought of the ocean. we who would be whales. how could we prepare for the lives we evolved into. immersed in a substance we could not breathe. and nevertheless called to be graceful. huge in ways that the world could not hold. except by these means. unbound by the limits of time.”10
What can I learn from this poetics? If we are all bodies of water, perhaps we have all in some way been potentially at sea. What would it mean, for me as this particular body of water, to let go of cartographic comforts, and instead build alternative forms of refuge and renewal? What does that mean for you?
Maybe we begin our dissolution by helping to foster practices of fugitivity and care, not primarily for the sovereign self, but for the hydrocommons of wondrous difference that has also brought us to this time, and this place, at sea.
SL: How does de-terrestrializing oneself allow for imaginatively thinking planetary life differently?
AN: When we think of being tetherless, the first image that comes to mind is having nothing to hold us. We are sort of let go, and all of our safety nets are sheared off. We are asked to somehow make it in a strange environment. Yet de-territorialization is not about losing all of your traditional holding patterns. What it in fact does is invite you to learn to be held by something else. And to be de-terrestrialized—if it means to be at sea—invites us to imagine what would it mean to allow the sea to hold us. Although I suppose I’m answering a little bit metaphorically, I think the point is, we have come to a moment where we have to unlearn many things, and learn to be differently with each other, with humans, and more than human others in very different ways. The idea of detaching from some of our comforts might be one way to begin that.
SL: I would like to open up some of these ideas and discuss how to care for complex, interlocking conditions. I’m referring specifically about the social struggle around Black Lives Matter, and the liquidity and fluidity of our identities that is relational to the Earth’s waters. I am also thinking about the initial international response to the pandemic by closing borders and imposing seemingly impermeable boundaries between inside and outside. How might our thinking through, and as, bodies of water help us untangle our complex yet porous contemporary conditions?
AN: In a very political and activist sense, we need to pay more attention to water, to the crimes happening in the oceans—on the waves and below them—that are rendered out of sight and out of mind, whether those crimes refer to the torturous conditions of migrants fleeing by sea or to the destruction of the ocean bed through deep sea mining. Water asks us to pay attention to this offshore planetarity. But more poetically, “thinking with water” helped me understand that the critique of binary oppositions is not just a philosophical one; it’s very materially grounded and complicates any supposed opposition between “we are all the same” and “we are all different.” Water teaches us that we share many things and that the water that literally flows through my body in some way also flows through yours. But in our changing morphologies, movements across membranes, and transubstantiations, water is also continuously gestating difference.
We are both sharing in an aqueous hydrocommons that connects us in really material ways, but we are differentiated through and as and by water as well. This also holds for the very gendered binary between active and passive, as we don’t often get invited to think about an alternative to that. Do we have to valorize the passive or reclaim the active? Water teaches us that there is something else that’s called the milieu that holds other entities, sustains them, and allows them to flourish. That’s not quite an active state, but nor is it a passive state. To come back to the question of care: What is care if not an act of holding and allowing something else to come into being, and to differentiate itself?
SL: Let’s talk about Ursula K. Le Guin’s provocation to “hold” as a distinct civilizational narrative. Holding, you mentioned, relates to water’s retentive capacities and ability to hold memory; and to Christina Sharpe’s immense writings on the ship hold where worlds ended only too violently and abruptly; and to the vast amounts of life and death and the composting between the two that the bodies of water in our planet hold. What perspectives does holding offer for building more livable futures? How does your own theory-practice perform holding?
AN: I think your invocation of Sharpe’s work on the ship’s hold is essential, because there might be a tendency to think about “holding” in a very romanticized way. But Sharpe shows us the other side of it as well. We might gestate futures. But what kinds of futures? Just because we are making something new or are bringing other kinds of life into being says nothing about the kinds of lives those will be. I think we have to be careful in a philosophical register not to merely valorize concepts that talk about proliferation, or life-givingness, or abundance, because if we look around us, perhaps withholding, or not making, or not sustaining is something we want to pay more attention to.
At the same time, I think there’s still also something very important in holding. I am reminded here of Sophie Lewis’s talk on love, where I was particularly struck by her observation of what she calls “agentive activeness.” I don’t think she wants to stress the activeness but more the labor of holding, and that our inability to recognize the labor that is required to hold is one of the features of capitalist patriarchy.
I’ll relate this to the second part of your question in my own theory and practice as an academic. I work in a university, and I have a pretty secure employment status, and so a lot of my work thus becomes about how I can hold others. How can I devote my time, and labor, and energy toward allowing others to grow flippers and learn to breathe differently and untether themselves from wherever it is they are? It’s about how my body as a body of water can be a literal milieu for allowing other kinds of worlds to grow in and around me, and to be part of that active facilitation and gestational exploration of new kinds of worlds.
SL: We are living in a moment of deep necropolitical reach, with potentially genocidal consequences for Indigenous peoples in the Americas, for people in Eurasia and Southeast Asia, when the afterlives of slavery reverberate loudly in the demonstrations against antiblackness in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. I suppose as a consequence of this, I have been thinking more about how Western European philosophical traditions are primarily concerned with mortality, in contrast to other traditions of knowledge and practices that celebrate multiplicity, metamorphosis, and mutation. Could you expand on this idea of composting, which is also present in your thinking?
AN: Philosophically, I think the concept of composting is different elementally from, but very much tied to, an understanding of bodies of water where there is neither definite origin nor definite end. All bodies are always already becoming other bodies in other ways. The water that is in my body isn’t going to disappear when my sovereign self does. It’s going to be taken up by another body in another way. Once you understand that, you start thinking differently about the questions: What is the origin of me? What is the end of me? How do I hold the gifts to my ancestors and obligations to those bodies that my body will become?
With composting, it’s becoming different with every repetition. We can think of that in terms of evolution. But we can also think of it in different ways. I take this up with my colleague, Jennifer May Hamilton, very explicitly in terms of the history of feminist thought, and other kinds of intersectional critical theory within environmental thinking, for example.11 This research examines how contemporary environmental theory takes up and incorporates ideas, theories, and concepts from feminism, Indigenous thought, critical race studies. My concern is around the ways the origin stories of those ideas then get forgotten. What does it mean to incorporate a feminist or an Indigenous concept into a shiny new environmental theory? Even maybe naming the theorist that you are quoting, but not taking with you the feminist, or the anticolonial, or the critical race commitments that that theorist had when they developed that concept? Composting is a material process that happens with bodies through time, but Jennifer and I also theorize it as a circulation of ideas and thought, and a question of recognition of and debt to those who come before us and on whose shoulders we stand.
SL: I’m also thinking of the materiality that connects us to today. The flows of hyper-connectivity, the underwater fiber-optic cables that cross oceanic floors, very often are laid over previous colonial trade routes. We have talked about the countless lives lost at sea from the forced migration of enslaved Africans in trans-Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceanic routes, and we have talked about the crossings of millions of refugees escaping conflict scenarios, but also willful movement. How does hydrofeminism approach the future of connectivity and communications?
AN: One of the things I’ve learned from trying to think about hydrofeminism is that it is not so much about simply acknowledging the relation. It’s very easy to posit a relationship. More important is to think about how we are related, what enables us to relate, and who benefits from that relation and how. What is the quality of that relation? How many somersaults of mediation are required to get to that relation?
So for example: Although I’m absolutely astounded by and grateful to the brilliance of the fiber-optic networks under the sea, what would it mean to also acknowledge the cost of those networks in terms of extraction and incursion into deep-sea realms? Hydrofeminism, having learned from many other kinds of ethics and philosophies and ideas around social justice, is not interested in the fact that there is the relation. It wants to ask: What is the benefit and the damage of that relation? How am I accountable for that relationship? What do I owe to it?
SL: I want to return to the mouthful experience of language as a “body of water,” the way in which saliva lubricates words and worlds at the same time. I was wondering if we could talk about the poetics and ethics of care. How can a poetics of care help us articulate deeper and more meaningful worlds?
AN: Art means different things to different people, and everybody has a definition. For me, art allows us to imagine another possibility in a deeply embodied way. And poetics, as an art form, allows our bodies to feel differently. That may sound very trite, but look around us: clearly, rigorously articulated science isn’t bringing the change we need in the world right now.
I believe that poetry, art, performance, and perhaps in some small way my own writing practice is asking a reader, a viewer, an audience to allow themselves to feel differently about something, to be literally moved in their bodily self in a different direction, and that that disturbance might be the ripple we need to start setting us on a different course—perhaps for untethering. Until we learn to talk about our feelings and address our inattention to the somatic body and its role in decision making, ethics, and politics, I think we’re lost.
 Astrida Neimanis, “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water” in Undutiful Daughters: Mobilizing Future Concepts, Bodies and Subjectivities in Feminist Thought and Practice, eds., Henriette Gunkel, Chrysanthi Nigianni, and Fanny Söderbäck (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 85.
 Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 3.
 Charles Darwin, in At the Water’s Edge: Macroevolution and the Transformation of Life, ed., Carl Zimmer (Toronto: The Free Press, 1998).
 Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove Press, 1989).
 Astrida Neimanis, Hydrofeminism, 90.
 Elizabeth Povinelli, The Kinship of Tides. Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science, ed,. Stefanie Hessler (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 167.
 Janine MacLeod, “Water and the Material Imagination: Reading the Sea of Memory Against the Flows of Capital” in Thinking with Water, eds., Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press 2013), 48.
 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 198.
 Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 40.
 Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Dub: Finding Ceremony (Durham: Duke, 2020), 17.
 Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis, “Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities,” Environmental Humanities 10, no. 2 (2018): 501–27.
Astrida Neimanis is a writer, a teacher, and currently a senior lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and a researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. She coedited (with Cecilia Chen and Janine MacLeod) of Thinking with Water (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013) and authored Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017). Her work primarily investigates water as a site of damage, desire, fear, and fecundity, and as an idea and imaginary, but also as an environment and embodied place. She draws inspiration from close readings of philosophers, writers, artists, and waters themselves, for a plural view of feminism that is intersectional, antiracist, and devoted to acknowledging the importance of queer and anticolonial theory to contemporary environmental thought.
and suddenly it all blossoms, RIBOCA2’s online series of talks and conversations.
Eva L’Hoest, The Inmost Cell (stills), 2020. Commissioned by the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, RIBOCA2. Courtesy: the artist and the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art