Holding the Herbarium

by: , May 16, 2019

Holding the Herbarium is a poetic-visual text that forms part of an ongoing artistic-research project titled Speculative Subjectivities. The project is shaped by a series of encounters with organic materials including minerals and rocks, algae, and fossilised animal remains of extinct species. During these encounters, creative methods of noticing (Lowenahupt Tsing 2017) are engaged, and poetic language functions as a method to materialise narratives and affects to bring the materials into contact with the broader context of environmental change.

The project seeks to address the gap in forms of language and representation that occurs within human-non/human relations and to experiment with practices of attention and noticing within this gap. The aim is to not write about but to write with and to avoid representation or objectification of the algae. This engagement draws on methods of diffraction (Haraway 1992) to explore how language might illicit shifts in perception by drawing together different times, locations, movements, scales and practices (Parikka 2018). In this process, the encounter functions as an ‘intra-action’ wherein ‘a differential sense of being is enacted in the ongoing ebb and flow of agency’ (Barad 2003: 817), while poetic language functions as a means to register what occurs in this relation.

Holding the Herbarium charts an encounter with cyanobacteria, a form of blue-green algae, stored in the Natural History Museum in London. In the field of science, it is hypothesised that approximately 2.35 billion years ago, cyanobacteria were responsible for the rapid oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere during the Great Oxidation Event (Schirrmeister 2015). This event subsequently led to oxygen-breathing organisms and to the development of multicelled complex life forms (Blaustein 2016). Cyanobacteria is today monitored and controlled due to the toxicity of algal blooms that are increasing with climate change and are harmful to mammals, including humans, as well as other organisms (Carmichael 2016). In this sense, cyanobacteria destabilise human exceptionalism and the privileging of human history by pointing towards the precarity of a situation, in which algae has the ability to create and take life.

In the Natural History Museum in London, cyanobacteria are stored in the botany collections, where the temperature and humidity are carefully monitored. The ‘specimens’ are preserved, dried out and flattened onto archival paper. The poem uses ‘breathing-with’ or the idea of resuscitation as a mode of engagement and attempts to find agency in how the algae writes itself on paper.



Holding the Herbarium


Helena Hunter





She is writing to the taxonomist

about her loss of breath

divining toxicities across ice

expeditions she was not part of.


She studies star maps

of absinthe and aquamarine

charts the evolutionary

innovations of pond weed.


She believes in the molecular

fixated with origins and endings

perceives a liveliness in them

though her eyes ache.





In here everything becomes data.


The hum of the heating

corridors resting

waiting for envelopes

out of time.


Keys turn

cellular knowledge

bar codes

of certainty

dodgy species concepts

rattle staff badges.


There is always

a keeper and a carer

in a world of information

holding the herbarium

cataloging doubt.




She slides samples

over each other

indents the paper

a shape that shouts

unfolds and opens

rustles the archive.






Teal sutures

pinch in

flayed derma

fringes outwards

sand in your filaments

holds on

at the edges


double back

retreating classifications

calling out for water.




What will we look like

dried that way

will our fluids leave

a mark?





We talk without

breathing in

automatic suspirations


falter through


gulping down

the question:


how long did it take

for your breath

to run out?


Parts smear

peel from the page

the gaps

shrink spots

where the gasps happened.


A record of asphyxiation on paper.


Stifling, you breath me in

lung shaped

pondering what configuration

we perish in.





Imagining you alive

in fluorescent office light

distracted from being

boxed in order.


All appears head-like

hair flows upwards

curls in watery levitations.


Wavegrass moves magnetic tides

chlorophyll dreams

of botanical stereochemistry.




A dragon

of sea and swamp

recoiling from exposure.







the watcher.




They call you

witches butter

star jelly

mares eggs

confuse you

with toad spawn

the vomit

of polecats.


A swollen star atlas

on the doorsteps

of strangers.



You express yourself

in dots

each spray

a cipher


an ecology

that has been.




The ink to name you

mirrors your constellation.


Nostoc hetography

a charred shadow

emulating globular forms.


Did you coax

the pigment

toward you

mistaking it for water

then finding none

made a semblance?


Writing yourself


above the bookcase

that reads

‘men shall be wise’.





Careful hands

wipe secrets

with fluid spirits

smother cuts –

efface an empty

sentence sentience




a mesh that catches

expiration over-coding

claiming coding

writing against

this need

to write against

this need

to find another form

a looser lexicon.


Blue green tare

blue amnesia

blue roar of affirmation.


What violence

is sanctioned here?





On the wall

posters talk

of seaweed.


A beige cardigan


beside a bag

from the British

Phycological Society.



they are putting down

grass after the ice.





She moves

to the open window

and breathes in

jet engines


copper mines

termite gas

fields of petroleum


she coughs

breathes out

sea spray

quarry blast

desert dust

fly ash

motorway crash


she steers

breathes in


star liners

weather balloons

skin of strangers

shapes of pollen

pine and spruce


she pauses

breathes out


lunar rainbows

toxic swamps of

blue algal blooms

and red tides.



Barad, Karen (2003), ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 801-831.

Blaustein, Richard (2016), ‘The Great Oxidation Event: Evolving Understandings of How Oxygenic Life on Earth Began’, BioScience, Vol. 66, No. 3, pp 189-195.

Davis, Heather & Etienne Turpin (eds) (2015), Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. London: Open Humanities Press.

Haraway, Donna (1992), The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others, in Lawrence Grossberg et al. (eds), Cultural Studies, New York: Routledge, pp. 295-337.

Lowenhaupt Tsing, Anna (2015), The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Parikka, Jussi (2018), ‘Cartographies of Environmental Arts’, in Jenni Nurmenniemi & Tracy Warr (eds), The Midden. Helsinki: Garret Publications, pp. 82-113.

Schirrmeister, Bettina E. et al. (2015), ‘Cyanobacteria and the Great Oxidation Event: Evidence From Genes And Fossils’, Palaeontology, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 769-785.

Townhill, Bryony L. et al. (2018), ‘Harmful Algal Blooms and Climate Change: Exploring Future Distribution Changes’, ICES Journal of Marine Science, 11 September 2018, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy113 (last accessed 23 November 2018).

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