In the name of the mother

Feminist artistic, critical and philosophical discourses situate fermentation as a queer site for contamination, collaboration, and transformation.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Mar 25, 2021

On the morning of November 2, 2020, I received a text from Monika, my partner’s aunt that threw my day’s schedule into welcome disarray. Her sister, Maridl, was preparing to make sauerkraut. Did I want to help? It was professionally irresponsible of me to abandon my writing desk, yet none of my work seemed compelling enough to serve as a reason to decline. Deadlines would come and go. Sauerkraut, however, was made just once a year, in late autumn, so it could ferment in time to serve as a vitamin C reserve through the Alpine winter. I responded in the over-enthusiastic affirmative and rushed over.

Maridl had set up our work space in the liminal region between their garage and garden, between their plant nursery and bee colony. I was tasked with preparing the cabbages, chopping off the ends, tearing the outer leaves, halving them so Maridl could then slide them over the oversized wooden grater she had at her disposal. She would spread a few leaves over the floor of the ceramic cannister in which she would store the sauerkraut. Every now and then, when she would have collected enough shavings, she would empty them into the cannister and scatter the seasoning over them. Then she would repeatedly thump the layer with her fist. She always let me deliver a few perfunctory blows so I could grasp how much force was mandatory to coax the juices out. In between these administrations, she casually mentioned in dialect that one must wait until just after the full moon before setting sauerkraut to ferment. As I witnessed salty streams emerge and could even hear the water levels rise, with a soundtrack not so dissimilar to a foetal heartbeat, I wondered if the lunar relationship had a tidal dimension. I resisted the urge to see the practice as mystical, which wasn’t easy, considering every detail I was privy to about how my partner’s aunts lived their lives—refusing to be wife to any man, always cooking, caring, building community, feeding, foraging, making jam, keeping bees, performing crafts, felt saintly, to some extent. Their experience of time was never normative. The sauerkraut we were making was not solely for their consumption. It would feed the extended family, like the produce from their vegetable garden. Both of them are carriers of embodied systems of indigenous knowledge, much of it inherited from their mother.

Maridl informed me that Sauerkraut was only fermented after a full moon|Rosalyn D’Mello| STIRworld
My partner’s aunt, Maridl in her garden, setting Sauerkraut to ferment Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

A few months later, after the fermentation cycle had been complete, a non-choreographed sequence of chance events led me to the website of the artist, Lauren Fournier. I was researching existing discourses on auto-theory, an under-studied form of feminist praxis steeped in generating theory from lived experience that had been evolving over several decades. I had wanted to contend that its origins were not white, even though the two ‘break-out’ texts (Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (1997) and Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (2015)) had indeed been authored by white women. The genre origins could be traced to BIPOC feminists like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Kamala Das, etc. I wanted to be able to claim in my artist statements and proposals that my debut memoir, published in 2015, was an example of an auto-theoretical work. Fournier, I learned, had dedicated the last few years to studying the genre and was slated to have her thesis, ‘Auto-theory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism’ published by MIT press in 2021. In 2014, when I was in the final stages of editing my book, Fournier made a video work, Kombucha Mother, in which a woman gives her SCOBY a tarot reading. This is followed by a second narrative in which another woman spends time outdoors with her SCOBY. She caresses and often cradles the glass container, hurtling it into the air and catching it lovingly, talking to it as if it were a confidant, nursing it as if it were a newborn. In between we see her knocking on two different doors as if asking to be let in. But the doors remain closed. Either no one is home or they prefer not to answer. She leaves a tarot calling card behind in each instance; which links her to the previous video.

A woman gives her mother a tarot reading in Kombucha Mother by Lauren Fournier| STIRworld
A still from Kombucha Mother, by Lauren Fournier Image: Lauren Fournier

The occult is casually referenced in a manner both earnest and yet somewhat humorous, which is what won me over, as well as the idea of queer family making, which is explored poetically by artists Eleonara Edreva and Leo Williams in their work, Family Jewels. Fournier later wrote that the germ of ‘Fermenting Feminism’, the discourse she subsequently evolved through various critical and curatorial interventions, could be traced back to 2012, when she was pursuing her graduate studies, working at the front lines of social work, making art, brewing kombucha and water kefir in her apartment. “I staged the mother, or SCOBY, as a strange, placental looking character in my videos, which were informed, however clumsily, by ideas from feminist theory,” she wrote in an academic paper, “Fermenting Feminism as Methodology and Metaphor: Approaching Transnational Feminist Practices through Microbial Transformation”, published in the journal, Environmental Humanities in May 2020. “Looking back, there is something palpably lonely and limited about these early experiments: me sitting in front of the Kombucha mother, trying to give her a tarot reading. I was working in para-rational ways with my Kombucha mother as a kind of actor in the video; it was a way of gesturing to interconnectedness across beings as well as a way of considering the affects and limitations of speculative white feminist modes of mysticism and understanding in art”. Fournier believes it was only after she wrote and disseminated the open call for proposals under the working title, ‘Fermenting Feminism’ when things began to shift. “I began to feel acutely connected to an international network of feminist fermenters from whom I could learn and with whom I could share knowledge across disciplines, media, and geographic borders.”

11 mins watch A woman takes her Kombucha Mother for a stroll |Lauren Fournier| STIRworld
Kombucha Mother, Lauren Fournier, 2014 Video: Courtesy of Lauren Fournier

Discovering Fournier’s immense discursive gestures at formalising her thesis on the link between fermentation and feminism was like encountering a network of cross-species ideological solidarity. It made me feel less alone. Fournier draws on fermentation as a material practice and speculative metaphor. She creates, through the contexts of publications, events, and exhibitions, ‘literal and discursive containers’, bringing together perspectives through intersectional and trans-inclusive feminist frameworks to explore the politics of labour, affect, survival, care, colonialism, food, indigeneity, and land. “Is feminism with its etymological roots in the feminine something worth preserving? In what ways might it be preserved? In what ways might it be transformed? Is feminism a relic of the past, something that has soured, or is feminism still a vital imperative?” are some of the many pertinent questions with which she engages.

The 2017 publication marked the beginning of Lauren Fournier’s ongoing curatorial experiment| Lauren Fournier| STIRworld
Fermenting Feminism was a publication conceived by Lauren Fournier in collaboration with the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Image: Courtesy of Lauren Fournier

Four years later, the first publication Fournier facilitated, in collaboration with the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, still feels vital. Since my discovery of it, the first essay, Something that’s Dead by the artist, Jessica Bebenek, has become a companion text. I even inserted it as part of the syllabus I evolved for a writing course I teach remotely on the personal essay. In it, the writer recounts her experience with brewing kombucha as an act of self-care, to improve gut health, while suggesting that perhaps the healthiest, most truthful way of understanding fermentation is ‘as it is: devoid of metaphor’. “To understand fermentation as not only a metaphor (for it can exist simultaneously to us as both metaphoric and actual) is to understand it as a naturally occurring process with which humans are simply collaborators. And in understanding this, we can realise that this form of non-human life, this collection of symbiotic bacteria and yeasts, is as vital a form of life as our own existence in the world,” she writes.

Alanna Lynch’s installation, Gut Feelings examined the relation between gut health and affect | STIRworld
Alanna Lynch, Gut Feelings was most recently installed at ‘Fermenting Feminism’ at Access Gallery, Vancouver in 2019 Image: Courtesy of Rachel Topham Photography, Access Gallery

Over multiple iterations of Fermenting Feminism, Fourier has gathered a complex range of perspectives and approaches so that her initial thesis, drawn out of her lived experience, keeps expanding to become bigger, to symbiotically incorporate more and more alternative cultures and material, remaining unfixed and rife with nuances, merging with other existing discourses on the subject, implicating a host of cross-disciplinary human collaborators and more-than-human life forms. In 2019, she staged a group exhibition at Access Gallery, Vancouver, with work by Andrea Creamer, Eleonara Edreva & Leo Williams, Alanna Lynch, Sarah Nasby, Walter Scott, and Christine Tien Wang. I was mesmerised by Lynch’s contribution, Gut Feelings. I recognised instantly that the gloves I could see hanging were dehydrated SCOBY, often called ‘vegan leather’. Lynch was examining the possibilities of the bacterial cellulose fabric, stitching it in the shape of gloves; an accessory typically worn to prevent contagion. Lynch foregrounds how contamination is collaboration. Her installation builds upon the link between gut health and the microbiome; kombucha as a tonic, gut as intuition, with several drawings actually dwelling on the structure of the human intestine, drawing attention to the wide range of bacteria that make human life possible, echoing poetic moments in ‘Guts’, a touching essay by Clementine Morigan in the initial publication, Fermenting Feminism, on trying to heal trauma and psoriasis through the gut; ‘Guts are a metaphor for knowing. Guts are a place of processing. Guts are wrapped around themselves down in the belly of the body... Guts exist at the level of language and they also have a materiality all their own. Guts are an ecosystem filled with beings which are not me, yet dwell within me”. Lynch plays with some of these possibilities of what constitutes ‘gut feeling’... felt sensation beyond conscious knowing, while simultaneously hinting at the historical devaluation of affect as a manifestation of hysteria; or how phallogocentric ideology delegitimised so much female intuition.

Alanna Lynch’s Gut Feelings examined the relation between gut health and affect| Access Gallery | STIRworld
Alanna Lynch, Gut Feelings included her sculptures made of kombucha SCOBYs Image: Courtesy of Rachel Topham Photography, Access Gallery

Lynch’s work, like much of autotheory, serves to remind feminist readers that our emotions, which are invariably regulated by bacteria in our gut, can serve as significant cues that can enable us to tune in to ourselves, allowing us to better articulate the structural nature of the personal, even as we move, discursively, towards debunking the myth of the ‘genetic individual’ in lieu of the holobiont—an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts. “Indeed, while humans have about 22,000 different genes, the bacteria in us bring approximately eight million more genes to the scene,” wrote American biologist Scott Gilbert in an essay. “We get our symbionts primarily by infection from the mother as we pass through the birth canal after the amnion breaks. These bacteria are supplemented by those from the mother’s skin and from the environment”.

Feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti’s meditations on placenta politics read like a continuation of such lines of enquiry. Braidotti coined the term ‘Placenta Politics’ to indicate the materialist feminist biopolitics of the relation between the material maternal body, the placenta and the foetus. “I argue that the placenta is a powerful figuration... for a co-creative and collaborative model between separate yet related organisms, agents and living matter; maternal, placental, and foetal. Placenta politics is about affirmative ethical encounters—it is the original form of trans-corporeality,” she writes in her moving 2018 essay, Placenta Politics.

Braidotti’s proposition has implications that I am still unraveling, the kind that make me want to speculate that if the origins of phallogocentric thought lie within the ‘seminal’ (literally of or relating to semen), could feminist thought be construed within queer temporalities and imagined as a continuum of symbiotic cultures, conversations, and citations, a manifestation of backslop, the remnants from a previously successful fermentation used as a starter for every subsequent one. Could this explain my own reliance on fermentation as a coping mechanism, a way of queering time.

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