Thinking with water, thinking in waves

This essay was first featured in Artium Museoa’s printed journal, AMA 01 dedicated to the notion of Plazaratu and published in March 2023.

“Oh, I only have a glass of water to offer you” is something we have heard and said many times when entering another person’s house or when welcoming someone in our own. By uttering this phrase, we are not so much apologising for only being able to offer them a glass of water – it could be several – but rather for being able to offer them only a glass of water, without any added flavours. Raw materials have assumed adopted embarrassment in the face of the ongoing sophistication of taste. They are not sufficiently refined, processed or disguised. Yet at the same time, they are more desired, needed and promoted than ever on a planet in crisis. Water is not just another raw material; it is the raw material. We are still offering a glass of water whenever we offer any other type of drink. Moreover, there is much more water in a glass of water than what appears to fit in the container. In How Much Water,[1] Flavia Dzodan’s deep, dry voice tells us about the colonial history of tea, and reminds us that “we are about to drink thirty-four litres of water” whenever we drink a cup of tea. Not only liquids are made of water, but also solids. There is another memory of water in the glass that contains it. It is the memory of not only industrial production processes, but also ancestral, unfathomable time, deeper than beyond history. It is primeval time.

When I shared this recurring anecdote with the artist Tabita Rezaire during our conversation for the podcast series Corona Under the Ocean,[2] she would tell me that one should give another, very different reply to the invitation of a glass of water: “I have the great privilege to offer you water, life-giving, like a gift from the Earth that’s going to nourish your being in all the cells and molecules of your body. That’s how we should offer a glass of water, even how we receive it”. Tabita’s voice – and she also tells me that she has trained herself to always give thanks before drinking water – anticipates, like an oracle, some of the issues that Astrida Neimanis and I would talk about in the following conversation for the aforementioned podcast series. In terms of the social embarrassment assumed by having nothing more than a glass of water to offer our guests at home, Astrida would say: “maybe in some years that will actually be this immensely wondrous, precious gift because water becomes so rare… or at least drinkable water becomes so rare. And I think that’s really telling. It points to the way water works in our life, both as this completely banal background, forgotten, underappreciated thing that animates all living things and at the same time it’s also the most precious thing”.

These words remind me of droplets of water passing from one body to another, transforming themselves. This idea flows through Tabita Rezaire’s body. Her words repeatedly return to the memory of water, imitating its logic: “The waters that your body is now maybe they were a river before, maybe they were part of an ocean before. When you’re going to die, you’re going to give back your waters into the soil, then they’re going to evaporate again and maybe these waters are going to rain into a glass… and someone’s going to drink and is going to become that person. Maybe the paths of some ancestors have the same waters as you are… It’s so beautiful! Who knows where these waters that are within you have gone through. They have lived as the memory that we have, because water has memory”. Astrida will return to the transmutation of water with one of its many possible events, how the imperceptible droplets of saliva of one of us on the screens could cross the planet in many ways to reach the place where the other is and connect us again, without the fibre optic cables that traverse the oceans. Water reminds me of one of Isabelle Stengers’ ideas that circulates in my body and that I circulate in other bodies years after Siegmar Zacharias shared it with me.[3] It is not people working together who develop the life of ideas; it is ideas that develop a common labour and life among people. Water in its many forms – as a concept, as a conductive, connecting medium, as shared matter – is what connects all the people who think about water in very different verb tenses. 

Water also resembles ideas in the sense that both are capable of very easily spilling out from the containers that hold them. Astrida Neimanis’ proposal, “Thinking with Water” – which is also the title of our conversation – specifically implies a spilling of categories and apprehended mindsets. While language enables many ways of relating between things, it also imposes a linear, progressive understanding of events upon us. I wonder if this verbal linearity is learned or implicit in a language that also hierarchises the forms it takes, privileging – for example – the essay over poetry when it comes to thinking – and feeling – a world that speaks (to us) in so many other ways. This is something I shared with Astrida at the beginning of our meeting, during a conversation that I like to recall as a flowing of tributaries, the crisis of ontology and its closed, static categories, holding things from a supposed essence and not a continuous becoming. “I think what water does is invites us to think about ontology as a relational ontology. What something is can only be what it is because of how it relates to other things. So when we talk about the fact that our body is seventy percent water, that’s a fact, sure. But they don’t really in those science classes particularly invite us to think about where does that water come from? And where does it go? And what does it do when we’re holding on to it, right? A body of water is something that holds things and holds things in relation to other things. Yes, it’s a fact, we are all bodies of water, but it’s also an invitation to think differently about how we’re related to all of the bodies of water that came before us and all of the bodies of water that will come after us […] Other ontologies and cosmologies understand this better than Western ones. Water is life. There is no life without water. It is both the most unremarkable thing and the most magical thing”.

The relational ontology produced by bodies of water brings me back to the previous conversation with Tabita Rezaire. The notion of “body of water” originates from within her animistic line of thought.

We carry so much ancestral memory within ourselves, our waters. And we can imprint this memory by singing to our waters, by moving them, by making them more vibrant, more full of life as we interact with other bodies of water. And that’s what the conversation is, that’s what the relationship is: it’s unions of water. It’s like going into an ocean, that feeling that you have because you’re supported, nourished, protected by a big body of water. It can be the same with a person. […] A tree is a body of water, a flower is a body of water, an animal, an insect is a body of water. We are all like little oceans chilling on the earth.

Tabita’s last phrase starts me thinking about the “hypermarine”, a concept I associate with Astrida Neimanis although it has been previously theorised by Dianna and Mark McMenamin. The hypermarine is the sea that exists on land. It flows through many bodies, including our own. Life on earth sustains this networked sea, in which the movement of its waters is united to the movement of the bodies that contain and extend it. It is a networked sea in which watery conduits are built from node to node. Although Astrida and I were not able to discuss the hypermarine on this occasion, it became a tool that would later help me to set forth the logics of solidarity that occur on the dance floor of a club when we share our bottle of water with people dancing around us, restoring the hypermarine of our dehydrated bodies moved by the amniotic properties of sound.

When I started thinking about bodies of water as a philosophical concept, one thing that occurred to me is that we talk about water as though it’s an object, as though it’s a thing. And I think our English language suggests that it is a thing. It’s a noun, like dog, house, bike, computer… But if we really think about it, there’s no such thing as water that doesn’t take up residence as some kind of body. There’s no such thing as water that isn’t Astrida, or Sonia, or cup of coffee, or the Pacific Ocean, or rain cloud, or breath, or sweat, or pee… Water is never only water. When I started to think that that’s when the whole idea of relational ontologies, on the one hand, but also water as a producer of difference also became so important. Water is such an oxymoron, or such a paradox because while we are all made of the same water that is circling around this planet, and has been for billions of years and will continue, the same water over and over and over again, every time water finds a new body it becomes different. And it always needs a body. Bodies need water, but water needs a body. That’s just wild.

Astrida’s words and her way of connecting the interconnectedness of things demonstrate that thinking with water is not thinking about water. Thinking with water is taking into account its material logics, its hydrology.

Water makes me think of dust. Jussi Parikka refers to dust as the “non-thing”.[4] Dust is an amorphous element that escapes, that cannot be grasped, that cannot really be cleaned. Without managing to turn the bodies it touches into bodies of dust, it actually needs other bodies to manifest itself, settling on all surfaces to make them appear and disappear at the same time. Each particle of dust, like each droplet of water, contains a wealth of valuable information. With both I feel that the part contains the whole in an integral manner. Jussi Parikka defines dust as the “minimum recognisable entity of material transformation and circulation”. It is perhaps possible to define water as the primary entity of transformation and circulation of life. Like dust, water cannot be grasped either, neither with hands nor with words. Both make the memory of the universe become present on earth. Stardust was part of meteorites that perhaps brought water to this planet that we inhabit, where life is no longer taken for granted, but has instead become uncertain. Although we speak of them as things that are there, water and dust are more like a medium than an object. They are intimately interrelated in many circumstances. Also now, as I write. And not so much because I am drinking coffee and dust is accumulating as the text unfolds, but because the computer I use is connected to the invisible history of dust and water. The mirage of immateriality that accompanies the historical epic of technology and its clean surfaces hides the toxic conditions of its production. Both dust and water are part of this process, although they are from very different positions and places. Both come together again in the same event when the question arises of who works in clean spaces and who works cleaning those spaces. Dust seems to disappear for a brief interval of time thanks to water. Dust is diluted in the memory of water.

Memory and histories of matter have ceased to be an impulse to be converted into a trend, almost an intellectual mannerism. My habit of thinking through materials from a relational ontology is something I shared with Astrida Neimanis. I did not talk to her about dust, but instead about minerals in technology and deep time in our electronic devices.

Water also reminds me that that phone is not just made of those materials; it’s also made of labour. It’s not just that it’s pulling the coltan out of the earth in Congo, but there are bodies that have toiled, and fingers that have put things together. And so before we were talking about sweat and pee and saliva… all of these waters also go into things that we don’t really account for. There’s this thing you talk about in political ecology, or in other kinds of social scientific studies of water and water sustainability, and it’s referred to as virtual water. Like a pair of blue jeans contains this much virtual water and accounts for all of the waters that were used in the processes of producing that set of jeans. But virtual water doesn’t take into account all of the bodily labours, the human labours, the non-human labours, all of the bodies that have been literally wrung out. I’m picturing a body being squeezed of its own life in order to cater to other lives. And that kind of virtual water, we haven’t yet taken into account when we think about water as life.

The virtuality of water to which Astrida Neimanis refers is material and real. I wonder if intelligence is a concept we can apply to water. Applying human attributes to matter continues to reinforce human exceptionalism. And it simultaneously makes us believe that intelligence is only a human thing. Intelligence returns dust to the surface. I am trying to imagine smart dust particles, “designed to float through the air as innocuously as dandelion seeds, gathering and transmitting data in real time”.[5] Smart dust is still a hypothetical technology, but one of its many applications could be climate control. I understand the benefits and advantages of manipulating the weather during a seemingly insurmountable climate crisis. And yet I still find it unsettling. Astrida will refer to climate [6] as something that happens very unequally in bodies. Climate has race, class and gender. “Not all bodies weather the same”.[7]

Thinking about relational ontology through water is realising the mechanics of fluids, the properties specific to it that it does not share with other materials. Astrida is interested in:

this chemical property of water whereby it can dissolve almost anything into it. Water is sometimes referred to as the universal solvent. So that means that thinking of relational ontology through water is very different than thinking it through carbon or wood. When water takes something in and holds it, it can also make it disappear and dissolve. Like not forever, but to transubstantiate into something very, very different.

This property to dissolve the things it contains makes water an archive where forgetting is as important as memory. In Greek mythology, drinking the waters of the river Lethe completed erased your memory. It seems that drinking the waters of the river Mnemosine caused the opposite: a state of omniscience thanks to the absolute remembrance of all things.

It’s very romantic to think about water, and the ocean, for example, as holding everything that ever was, because it is this ultimate archive. But at the same time, water also dissolves things; things disappear in water; things break down and become so diluted that we can’t even touch them anymore […] I think it really throws into question how we think about memory, like we can’t remember everything, like thinking about water as an archive teaches me that I can’t hold on to everything. Sometimes you need to dissolve things, let them go and let them move somewhere else, to never be gathered again.

Many of the questions Astrida Neimanis (asks herself) are related to the politics of memory, the stories we are forgetting, even as they are happening, and the stories we need to know, remember and pass on. “So that we have to work very hard to pull them up from the deep, because they’re so disintegrated and so dissolved and made so unrecognisable”. Christina Sharpe, whose work I discovered thanks to Astrida Neimanis and with whom I would have the opportunity to converse[8] for another series of podcasts, rescues from the depths the vast history of anti-blackness, racist and colonial violence that has occurred and continues to occur in the seas and oceans. The untranslatable and polysemic notion of “the wake” that Christina Sharpe uses to recount these[9] reveals the deep wounds that inhabit the seas and continue on land. Some of these take the form of a poem in Koleka Putuma’s book Collective Amnesia.[10] The way in which the black Atlantic is extended and persists in the Mediterranean would also become part of a conversation with Carola Rackete[11] about violence travelling in waters, always afloat and always submerged. 

In one of the texts that Astrida shared with me to prepare for our conversation, she refers to water as a “queer archive of feelings”[12]. We need to include feelings in the politics of memory alongside documents, graphs and statistics. Collective feelings such as trauma, impossible to represent and seemingly unrecorded, question the very notion of the archive. I think of how feelings move like a swell through bodies. Their temporality is far removed from calendars and numbers. They bring back to us the experience of that which seemed far away; they make things reappear that we could not remember. Water also calls into crisis human chrononormativity and the stratigraphic conception of planetary time by bringing memory and forgetting together in the same place. The times of water occur all at once, rocked by the movement of waves and tides. Planet earth has more water than land.

Feminism has included waves in its notion of time. One talks of a first, second, third and fourth wave of feminism. Although they produce a simultaneity of times, the numbers contradict this coexistence and insist on a hierarchical, progressive and almost teleological development of feminism. However, as Astrida states, it is possible to understand feminism beyond its own historical paradigm if we approach these waves from their material rationales.

If feminism really comes in waves, it means that there is an ocean, or a large body, or something is coming onto shore, leaving a trace and going back out to sea, and coming back and leaving a trace and going back out to sea, and then coming back and then going back out to sea… It’s much more cyclical; it’s much more repetitive. It’s changing, eroding that shoreline perhaps very, very gradually, shaping it, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse.

The actual movement of waves helps us to understand the simultaneity of the various feminisms that exist. Furthermore, it is even possible to swim in all of them at the same time. Because of the memory that one wave carries of the previous and the following, but also because it is possible to return to any of the waves of feminism depending on our situation within a particular context. The fact that more feminist waves continue to arise in no way implies that the problems raised by previous waves have disappeared. Nor does it mean that the solutions they proposed have occurred or worked. “Nothing has changed in terms of violence against women […] housework, equal pay, racism, colonialism, ableism, classism, that are always feminist questions, like these things have not gotten better as the waves have progressed”.

Astrida Neimanis’ notion of hydrofeminism suggests learning from water and how it connects the lives it permeates. Her own experience of feminism resembles the back and forth movement of waves, bringing to the surface of shores problems that still urgently need to be addressed and resolved.

Hydrofeminism is really about very close attention to water, what it is, how it moves, how it acts, how it connects, its ontologies, its ethics, its relations, and using that to think about ourselves as mostly water […] It’s very grounded, like it’s not an abstract idea. It’s grounded from the actual waters that I see and sense all around me. It’s a very embodied, sensory type of feminism. But it also learns from water about the way that as bodies we are all connected.

Even though the way water connects us spills language, turning narrative lines into an endless network of watery conduits between bodies of water:

water always needs a body and is always being taken up differently, it’s also always difference. What more important lesson does feminism have to teach us than the importance of understanding we are somehow connected? For better or worse, we affect each other and we are affected by each other. Water teaches us that.

We are all connected, but we are not connected in the same way or our position is not the same as other bodies in that exuberant, elusive flow of connections. Astrida Neimanis would highlight something very important during an online talk:[13] how this hyperconnectivity is created and who really benefits from it. The fact that we are interconnected does not make us equal. All bodies do not even sweat in the same way. The danger of false comparisons is something Elizabeth Povinelli would also mention in a later conversation[14] from the podcast series Corona Under the Ocean. One of the many risks of misleading comparisons is precisely that they always benefit the one who establishes the false parallelism, bringing out a kind of intimacy that eliminates the nuances that reveal necessary, uncomfortable differences. Nonetheless, the intimacy to which Astrida Neimanis refers in relation to water occurs from and because of this palpable difference. “But that intimacy is not the same thing as all being one big puddle together […] Water teaches me about relation and difference in the most profound way. And that is the core, that is the heart of hydrofeminism”.

Elizabeth Povinelli would stress throughout our meeting that what we understand as Western knowledge cannot be separated from colonialism and its history. Her careful wake-up call fleshes out what was previously a critical presentiment related to the relationship between knowledge and extractivism, with knowledge as something good per se, with the right to know and judge as simultaneously an absolute and partial right, with the absence of a return or an exchange with that which one “knows” or “is familiar with”, with the right of many things not to be known by a knowledge that appropriates these without giving anything in return. Astrida Neimanis is also aware of this inequality and lack of reciprocity. She wonders about the desires of water without trying to humanise it, about what it wants, what it needs. “How can I as a feminist and a watery body change my practice and my behaviour to respond to what water needs and wants? I think that leads me to a different kind of environmental ethics”.

Because thinking with water, without allowing water to drag us along with it, with its energy and beauty, but also with its toxicity and borrowed violence, can become an intellectual exercise with little practical impact. “If I’m going to think with water, and learn from water, develop a theoretical framework for feminism that is watery, then it’s also about what does feminism owe to water? What does feminism have to give back to all of the watery bodies that it’s extracting ideas from?” Tabita’s voice can be heard again, like an echo producing ripples on the water and Astrida’s words. We ceased to be amphibious when we learned to breathe; we forgot about our intimate relationship with water. “To think consciously about what it is to be alive, about what it is to bring forth life, we would treat our waters differently, from the waters of our womb to the rivers, to the oceans, to a glass of water, how we drink, the way you treat water is the way it’s going to treat you back”.

[1]          “How Much Water” is an episode featuring the researcher and writer Flavia Dzodan that is part of the series of podcasts If I knew time as well as you do, organised and commissioned by the artist Eva Hoonhout as part of her sculptural work during 2021. The podcast, which I was able to listen to on Spotify, is no longer available and I have not been able to find an alternative link for its consultation.

[2]          I hosted and edited the podcast series Corona Under the Ocean in 2020, produced by TBA21-Academy and the Art Institute Basel. These podcasts originated from conversations with guests from various disciplines to jointly explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis on ocean research and its effects on the ocean and the life it contains. The series included, in chronological order: Greg Dvorak, Marah J. Hardt, Cynthia Chou, Tabita Rezaire, Astrida Neimanis, Filipa Ramos, Camila Marambio, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Carola Rackete and Su Hu Hsin.

[3]          This conversation with Siegmar Zacharias was held in 2019. Under the title “Visceral Thinking”, it is part of the growing podcast archive Promise No Promises!, produced by the Institute Art Gender Nature FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel.

[4]          “Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism” by writer and media theorist Jussi Parikka is a text published by CTheory in 2013. His analyses of dust form part of my long-standing curatorial research on matter and objects as systems of relations.

[5]          This phrase is from to the text by Jussi Parikka mentioned in the previous note.

[6]          Referring to the work of Christina Sharpe and black feminism, Astrida Neimanis indicates how “climate” is not the same as “weather”. The latter is social, political, economic and cultural. During our conversation, the difference between “weather” and “climate” will be central to Astrida’s reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

[7]          Astrida Neimanis would share with me “Weathering” to prepare our conversation, a text written with Jennifer Mae Hamilton in 2018 for Feminist Review. In that text they both write: “not all bodies weather the same; weathering is a situated phenomenon embedded in social and political worlds”.

[8]          The conversation with writer and academic Christina Sharpe would take place in late 2020 and would lead to the podcast “Being in the Wake”, part of the series of ten podcasts entitled Feminism under Corona, part of the Promise No Promises! archive, produced by the Institute Art Gender Nature FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel.

[9]          In the Wake. On Blackness and Being is one of the books that form part of Christina Sharpe’s extensive research and thought. Published by Duke University Press in 2016, it was essential reading to prepare for the conversation with Christina Sharpe.

[10]        The final episode of the Feminism under Corona podcast series, entitled “Writing with all your senses”, would be a conversation with the poet Koleka Putuma that took place in January 2021. I discovered Koleka Putuma’s poetry through the artist Lúa Coderch, who would give me her book Collective Amnesia, published and translated into Spanish by the publishing house Traficantes de Sueños in 2018. The podcast with Koleka Putuma is also part of the Promise No Promises! archive.

[11]        “Political Action, Political Imagination” would be the title of the conversation with political activist and ship captain Carola Rackete, also part of the podcast series Corona Under the Ocean.

[12]        “Water, a Queer Archive of Feeling” by Astrida Neimanis is part of the catalogue of the eponymous exhibition Tidaletics that was held at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary – Augarten in Vienna in 2017, curated by Stefanie Hessler for TBA21-Academy.

[13]        Astrida Neimanis’ online talk “We Are All at Sea” was part of the public Care programme for RIBOCA2, Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2020. I would discover this presentation by Astrida months after our conversation.

[14]        The conversation with critical theorist, filmmaker and anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli “The colonial conditions of Western knowledge” took place in September 2020, shaping the eighth and extended episode of the podcast series Corona Under the Ocean.