Lichen Kelp is an artist, curator and DIY marine biologist based in Melbourne, Victoria.
Kelp’s practice encompasses performance, photography, and musical collaboration, and curation. In 2019 she founded the Seaweed Appreciation Society International (SASi), a collaborative, community-based group that investigates creative ways to understand marine environments and speculates on seaweed-infused futures through the prism of art and science. Here she talks about the process of demystifying ocean science, the enchanting and endangered world of seaweed, as well as staying connected to the sea during lockdown.
What are your earliest memories of the sea?
When I was about three years old I remember walking on jetties and being terrified of the ocean appearing through the cracks, yet I was fine when I was on the sand or splashing in the sea! When I was a bit older I lived in Tasmania and would walk to school along the beach or around the rocks at high tide and I remember swimming in the middle of winter in all my clothes at least once on my way home.
Could you describe exactly what seaweed is — what defines it and how it is produced?
Seaweed is the collective name for macro marine algae that grow in the ocean. There are several thousand different species that are grouped into either red, brown, or green marine algae. They require seawater or brackish, estuarine waters and enough light to photosynthesise. They generally grow from a holdfast several meters below the surface on rocky ledges close to shore although there are a few varieties that are free-floating and others that grow in intertidal rock pools and spend part of their life out of the water. They provide a food source and protective habitat for many creatures and also absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen on an even larger scale than the world’s land forests. Large scale carbon sequestration is being carried out hopefully as a climate change solution, while smaller-scale kelp farming is also being taken up in a big way in many colder water areas such as Nordic countries, Far Northern America, and Tasmania to provide seaweed as a food source and recreate marine habitats for shellfish and other marine creatures. Some species of kelp can grow as quickly as half a meter a day making kelp farming and habitat regeneration quite viable.
What are the threats to seaweed from climate change and how do different seaweed types respond to increased temperatures, ocean acidification, and so on?
Seaweeds are at threat of anthropocentric climate change through things such as dredging, overfishing, and pollution – particularly agricultural chemical runoff. These impacts and imbalances have led to ocean warming and ocean acidification as well as the decline in large-scale marine predators that keep spiny sea urchins at bay. The proliferation of urchins creates sea urchin barrens that rapidly contribute to the decline in kelp forests.
What is it that attracted you to the subject of seaweed and how did that interest lead to the creation of SASi?
There was an accumulation of factors; firstly I changed my last name from Kemp to Kelp as a wordplay on the algal associations of my first name and then started reading about seaweeds and the kelp forests dying out from the Southern Ocean and the possibilities of regenerative kelp farming.
Around the same time, I almost started a wakame snack business with a friend but decided against it as I didn’t want to be producing packaging and dealing with distribution but I was very interested in the harvesting process – being immersed in the dark winter ocean at 5 am was a thrill and helped me get over some of those childhood fears about the unknown that you feel when you are at a remove from the sea.
The final piece of the puzzle was having incredible experiences while out swimming amongst the seaweed. As part of my traveling residency practice Forum of Sensory Motion, I was running annual art camps to dive with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish; Sepia Apama, and got to see cuttlefish transform their papillae and tentacles to camouflage with their seaweedy environment. I had become obsessed with cuttlefish and along with the other artists on the trips had been reading up on them as much as we could. This group learning in situ process was super rewarding. The seaweed interest came to the fore as I realised the cuttlefish and all the other incredible lifeforms around them depended on the seaweed habitats which were at threat.
The Seaweed Appreciation Society was born as a result — a public research project that could investigate options for rethinking marine ecology through experimental, communal investigations into the possibilities of seaweeds. Through our talks, readings, field trips, residencies, collaborations, and exhibitions we have so far explored topics such as marine habitat regeneration through kelp farming, future seafood solutions, algae-based edible alternatives to plastic packaging. It’s also aimed at wider education around seaweed itself – an often maligned or overlooked group of organisms that are so integral to the health of the planet. What I thought of at first as a very niche research topic quickly branched out and became very expansive and inclusive and allowed me to continue my interests in community building, art, adventure, and group learning.
What have been some of the most interesting discoveries you’ve made so far through this project?
The initial discovery of the world of seaweed that had remained unexplored to me for so long was exciting. I came across a term while on a residency called the Digital Naturalism Conference in 2018; “eco-revelatory goggles”. I haven’t come across a reference to it since, but it explains the phenomenon of being blind to living beings in your environment until you apply these metaphysical “goggles”. At the time we were out on an exposed reef watching crabs. One would appear when you were very still and then when you slowly looked around they were literally everywhere, where none had been before. A similar phenomenon occurs when mushroom hunting, once you see one you see them everywhere. And with seaweed, it had been there the whole time hiding in plain sight but many of us weren’t ready to really see it for what it is — let alone dive into it or ingest it!
Its also been great to find that marine scientists get quite excited about the Seaweed Appreciation Society and that they place the same value on art as I do with science in the role of ocean advocacy. And it’s also wonderful to find how much the community needs and craves collectives like SASi. Our gatherings, discussions, and collaborations create a sense of hope. The collective curiosity and trans-discipline efforts help achieve a sense of biomutualism that advances us in our fields and holds us all gently accountable while giving meaning to our interactions with the ocean.
What is something that a person can do right now to engage with seaweed that might change their perception or increase their appreciation?
Going snorkeling amongst seaweed is one of the best ways to reposition it from a menacing presence to a beautiful underwater garden.
Researching ways to legally and sustainably forage for edible seaweeds and incorporate them into meals also helps rethink seaweed from a stinky beach “weed” to a useful and tasty food ingredient that you can get creative with.
I also like experimenting with bathing with different types of seaweeds; spending meditative time up close to their slippery, sliminess allows for a deep appreciation of their beauty and acceptance of their otherness while detoxifying, alkalising the body, and absorbing iodine.
There are also multiple uses being explored for seaweeds as an alternative material in art, design, and architecture. But some of the least extractive and most sustainable ways to engage with seaweeds is to read about them, share knowledge, and collectively engage with ways we can reciprocate our love for the ocean.
A good place to visit here in Victoria is Point Lonsdale. It has a fabulous reef and a large selection of different seaweeds. I just learned recently Point Lonsdale is also a good location for spotting nudibranchs, which can be found living on the underside of kelps and seaweeds in rockpools, best spotted on overcast days at dawn and dusk. Point Cook is good for different algae in different seasons. And Williamstown is worth visiting for harvesting wakame off the rocks. As it is classified as an invasive species, wakame is legally allowed to be harvested. It can easily be washed and roasted for seaweed snacks.
Can you tell us about one of your most recent projects, The Portable Seaweed Library?
The Portable Seaweed Library is a project of mine that was developed as part of a residency that I did this year at Siteworks in Brunswick as part of Moreland’s Community Creator: Artist in Residence program. It is a response to my growing collection of seaweed books that I wasn’t getting the headspace to spend close time with. I started dreaming of reading escapes to the ocean and decided to grow this into a larger research project with a public outcome. I was keen to share this unique collection that includes; phycology textbooks, identifying guides for foraging, recipe books, artist books, anthropology texts, kids books, and climate change calls to action. I had a version of this project on the back burner for a long time which was an electric 4WD conversion that I could use to tour my collection of books to coastal communities and set up a small library in carparks – which have some of the best ocean views in Australia! The books would be shared as a resource library with passersby as a means of starting discussions and sharing seaweed stories. I’m still keen for the electric car version at some point to travel further still around the coast of Australia but this has scaled back for now to this first edition of the project – a mobile bike library with a trailer and camp furniture to travel around to my more immediate community. This was due to the level of funding required to convert a 4WD to electric and the travel limitations of COVID, but these limitations allowed me to see this project in a more low key and more viable way – a bike is the ultimate sustainable vehicle and I’m looking forward to sharing this project locally when we can do public events again and working towards touring this further afield as my fitness levels increase! I like the idea of bringing the ocean into landlocked areas with projects like this. It is ready to go, so I can’t wait to see how it works once I get a chance to share it with the public.
On the subject of COVID – how has the pandemic impacted your work and life, which are both so deeply connected to the sea?
I haven’t been able to visit beaches or forage for seaweed in lockdown, sadly, so instead, I have been kayaking a lot in the Yarra. When the water levels are up or it’s flooding the river is the colour of a strong latte so you often don’t get to see the plants and river weeds below. Through this, I have become increasingly interested in the regeneration projects that have been carried out along the Merri Creek and the Yarra River over the last 20—30 years. People are really appreciating this green zone since lockdown, so I’m hopeful that there will be continuing efforts in the coming years. There is a fantastic flying fox colony at Bellbird Reserve and there has also been a seal that has been coming upstream as far as Dights Falls to feast on large carp. There have actually been lots of seal sightings and it has made people happy to see that the river’s ecosystem is mostly working. And it made me happy to feel that connection to the sea even when I can’t physically be near it.
What are your feelings about the future of our oceans, and what keeps you going in the face of so many threats and challenges?
I worry that people continue to see the ocean primarily as a resource, a lot of money is being invested in marine farming at the moment, but with a rush of uptake and without careful consideration, these good-intentioned initiatives could potentially do the same damage to the sea as has been done with land-based agriculture. Extractive thinking has already led to myriad problems in our seas like we are seeing in the salmon industry. So I think it is imperative to consult Indigenous people in this process to learn from the effective, sustainable, and small-scale Aboriginal aquaculture that has been practiced for thousands of years and also have a high level of Indigenous leadership and employment in these industries to share the wealth.
There is a lot of shared grief for the way things used to be. The thing that keeps me hopeful for the state of the environment going forward is that climate change awareness has become more mainstream and that this grief is no longer held by a small minority. If we can form communities around us to hold that pain collectively and together create positive environmental actions, then we can make a difference, no matter how small at first, and keep facing the uncertain future together.
I am still slowly learning about phycology in the way that I know best; through embodied experiences, reading, conversation, curating events, and making art. That’s why it’s important for me to regularly surround myself with people who excel in different fields whether they are marine biologists, chefs, or architects so that we can share the excitement about seaweed, learn from each other, visit the ocean together and work towards unique solutions; whether they are small, speculative, or experimental.