Oceans Workshop: The Future of Blue Humanities

October 2021

University of Exeter: Centre for Environmental Arts and Humanities / Centre for Maritime Historical Studies

OCEANS Workshop: The Future of Blue Humanities Thursday 21st October 2021 17:00 – 18:30 DST (online)

ZOOM LINK: https://Universityofexeter.zoom.us/j/95322170859?pwd=NEM0bzZUQ2orZTZjV3UvbHdzQ3ZEUT09


You are invited to join us for an online workshop exploring ocean-centric research at the University of Exeter and beyond. This event will feature short 5-10 minute research introductions from four speakers, working on environmental fiction, marine ecology, environmental history and visual arts, before a chaired open discussion about the future of oceanic or ‘blue’ research in the arts and humanities.

We are particularly keen to discuss the potential of oceanic approaches in moving beyond existing disciplinary boundaries, and the new methodologies which might underpin this, but the workshop is really an opportunity to draw together a diverse range of expertise under the banner of ‘blue humanities’ and to start discussions about collaborations and connections.

Abstracts for the first four speakers are included below, but please do come with your own research and ideas to share!

Chair: Dr Elin Jones, Lecturer in Maritime History


Dr Rob Magnuson Smith, Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing

Rob Magnuson Smith is a fiction writer and Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Exeter’s Cornwall campus. His work increasingly involves environmental, animal and algal concerns. His recently completed third novel, The Future of British Seaweeds is a hybrid of existentialist ecofiction set in the oceans and waterways of Cornwall, Spain and Svalbard. This novel explores the takeover of the human race by a variety of imposing algae. Earlier this year, Rob’s seaweed-based short fiction was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. In April/May 2022 he will be Writer-in-Residence at the Museum of Life Sciences, part of Guy’s Campus at Kings College, London. This appointment will involve public-facing writing workshops, archival research and the production of a new piece of fiction concerning one of the most unusual aquatic specimens in the museum: a copepod parasite extracted in 1914 from a fin whale in Blacksod Bay, County Mayo–the last whaling station of the British Isles.

Dr Ruth Thurstan, Senior Lecturer in Marine Social-Ecological Systems

I am interested in the dynamics and drivers of ecological change in our oceans, with a particular focus on the changes that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution and their outcomes for marine ecosystem functioning and people today. Current projects include: determining past native oyster habitat distribution and ‘reference’ habitat conditions, with the aim to inform restoration efforts, and; the impact of major cultural shifts on the functioning of marine communities (funded by the ERC Synergy Project SEACHANGE, UoE PIs Prof J Scourse and Prof C Roberts). Future/developing projects include: linking historical ecosystem change to alterations in the delivery of marine ecosystem services; piloting the development of a cultural archive of the marine environment (PI Prof T Cooper), and; understanding changes in the uses and availability of low trophic-level marine species e.g., algae, shellfish and forage fish over the last two centuries. I am keen to work with and learn from other disciplines to better understand and communicate marine ecosystem change and inform conservation and restoration goals.

Dr Timothy Cooper, Senior Lecturer in History

In July 1878 the West Briton reported that “Salmon and salmon peel seem very plentiful in the river Fowey this year. Probably this is owing to the mines being “knocked,” the mineral waters proving very poisonous to the fish. Over an hundredweight of an evening have been taken by the trammels. Such catches as these cannot be remembered by the oldest inhabitants.” In the same year, the people of Marazion started taking their drinking water from the flooded disused mines of Ludgvan district, and the West Briton reported that, with the closure of six mines, the town of St Day had become a “sad picture of a dilapidated mining district.” These disjointed stories of economic decay and hydrological transformation speak to my own fascination with the environmental history of Cornwall: its people, waters, and coasts. Cornwall’s environmental history is a tale of a pioneering industry, exported globally, followed by regional transformation into the “Green Duchy” of tourist fantasy. But it is also a story of living with social environments and natural ecologies permanently dislocated by the unpredictable legacies of dead labour and extractive capitalism. Where the West Briton celebrated record salmon stocks in 1878, in 1992 it might report on mine waste discharges threatening wildlife and the seafood industry of the Fal Estuary. The messy entanglements of mineral mining and maritime disruption point not to a comforting teleology of environmental recovery, but rather to the permanent and erratic disturbance of the Cornish environment: the long legacy of extractive capitalism that stretches out to an indefinite future.

Professor Tom Trevor, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Curation

As a contemporary art curator my research is built around working with artists and helping them to put their ideas into practice. One such artist, who I have worked with regularly over the past 20 years, is Peter Fend who established Ocean Earth Development Corporation in New York in 1980 (founded with Jenny Holzer, Peter Nadin, Richard Prince and Robin Winters). Operating as a flexible collective of artists, architects and engineers, Ocean Earth was specifically conceived as an instrument for implementing the goals of the environmental art movement, building upon the ideas of ‘land artists’ such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heiser, Dennis Oppenheim and Gordon MattaClark. One of Fend’s principal strategies has been to view global ecologies as centred around ocean basins, rather than land masses (rendering the terrestrial focus of human cartography peripheral to hydrometric geographies). In order to understand the impact on the world’s circulatory patterns of human actions, e.g. carbon emissions, deforestation, changes in river run-off, river dams, phytoplankton depletion in ocean waters, monoculture, desertification, etc., Fend zeroes in on smaller regions, always defined as ocean or saltwater basins, and works to assess the environmental health of these sea areas, and thus propose sustainable solutions. In terms of my own curatorial practice, I have consistently returned to themes of water and the ocean. In 2007, I curated a national touring exhibition Port City: on mobility and exchange, marking the 200th anniversary of the UK parliamentary abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 2015, as Artistic Director of the 4th Dojima River Biennale in Osaka, I curated a project entitled Take Me To The River, with artists from 8 countries showing alongside leading practitioners from Japan. In 2018, I initiated and curated The Atlantic Project: After The Future (2018), a multi-site project which took place in unconventional locations across the city of Plymouth, featuring site-specific installations by 20 artists from 12 countries, including Hito Steyerl, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Ryoji Ikeda and SUPERFLEX. I am currently developing A Parliament of Waters as an international arts, science and social action project that brings together artists, curators, lawyers, scientists and writers with local communities and bodies of water around the world in order to ‘give a voice to water’



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