bnr#95 =>

Talk - Plants, Pine Tar, Wrecked

'Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone' was an enquiry into the Thames Estuary that used art to stir up the murky, muddy world of South Essex. Over the last few years YoHa has been supported by many local artists, fisherman, boatyards and especially the Belton Way Small Craft Club. We have worked with Critical Art Ensemble on Graveyard of Lost Species, Fran Gallardo on Dirty Talking and Goldsmiths and Southend-on-sea's own Andi Freeman who has been exploring the critical face citizen science.


Collectively we were preoccupied by the genealogical/ ecological/ political complexity of the Thames estuary. For YoHa this interest did not arise out of some sentimental idealised cosy relationship with nature as seen through a London window. For YoHa the complex estuaries resistance to the logics of computation and it's interrelation to technical objects makes it pathologically addictive.

During the past 5 years we have smoked and eaten many of the cultured flowers of the Thames, waded in the oxygen rich breath of the mud and hunted for lost species. We have built some boats while digging others out of the ooze, especially re-floating an 80 year old 12ton 40ft Bawley called the Souvenir. We worked with fisherman who trawl more coal from the wrecks of the industrial revolution then they take fish. We have learnt to steam bend oak frames, examined grown oak knees, caulked the seams of carvel built boats and learnt to sail badly.


Being at sea, implies a certain proximity of death, dropping in murky Thames in winter you have about six seconds to get to the surface before your heart races, muscles contract and suck water into your lungs until you drown. Death or serious injury also haunts lying under a 12 ton rotting wooden boat or eating plants from former municipal tips containing arsenic PCB's and cadmium.


Non terrestrial environments, the surface of the sea is a place of flows that can ask questions of European phenomenological thought. The seas lack of fixity create a critical distance from the norms of land, it's state actors and fixed capital investments.


In a world were the distinction between the body, sociality and technical objects is becoming increasingly ambiguous, YoHa all at sea is a domain of interest were technical objects such as water craft become inseparable from the life of humans. This body at sea allows YoHa to begin to comprehend the stark materiality of what constitutes the structural coupling of humans in collaboration with machines and as such allows us to think with different bodies.


Francisco Gallardo introduced a tongue-led-inquiry into this body —He leads this area by a sensual, analytical and critical prehension of leaky organs — His work explores the multiple scales of geo-power, environmentality and the everyday life flowing through the Thames Estuary. He looks at forms of environmentally embedded violence as tool for landscape-criticism. Doing so he figures the Thames Estuary as a situated, warringly disjunctive, and differentiated landscape. He allows us to lap up the slow violence and ruination leaking and seeping through the every day Thames.



The north bank of the Estuary and its salt-marsh is the closest wilderness zone to London. An internationally important biodiverse habitat for sea molluscs, wild fowl and a vital fish nursery. Yet the 5 million visitors that come to Southend-on-sea each year know very little about the cultures, species, genealogy that inhabit the Thames estuary.


Nor do they notice the hundreds of thousands of containers moving up the flood tide bringing items from China to Tilbury or the London Gateway. Goods increasing in value by the distance they travel from source, burning cheap bunker fuel and creating asthma all the way.


The estuary is also a historic space of sea foods, landfill sites, early dynamite factories, industrial exploitation and toxicity created by the Thames being used as the plumbing, and larder of London. === As the land ends, the coast becomes the realm of the unbound, unconstricted and offers a freeness. People remove their cloths, laugh, lay in the sun and love. Laws and customs become loose in proximity to the sea giving rise to Southend-on-Sea and its associated drunken revelry that takes place at weekends in the summer.


People who work at sea, fishing for the guts of London, engage in the world around them differently to those of who spend there life on land. Journeys at sea depend on tides, planetary motion, winds and unlike those on land leave no trace, sand bars, fishing grounds move to the whim of non-human agency. This life threatening milieu of the sea has led fisherman and others to hold beliefs that are at once non-modern, superstitious, animistic that date back millennia and at the same time require them to become ultramodern in using technologies of navigation.


I do not have time to do justice to all the work people have put into Wrecked but etched into the bulwarks of the Souvenir are these 'Epitaphs of the Common Mud' which were composed with Critical Art Ensemble for Graveyard of Lost Species. In many ways they offer a rapid context of our work.


Here are the names of the disappeared that haunt the Thames Estuary, presented for those who know, and for others to wonder.
What those who live here tell us, we believe. We enjoy confusion between aesthetics and fact.
We have pursued unreliable memories in all their misalignments and fragmentations.
We have uncovered many ways to think about the estuary, and all of them are true.
We are humbled by reams of common sense grounded in a lifetime of toil on the mud, the marsh, and the foreshore, made possible by all the forgotten fishermen’s wives who live among us.
As “acceptable loss” fuels public amnesia on the road of “progress,” we recall the dead, the lost, and the annihilated, to reconstitute them as significant—not in any objective sense, but as we need them to be.
The sea is a place to dispose of things one never wishes to see again: a dead body, a rotting hulk, illicit goods, cadmium batteries, arsenic, diesel, exhausted gear box oil, shopping trolleys, chip rappers, tin cans, and shoes. At the end of the land is the sea. It has no roads. Rules relax.
The estuary is indifferent to us, and to all that is done within its limits.
Refuse to come ashore (at least in your mind).


Francisco's is filling the guts of people in north London and cannot be here do I will attempt to describe Talking Dirty in Francisco's own words.


Non Cultivation: On Land-fills and filling the seas


Through the work we have carried on with Landfills along the Thames Estuary we aimed to pose the question “What manages to live in the ruins we have made?” How forms of ruination can be seen as preparation of the land for certain plant species and not others.
Disasters afford a certain (and cruel) optimism—“cruel optimism” points to modes of forming fantasies of the good life such as in after processes of ecological restoration. More than half of the sites of ecological interest, be they nature heritage sites, areas of special protection, wildlife trusts, special sites of scientific Interest and others alike correspond to former landfills, sewage works or derelict wastelands. Land either side of Dartford Tunnel is scarred by chalk pits and abandoned cement works. The north bank from Purfleet to Grays had 2200 ha of derelict land. The nearby Rainham-Wennington-Averley marshes contain abandoned dredging and unrecorded dumps of toxic chemicals. East Tilbury historic coastal landfills are now unearthed after 40 years of bank erosion, leaking many of their nasties in the surrounding habitat. There are more than 4800 landfill sites around England and Wales that are designated under flood zone 3, which is the threshold for defining under-risk areas by sea-level rise and shore erosion.
What manage to live in the ruins of the industrialism uncovers the ambiguity between habitat preservation and the sanitizing of historic extermination of environmental dispossession. Cultivation for the Thames constitute a complex internetwork of legal frameworks for land-designation, waste-processing technologies, and governmental bodies which functions to efficiently erase and contain ongoing toxicity and sustain unaccountability.


The work of YoHa and Fran Gallardo is a leaking-oriented dissection of the estuarine shores, we aim to think with the rift of metalloids, hydrocarbons and biocides joining other commons such as sea levels, cyclic tides, geo-locating satellites, atmospheric pressure.


Places of flows:


One way to think about the leaking Thames is Manuel Castells 'places of flows' and 'place of places'. Hanging out with Fran Gallardo on the mud watching container ships dock at the London Gateway port you think through how labour and capital exist in different places and different formations of time.


Trying to find the lost species of brown shrimp, out on the ray spit you can also talk through how computation as communication networks creates a form of instant time against the clock time, tide time of the everyday while reading your GPS and depth sounder trying to not run aground our get caught out by the incoming tide.


Castells creates three interrelated layers - between space(transport, communication networks, air surface, ocean surface ), nodes of network(cities, buildings, individuals) and social space( the never to be lost space between places of place)


According to Philip Steinberg In his book 'The social construction of the Ocean' Castells reveals how Contemporary Capitalism privileges flow related activities and network structures.(P161) but he considers Castells analysis of places of flows to be incomplete and suggests among many other things that we consider the genealogy of flows which would take us back to sea.


Fran Gallardo would suggest a slightly different critic - that using organs, bodily passages, is a way to reclaiming “friction” and “enclosure” as well as obviously “incontinence” and “leaking” with which to counter postmodern language of liquidity and flows. Manuel Castells' refers to the “space of flows” as “hyperspace of pure circulation” and disregards them as void of social factors, conflicts, experience. Thinking with organs, thinking with your anus, your mouth as a way to explore where forms of scientific reductionism gets challenged or reinforced.


At the end of a long days sail food foraging on toxic islands and as your half falling asleep you remember the stuff hammered in between the wooden cracks of your boat that stop you choking to death on that salt water.


Pass round Stockholm Tar, Oakum


The cultivation of plants and wooden boat building in and around the Thames Estuary is a massive subject of which I know that I know little. But If we think of Castells between space as the surface of the sea and nodes of the network as the ports of call and the social space as the social milieu of insurance, trade and sailing culture and we mix in Frans leaking anus to boot. Then maybe we have a way to move through the history of these flows.


The massive hole in the Epping Forest between the M25 and Southend-on-sea is largely is due to the the need for Oak for shipbuilding an empire. Which is in part a testament to a cultivation of Navel Stores which includes (Hemp for rope and sails - Pine, for tar and spars). Included in this locker would be a healthy supply of Stockholm Tar and Oakum, linseed oil putty. This is the stuff that plays on your mind when throwing out the hook – the stuff hammered between the planks that stops me breathing in that salty fluid as I sleep.


Pine tar is the residue of heating pine trees in which the sap is collected and the oldest semi industrial production pine grave in Europe dates from around 240 AD. Oakum is derived from hemp and is produced by laboriously unpicking old tarred hemp rope or created from new fibres broken down from the outer layer of the plant. Cultivation of both hemp and pine plant forms seems to be reasonably constant through recorded history.


Naval stores can be thought of as technical objects that are defined by a relationship with an environment that they also modify. When technical objects such as pine tar act in the world they are freed from the inventor. The abundance of implementations, iterations and phases of individuation separates the pine tar or hemp from any plans or intentions projected onto it. New domains of materiality communicate that were once separate, propelling the transformation of the technical object and the world around it.


I will touch on hemp rope but the culture of hemp and it's role in cordage and altered states is another universe of thought, action and learning beyond the current text.


It will be enough to say that rope can be thought of as a technical object who's conceptual and material process intersect with the places of flows. Tying up a parcel, hanging the washing, putting on cloths, wired networks, cordage is integral to all human activity.


Fibres and strands of cloth intertwine so closely with our bodies and minds at so many scales that it is hard and sometimes fortunate that we do not have imagine our naked state without them.


To make a rope is easy, all you need is the ability to twist fibres into yarn with one hand, and twist two yarns into a strand with the other. The ensuing multi stand Rope is a reconfigurable machine – an object that transforms through knowledge to become the glue between many process. Knots the process of fastening or folding cordage in a systematic manner creates multiple scales of machines that in turn enable new flows, connections and abstract thinking. Cordage creates a world of restraint, of connecting separate things under stress, tension.


Cordage works by scales of resistance. Knots are formed to manipulate the forces of friction of the rope moving on itself. It is a way of thinking about conjoining the properties of materiality into new forms. Added to this cordage is the oldest form of encoded language and tying knots into narrative precedes writing and is probably a prerequisite of it.


Cordage is currently thought to be at least as old as humans, but certain plant forms, creepers and vines are known to tie simple over hand knots. Other mammals, Gorillas and Chimpanzees tie knots and birds fold them into nests. This genealogy makes rope a supreme technical object but is probably beyond my intellectual capability. I will content myself now with Pine Tar and Oakum the satellites of cordage.



Increasing the flow of traffic between the towns of Uppsala and Mehedeby in Sweden became a priority and in 2003 a new stretch of the highway E4 was being constructed. Two funnel-shaped pits were found dated to 1100 AD (Vendel period Viking Age) and a smaller one dated to 540 AD (late Roman Iron Age period). The smaller pit is the oldest known tar production site in Europe. The pits are arranged as oblong, shallow ditches that are dug in a slope. The resinous pine wood was placed in the ditch and covered with peat and soil. It's then ignited in its upper part to cause the tar to flow down to a vessel at the other end of what is called the tar ‘grave’.


e4 highway - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8KKloEWdFo


Terpenes , the stuff of pine tar are produced in the pine trees as a method of making the plant flammable to encourage burning in forest fires which helps with opening cones for propagation.


Pine tar is derived from the flow of terpenes, When processed it is a sticky viscous, strong smelling liquid with robust antimicrobial, anti-fouling properties. It is related to both pitch which is the same sap extracted while the trees are standing and turpentine which is distilled pine tar.


During Viking times the process of extracting pine tar was semi-industrialised, the pine bark went to tan hides and skins; the bast fibres just beneath the bark were used to make rope; the twigs were chopped up and added to sawdust and chippings and used to smoke fish, meat and cheese; and the smaller off cuts saved to make charcoal.


Pine tar is a prerequisite to oil paining in the arts, animal and human medicinal products and what most concerns us here flows on the surface of the water.


The first mass exploitation of Pine Tar is Viking ship building which comes to a climax from around 800ad till around 1100. The boats are clinker built, that is shell first meaning the planks or strakes are fitted one over the other and fixed by tree nails, or hooked iron fastenings. The frames of the boat are fitted after the shell is made. The length of the boat is fixed by the method of acquiring planking. The pine wood (spcies) is radially split with pegs - not sawn.


(It is also worth noting that in Domesday book, of 1086AD, there is mention of only 13 saws in the Kingdom in England)


Splitting the wood prevents the grain crossing the long lengths of the boat and weakening the lateral structure. The maximum size of a Viking longboat is about 100ft, the boats are light and strong along their length but are week across the beam which is why the boats were rowed until Mediterranean sails were not introduced with the innovation of the keelson in about 700ad.


Viking long boats were fast on the move but unstable when standing. They have rounded bottoms that enable them to take the hard ground up creeks and estuaries. Enabling Vikings raids and trades down to the black sea, Mediterranean and to setup settlements in Greenland and North America.


Pine Tar was the key to the success of such boats painted on the boats as a method of anti fouling, a preservative and affording traction on slippery surfaces. The key property of Pine tar is that it never really goes off – it remains sticky, waterproof for several years. If you get it on your skin you either wear it off or get scrubbed down with pure turpentine.


Pine tar was/is used to help seal the gaps in the planking of boats, it is also painted inside the bottom of boats and protects the bilges from mycrobial/fungal attack.


When at sea, that European phenomenology lets them down - people vomit the contents of their intestines, overflowing buckets of poop mix with the fresh water that collects into the bottom of boats leading to a toxic soup. If every you have had to clean out the bilges of boat, you know it is one of the worst smells you can encounter. Any cuts and grazes will become instantly infected as the dark loving bacteria head straight under the skin escaping the oxygen rich sunlight.


Fortunately Pine tar mixed with fat can help clean yourself up after a long day raiding in the form of soap it is still used for itchy skin including dandruff, it was/is used as an insect repellent, and is used in animal husbandry. On board many ships during long voyages, live stock, ravaged by cannibalism and feather pecking amongst Chickens, skin damage and de-clawing were all treated with Stockholm tar.


Within maritime archaeology their exist many absences from the material record but one contention that concerns us the mystery of why clinker, frame after planking (lapped strakes ) type boat building was superseded by Carvel type boat building which can be characterised by its frame first boat building.


The Carvel ships of the early middle ages had a massive thirst for Pine Tar as instead of the planking being lapped. The planks are butted one plank against another and the seams were filled with Oakum, Pine Tar and Linseed oil putty.


Carvel ships where able to carry much more weight for trade and the frames allowed the sides to stand higher out of the water. The fore and aft castles (towering bits) allowed people to shoot down on the Viking boats and made it difficult for the Vikings to board which rendered the Long boats inept. While the Vikings lost their command of the seas they quickly moved from warring to trading. Retaining and refining the craft of making the best Pine Tar. Sweden and Finland and Scandinavian in general had a near monopoly on the trees with the correct sap.

At first barrels were exported directly from the regions in Sweden with the region's name burned into the barrel. These regional tars varied in quality and in the type of barrel used to transport it to market. Other states, the Dutch especially were allowed to trade and carry the pine tar. Wood tars from Finland and Russia were seen as inferior to even the lowest grade of Swedish tar which was Haparanda tar.


In 1648, the newly formed NorrlSndska TjSrkompaniet (The Wood Tar Company of North Sweden) was granted sole export privileges for the country by the King of Sweden. During the next 30 years the price of Pine Tar rose and the British had to pay in precarious metals creating a drain of the British purse. In 1689 the Stockholm Tar Company was shipping 40,000 barrels to Britain in it's monopoly. The War between Sweden and Russia (1699 -1721) made the price of pine tar rise again, risking mercantile capitalism and sent the English scurrying for new sources of naval stores.


It's interesting to think of the pine tar crisis of 1702-03 as an engine for England's expansive colonisation of the Americas. From the beginning Britain's colonies in North American they were encouraged to produce pine tar and pitch. These fledgling industries in New England and the Carolinas were encouraged by the Bounty Act of 1705 guaranteeing a comparative price for Pine Tar. The bounty was 4 pounds a ton with the purpose of providing the colonies with staples from which they could buy British manufactures and create a more favourable balance with the Baltic.


As the population of the United States grew and moved west. The southern states began to monopolize the production, because of the type of trees in this region. By 1725 four fifths of the tar and pitch used in Britain came from the American colonies. This supply remained constant until the American Revolution in 1776, when England was again forced to trade with the Dutch for Scandinavian products. Being cut off from the American Pine Tar the British had again to look for new sources of Naval Stores and started close reading Cooks Botanical Discoveries in Australasia.


At the same time as Pine Tar was helping modifying the world of which it was a part, prisoners were stacked in rows unpicking the tar infused hemp rope into Oakum. Impressment on naval ships of the poor coastal communities has a long history but what concerns us here is the urban poor in British prisons and workhouses.


If you imagine that the average British man of war took 40 miles of rope to rig it and one to two thousand Oak trees then this gives you some idea of the industrialising process at work in the formation of shipbuilding. Prison sentences at the time were instantiated by the amount of days you would have to pick Oakum, 60 days for prostitution. Poor girls under 16 in the poorhouse had to pick 1 pound a day, and boys under 16 had to pick 11⁄2 pounds of Oakum. Over the age of 16, girls and boys had to pick 11⁄2 and 2 pounds (0.68 and 0.91 kg) per day respectively.

No picking no bread. The work was carried out in silent contemplation of biblical texts or sermons. It was thought that the monotony and work for idle hands would allow a certain dignity to the poor. The Oakum they produced would be pressed between the planks of the ships that would transport them as convicts to Cooks Botanical Discoveries in Australasia. The stated aim of the first ships to Botany bay was with the aim of establishing new Naval Stores to circumvent the falloff of Pine Tar and Hemp due to the American republic.


Pine Tar and hemp among other things allowed Europe to buttress it's domination of the world economic systems from 1600 until the very recent.


The aesthetics of engagement (not necessarily representation) or the engagement with aesthetics within complex ecological systems is ripe for enquiry given the contradictory nature of capitalisms desire for free flowing spaces and capital intensive sites.


From my research capitalisms dualism in spaces like the Thames Estuary requires they remain unmanaged and unmanageable. === In this way ecological hetrotopias like oceans work to both, shore up or reinvigorate established forms of power and at the same time sow seeds for utopian vision at the ecological/economic margins.


This double life of ecological hetrotopias carries over as we know into technical forms. As capitalisms notion of space becomes more abstract, oceans vaporise from digital culture.


The internet now takes on much of the utility/hetrotopic/symbolic role of oceans before it.
Free flowing information, contradicting itself with protected practices, capital intensive sites, the fear of pirates. The whole panoply moves from uncharted oceans to uncharted informational possibility and it's potential for profit as capitalism continues to abstract space.


At the unprofitable ecological margins, Capitalism experiments with the ambiguity between humans and technical objects searching out new formations of exploitation. YoHa on the other hand sees what utopian seeds can be scattered on the flows of mud.


Thank you for reading.